Monthly Archives: September 2013

August movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 31 August 2013.

  • The King of Comedy (1982): 6/10.
    The King of Comedy

    Probably the weirdest scene in the movie. Personally I would have used fewer candles, given that the material used to tie Jerry up seems almost like papier-mâché.

    Strange Scorsese movie about delusion, with Robert De Niro as a loser obsessed with becoming his idol, a late night TV talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. De Niro does well but seems miscast. Lewis is in great form. There’s some really odd stuff in there, not least everything involving Sandra Bernhard’s bizarre character. Though it’s described as a black comedy, I don’t remember laughing (except perhaps for a moment or two during the denouement); I spent most of the movie just pitying De Niro’s character, and pity doesn’t tend to lead to laughter. As a satire of media and celebrity culture it would still be relevant today, but unfortunately the satirical punches never really land.

  • Smashed (2012): 6/10.

    Oh no! Have the cops finally caught Jesse Pinkman?

    Indie drama about alcoholism starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. The performances are fine, though Paul isn’t given all that much to do, which seems a waste. Always nice to see Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, though they don’t get to be funny. My main criticism is that it feels like such familiar ground and by the end I wondered what I’d gained from it.

  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997): 3.5/10.
    The Lost World: Jurassic Park

    Check out the fake movie poster on the left hand side of the frame – long-haired Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Why oh why has that not been made?! It’d be awesome!

    I’m such a fan of the original Jurassic Park that the shortcomings of this sequel are all the more painful. It’s one of those sequels that attempts to recreate (and outdo) all the elements that made the first movie succeed, but in doing so it becomes little more than a soulless imitation. The motivations of the different factions on the island are entirely uninteresting. I’ll admit that one raptor moment made me jump. The final act seems entirely superfluous – but then, in a sense, so does the whole movie. At least the cast – featuring lots of familiar names and faces – is good. Incidentally, this is one of the movies I have in mind when I refer to Julianne Moore as a ‘replacement actress’; she steps in to fill the gap left by Laura Dern. (Similarly, Moore took on Jodie Foster’s Silence of the Lambs role in Hannibal; in that case the replacement was even more direct as she was playing the same character.)

  • Jurassic Park III (2001): 4.5/10.
    Jurassic Park III

    Prehistoric Snakes on a Plane..?

    In short: it’s better than The Lost World but by no means is it good. Fifteen minutes in there’s a talking raptor in a dream sequence – enough said. If I’m interpreting it correctly, this movie posits that Isla Sorna is some kind of magical island that can turn a kid into a survivalist and repair a broken marriage. It also, quite absurdly, ups the ante by retconning the raptors so they’re now even smarter, better at communicating, and (in the case of the males, apparently) have feathers on their heads. I think the slight saving grace, and the only reason I rate it more highly than The Lost World, is that the action sequences are more effective and suspenseful. Watching both sequels now has made me worry that I view Jurassic Park through rose-coloured glasses and perhaps it doesn’t deserve the 9.5 I gave its 3D rerelease in May; but then, it’s got that nostalgic place the others don’t have – it’s part of my childhood – so I still love it.

  • Gentlemen of Fortune (1971): 6.5/10.
    Gentlemen of Fortune

    In America, men and women play. In Soviet Russia, men play women!

    This Russian farce is quite funny at times but fairly inconsistent. It’s well-cast and reasonably well-performed, particularly by Yevgeny Leonov, who plays two roles. There are some interesting glimpses into aspects of Soviet Russian society, such as what kindergarten classes were like. The prison slang humour plays well even in translation, and I’m guessing it would be even funnier to Russian speakers. I don’t have much more to say about this one so I’ll leave it to ‘Bakunian’, who said this in his review: “First time I saw this movie when it came out in 1971, I was 7 years old then. I remember, I laughed so hard I fell of [sic] the chair in movie theater. Now I don’t fall of [sic] the chair just because I installed seatbelts on my couch.”

  • The Thing (1982): 7/10.
    The Thing

    I don’t think the caesarean went to plan. For a start, the (hairy-torsoed) woman’s belly appears to have bitten the obstetrician’s arms off.

    Sci-fi horror movie from John Carpenter has an ingenious premise; the execution, though, is merely adequate. Had the premise been executed better, this could have been truly excellent. There’s very good use of music to build and maintain suspense. The special effects are quite amazing and wholly believable; more than thirty years later, they still hold up. Kurt Russell is fine, though it’s not a movie that asks much of its actors.

  • The Remains of the Day (1993): 7/10.
    The Remains of the Day

    At this point I wanted Mr Stevens to stick his head out of the car window, look toward the camera, and say “Look! I’m driving through the ACTUAL remains of the day!”.

    The Remains of the Day

    I was quite impressed by the CGI they used to make Christopher Reeve look like he could walk.

    The second and thus far best Merchant Ivory film I’ve seen, this is an engrossing story buoyed by wonderful performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The world of 1930s Darlington Hall, with all its rules and norms and characters and goings-on, is made to seem entirely real, and it’s a shame when things are all over and we return to the 1950s framing story. Hopkins’ character, marked as much by his repression of feelings and thoughts as by his devotion and skill as a butler, is compelling but frustrating to watch. The resolution of the central romance (if it can be called that) is understandable, and thematically appropriate, yet deeply unsatisfying. Having enjoyed this, I find myself slightly more likely to give Downton Abbey a try since I suspect it would scratch the same itch.

  • World Trade Center (2006): 7.5/10.
    World Trade Center

    One of the silly visions shows some kind of shadow-faced Jesus. Is this another of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theories? Is he saying Jesus was flying one of the planes?

    Oliver Stone drama tells the true story of two cops trapped in the rubble after the Twin Towers collapse. It’s respectful enough that it doesn’t quite feel exploitative, but aspects still made me feel uncomfortable. Undeniably powerful at times. The depiction of the South Tower collapsing is intense and impressive, forcing you to imagine yourself in the situation. Some of the dream/vision/memory/flashback scenes are a little bit hokey, and the family drama stuff is naturally less compelling than what our main characters are going through. The standout in the cast is Maggie Gyllenhall. It’s not perfect but it’s definitely worth a watch.

  • The Age of Innocence (1993): 7/10.
    The Age of Innocence

    Scorsese’s cameo. He seems to be gesturing towards someone off-screen, the director of the film perhaps, as if to say “Look, just stop already – the movie’s long enough. And stop fetishising food!”.

    Handsome and well-made but overlong Scorsese adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel (which I haven’t read). It includes some lovely language, particularly in the narration, which I presume derives from the book; for example: “She remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts”. The time and place are captured well, conveying the sense that we’re seeing a faithful recreation of New York high society in the 1870s (quite a contrast to the version of 1860s New York Scorsese would bring to life a decade later in Gangs of New York). However, the love triangle is irritating in its handling and ultimately ends up being far less interesting than would warrant inclusion as the central plot thread of a movie. Also, Scorsese seems to be a bit of a food fetishist (I don’t mean this as a criticism; it’s just hard not to notice).

  • A Man for All Seasons (1966): 7.5/10.
    A Man for All Seasons

    Excellent work here from Susannah York. She conveys Meg’s constipation convincingly.

    A very British costume drama recounting the last few years in the life of Sir Thomas More and the events leading to his execution for treason. Paul Scofield is excellent, reprising the same role he’d played on stage and painting a complex portrait of an admirable, deeply principled man. The rest of the star-studded cast is impressive too. It’s by no means a balanced account – More is our clear hero and Cromwell a scheming villain – but as a drama it works. I can think of only two things that would have lifted it higher in my estimation: a more nuanced depiction of Cromwell (and More’s opponents generally), and more of an emotional payoff in the final stretch (despite the drama and tragedy of More’s fate, I didn’t feel particularly emotional about it).

  • The Iron Giant (1999): 6/10.
    The Iron Giant

    “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine…”

    I’d read some very flattering things about this so my expectations were high. Now that I’ve watched it I’m not entirely sure why it’s so well-regarded. It’s enjoyable enough but nothing special. The anti-war and anti-gun messages are none-too-subtle, though that didn’t bother me (I’m a fan of FernGully after all, so a lack of subtlety in hammering home political messages in cartoons can’t be a major concern for me). The relationship between Hogarth and the robot is quite nice; in fact, on reflection, it’s really the saving grace that stops the movie from slipping down from OK to bad. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks, but I did find the movie needed a bit more humour – there’s some, but not nearly enough. A disappointment.

  • Sharknado (2013): As a genuine action/disaster movie, 2/10; as a (possibly intentional?) contender for ‘worst movie ever’, and a piece of pure entertainment, 8/10.

    Oh. My. Fucking. God.

    It’s so stupid, so cheap, so full of bad acting, so ridiculous, so objectively terrible… and yet these are the qualities that make it a wonderfully entertaining experience (if watched with the right attitude and expectations). I don’t need to explain the premise – it’s all there in the title. The hokey special effects and hokier dialogue are hilarious. One climactic moment involving a chainsaw is perhaps the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s fun to watch Tara Reid’s face closely when she’s on-screen to see if all the work she’s had done has left her with any capacity to change her facial expression. Other than her, the only person I recognised was John Heard (from The Sopranos and the first two Home Alone movies), and even he’s laughably bad in this. I’m not sure it will end up having the staying power of The Room in the best worst movie stakes, but I sure am looking forward to next year’s Sharknado 2: The Second One (yes, that’s the official title).

  • The Lion in Winter (1968): 5.5/10.
    The Lion in Winter

    Our key players, all standing in a row to converse together – very theatrical. Notice young Anthony Hopkins, third from the left, having a hilariously childish fit.

    This movie, and the performances in it, have received substantial critical acclaim. Regrettably I must respectfully disagree with my forebears and report my disappointment with it. Set in 1183, it dramatises machinations between Henry II (Peter O’Toole), his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), and three of his sons (one, Richard the Lionheart, played by Anthony Hopkins in his film debut), all of whom wish to succeed him. There are some impressive scenes and exchanges, and the actors are skilled, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they were all overdoing it a bit. There’s a lot of shouting and posturing and very little subtlety or shade. Also, Hepburn’s accent is pretty jarring in this context, given how all the other characters speak. By the end I wasn’t sure how much point there had been in telling this story.

  • Apollo 13 (1995): 8.5/10.
    Apollo 13

    As with all good space movies, there’s a piss joke: we get to see it being sprayed all over space. Notice the words ‘UNITED STATES’, and the US flag, shown prominently on the left; is the subtext something about the US treating the space race as a pissing contest..?

    I don’t really know why it took me so long to watch this – it feels like I’ve been deliberately putting it off for years. Now I’ve finally seen it – and wow, it’s great! Solid performances from an excellent cast, taut drama throughout, an incredible story, and a real thrill ride despite knowing in the back of my mind that they’d manage to make it back to Earth in one piece. Considering this was made almost twenty years ago, the special effects are quite amazing – but notably, they don’t dominate, they simply assist in the telling of the story. Miko Hughes, the little kid who plays Tom Hanks’ son, distracted me because in my mind he can only ever be Simon, the autistic kid Bruce Willis protects in Mercury Rising (“Mummy, Simon is home! It’s hot, sip it slowly!”). If anyone else has been avoiding this as I had, please stop! It’s the best non-sci-fi space movie I’ve seen.

  • The Right Stuff (1983): 6/10.
    The Right Stuff

    This can only mean Dennis Quaid’s character is a liar.

    Long, interesting movie with some really solid parts but a major flaw that, in my view, prevents it from fully succeeding dramatically or narratively: it attempts to weave together (or tell as parallel stories) the tale of the Mercury Seven astronauts and the tale of test pilot Chuck Yeager, but the two threads never seem well enough connected, nor do they improve each other by being told together like this. The cast does well, particularly Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Sam Shepard. I found myself generally more interested in the Mercury Seven half of the movie than the Chuck Yeager half (which at times seems to aspire to be almost a western, an aspiration it doesn’t meet), but as it wore on even the Mercury Seven stuff gradually lost some of its shine, perhaps because the movie tries to cover every event rather than focusing on the more narratively interesting ones. There’s a sequence set in Australia, with a token kangaroo and some stereotypically ‘mystical’ Aboriginal characters, that’s laughably bad. Some aspects of the movie appear to have been included as comic relief (such as Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer appearing as a bumbling pair of recruiters), which struck me as a misfire. An interesting piece of trivia: Annie Glenn is played by Mary Jo Deschanel and the cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel; they’re the parents of Emily and Zooey.

  • Hell Baby (2013): 4/10.
    Hell Baby

    Five hilarious people, plus Leslie Bibb, all simultaneously fake-vomiting. This movie is not for emetophobes.

    It’s such a shame this is a dog because I really like so many of the people involved with it! Rob Corddry, Keegan-Michael Key, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Lennon (who co-wrote and co-directed in addition to having a supporting role as a priest), Riki Lindhome; all are hugely talented, and almost all have their talents largely wasted in this. What a disappointment… so many of the jokes are just bad. Key, at least, is able to amuse simply by how he plays his character, regardless of the strength of the writing; the others (with the possible exception of Nanjiani, who’s not in it for long) don’t have that luxury.

  • Sleeper (1973): 6/10.

    A giant cock. Enough said.

    Sci-fi comedy from Woody Allen has some good ideas and is easy to watch but ultimately doesn’t feel especially nourishing and will probably slip out of my ailing memory soon. Allen tries to stuff as many jokes as he can into the premise (he’s a putz who goes into hospital for a routine operation in 1973, gets cryogenically frozen, and is defrosted 200 years later by rebel scientists in a police state), and some are funny, but many fall flat. It’s entirely possible that some parodies of other sci-fi films went right over my head. Diane Keaton is quite good as his love interest; she’s particularly amusing when she’s refusing to cooperate with him. The ending is quite silly and flat. Overall, not one of the better early Woody Allen films I’ve seen.

  • Mud (2012): 8.5/10.

    Neckbone’s gloriously casual wave.

    Extremely effective drama from Jeff Nichols, gripping, moving and painful all at once. He has total command over this and brings a careful subtlety to every aspect. I saw it as an exploration of the impressionable and trusting nature of a child, and a child’s-eye view of romance – or perhaps the naivety of youth? There’s such a palpable sense of place, crucial to bringing us into the world these characters inhabit. One solid action sequence does precisely what it needs to. The performances of the two young boys at the centre of the film are both excellent; Tye Sheridan, who previously impressed me as the youngest of the three brothers in The Tree of Life, is especially good and will be one to watch in the coming years. Matthew McConaughy gives a surprisingly thoughtful performance as well. I enjoyed the fact that his shirtlessness – a recurring feature of his previous performances which has rightly drawn scorn – is a genuine plot point in this case. Also good to see Deadwood alums Ray McKinnon (who I love) and Sarah Paulson as Sheridan’s parents.

  • Drinking Buddies (2013): 7/10.
    Drinking Buddies

    In this pivotal scene, Olivia Wilde uses a condiment to give a blowjob demonstration while Jake Johnson cuts a giant and awesome-looking sandwich. Believe it or not, all unscripted!

    The most notable feature of this likeable indie rom-com is that it wasn’t scripted; instead, in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the actors were given an outline of the plot but improvised all their dialogue. This approach could easily have led to something awkward and amateurish but it doesn’t; it lends a real sense of naturalism and reality to the interactions between our four principal characters. This isn’t a big movie by any means, and it doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table, but it still feels refreshing and provokes some (if not lots of) thoughts. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that I was impressed that it wasn’t entirely predictable. Anna Kendrick is solid as always, but the real revelation here is Jake Johnson.

  • Joe Kidd (1972): 5.5/10.
    Joe Kidd

    The train scene… very cool.

    Disappointing Clint Eastwood western written by Elmore Leonard (it’s worth pointing out that he died a week after I watched it; I’m not saying his death was related to my disappointment with Joe Kidd, but I’m not saying it wasn’t). It’s not terrible, it’s just wholly generic and not at all memorable. Eastwood’s fine (though the role isn’t a stretch for him), Robert Duvall overplays his role as the villain, and the other performers are largely adequate. The best part is a brief action sequence toward the end involving a train crash.

  • Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): 8/10.
    Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

    It’s exactly what it looks like: Jeff Bridges being forced to eat an ice cream at gunpoint. Anyone else find this strangely sexual?

    Thoroughly entertaining buddy comedy/drama written and directed by Michael Cimino (his directorial debut) and starring Clint Eastwood and a young Jeff Bridges – both of whom are great. The amusing opening sequence, introducing Eastwood as an apparent preacher, immediately draws you in, and it’s difficult to lose interest after that point. Cimino shows a keen eye for sweeping landscapes and a deft hand with his characters; they’re fleshed out well, leading to some solid emotion in the latter portion of the film. Look for Nick Nolte in a small role and you might see that it’s actually Gary Busey.

  • Harvey (1950): 8/10.

    Elwood elbows his friend. I looked closely and sadly I couldn’t see anyone there.

    Good-natured farce about a good-natured man and his invisible rabbit friend – who may or may not be real. James Stewart is a joy, perfectly suited to the role of the optimistic, charming, remarkable Elwood P. Dowd. In some ways it shows its age, but in many it’s still relevant and funny. The lack of any attempt to fully explain the enigma is a clear strength.

  • Dead Man (1995): 5.5/10.
    Dead Man

    I admit I enjoyed this scene. Funnily enough, this is what Australia’s Classification Review Board apparently said about it: “The Review Board found that a scene at about 73 minutes of the squashing of a dead man’s head with a boot, with the brain spurting out, to be cruel and relished and likely to offend some sections of the adult community”.

    Strange but strangely compelling western doesn’t really work but still has enough interesting things in it to warrant a watch. Johnny Depp is unremarkable in the lead role, though to be fair he isn’t given all that much to work with. One odd scene features Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris (Lane Pryce from Mad Men) as three bickering vagrants at a campsite. The Neil Young soundtrack, heavy with grungy electric guitar, initially works well but eventually becomes repetitive and overbearing. By the end I knew Jim Jarmusch was trying to say something with this film; unfortunately, I hadn’t the faintest clue what that might have been.

  • Detention (2011): 9/10.

    Love it: a movie (starring a porn star) within a movie within a movie within Detention.

    Fast, witty comedy, the best I’ve seen since Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I can imagine some people interpreting it as just another high school comedy, but for me it went beyond self-awareness to a level of meta I associate with Community (a high compliment indeed). The cast of unknowns (to me at least) does a fine job, but it’s the script and style that are the real stars. It’s such a shame this was a critical and commercial failure; nobody seems to have heard of it. Track it down and watch it!

  • Clear History (2013): 6/10.
    Clear History

    Larry demonstrating his usual effect on women.

    Passable and sometimes funny HBO film from Larry David, starring him, Jon Hamm, and a bunch of other people I like (plus Kate Hudson). It has lots of obvious Larryisms; as usual, he dismisses and challenges society’s little rules, behaves despicably, and ends up in strife. The key difference between this and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that in this he’s playing a proper character rather than just a fictionalised version of himself, plus rather than having a small tangle of plot threads come together in a ridiculous spectacular fashion after half an hour, here he has 90 minutes in which to do the same thing. To be honest, I would have preferred three episodes of Curb! Great to see J.B. Smoove, but he doesn’t have a big enough role (we already know from Curb that Larry’s capable of maximising Smoove’s comedic potential).

  • Bad Milo! (2013): 2.5/10.
    Bad Milo

    Perhaps the last thing you want to see when you have a colonoscopy.

    I like Ken Marino (Party Down, Childrens Hospital, Burning Love), Gillian Jacobs (Community) and Kumail Nanjiani, but not even they can save this terrible comedy about a man who discovers an evil creature living up his arse. It’s rarely funny, though everyone involved seems to think that just because the creature is brought to life via puppetry, he’ll automatically be hilarious. Nanjiani’s slightly amusing once or twice. Marino does his best, but I could have lost a few scenes of him straining to get things into or out of his bum. On the plus side: at least I didn’t go into this with high expectations.

  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004): 7.5/10.
    Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

    Ulrich defiantly eats a burger in the face of Hetfield’s obstinacy, directly leading to Metallica’s downfall.

    Long but compelling chronicle of Metallica’s drawn-out implosion and eventual recovery over two years from 2001 to 2003. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, better known for the Paradise Lost trilogy, were given incredible access – presumably before the band realised exactly what would end up being captured by their cameras. I’m not a huge Metallica fan (I like about ten of their songs but have never listened to an album in its entirety), but I was engrossed throughout, perhaps because Berlinger and Sinofsky seem to have fortuitously documented the most interesting period in the band’s history and manage to be there to record all of the key moments over that turbulent period. There’s a slight sense that the documentary functions as a promotion for the St. Anger album, but it didn’t compel me to go out and listen to it, so the subliminal messaging mustn’t have been entirely successful.

  • Shotgun Stories (2007): 8/10.
    Shotgun Stories

    I have nothing funny to say about this – it’s just a beautifully composed shot.

    Excellent debut from writer/director Jeff Nichols, who went on to make Take Shelter and Mud. It’s actually many things at once: a thoughtful meditation on the consequences of a deep-seated hatred between two sets of brothers who share a recently-deceased father; a grim slice of life within a rural Arkansas community; a study of the bonds between three brothers; and a showcase for the superb Michael Shannon. More understated in its tone and approach than either of Nichols’ later films, it’s incredibly well-crafted, creating the impression that we’re in the hands of an accomplished expert rather than a newbie who was just 25 when most of this was shot. While Shannon is the stand-out, Douglas Ligon (who has done almost nothing apart from this) is also very good as one of his brothers. As far as I’m concerned this makes it three from three for Nichols; I now regard myself as a devoted fan and am very much looking forward to his next film, a sci-fi chase movie called Midnight Special, which is due out next year.

  • Bugsy (1991): 6/10.

    For a moment I wondered whether the entire movie could have been done in silhouette. Then, when I considered how few rabbits and dogs were in it, I thought better of it.

    I’m partial to mob movies but Barry Levinson’s biopic of Bugsy Siegel was a disappointment to me. A nice production with convincing period detail, it’s quite old-fashioned in its approach to the material and to storytelling. Levinson’s basically a nostalgia expert and I don’t think he was the right director for this story. Warren Beatty, who I’m quite a fan of, is fairly unsubtle in the title role. I also never fully bought into Annette Bening’s character or her relationship with Bugsy – and that was a fairly central thread running through the movie. Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of Mickey Cohen is quite different to Sean Penn’s scenery-chewing version in Gangster Squad, though I don’t think he deserved the Oscar nomination he received for it. Entirely unremarkable score from Ennio Morricone. The language nerd in me enjoyed the part where Bugsy corrects Jack Dragna’s use of the word ‘disinterested’: “Uninterested. Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means not interested”.

  • Bugsy Malone (1976): 7/10.
    Bugsy Malone

    The visual equivalent of a knock knock joke.

    Gangster musical featuring an all-child cast (led by Scott Baio and Jodie Foster) and all adult elements bowdlerised to make the movie suitable for children. The tunes are pretty catchy; I’ve been listening to the soundtrack quite a lot. It’s a unique idea for a movie, includes some great homages to classic gangster movies, and generally holds interest, but needs to be funnier. The rousing closing number is a highlight.

  • I Declare War (2012): 6.5/10.
    I Declare War

    This kid seems to be something of a liar.

    Canadian movie with a great premise: a group of kids split into two teams to play a game of ‘war’, but their crude weapons (sticks, water balloons filled with paint, etc.) are depicted as real weapons (guns, grenades, etc.), blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. The parallels to Lord of the Flies are plain to see. Unfortunately it ends up focusing too heavily on uninteresting soapy elements of the relationships between the kids (e.g. crushes, broken friendships, etc.) rather than fully exploring the consequences of the premise. Also, the cast consists solely of children, and while some performances are fine, others are quite bad. Still, there’s some good dialogue (one kid gets to say two great lines – “Why is this game consortium so interested in my dick?” and “There’s no relationship between social status and dog blowjobs” – which, believe it or not, make sense in context) and the action scenes aren’t bad. To be honest though, the main thing I took from the movie was a desire to play the game myself!

  • Road House (1989): 7.5/10.
    Road House

    “A body like that AND he can sew?! Where do I sign up?” is what I’d totally be saying if I was attracted to guys.

    This movie is entirely stupid and yet so absurdly entertaining! It’s another of those so-bad-it’s-good movies: if you watch it uncritically and just go along for the ride, it’s a whole lot of fun. Patrick Swayze is perfect in the lead role (which isn’t to say he’s any good), Kelly Lynch is quite terrible as his love interest, and the always-cool Sam Elliott steals every scene he’s in. There’s so much that doesn’t make sense (for example: we’re supposed to believe that Swayze’s character is such a great bouncer that he has a reputation that precedes him across the nation… really?; the characters inexplicably rely on hand-to-hand combat even though they – or at least the bad guys – have knives and guns… really??; and Lynch’s character is an intelligent doctor yet for some reason she has a romantic history with the main antagonist, a guy with no redeeming features whatsoever beyond money and power… really???), but somehow that’s part of the charm. Oh, and there’s a Chekhov’s throat-ripping move. Really.

  • Amadeus (1984): 6.5/10.

    Looks like Salieri might actually be in a ’90s boy band.

    I went into this expecting a straight biopic of Mozart; in fact, the main character is his lesser known contemporary, Antonio Salieri, played with conviction by F. Murray Abraham (who I only really know from Scarface, Louie and Homeland). Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for this performance, beating his co-star Tom Hulce, though I enjoyed Hulce’s performance as Mozart more (yes, even with that ridiculous laugh). I watched the 2002 director’s cut which, despite clocking in at three hours, didn’t feel overlong; there’s a lot to get through, so I didn’t mind the length. It’s very well staged, with solid production values and (as to be expected) excellent use of music. My primary criticism is that Salieri’s character and story arc – which makes up the bulk of the movie – didn’t engage me emotionally or even really interest me that much. Look for a young Cynthia Nixon in a very small role, and Jeffrey Jones (the paedophile actor you’ll recognise from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice and Deadwood) in solid support as the Emperor.

  • Europa Report (2013): 7.5/10.
    Europa Report

    Believe it or not, seeing this flash of light is actually one of the most thrilling moments in the whole movie.

    A solid genre film that doesn’t aspire to anything beyond its genre – a science fiction movie told in ‘found footage’ style (à la The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, etc.) – which is perfectly acceptable in my book. It tells the story of an ill-fated exploratory mission to one of Jupiter’s moons in a search for alien life. The cast is mostly adequate, featuring only two actors I recognised: Embeth Davidtz (Lane Pryce’s wife on Mad Men) as the CEO of the company that sent the mission, and Christian Camargo (the Ice Truck Killer from the first couple of seasons of Dexter) as one of the crew members. Thankfully it avoids two key traps it could easily have fallen into: the trap of building suspense about a creature and then showing it to the audience and losing all suspense thereafter (something I’ve noticed far too many alien / monster / horror movies over the past decade do); and the trap of relying on silly plot contrivances often used within similar movies, such as one of the crew members having a hidden agenda. Overall, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it’s no classic, but it succeeds at what it sets out to do. I’d recommend it to anyone who was disappointed by Prometheus.

  • The Great Gatsby (2013): 4.5/10.
    The Great Gatsby

    Leo’s reaction upon realising how shitty the movie is.

    If you’re going to bore me this much, at least have the decency to do it in 90 minutes rather than a bloated 143! I admit I haven’t read the book, so perhaps my judgement is somewhat unqualified, but this adaptation just didn’t work at all for me. The performances are fine and none of the actors seem miscast; they’re just given nothing interesting to do. In terms of visuals, there’s clearly a lot of money on the screen, and some of the sweeping shots created with CGI are impressive, though they don’t add much. The anachronistic use of music is slightly jarring, but I would have forgiven it had other elements of Baz Luhrmann’s style been more successful. His failure reminded me of Tim Burton: as with many of Burton’s films, Luhrmann favours style over substance (and story), creating a visual feast that isn’t especially engaging and by the end feels pointless. Whatever profundity he thought he was conveying was lost somewhere between his mind and mine.

  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011): 7.5/10.
    Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

    Mark John Byers prosecuting the case against Terry Hobbs. Seems like an ideal criminal justice system: just get one suspect to jot down a list of pros and cons of the guilt of another suspect.

    A superior piece of advocacy documentary filmmaking. There’s nothing especially explosive about this chapter compared to its predecessors except that it brings the West Memphis Three story to a close, providing some measure of resolution. At times it comes across as little more than a conventional – or even pedestrian – TV documentary, but on reflection, considering the access, the range of footage and material presented, the events captured and regurgitated for us, and the power of the message at its core, I think it rises above that. As with the first two parts, it includes some extremely graphic crime scene footage and photos of murdered children. I found myself more upset by them this time, perhaps because I now have a child of my own. Their inclusion still feels somewhat exploitative; they’re effective in once again hammering home the horrific nature of the crimes, but somehow it feels like material that should remain private. The trilogy provides an interesting case study of how documentary, as a form, can be used to persuade; from the first and second parts we were convinced John Mark Byer probably killed the kids, and now from this third part we’re led to believe Terry Hobbs probably did so. Reflecting on that – and the fact that any future sequel could lead us to another conclusion entirely – is somewhat unsettling.

  • West of Memphis (2012): 8/10.
    West of Memphis

    At this point I was convinced that the turtles should be arrested and tried for killing those three little boys. The case against them is pretty compelling.

    I went into this thinking ‘Really? Is yet another doco about the West Memphis Three necessary?’, and for a while it felt a tad pointless to be retreading old ground again (with the sole point of distinction being more celebrity talking heads). However, about a third of the way through it picked up and only got better – by the end, in fact, it had become more powerful than any of the Paradise Lost films. Part of its power was a result of being broader in scope than any individual film in that trilogy; part was from its more cinematic (rather than televisual) approach; part was from its willingness to more openly accuse authorities of corruption and incompetence, and accuse individuals of wrongdoing, than the Paradise Lost films had done; part was from the explosive nature of the claims made about Terry Hobbs; and part was from the sheer emotion of the events surrounding and following the release of the West Memphis Three in 2011 (events covered more fulsomely here than in Paradise Lost 3). Once again, though, as with Paradise Lost 3, the extent to which the documentary medium is used to prosecute a case against Hobbs (a case some would regard as wholly circumstantial and unfair) is troubling and has – not unreasonably – led to accusations of hypocrisy. A note about the graphic crime scene imagery: it’s included, but its handling seems more sensitive and less relentless than in any of the Paradise Lost films. Full disclosure: the Pearl Jam fan in me acknowledges that I may really just be scoring this higher than Paradise Lost 3 because Eddie Vedder is a prominent interviewee throughout and the soundtrack includes two of his songs.

  • Gremlins (1984): 3/10.

    For reasons not entirely clear, the gremlins seem to love Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I only wish I’d watched that instead.

    Yuck – I really didn’t like this movie. It suffers from genre identity confusion, ending up as a kind of children’s/horror/comedy hybrid with wildly inconsistent elements. It’s very difficult to imagine an appropriate audience; some of the sillier “humour” featuring the gremlins would really only appeal to young children, but the more violent and scary parts would probably be too strong for them. The framing device makes no sense since the character telling the story is absent for much of it. Characters often act with inexplicable stupidity, and the behaviour of the gremlins themselves is even more hard to understand (why on earth, for example, do they at one point imitate a group of carollers?!). The music is jarringly bad at times. The town seems almost entirely empty in most outdoor scenes; could they not afford a few extras to walk by? I liked Gizmo (what can I say, he was kind of cute), and seeing younger versions of Glynn Turman (Mayor Royce from The Wire) and Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) in small roles, but these glimmers of enjoyment weren’t enough to make up for the movie’s failings.

  • Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990): 5.5/10.
    Gremlins 2

    RIP, Leonard Maltin.

    Gremlins 2

    Best acid label ever.

    A rare sequel that’s better than its predecessor in every way. It’s far more clear and consistent in its tone and genre: it’s a satirical comedy through and through, with some light horror elements that actually support the comedy (rather than running counter to them as was the case with the first movie). The self-referential approach works quite well, and the subtext about the dangers of reliance on technology is handled far better this time around. The antics of the gremlins are at times genuinely funny, and the pop culture parodies seem to have more of a purpose. Still, even with all these improvements, it doesn’t rise above mediocre; much of the humour doesn’t work, the characters remain fairly bland, the use of Gizmo often seems forced solely as a way of recapturing parts of the original, and the plot is barely serviceable. The cameo from Leonard Maltin – torn apart by gremlins while reciting his negative review of Gremlins – is both a highlight and a sobering warning to all film critics. The other highlight, and the only thing that made me belly laugh, was Phoebe Cates’ character attempting to recount her Lincoln-related childhood trauma, a delicious parody of the misguided Santa story her character had told in the first movie.

  • The African Queen (1951): 8/10.
    The African Queen

    The only movie I can remember featuring a live cat being thrown off the side of a ship.

    Thoroughly enjoyable adventure anchored (excuse the pun) by great performances from Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. They make their way down an African river at the start of World War I, aiming to blow up a German ship but inevitably falling for each other along the way. The romance is simple but quite lovely, avoiding the sorts of contrived obstacles I’ve come to expect, such as her objecting on the basis of his uncouth nature or them bickering the whole way through and only declaring their love for each other right at the end. The focus is narrow – for about 90% of the movie they’re literally the only two characters on-screen – and that’s a strength. John Huston’s direction is perfect, and the African locations are vivid.

  • A Teacher (2013): 5.5/10.
    A Teacher

    Diana’s Monica Lewinsky moment.

    Short, low-key indie drama with an unfortunate amateurish feel to it. It chronicles an affair between a student and a teacher – or more precisely, the unravelling of the teacher (established early on as somewhat unstable) as a result of developments in said affair. The second half is better than the first, but it never really gels despite the potentially interesting subject matter. For large swathes of it there’s a strange absence of music which is disconcerting. Lindsay Burdge isn’t bad in the lead role.

Trivia: This month’s movies included two Jurassic Park movies, two Gremlins movies, two Martin Scorsese movies, two Jeff Nichols movies, two documentaries about the West Memphis Three, two documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two movies with Bugsy in their titles, two movies with all-child casts, two movies starring Anthony Hopkins, two movies starring Katharine Hepburn, two early 1970s movies starring Clint Eastwood, two movies featuring Kumail Nanjiani, at least two movies featuring actors from Deadwood, three movies about astronauts, and two movies nominated for Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direction and Score in 1994. Phew!

July movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 31 July 2013.

  • Of Mice and Men (1992): 5.5/10. Disappointing adaptation of a great novel. It tells the story faithfully – almost slavishly so – but lacks the power of the source material. It also has a slightly TV-movie-ish feel to it, for some reason. Gary Sinise is good as George, but his direction is fairly plodding. John Malkovich overacts as Lennie; perhaps if I’d never seen Malkovich before, I would have bought his performance here, but since I have, it just came across as laboured, hammy, and borderline offensive. John Terry is quite good as Slim. I’d advise avoiding this and reading (or rereading) the book instead.
  • Body of War (2007): 6.5/10. Moving but flawed documentary blends the story of paralysed Iraq War vet Tomas Young with a somewhat clumsy condemnation of the congressional debate and vote to commence that war in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the condemnation is entirely justified; it’s just that the clips of congressional speeches and listings of voters are repetitive, interrupt the flow of the documentary, and detract from the much more engaging story of Young and his family. Some nice (but, again, repetitive) use of Eddie Vedder songs. As I write this review, Young is apparently in a hospice awaiting his death, which is a tragedy.
  • Diner (1982): 7.5/10. Excellent debut from Barry Levinson, this is an affectionate and nostalgic look at what it was like to be on the cusp of proper adulthood in late ’50s Baltimore. (I say ‘proper’ adulthood since the group of young men at the film’s centre are in their early 20s, so technically already adults, but so much of the film is about their transition from a state of immaturity into whatever adult life is supposed to be – marriage, responsibility, no more endless hours hanging out with friends at the diner, etc.) Some great early performances from Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern – and yes, even Steve Guttenberg. The interactions between the friends often ring true; in fact, the whole movie feels incredibly genuine. Most of the time it’s also pretty entertaining. Recommended.
  • The Mission (1986): 7/10. I didn’t end up liking this as much as I wanted to, but it still has a lot going for it: beautiful scenery; a meaty subject; a good mix of drama, action, and politico-religious intrigue; and a solid lead performance from Jeremy Irons (Robert De Niro – top-billed but not really the central character – is passable but doesn’t excel). To some degree it falls into the trap of idealising and over-romanticising the purity and simplicity of how the ‘natives’ live, thereby reinforcing the noble savage stereotype. It also fails to deliver the emotional punch it should, given the tragic events that transpire. I suspect this is due to the focus shifting between the less interesting De Niro character (and his redemption story, which is marginally engaging at best), the more interesting Irons character, and the broader story of the fate of the Mission itself. In the end, it was worth watching, but the only message I could take from it was a simple one I’ve learned before: people are arseholes.
  • Footloose (1984): 7/10. Once I got past the ridiculousness of the premise (a rebellious teen moves to a small town where dancing has been banned!), I found this was actually quite a sweet, genuine and enjoyable movie. Great work from a young Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow, who completely commits to the role of the preacher behind the ban. Also look for Christopher Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker in supporting roles early in their respective careers; miraculously, Parker didn’t grate on me as she usually does. The montage in which Bacon teaches Penn to dance is a highlight; the Bacon solo dance sequence is a lowlight.
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007): 7.5/10. Bleak movie about a woman helping her friend get an illegal abortion in late 1980s Communist Romania. Its power comes from portraying the events in a completely matter-of-fact manner, with long takes and no flash, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into the situation. There’s no judgement in relation to the abortion itself – the movie is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, and in fact shows no interest in that question – but there is a strong and unmistakable judgement of the state of Romanian society in the final years of the Ceaușescu regime: from the rudeness of hotel staff to the obsession with identity cards to the brutality of the payment exacted by the abortionist, we are shown an unpleasant place lacking trust and compassion. The three central performances are very good, particularly Anamaria Marinca in the lead role. It’s not an especially exciting movie, but it’s well made and does what it sets out to do.
  • The Last Picture Show (1971): 8/10. Sad and perhaps overlong coming-of-age story is hard to get into, but eventually it caught me. It’s impressively unvarnished by nostalgia, which is unusual given it’s set in the early ’50s and made in the early ’70s. There’s excellent use of period music and black-and-white cinematography to set the scene and mood. As with all great films, it’s very much open to interpretation, but I saw it as a story about small towns, small communities of people just trying to find and experience “it” – whatever “it” is; perhaps happiness, perhaps adulthood, perhaps ‘life’, perhaps love. A story about how all things end, even as our adult lives begin; about how the experiences we have on the cusp of adulthood shape us and stay with us; and about how sometimes those experiences can beat the hope out of us. This one really made me think. A sidenote: Timothy Bottoms, the lead actor, looks like a less odd-looking version of Paul Dano.
  • Beetlejuice (1988): 6.5/10. This is visually and conceptually imaginative, and occasionally very entertaining (the dinner dance scene is particularly hilarious). Ultimately, though, it’s disappointing because it becomes too silly and doesn’t sustain its early promise; after a certain point, it also stops being funny, which is a shame. All of the actors do well; Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones are particularly fun, and Michael Keaton is certainly memorable in the title role. Alas, I’m finding the more Tim Burton movies I watch, the more he disappoints me.
  • Spring Breakers (2012): 4.5/10. This film is a failure, but a really interesting one, so perhaps worth watching anyway. I’ve seen it described as both a comedy and a drama, but I regard it as solely a drama. It’s written and directed by Harmony Korine, writer of Kids (which I watched in May and loved), and he’s definitely got skills, but unfortunately in this case I think his ambition trumped those skills. I think Korine truly believes he made a deep, thoughtful movie, with layer upon layer of subtext, but in my opinion it’s well-made tripe. The constant use of repetition is mostly ineffective, and much of the film consists of music video-style sequences that aren’t particularly engaging (though sometimes the music is used well; it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this, but I quite liked the way the Britney Spears song ‘Everytime’ was used, and I’ve subsequently found it stuck in my head at times). The four young actresses in the lead roles are all fairly subpar; an almost unrecognisable James Franco is better, if only because he commits to his crazy role, but it’s hard to take him seriously. Near the end of the movies one of the girls discovers (and tells her mum) that “being a good person” is the “secret to life” – at which point I almost vomited. The film seems disturbingly representative of a broader movement in recent years towards ‘false profundity’ from Hollywood: movies that convey the impression of depth but have nothing at all beneath the surface.
  • The Brothers Bloom (2008): 6.5/10. Little-known comedy about a pair of con artist brothers from Rian Johnson, who went on to make Looper (and direct some excellent episodes of Breaking Bad). It’s wry smile comedy rather than the laugh-out-loud variety, which is fine, and parts of it are quite fun – especially when we think we’re in on the brothers’ cons. Good performances from Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and especially Rachel Weisz. The main trouble is that it thinks it’s incredibly clever, and we’re led to believe it will be, but the final stretch just doesn’t meet those expectations, and consequently detracts from everything that led up to it. I went along for the ride, expecting the con-within-a-con-within-a-con structure to lead to an ingenious resolution, but instead it left me disgruntled.
  • Ghost (1990): 7/10. Overlong but satisfying mix of romantic drama and ghostly hijinks. The stuff with Whoopi Goldberg is shaky at first but eventually works. The romance is the heart of this and if you go along with it it’s quite lovely. The aspects of the plot involving Carl, Willy, the money and the reasons for the murder are predictable and lame, but everything else is pretty good. Great use of Unchained Melody of course. Patrick Swayze is appealing and Demi Moore is adequate. There’s some comedy in there but no sense of irony, which I think is a strength.
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972): 8/10. Haunting, strange, vivid and compelling. Many events, and also Herzog’s decisions about what to show us, seem inexplicable. The locations are quite incredible and lend the film such an air of reality; it’s often clear that we’re not just seeing these actors act, we’re seeing them experience the wild places Herzog has taken them to and wild events he has conjured. It’s often slow but I never lost interest. Kinski is great, as is the soundtrack. The whole movie feels like a canvas upon which to paint one’s own interpretations; viewers can decide for themselves what this story is a metaphor for, and we’d all be right even with very different answers. Either that or it’s just a bunch of crazy shit Herzog cooked up and managed to capture on film. I can completely understand its cult status.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): 8/10. Hugely enjoyable mix of two genres: the western and the buddy comedy. The tone is perfect, mixing wisecrackery and a real sense of fun with occasional peril, solid relationship drama, and an underlying feeling of times lost. The jaunty soundtrack and lovely locations help, as does the unmistakable chemistry between the two lead actors. “Who ARE those guys??”
  • Easy Rider (1969): 9/10. Bold, brilliant, and like nothing that came before it. I was hooked from the moment Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ kicked off, the first of many excellent songs on the soundtrack to accompany the mesmerising visuals of roads and landscapes. It’s about counterculture and drugs and authority and the great gulf within (or on the margins of) American society; but most of all, it’s about America itself at the tail end of the ’60s. It has moments of incredible clarity, deep sadness, overwhelming joy, and utter confusion, yet somehow it remains tight and cohesive. As far as acting goes, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson are perfect, and Dennis Hopper is quite good too; but Hopper’s real strength here lies in his innovative yet assured direction. Easy Rider is iconic for very good reasons, not least of which is its role in starting the ‘New Hollywood’ movement that completely transformed cinema and made it what it is today, but what’s striking is how well it holds up as a piece of thought-provoking entertainment. Highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen it; I sincerely regret waiting as long as I did to check it out.
  • Quest for Fire (1981): 5.5/10. As the title suggests, this movie dramatises an early human tribe’s struggle to obtain and master fire 80,000 years ago. Most of the characters are cavemen, so they communicate with grunts and groans and gibberish. It’s certainly an original premise for a movie, but in the end I admired what it was attempting to do more than I actually enjoyed it; to be honest, it was quite a slog to get through, with several long lulls. There’s also a slight problem that will only affect viewers (such as myself) who are fans of the TV series Bob’s Burgers: the main caveman character regularly and repeatedly makes a sound that approximates Tina Belcher’s distinctive ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ cries of distress. Still, it’s noteworthy for its uniqueness and the fact that it features Ron Perlman’s film debut (as a caveman, of course).
  • The Pledge (2001): 7.5/10. Powerful movie about an ex-cop’s efforts to fulfil a promise he made to the mother of a murdered child – and to build a life for himself. In many ways it resembles a gazillion other crime drama stories, but several elements elevate it from the crowd: adept direction from Sean Penn, an understated but wholly effective lead performance from Jack Nicholson, a large cast of excellent performers, and an unwillingness to fall into cliché traps (except the occasional red herring – but that’s more a storytelling trope of the genre rather than a cliché as such). It’s pretty depressing (particularly the numerous simple but crushing depictions of grief, and the ending) but it’s definitely worthwhile.
  • The Blues Brothers (1980): 6.5/10. Fairly enjoyable comedy despite being overlong and often slow. The car chase scenes in particular grow tiresome; they don’t actually add much, and they’re quite long and repetitive. Calling the plot bare-bones is an understatement; it can fit in its entirety into about half a sentence. But John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are fun, with good chemistry between them, and the musical performances are mostly entertaining. Despite its flaws, it holds up better than many other comedies from the same era. It’s interesting to note the pace of this and compare it to comedies from the past decade or so; I doubt comedy directors could get away with slowing things down so much these days even if they wanted to, but I think it could be helpful in some cases.
  • Sour Grapes (1998): 3/10. Terrible comedy written and directed by Larry David. The distinctive Larry perspective is unmistakably there, but it’s surrounded by complete garbage in terms of plot, character, acting, production values and jokes. Actually, as far as production values go, this isn’t all that far removed from The Room; it has that same early ’90s TV look to it. Watching it made me very thankful for what Larry (with the backing of HBO and the help of collaborators such as Robert B. Weide and Larry Charles) has managed to do with Curb Your Enthusiasm: channel his unique voice and sensibility into something perverse and hilarious, rather than something as shitty as this.
  • Boy (2010): 7/10. I can completely understand why this was such a crowd-pleaser in cinemas. It’s very sweet and – at least for the first third or so – very funny too. As it goes on it shifts in tone and genre, traversing more dramatic territory and losing laughs in the process; this is a somewhat necessary shift, given the demands of the story, but I would have preferred more sustained comedy. James Rolleston is excellent in the titular role, and writer/director Taika Waititi is also good as his father.
  • A Christmas Story (1983): 5.5/10. Family Christmas movie doesn’t really hold up, but has a certain easy-to-watch quality that perhaps explains why it’s apparently a US television staple every Christmas (though I wonder how the unfortunate racist scene at the end is received by TV audiences these days). It has some sweet vignettes, though very little laugh-out-loud material. A strong and justified sense of nostalgia pervades it all. It’s narrated by Jean Shepherd and is based on stories from his own childhood, and I really struggled to work out where I know his voice from. I’ve done some reading about him and still can’t figure it out. There’s a chance that something like The Simpsons did a parody of A Christmas Story with a very good impersonation of Shepherd’s voice, or a slimmer chance that I’m remembering his voice work in the ‘Carousel of Progress’ ride at Walt Disney World; or perhaps I’m just thinking of some of Adam West’s work on Family Guy. If anyone has any other ideas, let me know! It’s still bugging me.
  • Trance (2013): 5.5/10. Disappointing movie from Danny Boyle squanders a promising opening and reasonably interesting (if Inception-ish) premise involving hypnosis. The problem is that when we get to the end of all twists and turns, and actually find out what was going on, it renders most of the preceding events pointless. It’s also really difficult to sustain suspension of disbelief through the increasingly improbable events; I found myself questioning why characters would behave as they were far too often. Still, there are some neat sequences and ideas, and the performances aren’t bad.
  • Terms of Endearment (1983): 8/10. This movie kicked me square in the nuts; in fact, I think you’d have to be completely heartless not to be moved by the final half hour or so. There are so many enjoyable moments throughout, and some excellent work from Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow. Shirley MacLaine is also very good, but I spent much of the movie hating her character so much that it was hard to appreciate the performance. At times the story seems to meander, but by the end you feel every moment with these characters was necessary and worth it. (The exception is Danny DeVito, whose character seems entirely superfluous.) Well worth a watch, but have some tissues handy.
  • The Sea Inside (2004): 7.5/10. Thoughtful and consistently engaging true story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who campaigned for his right to be euthanised. At its centre is a remarkable performance from Javier Bardem, whose work is subtle but utterly compelling. Comparisons with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which I watched in May and gave 8.5/10) are inevitable; The Sea Inside doesn’t quite reach its level of power, but it’s still very good. The plot occasionally takes unexpected turns, which is refreshing since the ending is somewhat inevitable. The supporting characters are also quite well-drawn.
  • The Late Shift (1996): 4/10. Vaguely interesting but mostly unsuccessful HBO movie about the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman (and network executives, agents, managers, etc.) over The Tonight Show in the early ’90s. My interest in the material was sparked as a result of following the later battle between Leno and Conan O’Brien (and NBC) as it transpired, and reading at the time that the Leno/Letterman kerfuffle had been equally crazy. Unfortunately, despite the intriguing real-life events, this movie is pretty lifeless and shoddy. The key figures are all included, but these aren’t performances; they’re impersonations, and often poor ones. John Michael Higgins isn’t too bad as Letterman, though maybe I just like Higgins so I didn’t judge him as harshly as his co-stars. Somehow Kathy Bates won awards for her portrayal of Helen Kushnick, Leno’s insane manager; in my view she completely overacts in the role.
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000): 7.5/10. Harrowing portrait of four characters whose lives are chewed up and spat out by drug addiction and delusion. There are some images in this movie that are so horrific I’ll never forget them. It’s a very good movie, but one I never need to see again. Ellen Burstyn is phenomenal; her transformation is completely believable and incredibly disturbing. Interesting and effective use of Kronos Quartet music. The style is flashy at times (particular in the use of fast cut montages, split-screen sequences, and SnorriCam shots), but it all works quite well and is done for good reasons. My reluctance to score this higher is due to the fact that by the end I was left wondering if it had really given me anything new (other than some new images to haunt my dreams); the underlying ‘drugs are bad, m’kay?’ message has been told countless times before, and though Darren Aronofsky denies that this is a movie about drugs, I’m not entirely convinced.
  • Sideways (2004): 7/10. This was not what I was expecting; for some reason, in my mind I had pictured this as a movie about Paul Giamatti as an alcoholic loner confined to his house (the bottle on the poster, perhaps?). Instead it’s a rich comedy-drama about a mismatched pair of friends who spend a week visiting wine country, where – gosh, wouldn’t you know it? – they each meet a woman and learn something about themselves. It features great performances from Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church and Virginia Madsen, lovely scenery, and much more information about wine than I needed. I’m not convinced that it deserves quite the level of critical acclaim it received, but it’s a solid piece of filmmaking and cements my regard for Giamatti.
  • Before Sunrise (1995): 8.5/10. I had seen this before but it had been a long while. It’s a lovely movie, wringing every possible delight from its very simple premise: two strangers meet on a train, make a connection, get off together in Vienna, and spend a whole night walking around the city getting to know one another. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are perfect and their chemistry is the glue that holds it all together. The twists and turns of their conversation are as riveting as any thriller. The scene in which they role-play phone calls with each other’s friends is a highlight. Having now seen the full trilogy, I regard the first as the best of the three (though only by a very small margin; they’re all worth watching); perhaps that’s my inner romantic speaking, since this is the one that feels the most joyously lovey-dovey as Jesse and Celine experience the thrill of budding romance.
  • Before Sunset (2004): 8/10. In this excellent sequel we revisit Jesse and Celine nine years later, this time in Paris. I admire that Richard Linklater and the two stars (who co-wrote this time) didn’t take the easy path of simply recreating the original movie; on its surface this follows the same formula, but there’s a slightly darker edge to it, a maturity perhaps, that aptly reflects the characters’ circumstances and ages and experiences. The highlights this time are a scene in a hire car and the final fifteen minutes (especially Celine’s song).
  • Before Midnight (2013): 8/10. Bold third entry in the series reintroduces us to Jesse and Celine, who by now feel like old friends, another nine years further into their lives. Once again, as Before Sunset did, it goes down a darker and more interesting path than it might otherwise have done, exploring the strife and tension that inevitably emerge in long-term relationships rather than simply giving us a feel-good rehash of the first two movies. There’s an honesty to this one that gives it a real edge and sense of gravity. Celine gets two of the funniest lines of the series: “The only upside of being over 35 is that you don’t get raped as much” and “Kissy kissy, titty titty, pussy, [snoring sound]”. Despite these laughs, though, it’s definitely the least pleasant viewing of the three. I really hope Linklater, Hawke and Delpy continue to revisit these characters every nine years!
  • Deliverance (1972): 6.5/10. Solid thriller about a group of city folk who head out into the wilderness for a weekend canoe ride down a raging river, and encounter some less-than-friendly local hillbillies. It’s engaging enough, but I don’t understand the extent of its acclaim. Jon Voight is good, as is Ned Beatty, but Burt Reynolds seems out of his depth (excuse the pun) and a bit hammy. There’s good use of the song ‘Dueling Banjos’, and the hillbillies make good villains, but we don’t see them very much. The subtext about survival and ‘playing the game’ was a bit lost on me, I must say.
  • Meet the Feebles (1989): 7/10. Peter Jackson’s relentlessly silly parody of The Muppets (kind of) is funny but uneven. It’s completely original, quite ambitious, and wholly committed to its unique premise. Some of the songs are also quite fun. The final stretch is glorious, full of great moments and some belly laughs; not quite enough to cover for some less successful stretches earlier on.
  • The Wackness (2008): 5.5/10. Coming-of-age story about a young drug dealer in New York and the shrink he deals to and befriends. It’s harmless enough but contains nothing we haven’t seen before. Setting it in 1994 adds a small measure of novelty, but that isn’t enough. Ben Kingsley is quite good in the interesting role of the shrink. The best part is the period rap and hip hop music, which I’m now listening to on repeat (when I’m not listening to the Easy Rider soundtrack).
  • Compliance (2012): 7/10. Interesting and mostly well-made movie based on real-life events in which a prank caller to a fast food restaurant convinced the manager and others that he was a cop and that a young female employee had just stolen money from a customer. It explores all the issues that make the incident worthy of movie treatment: authority, groupthink, compliance, and the remarkable human ability to rationalise our abhorrent behaviour on the basis that we’re just ‘following orders’. At times it’s uncomfortably voyeuristic, but nothing feels gratuitous. If I didn’t know it was based on a real incident I would have found much of it hard to believe – but from what I’ve read it’s quite faithful to what really happened. Ann Dowd is great as the manager, and all the employee characters come across as authentic. Two main criticisms: it doesn’t know how to end (most of the final fifteen minutes feels slipshod and lacking in cohesion), and occasionally our attention is drawn to the subtext too obviously (e.g. a character telling the prank caller “I’ll do everything that you need!”).
  • Only God Forgives (2013): 3.5/10. I find it hard to rate well-made bad movies like this one: do they get points for being well-made, or lose points for not living up to their potential? At least with poorly-made bad movies there’s a certain consistency; you quickly adjust your hopes and expectations. This movie, Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow-up to the excellent Drive, is stylish but pointless. There are some tense sequences, but the whole thing has a sense of gravity that’s not warranted or helpful, and the characters are wholly unappealing and uninteresting. Ordinarily I don’t have a problem with extreme depictions of violence; in this case, in contrast to my reaction to Drive, I found them to be fairly tiresome.
  • Where the Wild Things Are (2009): 9.5/10. Utterly beautiful meditation on loneliness, sadness, family, connection, friendship, ostracisation, childhood, and perhaps even mental illness. Deeply moving, frequently hilarious, and unlike anything I’ve seen before. At first it feels like someone decided to make a children’s movie with the style, skill, sensibility and soundtrack of an indie comedy, but it ends up being much more than that. Max Records, the child actor in the lead role, is superb; the actors voicing the Wild Things – led by the late, great James Gandolfini – are also excellent. It gave me so much to think about and had such pathos throughout. The tone is perfect. I can’t recommend this highly enough – but only for adults. Despite the furry creatures, this is not a children’s movie.
  • Amour (2012): 7.5/10. Provocative French movie from Michael Haneke (director of Caché, a.k.a. Hidden, one of my favourites) tackles old age, illness and death. It’s confronting subject matter and the treatment is sensitive yet thorough. Much of the story is told through long, unbroken shots that deny us any opportunity to look away; we’re stuck watching, no matter how uncomfortable we are about what we’re seeing. Excellent performances from the two leads, especially Jean-Louis Trintignant (though it was Emmanuelle Riva who scored the Oscar nomination). I found it interesting watching this not long after Linklater’s Before trilogy; in a sense, it felt like a hypothetical final film in that series (Before Death, perhaps?), exploring the love between two people as the end approaches.
  • Oblivion (2013): 7/10. Solid sci-fi action movie has some interesting ideas and is engaging enough for the most part. Tom Cruise is reliable as ever; he’s hard to fault in a role like this, though it doesn’t demand much nuance. The main twists are somewhat predictable, there are a few holes in the plot if you give it too much thought, and the romance angle is a bit naff, but as far as popcorn movies go, I’d say it hits the spot. With a better final stretch it could have been great. Did anyone else find Melissa Leo’s accent a bit distracting?

June movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 10 July 2013. For the first time all year, I failed to make it through my quota of movies for the month, so I had an increased load in July and August.

  • Kes (1969): 7.5/10. Simple but powerful story of a troubled young boy with no prospects who finds a passion – and one thing he’s good at – when he begins to train a wild falcon. Its strength lies in its attention to detail, its low-key, matter-of-fact style, and its undeniable verisimilitude; it presents an utterly convincing depiction of working class life, education and poverty in rural England. David Bradley is excellent in the lead role. Often slow and rarely exciting, it still managed not only to hold my attention but also to move me.
  • Broadcast News (1987): 6.5/10. There’s a lot to like in this: interesting subject matter, some meaty characters, sharp dialogue, a solid cast and assured direction from James L. Brooks (who also wrote and produced it). The three central characters are played by Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, and all three do well in tricky roles: Hurt is good, Brooks is great and Hunter is outstanding. The main flaw, however, is that it pulls its central punch, pivoting into a bland romantic comedy rather than pursuing its initial interest in actually analysing and criticising the fabric of network news. Still, large swathes of it are highly enjoyable, such as any scene in which we watch Hunter’s character being great at her job, or the scene in which Brooks’ character sweats too much.
  • A Room with a View (1985): 6/10. My first and only Merchant Ivory film, this is entirely watchable but mostly forgettable. I suppose the production is quite lavish, but I didn’t find the story all that engaging and the romance in particular (intended to be the main drawcard, presumably) was fairly pedestrian. As for the performances: Daniel Day-Lewis is hilarious as the snobbish Cecil, giving a performance so different from the one he gave in My Beautiful Laundrette, released in the same year, that it’s no surprise they put him on the map; Denholm Elliott is wonderful and I now want to track down more of his work; Helena Bonham-Carter must have been very good because I usually dislike her and this time I didn’t; and Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are precisely as you’d expect. There’s a surprising amount of male nudity, which I discovered somewhat awkwardly given that I watched this – or at least, the part with the most nudity – on a crowded train.
  • Seven Years in Tibet (1997): 3.5/10. Even if this had a thousand redeeming features, Brad Pitt’s woeful accent and performance would have rendered it dreadful. Unfortunately, the redeeming features are considerably fewer: the backdrops are pretty enough, the relationship between Pitt’s character and the Dalai Lama is somewhat engaging, and the John Williams score is fine. Beyond that, it’s pretty bad. And seriously, that accent is so distractingly terrible!
  • Big Fish (2003): 5.5/10. There are some nice ideas in this movie, and its heart is in the right place, but I found it difficult to connect with the characters and it lost me by jumping from vignette to vignette without providing any dramatic satisfaction. The ending is somewhat sweet and carries some level of dramatic resolution, but it’s too little too late by that point. This is yet another nail in the Tim Burton coffin for me: once again, he shows imagination, but fails at story and character. Naturally I’m partial to the Pearl Jam song (Man of the Hour, written for this movie) in the end credits.
  • Finding Neverland (2004): 7.5/10. This is by no means perfect but I enjoyed it and found it very emotionally engaging. Johnny Depp does well in the lead role; he’s not too showy (as he often is) and brings a warmth and a quiet charm to his J. M. Barrie. Kate Winslet is solid as usual. The kids are very good too, and they’re the source of much of the emotion, particularly Freddie Highmore’s Peter. Sure, using kids in this way can be emotionally manipulative, but if the manipulation is this successful, who’s complaining? A couple of criticisms: the pacing was uneven and I could have done without the marital strife angle. Still, overall a success.
  • Chocolat (2000): 5.5/10. I was greatly disappointed by this, though I can’t recall the basis of my high expectations. The cast is fine (though Johnny Depp doesn’t seem hugely interested) and the direction is adequate. However, the central conflict is so obvious, clichéd and predictable that it’s very difficult to invest in at all. The filmmakers seem to believe they’re presenting a potent fable – though doing so with a delightful tone, and with chocolate!; who can resist? – but it comes across as a movie trying too hard to win its audience over. The romance is also quite flat. Despite all this, it’s watchable enough if you can get past the predictability.
  • Mad Max (1979): 7/10. Bold and exciting foray into post-apocalyptic chaos, Aussie style. The action scenes are good, the tone is perfect, and Brian May’s score is a huge plus despite initially sounding incongruous. Mel Gibson is fine in this iconic role; Steve Bisley also does well in support. My main criticism of this, particularly in comparison to Mad Max 2, is that it takes a while to get going; the exciting vigilantism so strongly associated with the movie and character really only kicks in in the final fifteen minutes or so. It’s fascinating to consider the impact this movie (and the series as a whole) had on subsequent depictions of post-apocalyptic societies and worlds (e.g. the Fallout and Borderlands games).
  • Mad Max 2 (1981): 8/10. The best of the series, in my view (and, from what I understand, many others would agree). It quickly dispenses with exposition and gets straight into the conflict between The Humungus’ gang and the settlers protecting their tank of oil. We seem more properly into post-apocalyptic territory now, with fewer trappings of the pre-apocalyptic world; aptly, our protagonist has more fully embraced his ‘madness’ and is now the archetypal road warrior, survivalism replacing the residues of civilisation he had left by the first movie. The action scenes are a step up from the first movie and dominate most of the proceedings; this is a clear strength. The focused nature of the story is also helpful. There’s not much depth here, but it’s got buckets of style and entertainment value, and it paints a vivid picture of a society past the point of decay. Once again, Brian May provides an excellent score.
  • Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): 6/10. The weakest of the series but still worth watching. There are two separate halves to this: the stuff involving Bartertown and the Thunderdome, and the stuff involving a group of primitive children who mistake Max for the messianic figure they’ve been waiting for. This second half was apparently developed as a different film and only later became a Mad Max film; that disconnect unfortunately shows. However, I did enjoy some of the stuff with the children, such as the retelling of their oral history. Tina Turner should have stuck to singing; We Don’t Need Another Hero is still great, but her acting is not at all. The style of music used for the score is significantly different from the first two movies (this score was composed by Maurice Jarre rather than Brian May), and that’s a great shame as it doesn’t work well at all. Mel Gibson is still good as Max. Trivia: one of my uncles appears as an extra in the Thunderdome scenes.
  • Ordinary People (1980): 7.5/10. Intelligent, thoughtful movie about a family in strife. At its centre is an excellent performance from Timothy Hutton as the teenager recovering from the death of his older brother in an accident he blames himself for, a suicide attempt, a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and a mother who appears to dislike him. Donald Sutherland is also very good as the father, and Mary Tyler Moore is effectively off-putting in a challenging role as the mother. The scenes between Hutton and his psychiatrist are always engaging as we wait for the breakthrough we know must eventually come. It’s a small story but it has big things to say about families, relationships, grief, loss, and personal responsibility. Recommended.
  • Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): 4/10. Most of this is rubbish; Sam Raimi appears to have fallen into the Tim Burton trap of style over substance. James Franco is terrible in the title role and his co-stars are largely unremarkable, other than Michelle Williams who is quite good as Glinda. The ‘intrigue’ between the witches is dull; I think there’s supposed to be some mystery and tension about who’s really wicked, but it was difficult to bring myself to care. There are some impressive visuals, and things pick up a little in the second half, though not enough to make it worthwhile. What a shoddy way to present the world of Oz to contemporary audiences!
  • Taking Woodstock (2009): 4.5/10. Demetri Martin is a funny comedian with a fairly unique low-key style, and I enjoyed his TV series Important Things with Demetri Martin. However, I think we can all agree that he can’t act. All of us, that is, except Ang Lee, who for some bizarre reason thought it would be a good idea to cast him in the lead role in this odd movie about how Woodstock ended up happening. One critic called Martin’s work here a “nonperformance”, and I have to agree; he seems to be giving it his all, but his all is pretty woeful. Putting that to one side, there are other problems: the movie doesn’t seem to know whether it’s about his character or about Woodstock itself, and by oscillating between the two it loses focus and any dramatic potency it might have had. There’s also apparently some comedy in here, but I couldn’t find it. The bright spots are few and far between but they mostly either involve Liev Schreiber’s cross-dressing security guard character (Schreiber is genuinely appealing in this and steals numerous scenes), drug trips, or the broader spectacle of Woodstock itself, which is restaged impressively. It’s not hard to see why this flopped at the box office.
  • Half Baked (1998): 6/10. Stupid stoner comedy starring – and co-written by – Dave Chappelle. Objectively I can see that this is a pretty bad movie, but Chappelle is so likeable and funny that somehow it’s not only watchable but actually quite entertaining at times. There are some good cameos from Jon Stewart, Tracy Morgan, Janeane Garofalo, and the always great Bob Saget, among others. Beyond general stupidity and a lot of jokes that fall flat, a major problem is the annoyingness of Jim Breuer’s character; Breuer completely overdoes it as a stoner caricature, and he stops being funny almost immediately. Apparently Chappelle claimed in an interview years later that his original script was much better than the movie ended up being, which makes me wish he’d directed it himself with Louis CK-level creative control. One for Chappelle fans only.

May movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 1 June 2013.

  • Happythankyoumoreplease (2010): 6.5/10. Debut effort from writer/director/star Josh Radnor, this has a similar scope and tone as his follow-up, Liberal Arts, which I watched the day before and included in last month’s reviews. His love interest is played by Kate Mara, who I quite like. The biggest problems with this are that its three plotlines aren’t integrated well and one of them in particular (featuring Pablo Schreiber from season two of The Wire) is a dead weight. Still, the stuff with Radnor and a foster kid he accidentally takes custody of, and most scenes featuring the great Tony Hale (playing a character quite different from his two best-known roles, Buster (Arrested Development) and Gary (Veep)), are solid. It also captures its New York setting well.
  • The Man Who Would Be King (1975): 6/10. John Huston’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story is quite old-fashioned (read: racist) in its approach to colonialism, but if you set that aside it’s entertaining enough. Sean Connery and Michael Caine are fun as the leads, and there’s some good action and a nice sense of adventure. However, it hasn’t aged very well, it doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, and a key shift in the central relationship happens too abruptly.
  • Mama (2013): 4/10. This falls squarely into that breed of horror movie that can reliably make you jump and/or freak you out with some creepy imagery, but never properly earns its thrills and is sorely lacking in the character and story departments. The second half (or perhaps the final third) is particularly disappointing because once we’ve seen the creepy imagery in enough detail, it loses its power and just starts to become silly. Jessica Chastain (from a thousand movies over the past two years or so) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (from Game of Thrones) are tolerable but unimpressive.
  • True Grit (2010): 8/10. Thoughtful and consistently engaging Coen Brothers western didn’t take long to push the John Wayne version out of my mind so I could judge and enjoy it on its own terms rather than by comparison. Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as the bold and forthright 14 year old girl; Jeff Bridges is solid if a touch one-note as the drunk but effective bounty hunter she hires to go after her father’s killer; and Matt Damon is oddly cast but not bad as the Texas Ranger hunting the same criminal. On the surface this is a simple western, but with the Coens overseeing proceedings there’s a confidence and a tension that elevates the material and turns it into something that’s as gripping in its quiet moments as in its well-staged action sequences. As to be expected, the visuals are often quite stunning. A triumph only slightly let down by a lack of emotion in the denouement.
  • Heaven’s Gate (1980): 5/10. One of Hollywood’s most famous flops, this is a movie every film buff should watch (together, if possible, with the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate), even though ultimately it’s quite bad. There’s so much promise: an interesting subject (the Johnson County War), a cast studded with top-notch performers (including Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, etc.), lavish period detail in the costuming and set design, and some big action set-pieces. But there’s so much that doesn’t work: it’s bloated (I watched the full 217 minute version) and largely boring, it has no characters worth investing in, there’s no story momentum, the villains are entirely one-dimensional, and the ending is stupid. It works best as a lesson in film history, knowing the context of its production and the impact it had on the industry (not to mention director Michael Cimino’s reputation and career).
  • Upstream Color (2013): 4/10. Very strange movie from Shane Carruth, his follow-up to 2004’s excellent Primer. It’s an exploration of the lives of two people, and a bunch of pigs, who are affected by the life-cycle of a parasite. It often gets compared to The Tree of Life but for me the comparison is shallow; both movies are impressionistic in style and disjointed in narrative structure, and both can result in some head-scratching, but Carruth is no Malick. I spent much of it confused and by the end, even after reading more about it to understand what it was trying to do, I felt it had failed.
  • The Stunt Man (1980): 6.5/10. Interesting movie from Richard Rush about movie-making – but also about reality vs. illusion, perception, control, and war. Its production and release were somewhat troubled, as detailed in the documentary The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man (a documentary which, incidentally, made me like Rush considerably less; he comes across as one of those artists who thinks their work is the Greatest Thing Ever and feels the need to tell you all about it). Steve Railsback is mediocre at best in the title role, Barbara Hershey is marginally better as his love interest, but it’s Peter O’Toole’s performance that engages the whole way through: he’s magnetic and intriguing and dominates every scene he’s in. It has a great jaunty score and some fun action scenes (though most lack tension since we know they’re being staged for the movie-within-the-movie). It’s certainly ambitious in what it’s trying to explore; unfortunately it doesn’t quite get there, and it doesn’t hold together all that well. It feels like its trying to be too clever – and worse, it thinks its succeeding (or, at least, Rush clearly does). Watch it for O’Toole though, he really is impressive.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007): 8.5/10. Deeply moving true story of a man trapped in his own body. Julian Schnabel’s direction and Mathieu Amalric’s performance are superb. The immersive nature of the film (particularly the first 40 minutes or so, during which everything is seen through the protagonist’s eye) is one of its greatest strengths. A wonderful testament to the power of the human mind and imagination, and our potential for resilience and determination, it’s uplifting even as it tears you apart with grief. Some sections are less engaging than others, but overall it’s really a great movie. Highly recommended.
  • Flight (2012): 8/10. Solid portrait of a man struggling with alcoholism (and, to a lesser degree, drug addiction). Its three greatest strengths are a faultless performance from Denzel Washington, a thoughtful and realistic approach to the subject matter, and an incredibly gripping sequence in the first act that sets off everything that follows. As for its weaknesses: there’s an occasional inconsistency in the tone, some parts of the ending could have been better, and it doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch it should.
  • Life of Pi (2012): 7/10. Visually striking and mostly engaging movie that tells its unusual story well. The CGI is excellent and quite seamless, and Suraj Sharma is good in the lead role. There’s a promise made at the start of the movie that was never going to be fulfilled (at least for me), but I still felt short-changed by its resolution at the end. I liked the message about story-telling but not so much the one about the existence of God. Maybe this just isn’t a movie for atheists? Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book.
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009): 9/10. Hilarious animated movie that’s just as entertaining for adults as kids. There’s so much going on – constant visual humour (both foreground and background), incredibly witty writing, great performances (particularly Bill Hader in the lead role), a vibrant visual palette, and fast-paced action. Its use of running gags actually reminded me of Arrested Development (a huge compliment). There’s also a good dose of heart, with things paying off nicely at the end (I’ll even admit to shedding a tear at one point). Go watch this movie!
  • Gunga Din (1939): 6.5/10. There’s surprising fun to be had with this, the second Kipling adaptation I watched this month. It holds up quite well for its age, though some parts work much better than others; specifically, the action scenes tend to work well (particularly a battle scene near the start), as does anything involving banter and hijinks between the three main characters, but a lot of the stuff involving ‘natives’ is problematic, as are all the scenes featuring Joan Fontaine (and, indeed, the entire subplot in which one of the main characters is leaving the army to marry her and the others thwart this by making him reenlist). Keep an eye out for the elements that directly inspired Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though you needn’t look hard, they’re pretty obvious).
  • Kids (1995): 8.5/10. Gripping and frightening portrayal of a day in the life of a bunch of sexually active kids in New York who drink and take drugs and steal and talk almost exclusively about sex. The casual nature of their exploitation of each other (and of kids even younger than themselves), and of their occasional violence, is quite shocking. There’s a strong sense of reality to this; it’s entirely believable despite its excesses. This is the result of its quasi-documentary style, director Larry Clark’s decision to cast kids he discovered hanging out in New York skate parks in lead roles, and the honesty and personal experience Harmony Korine brought to the script. A really great movie.
  • Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012): 4.5/10. Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star in what I think counts as a romantic comedy even though it’s about the end of a relationship rather than the start of one (the genre’s more typical subject). The characters aren’t particularly likable (Jones’ character in particular bugged me), there’s very little in the way of comedy, and there’s barely anything to root for (other than perhaps Samberg’s character’s new relationship). I still don’t understand why people rate Jones, and as I wrote a couple of months ago, I don’t think Samberg has the chops for leading roles in movies (despite being a talented and funny guy). Skip it.
  • Side Effects (2013): 6/10. Well set up and competently made thriller – for the first two-thirds or so. It then descends into silliness that completely detracts from and cheapens what came before it. That’s a shame, since some aspects of the premise are quite intriguing and could have worked well if played out in a more genuine and thoughtful way. This is one of the first times I’ve seen Jude Law in a movie and not disliked him, so that’s a plus. My suggestion is to watch the first half and then make up the rest in your mind; your imagination will make things far more interesting than they end up being in the movie.
  • The Place Beyond the Pines (2012): 8/10. Long but powerful story about responsibility and consequences. The movie takes a left-turn about a third of the way through, and then does it again later on; at first this is jarring and it feels like a misstep, but by the end it all ties together nicely and justifies the approach. Ryan Gosling gives a good performance; he has sad eyes and they suit the character well. Bradley Cooper is also quite good, and Ben Mendelsohn impresses in support.
  • Oldboy (2003): 4/10. Having heard such great things about this Korean movie for so long, I suppose my disappointment was somewhat inevitable; but not only did it not live up to the hype, I actually thought it was pretty bad. There’s a nugget of a good premise (a man is held captive for fifteen years but is never told why, and is then suddenly released), and a couple of neat action scenes, but it’s overdone and quite silly, particularly the second half. I found it very difficult to suspend my disbelief enough to fully buy into what happens and why it happens. There’s a US remake (directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin) due out later this year which I’ll probably watch to see if the premise can be executed more effectively.
  • The Getting of Wisdom (1978): 3.5/10. Mostly charmless Australian movie (based on a novel I hadn’t heard of) about a country girl’s experiences at an exclusive Melbourne boarding school in the 1890s. It’s fairly by-the-numbers and is a bit of a slog to get through. The main problem is that it’s boring, a consequence of bland subject matter, too-familiar themes, and static direction by Bruce Beresford. Look for young incarnations of Kerry Armstrong, Sigrid Thornton and Noni Hazlehurst.
  • Chariots of Fire (1981): 6.5/10. Best Picture winner recounting the real-life story of British athletes at the 1924 Olympics. There are some powerful moments, the performances are fine, and it’s a handsome production, but ultimately it didn’t really move me and I wasn’t as invested in the success of the athletes as I should have been. Also, the first half hour felt somewhat muddled and the second half dragged (though it also contained some of the best parts). The central rivalry between Liddell and Abrahams, with their contrasting motivations for running, is handled well. Great to see (well, hear) Vangelis’ iconic theme used in its original context.
  • Hitchcock (2012): 7/10. The first and better of two movies about Alfred Hitchcock I watched this month (see The Girl below). For a while at the start I thought I’d be too distracted by Anthony Hopkins’ performance and it would remain a passable impersonation rather than an actual piece of acting. However, eventually I got past this and enjoyed both what he was doing and what the movie was about: his relationship with his wife Alma Reville and the troubles he went through to make Psycho. The solid performances – not just from Hopkins, but also from Helen Mirren as Reville and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh – are key to the success of the movie. Hitchcock’s interactions with his female actresses are done well, especially his relationship with Leigh (the scene featuring the filming of Psycho’s shower scene is particularly good). I could have lost some of the stuff with Danny Huston as a writer Reville collaborates with, and the sequences featuring Hitchcock’s delusions or visions of Ed Gein don’t really work. There’s a moment of triumph towards the end, featuring Hitchcock listening outside a theatre, that is a joy to behold. Look out for the original Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio, in a small role (a cameo, really) as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano.
  • Room 237 (2012): 6.5/10. Intriguing documentary about six people who have crazy conspiracy theories relating to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ostensibly it’s about the theories themselves; we never actually see the six people, but instead interviews with them – in which they explain their interpretations of the movie – are heard over clips from it and other (mostly Kubrick) movies, with the clips illustrating what they’re saying. However, the theories are so clearly wacky that it becomes evident very quickly that it’s the people who are the real subjects: who are these people and how can they really believe this stuff? Unfortunately, owing to the format, we never really find this out. Still, it’s a novel way to construct a documentary and it held my interest the whole way through.
  • 1941 (1979): 3/10. Terrible comedy about Japanese attacks, and other wacky hijinks, in California during World War II. The worst Steven Spielberg movie I’ve seen (full disclosure: I haven’t seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!). Aside from a distinct lack of jokes that are actually funny, there’s a disturbing rapiness exhibited by a couple of the male characters that’s supposed to just be all part of the fun (spoiler alert: it isn’t). The nicest things I can say about it are that a couple of the action scenes were staged well and the cast isn’t bad (though none of them can do very much with this material).
  • The Girl (2012): 4.5/10. The second and worse of two movies about Alfred Hitchcock I watched this month (see Hitchcock above). Toby Jones as Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren are both really just doing one-note impersonations, and they get boring quite quickly. The movie basically only has one quite simple point to make: that Hitchcock was a creep who sexually harrassed Hedren during production of The Birds and Marnie. Trouble is, it doesn’t take very long to make this point, and then we just get it repeated again and again for 91 minutes. If you’re at all interested in the subject matter, skip this and watch Hitchcock – or better yet, read a book about it.
  • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): 9/10. Brilliant drama exploring what happens to a work-focused, inattentive father, and his young son, when his wife abruptly walks out on the family. Superb performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and Justin Henry is also quite good as the little boy. The movie strikes a balance between simply telling its story and thoughtfully examining the broader questions at play in terms of parental responsibility, family law, what it means to be a parent and love your child, and the devastation that divorce causes. It’s deeply moving and has some very emotional moments, but it never feels exploitative. I loved both of the French toast scenes. Entirely deserving of its Best Picture win (even in a year that also saw the release of both Apocalypse Now and Alien) and several other major Oscars.
  • Glory (1989): 7/10. Faithful and polished retelling of the true story of the first unit of African American soldiers during the Civil War, and the white man who led them. It lacks the passion this story deserves, though the cast do their best (other than Matthew Broderick, who’s middling at best in the lead role) and the battle scenes are quite good. At times James Horner’s score is very similar to what he would use to better effect in Braveheart six years later. It’s still quite a good movie; it just isn’t as epic or moving as it could have been.
  • Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008): 8/10. This is great: imagine if This Is Spinal Tap was a documentary rather than a mockumentary, and you’d have a fair idea of what to expect here. Anvil is a Canadian heavy metal band that was on the cusp of ‘making it’ in the early ’80s but never quite got there, and yet they’ve stayed together ever since. This documentary gives us a sweet portrait of a friendship between two guys who never give up their dreams and retain hope in the face of near-continual mediocrity and failure. I want the painting of a turd in a toilet drummer Robb Reiner shows us at one point. Ironically the band has now achieved a measure of success solely due to the release of the documentary. Interestingly it was directed by Sacha Gervasi, a former Anvil roadie, who after this went on to direct Hitchcock (reviewed above).
  • Limitless (2011): 6.5/10. A cool premise for a thriller: what if you were given a drug that let you access all of your brain and memory rather than the 10% that everyone else has access to (set aside the fact that this 10% claim is actually a myth…)? What could you achieve with this superpower? There’s some really strong stuff in here, including some interesting visuals (e.g. the zoom / fish-eye shots), but it relies too heavily on clichéd elements rather than maintaining the originality of its premise, and the final stretch in particular is pretty weak. Bradley Cooper, given another opportunity to play a character who transforms quite a lot over the course of a movie (see The Place Beyond the Pines above), is quite good.
  • Bottle Rocket (1996): 4.5/10. Disappointing debut from Wes Anderson. It features most of what would become standard in his movies: quirky characters, excellent and eclectic musical choices, one or more Wilson (in this case, Owen, Luke, Andrew and Teddy), and a distinctive visual style with precisely and interestingly framed shots. Unfortunately there’s not enough humour and it doesn’t really go anywhere. The stuff with Andrew Wilson and Lumi Cavazos (a hotel maid he falls in love with) is quite nice, but it can’t save the movie. Owen Wilson is incredibly irritating throughout and I’d be happy never to see him again.
  • Out of Africa (1985): 7/10. The third Best Picture winner I watched this month (see Chariots of Fire and Kramer vs. Kramer above), and the second featuring Meryl Streep. She’s brilliant in this, and her romantic interest Robert Redford is quite good as well. It’s refreshing to watch a romance in which the two central figures are both so likable; you want to see them together because you want them both to be happy. However, I must say I enjoyed the first half more than the second; this is one of those cases where the anticipation of romance turned out to be more enjoyable than the romance itself. Still, it’s a nice movie that’s worth watching for Streep’s performance and the sumptuous visuals (plus, if you go for that sort of thing, the romance).
  • Not Fade Away (2012): 7.5/10. Debut feature film from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, this tells the story of a failed band in the ’60s. It’s very distinctively Chase-ish (Chasian?), with his usual thoughtful tone, precise dialogue packed with meaning, and James Gandolfini in a key supporting role as the protagonist’s father. There are solid performances from the mostly young cast. The soundtrack is a spectacular highlight, as you’d expect given the subject matter and setting and the fact that Chase apparently let music supervisor Steven Van Zandt (Silvio from The Sopranos and guitarist from Springsteen’s E Street Band) spend 10% of the movie’s budget on music. My only gripes are that the story jumps around a bit too much, it doesn’t feel ‘big’ enough, it has a lacklustre ending (with a misstep involving a character dancing on a street), and it isn’t The Sopranos.
  • The Elephant Man (1980): 5.5/10. Quite different to what I expected, this was actually quite disappointing. Large swathes of it resemble cinema of a much earlier time (and not just because it’s in black and white), but then there are more surreal elements that mark it out as a David Lynch film. This is the earliest performance I’ve seen from Anthony Hopkins and he’s quite good as the doctor who cares for the title character, played by an understandably unrecognisable John Hurt. Ultimately I felt it was lacking in drama, pathos and narrative drive. Now that I’ve seen it, the fact that this is Karl Pilkington’s favourite film is rather bewildering. Dexter Fletcher, the child actor who has a small role as a boy assisting the villainous Bytes, looks like a cross between a young Mick Jagger and the actress Nicola Walker (Ruth from Spooks); incidentally, he later starred as Spike in Press Gang.

April movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 30 April 2013.

  • Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012): 3.5/10. I like indie comedies as much as the next guy, but this one just didn’t really work. I’ve seen it described as being like a Todd Solondz film directed by Wes Anderson; unfortunately, it lacks the punch either of those directors would have brought to the material. Also, it’s only very rarely funny. Nick Offerman is good in a supporting role, but he’s not enough to make it worth watching.
  • The Sightseers (2012): 4.5/10. Disappointing (given how well it was received by critics) British black comedy about a strange couple whose caravan holiday to various crappy sites in the West Midlands turns into a killing spree. It’s certainly memorable, there’s some nice scenery, and I liked the ending. Problem is it isn’t very funny and despite good performances from the two leads (who also wrote the screenplay), these aren’t likable people and I didn’t much enjoy my time with them. Memorable ending.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012): 7.5/10. I quite liked this despite it being somewhat predictable and manipulative. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence deserved the Oscar she won (Quvenzhané Wallis was robbed!), though I admit she’s good, and Bradley Cooper is surprisingly even better.
  • The Fighter (2010): 8/10. Coincidentally I watched this (the movie David O. Russell made immediately before Silver Linings Playbook) next. I liked it even more: great performances from Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo; bold and lively direction by Russell; a strong sense of place and culture; overall, a poignant mix of tragedy and triumph. There aren’t many better boxing movies.
  • Harold and Maude (1971): 7/10. This odd film is practically the definition of black comedy: its protagonist is obsessed with death, and that’s the primary source of humour. At first much of the comedy falls flat, but by the end there are some belly laughs, and it’s hard not to enjoy. To a large degree this is due to the unique and winning character of Maude: she opens our eyes (and whichever parts of our bodies open when we laugh) as much as Harold’s. Excellent use of Cat Stevens music – in particular, Don’t Be Shy and If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out are beautiful.
  • My Brother the Devil (2012): 6/10. Competent British crime drama about two sons of Egyptian immigrants who get mixed up in gangs in East London. Much of the material is tired and well-trodden, but it’s given some freshness by virtue of being situated within this particular subculture. Some of the performances are shaky, though most are decent enough. Serves as an interesting companion piece to My Beautiful Laundrette, which I watched last month.
  • Field of Dreams (1989): 7/10. Not at all what I expected. The premise, and at times the execution, risk cheese and schmalz, but somehow by the end I found it quite affecting. I’m usually annoyed by movies that shoehorn fantastic or supernatural elements into otherwise realistic settings (case in point: The Green Mile), but in this case I happily went along for the ride. I was glad we weren’t given any real explanation for what we were seeing; somehow that would have shattered the lovely illusion. Costner is unremarkable but inoffensive. Two things that bugged me: (1) in one scene he sees three things signifying that he’s somehow gone back in time to 1972 – a poster for Nixon’s re-election, a movie theatre showing The Godfather, and a numberplate that says 1972 – which was about two things too many, implying audience and character stupidity; (2) the reaction to a child’s seemingly life-threatening fall doesn’t ring true (if it had been my child, I would have been freaking out!).
  • Cloud Atlas (2012): 4/10. I’m really glad this was made, and really glad I saw it, but sadly I must report that it didn’t really work. It’s hugely ambitious and has some interesting ideas, plus a bold central conceit of telling interwoven stories set over hundreds of years and using each actor to play multiple roles (thereby amplifying the sense that the stories are connected). However, ultimately the stories aren’t sufficiently connected for it to matter, we aren’t given enough reason to focus on one story over others, and most of the stories aren’t very interesting. Also, the variance in tone between the stories is quite jarring (though the increasingly quick intercutting is done quite cleverly at times). Two more complaints: by 40 minutes into this 171 minute movie, I still had no idea what was going on (in my view the directors should have made more of an effort to make the stories accessible from the start, rather than leaving the audience disoriented for so long), and the pidgin English used in one story rendered much of its dialogue incomprehensible to me (there should either have been subtitles or the pidgin should have been less pronounced (excuse the pun)).
  • Zelig (1983): 6.5/10. Fascinating Woody Allen film is one of the earliest mockumentaries (preceding This Is Spinal Tap by a year). The premise is ripe for satire and comedy: Allen is a human chameleon who takes on the physical properties of people around him as a psychological disorder borne out of an intense desire to fit in and be liked. While it’s very funny at times, somehow it feels like a missed opportunity given the richness of the premise. It also feels overlong despite being only 79 minutes; perhaps it would have worked better as a short film rather than a feature (the trivia section on IMDB claims Allen’s first cut ran only 45 minutes and he added more to fill up the time; this doesn’t surprise me, and I’d rather have watched the 45 minute version).
  • Jurassic Park 3D (1993/2013): 9.5/10. One of my favourite movies and a key piece of my childhood. It’s very hard to fault: thrilling, funny, impeccably well-paced, and full of fine performances and incredible special effects that still hold up. I love how many action / suspense / thriller moments Spielberg is able to throw in that DON’T involve dinosaurs – e.g. a jeep falling through a tree, an electric fence being switched back on, etc. – thereby ensuring we aren’t overwhelmed with dinos and they maintain their power. Rereleased in 3D at IMAX for the 20th anniversary, it’s never looked better and I’ve never enjoyed it more. Stirring John Williams music gets me every time. “Shoot her… shooooooot her!!”
  • Good Bye Lenin! (2003): 6.5/10. Nice German film about a young man who goes to extraordinary lengths, motivated by love of his mother, to convince her that the Berlin Wall hasn’t fallen despite the changes sweeping the country in the turbulent time between the fall of the Wall and German reunification a year later. Through this story, the movie explores what life was like in East Germany and how East Germans adjusted to life after the Wall fell. Its aspirations don’t extend too far beyond entertainment, and thus it mostly succeeds, but I think I would have preferred something meatier.
  • Lucas (1986): 6.5/10. This is another one of those ’80s movies about kids – think Stand by Me, The Goonies, etc. – but it carves its own unique place within that genre. The title character, played by Corey Haim (who later went off the deep end but here was just a little kid with some solid acting chops) is a smart loner who befriends – and falls in love with – the new girl. She’s older and therefore doesn’t regard him as a romantic prospect (though she does appreciate how special he is), particularly because she’s busy falling for Charlie Sheen (in one of his not-bad younger performances). The football aspect of the story, quite prominent in the latter portion of the movie, is something of a misstep. Still, it’s got real heart and good performances from the young leads.
  • The Iron Lady (2011): 7.5/10. Meryl Streep won a well-deserved Oscar for the incredible performance that lies at the heart of this film. She completely inhabits the character and moves it well beyond mere imitation/impersonation and into something entirely convincing and ultimately quite moving. As a movie, though, there is a key misstep: while it is a good decision to frame the story with the ageing Thatcher suffering dementia, there is too much of a focus on her dementia-fueled interactions with her dead husband, which mostly come across as trite. Also, at times it feels like we’re getting a summarised ‘greatest hits’ version of her political career that glosses over some important moments. Despite these issues, there is much to like (in addition to the amazing Streep).
  • Les Misérables (2012): 8/10. I came to this without having read the book or seen the musical; all I knew was that bad things would happen and mercifully Anne Hathaway wouldn’t last long. I thoroughly enjoyed it – much more than I thought I would. While some have dismissed Tom Hooper’s ‘gimmick’ of recording the actors’ vocals live on set (as opposed to them lip-synching to pre-recorded vocals), I found it to be very effective: unlike almost every other musical movie I’ve seen, there wasn’t obvious lip-synching to take me out of the moment. The performances are all great, both dramatically and musically, except for Russell Crowe whose vocals are jarringly terrible. The songs are very catchy (it’s not hard to see why the musical has been so successful for three decades) and Hooper’s direction is incredibly dynamic, which is perfect for a movie of this genre, style and scope. A few things bugged me, such as the character Éponine (apparently we’re supposed to feel sympathetic towards her; I just found her irritating and wished she’d be quiet), but overall I was very impressed.
  • Cradle Will Rock (1999): 4.5/10. Tim Robbins gets points for ambition, but loses more for overreaching and making a turd. It’s a good cast and most of them do well, with the notable exception of Robbins’ then-partner Susan Sarandon, who is hopelessly miscast (and does a dodgy Italian accent) as Margherita Sarfatti. The main problems are a failure to pick one interesting plot thread and stick with it (instead jumping around to various less interesting subplots), and an earnestness that makes this work to get through (yes, Tim, we get it – you feel strongly about this subject (that art shouldn’t be repressed by the state)… but just say it once and get over it, stop hammering your audience over the head with it!). It’s a shame as I really love the two other movies he wrote and directed, Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking. There are some good bits: the scene in which the actual 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock is performed; the scenes in which Hallie Flanagan (a standout performance from Cherry Jones) appears before the Dies Committee (though apparently the dialogue was all lifted directly from the official transcripts, so it’s hard to give too much credit); and the brief appearances by Tenacious D’s Jack Black and Kyle Gass. As a massive Pearl Jam fan I have to point out that the second song in the end credits is Croon Spoon, a song from the actual 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, performed as a duet by Eddie Vedder and – wait for it – Susan Sarandon.
  • To the Wonder (2012): 7.5/10. My least favourite film by my favourite director, Terrence Malick, though I feel uneasy judging this after only a single viewing. I’ll have to revisit at some point. It seems silly to complain about vagueness and a lack of narrative cohesion in a Malick film, but it did feel like the disjointedness and ambiguity actually detracted from what he was trying to do. Still, it was beautiful poetry as all his films are.
  • The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013): 3/10. I’m glad I knew in advance how poorly this had been received; I would have been sorely disappointed otherwise. I generally like Steve Carell but I think he’s miscast in this (or the character should have been changed to better suit his talents). Steve Buscemi is OK but can be so much better. Jim Carrey, who seems like he hasn’t been around in a while, is quite good as the rival/villain street magician, but that isn’t enough. It just isn’t funny.
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): 7.5/10. Hugely enjoyable crime comedy pokes fun at the hardboiled detective genre while simultaneously following its tropes. Robert Downey Jr. is great as the lead and our narrator. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role; without him this would have been a completely different, and most likely considerably inferior, movie. There’s solid support from a funny Val Kilmer, perhaps his best performance since The Doors. It’s clever and it knows it, but it isn’t overdone and it never feels like the style overcomes the substance.
  • The Fly (1986): 4.5/10. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are appealing, and there’s a nugget of an intriguing concept here, but the execution is quite poor: it isn’t scary, it’s rarely tense, the pacing is all wrong, and the special effects aren’t all that special. By the end it’s mostly boring and silly.
  • The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007): 9/10. Brilliant documentary works on several levels (excuse the pun): it’s a classic story of a rivalry between the evil establishment (reigning Donkey Kong world champion Billy Mitchell and his cronies) and the heroic underdog (good guy everyman Steve Wiebe); it’s an exploration of a subculture that is both unique and representative of every other ‘in crowd’ community we’ve all experienced at some point; it’s a parable about success, failure, honesty and determination in contemporary America; and it’s a portrait of a bunch of fascinating real-life characters. I was going to give it 9.5 but then I read a few things (e.g. claims of inaccuracy, some of which the director has apparently conceded) that made me revise my score slightly. Nonetheless, it’s now my third favourite documentary ever.
  • Gangster Squad (2013): 6/10. Parts of this are great and it has such promise: a top-notch cast, rich material to work with, some excellent setpieces, and a confident director who has attracted a lot of buzz. Unfortunately, it lacks subtlety (characters constantly announce things that should remain subtext) and depth. Many characters are left undeveloped; for example, the squad itself seems to consist of Old Guy, Black Guy, Mexican Guy, Doomed Family Man, plus two actual characters (the movie’s two leads). Sean Penn is fun as the villain, but it’s a touch one-note. Disappointing, but still probably worth a watch.
  • The Great Race (1965): 3/10. I can see how this would appeal to (some) kids – it’s basically a live-action cartoon – but for adults it’s pretty tedious stuff that, at close to three hours, long overstays its welcome. Jack Lemmon is watchable as the villainous Professor Fate and quite fun in his second role, Prince Hapnick, in the Potzdorf interlude. There’s a disturbing level of sexism throughout the movie, made worse by the needless inclusion of a suffragist subplot (included only to enable ridicule). The famous pie fight is quite lame.
  • Constantine (2005): 3/10. One of those action/horror/thriller movies (e.g. Stigmata, The Ninth Gate, etc.) that confuse religious mumbo jumbo for intriguing premise and plot. The story is just so pointless and unengaging that it was hard to make it to the end. I have only one nice thing to say about it: some of the special effects aren’t bad.
  • The Room (2003): As an actual drama, 1/10; as an unintentional ‘worst movie ever’ comedy, 8.5/10. I’ve seen a few candidates for worst movie ever, but none are quite as entertaining as The Room. I’ve watched it several times now and each time I notice new and hilarious terribleness. Highly recommended, particularly with a group. The greetings… the sex scenes… the terrible dubbing… the football… the roof… Denny’s drug subplot… Claudette’s throwaway cancer reference… it’s all comedy gold, none intentional. “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
  • Buried (2010): 7/10. As far as high concept / gimmick movies go, this one’s pretty good. It milks considerable tension and drama out of the simple conceit of Ryan Reynolds being trapped in a box underground, and somehow it lasts a full hour and a half. You get the sense the scriptwriter just brainstormed every possible thing that someone trapped in a box could experience, then threw everything he’d thought of in; I think it would have been better had he left some (e.g. snake, fire, phone call with senile mother) out so as to streamline the plot and allow our disbelief some chance of remaining in suspense. Given the constraints of the concept, it’s very well directed. Reynolds is inoffensive. Good ending too.
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940): 7/10. Funny, talky romantic comedy starring three of the biggest stars of the day: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. This was my first real exposure to Hepburn and she really impressed me. Much of the humour still works, though there are long swathes without any laughs. The actors are all very appealing and the plot is serviceable enough. Above average.
  • 127 Hours (2010): 7.5/10. Gripping true story of a man trapped for – you guessed it – 127 hours, and forced to take drastic measures to free himself. It’s a powerful exploration of the strength of the human spirit and will to survive. James Franco is quite good and Danny Boyle’s direction is probably as good as it can be, given the material he’s working with. My main criticism is that the hallucinations / visions / dream sequences are overdone and too dominant throughout the second half of the film; had they been dialled back about 40%, the remaining film would have been considerably stronger. Nonetheless, it’s a really good movie even if you know exactly what’s going to happen in it. Coincidentally, I watched this exactly ten years to the day after the events portrayed.
  • Greenberg (2010): 4.5/10. Another disappointing mumblecore(ish) movie. Ben Stiller is the unpleasant title character and his performance is middling. Greta Gerwig is quite good as his main romantic interest; more than anyone else in the movie, she comes across as someone you might actually want to spend some time with. There’s a really good (both comedically and dramatically) party scene toward the end, but outside of that and Gerwig there’s not much to like in this.
  • This Is Not a Film (2011): 6.5/10. Very interesting Iranian film that isn’t a film: it’s an ‘effort’ by filmmaker Jafar Panahi and his documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. At the time, Panahi was under house arrest, awaiting the results of his appeal against a six year jail sentence and twenty year filmmaking ban for “propaganda against the regime”. Shot over ten days (though edited together to create the appearance that it takes place over a single day), this ‘effort’ is a pseudo-documentary that allows Panahi to express himself creatively without breaching his state-imposed silence, while exploring what it means to ‘make’ rather than ‘tell’ a film. Overall, nothing much happens (which is why, ultimately, I can’t score it higher), but this is really all about context: we bring our own meaning to it through our knowledge of the circumstances in which the ‘effort’ was made (and the circumstances in which it came to us: it was apparently smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden inside a cake!) and what it represents in terms of Panahi’s irrepressible creativity and the oppressive regime silencing him.
  • Liberal Arts (2012): 7/10. Romantic comedy(ish) written and directed by its star, Josh Radnor, who is apparently in a sitcom I don’t watch. It falls into several idealism traps: Radnor idealises his central romantic interest, the much younger college student Zibby (played by an Olsen sister but not one from Full House), thereby making her talk and behave almost entirely unlike a real person; he idealises the college experience to the point where inability to move past it is his character’s central trait; and he idealises books, a recurrent feature of the film that gets very old by the end. The subplot involving a troubled student who Radnor’s character connects with is a misstep. Despite this, it’s very likeable, funny at times, and once or twice it zigs when you might expect a zag. In terms of performances, Olsen is good, Radnor himself is unmemorable, and Richard Jenkins and Alison Janney are (as always) great in support. Zac Efron pops up to overplay a gimmicky cameo role.

March movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 28 March 2013.

  • Scent of a Woman (1992): 7/10. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t realise the ‘Hoo-ah!’ typically used by comedians doing impressions of Al Pacino came from this movie (for some reason I had thought it was more of a generic over-the-top Pacino-esque expression). To me this represents the turning point for Pacino, an actor I regard as one of the greats; it’s a huge and easy-to-counter generalisation, but basically everything before this had the good (often brilliant) young Pacino and everything after it had the old hammy caricature of Pacino. Anyway, to the movie itself: like Pacino’s performance, it’s certainly not subtle but it’s quite effective. Despite the length and occasional cheese, it’s hard not to get swept up in the story of an arsehole-with-a-heart-of-gold (Pacino) and a timid-but-otherwise-flawless-student (an impressive young Chris O’Donnell) who fix each other over the course of a weekend in New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a small role and despite only being 25 and playing a fellow student, he seems – as always – middle-aged.
  • Man on Wire (2008): 6/10. I’d heard such good things about this so my disappointment was perhaps inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, what Philippe Petit did is incredible, and it was wonderful to see so much footage of the preparations and lead-up (it almost seemed that Petit and his posse were angling for a documentary to be made thirty years later!), but when the main event came, the absence of any footage of the walk itself struck me like a sucker punch. Yes, yes, I realise it wasn’t the fault of the filmmakers (though they could have better prepared us for it), but it really felt anti-climactic. There were also some odd parts (e.g. an incongruous sex scene, two central interviewees tearing up in misleading or bizarre ways, etc.).
  • Hoop Dreams (1994): 7.5/10. Very long but always absorbing documentary chronicling the lives of two young African-American high school basketball players and their families. Like the best documentaries of this type, it balances observation of the alien (conveying the sense that the audience is being given access to a particular subculture they aren’t familiar with) with a strong sense of intimacy and pathos (by following, over several years and through unpredictable ups and downs, a collection of characters who are more than willing to open up to the camera). Recommended.
  • My Beautiful Laundrette (1985): 6.5/10. Interesting exploration of Thatcherite Britain in general and its race relations in particular. Billed as a comedy-drama but I didn’t spot much comedy. Despite being almost thirty years old the subject matter feels very fresh. Good lead performance from Gordon Warnecke, though his character’s actions and motivations are sometimes difficult to comprehend. It was apparently originally shot for British television, which unfortunately shows through at times. Probably the most notable feature is the striking supporting performance from a young Daniel Day-Lewis.
  • Stitches (2012): 1.5/10. I’ve enjoyed Ross Noble’s stand-up in the past and made the mistake of thinking a movie with him in the lead role would be worth watching. It isn’t. Imagine a horror-comedy with no scares or laughs, terrible performances all round, a pointless plot constructed solely of various clichés cobbled together, fairly shitty special effects, and extremely over-the-top gore masquerading as hilarious death scenes. Now that you’ve done that, you don’t need to waste your time watching this. The second worst movie I’ve seen so far this year (keep reading to find out the worst).
  • The Panic in Needle Park (1971): 7/10. Young Pacino (in his breakout role) is compelling and impressive, but the real surprise for me was his co-star Kitty Winn. Her transformation from naïve, innocent young woman to desperate junkie and hooker is heartbreaking and entirely believable. The movie also has a fairly good sense of place and gives what seems an authentic glimpse into that place’s junkie subculture.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012): 9.5/10. Wow. Probably the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. One of those movies that reminds me why I love movies – this is what they can be and what they can make me feel. I loved it so much I watched it twice (once for myself, once to share), and the second time through it hit me just as hard. A word of caution: it won’t please everyone, and some might find it baffling or plotless or pretentious, but I found it none of those things. It sung to me! Quvenzhané Wallis is an absolute revelation, and I now feel compelled to watch Silver Linings Playbook to confirm my suspicion that she was robbed at the Oscars (though really, it’s somewhat incredible that she was nominated at all). Great soundtrack too – I’ve found myself humming it almost daily.
  • Hugo (2011): 4.5/10. Oh, Scorsese, why? Some of the visuals are interesting and I’ll admit I now know more about Georges Méliès than I did before. Beyond that, this mostly stunk. I didn’t care about the characters or the story, and it degenerated into self-indulgence (OK Marty, we get it, you love Méliès and think early cinematic history is terribly important) and – worse – tedium. The supporting characters were distractingly pointless. For some reason this was critically acclaimed.
  • The Long Goodbye (1973): 6.5/10. Not bad Altman film that plays with the conventions of the private eye genre. At its best it comes across as satire and at its worst it’s merely humdrum. Elliott Gould is decent in the lead role. Blink and you may miss a young Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a henchman.
  • Hot Rod (2007): 4/10. This comedy is harmless but the laughs are few and far between – so much so that it instigated my search for genuine laugh-out-loud comedy movies. Andy Samberg plays the lead and while I think he’s quite talented, his work here seems to suggest he should stick to shorts as he can’t carry a feature. Has some strong comedic performers in supporting roles (Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Will Arnett and Chris Parnell) but they’re mostly wasted.
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): 6.5/10. Parts of this Hitchcock film are very effective, such as most of the Marrakesh scenes, the performances from James Stewart and Doris Day, and Day’s performances of Que Sera, Sera. However, the plot is full of holes and the tension is often undercut by implausibility and silliness.
  • The Artist (2011): 6/10. Quite a disappointment. The first half hour is great – I was immediately drawn in by the unique style, the clever homages to the silent film era, and the surprising sense of fun – but then it starts to drag and never really recovers. The second half commits the cardinal cinematic sin of being boring. Jean Dujardin is quite good but Bérénice Bejo is even better.
  • Dragonslayer (1981): 6/10. Much of this fantasy is mediocre at best, but somehow by the end I was reasonably engaged. Considering when this was made, the special effects are quite impressive (though it’s amusing how far through they manage to get before showing us the dragon in its entirety). One key fault: the actions of the protagonist are often hard to comprehend. I particularly enjoyed (read: found unintentionally laughable) the scene in which one of only two female characters in the whole movie (not counting a nameless virgin devoured by the dragon at the start) cheesily accuses the protagonist of being in love with the other female character, a princess, and he cheesily responds with “I am in love… but not with the princess”.
  • Shampoo (1975): 7.5/10. Warren Beatty (who I’m growing to really like) is great as a hairdresser who sleeps with a whole lot of women in this very enjoyable and often funny satire set against the backdrop of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. It would be amusing to see a diagram of the sexual connections between the characters – by the end I’m fairly certain everyone had slept with (or was in some way romantically connected to) everyone else. Excellent use of music, particularly some Beatles songs. Definitely worth a look.
  • The Hangover Part II (2011): 4.5/10. I did laugh a few times, mostly at Zach Galifianakis and occasionally at Dr Ken Jeong. However, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Todd Phillips and his co-writers actually thought viewers would overlook the fact that they’ve recycled the premise and storyline of the original movie almost beat-for-beat. There is literally nothing new in this, and what little freshness and liveliness there was in the original is now completely gone.
  • Hall Pass (2011): 5/10. Mediocre comedy with two-dimensional characters (surprising in a movie from the Farrelly brothers, I know!) and a fairly repugnant premise. I really don’t see the appeal of Jason Sudeikis. Still, there were a couple of laughs – one involving poo and a g-string was particularly memorable. The always reliable Richard Jenkins steals a couple of scenes playing against type. Also good to see Stephen Merchant and J.B. Smoove in supporting roles, though for the most part both are wasted. The post-credits sequence featuring Merchant is worth waiting for.
  • Don’s Party (1976): 7/10. I’m really glad I watched this. It serves as a fascinating glimpse into Australian politics – sexual and otherwise – in both the late 1960s (when the film is set) and the 1970s (when it was made). It’s also interesting as a reflection of Australian cinema at the time. Parts are quite funny and it’s always engaging as we watch the party degenerate, numerous couplings and decouplings occur, characters drop the façades they began with, and – in the background – Gorton defeats Whitlam to the disappointment of Don and many of his guests.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999): 7/10. I was pleasantly surprised by this. The mockumentary format suits the story perfectly and gets maximum comedic value from a strong cast of (mostly) women: Kirsten Dunst (over-the-top in the best way), Kirsty Alley (a bit one-note but still funny), Allison Janney (hilarious and entirely charming), Denise Richards (exceeding my extremely low expectations of her), Brittany Murphy (who I’ve never found particularly engaging) and Amy Adams (great in her debut role). Adam West is also funny in a cameo at the start.
  • 5 Broken Cameras (2011): 7.5/10. Harrowing personal story of one man, his family and his community in the West Bank, told through footage he captured with his five cameras over five years. Fully deserving of its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary earlier this year. Some aspects felt somewhat manipulative, and parts of Burnat’s story were glossed over (e.g. where some of his cameras came from; his connections to activist groups; the cause of a car accident at one point), but nonetheless it’s powerful due to the intimate nature of the footage and the sense it generates of actually being on the ground experiencing events in this troubled Palestinian town. It made me very glad to be raising a child in Australia rather than – say – the West Bank.
  • Poltergay (2006): 3/10. French comedy with a promising premise (a straight couple move into a house haunted by five gay ghosts but only he can see them) but an unfortunate lack of laughs. Good use of the Boney M song Rasputin, which was stuck in my head for a while afterwards.

[Note: I feel the need to justify my decision to watch some of the next few: Jackass Number Two, Jackass 3D and Dirty Sanchez: The Movie. Having been disappointed with many comedies I’ve watched this year, I racked my brain to try to remember the movies that have made me laugh the most in the past – and I recalled, as an 18 year old way back in 2002, falling out of a cinema chair from laughing too hard at the first Jackass movie with a bunch of friends in a packed cinema. In an attempt to recapture that I thought I’d give the sequels – and a UK imitation – a go.]

  • Jackass Number Two (2006): 4/10. It made me laugh a bit but was pretty bad. It’s hard to tell if this is measurably worse than the original or if it’s just that I don’t find this stuff as funny anymore. There’s still the comaraderie on show and the palpable sense that we’re watching a bunch of mates having fun with each other (their constant laughter at each other’s antics is a major part of this), but there were many more hits than misses this time. Also, the climactic skit/prank – involving Ehren McGhehey thinking he’s pranking a taxi driver but actually being pranked himself into thinking he’s about to get shot dead, all the while wearing a fake beard made out of pubic hair lovingly provided by the rest of the Jackass team – was a whimper rather than a bang and seemed to lack the sense of gravity needed to elevate this from TV show to movie.
  • Jackass 3D (2010): 3/10. A little worse than Jackass Number Two, though to be honest they run together in my mind. They really seem to have run out of ideas by this point, and they’re looking noticeably older and worn out. As with Jackass Number Two, the climactic stunt – Steve-O being showered in shit inside a bungee-portaloo – was quite disappointing. Nonetheless, some parts still made me laugh a little. Disclaimer: I didn’t see it in 3D, and it’s entirely possible – but not very likely – that doing so would have lifted it to a perfect 10/10.
  • Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010): 7.5/10. This comedy has a fantastic and original premise, and excellent performances from Alan Tudyk and especially Tyler Labine, but the execution is uneven and there aren’t quite enough laughs for my liking. Also, the villain is fairly two-dimensional and could have been much more interesting (and less irritating to watch). Still, it’s definitely worth checking out.
  • Love and Death (1975): 9/10. Brilliant Woody Allen film, my favourite of those I’ve now seen. The thing that surprised me most was just how funny it was – there’s a joke or two in almost every line. In fact, of the 90 movies I’ve seen this year, I think this one made me laugh the hardest. I confess I didn’t get all of the references/jokes/homages to Russian literature or European cinema, but for the most part I could at least tell that a reference was being made. Beyond the jokes themselves, I loved the central anachronism, the constant mocking of philosophical rhetoric and argument, the performances by Allen and especially Diane Keaton (who is hilarious), and the wonderful sense of ridiculousness and fun throughout.
  • Dirty Sanchez: The Movie (2006): 1/10. The worst movie I’ve seen so far this year. Dirty Sanchez is the British answer to Jackass. Unfortunately this movie lacks any of the redeeming qualities (such as they are) of the Jackass movies. Also, these guys are obsessed with their penises and it gets old quickly. Look at it this way: I watched it (somehow) so nobody who reads this will ever have to. Please, if you’re at any risk of watching this, just don’t.
  • Annie Hall (1977): 8/10. Interesting exploration of a relationship. Allen basically plays his usual self but Diane Keaton plays a remarkably layered and genuine-seeming character, and excels in the role. It’s very good but slightly overrated (i.e. I don’t think it’s as brilliant as many others seem to). The more innovative stylistic elements are done very well and keep things lively throughout, and the script is solid but lacks the constant jokes of Love and Death (1975) and the transcendent dialogue of Manhattan (1979).
  • Rushmore (1998): 7.5/10. I was sure I’d watched this many years ago but rewatching it this time around I remembered nothing, so it’s possible this really was the first time. In any event, I quite enjoyed it. Wes Anderson has such a distinctive style and this epitomises it: bold and impeccably composed shots, quirky humour, killer soundtrack. Jason Schwartzman is brilliant and it’s difficult to imagine the movie with anyone else as Max. Bill Murray is also very good.
  • Wreck-It Ralph (2012): 7.5/10. Clever CG animation with lots for those of us into video games to enjoy. Arcade games don’t feature prominently in my video game résumé, but I still got lots of the references and appreciated the sense of nostalgia and reverence. In terms of voice work, John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are good, Jack McBrayer basically reprises his role as Kenneth from 30 Rock, and Mindy Kaling is unfortunately under-used. As to be expected in a Disney movie, there’s a good bit of heart in there too, particularly towards the end.
  • Malcolm X (1992): 8/10. Long but engaging biopic of – you guessed it – Malcolm X. Denzel Washington is superb in the title role and – since I watched this in the same month as Scent of a Woman – I feel qualified to say he was robbed at the Oscars; his searing portrayal of Malcolm X was far more deserving than Pacino’s ‘Hoo-ahs!’. As any good biopic does, it immediately left me wanting to find out more about the subject. A criticism: Al Freeman Jr’s portrayal of Elijah Muhammad is laughably bad, an SNL-style caricature, detracting from the (numerous) scenes he appears in. Look for Wendell Pierce (The Wire), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), Richard Schiff (The West Wing) and Nelson Mandela (real life).
  • Pootie Tang (2001): 3.5/10. In some ways this is a difficult movie to judge. It’s written and directed by Louis CK, one of my favourite people, but he was apparently fired during the editing process (after which point it was extensively reedited) and has effectively disowned it. In a sense it can be pointed to as the justification for FX’s decision to give Louis complete creative freedom in making his crazy-good TV series Louie: Pootie Tang is what happens to Louis’ work when he doesn’t have creative freedom; Louie is what happens when he does. Some actors and comedians I really like are in it: J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Reg E. Cathey (The Wire), J.D. Williams (The Wire), Chris Rock, David Cross (Arrested Development) and Todd Barry. However, putting aside my feelings about them (and Louis himself), I have to be honest: it’s pretty bad. I got the feeling it might have been better with a more talented comedic actor in the lead role. Most of the 3.5 goes to Wanda Sykes and her hilarious dancing as Biggie Shorty (plus her memorable line, “You think that just cause a girl likes to dress fancy and stand on the corner next to some whores, that she’s hookin’?!”) . Wa Da Tah!
  • Black Dynamite (2009): 6/10. This blaxploitation spoof hits its satirical target quite well, and has some funny parts, but it seems as though it would have worked better as a short film or sketch rather than having the joke play out over 84 minutes. Two highlights: the sequence in which Black Dynamite and his crew figure out what the evil plan is, and everything involving Richard and Pat Nixon.


  • By sheer coincidence I watched Hot Rod – in which a character watches a scene from The Long Goodbye showing two dogs vigorously mating – straight after The Long Goodbye itself.
  • Unlike anything from January or February, three of this month’s movies were documentaries (Man on Wire, Hoop Dreams and 5 Broken Cameras).
  • Several of this month’s movies explored African-American themes or featured predominantly African-American casts (Hoop Dreams, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Malcolm X, Pootie Tang and Black Dynamite).
  • Two movies starred Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman and The Panic in Needle Park).
  • Two movies were directed by Woody Allen (Love and Death and Annie Hall).
  • Two movies were blaxploitation spoofs (Pootie Tang and Black Dynamite), and coincidentally I watched them back-to-back.
  • Two movies won Best Picture Oscars (Annie Hall and The Artist) and another three were nominated (Scent of a Woman, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Hugo).
  • One movie was set around the election of Richard Nixon (Shampoo) and another features a hilarious fictionalised version of him (Black Dynamite).
  • Two movies were made in the 1970s but set around significant elections that had occurred toward the end of the 1960s (Shampoo and Don’s Party).

February movie reviews

The following reviews were originally published on Facebook on 28 February 2013.

  • Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979): 5/10. Disappointing Herzog remake of the 1922 classic. The problem wasn’t that it was slow, though it certainly was that; the problem was that Klaus Kinski’s Dracula wasn’t scary or even menacing. Some nice scenery, and interesting use of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (a piece of music I associate with my favourite movie, The New World (2005), in which Malick opens with it) and rats.
  • Puss in Boots (2011): 6.5/10. Fun spin-off from the Shrek series. It doesn’t amount to much, but thankfully the writers pitch it as much to adults (through comedic dialogue) as to kids. Antonio Banderas is good in the title role and Zach Galifianakis is very good as Humpty Dumpty.
  • Red Dog (2011): 7/10. I can understand why this was popular; it’s a real crowd-pleaser. There’s something familiar and inviting about the tone and storytelling style, equal parts wink and heart. Still, it’s no Castle.
  • Take Shelter (2011): 8.5/10. Excellent exploration of mental illness draws much of its power from the performances: Michael Shannon is rivetting and Jessica Chastain strong in support. The scene at the community gathering/dinner was particularly memorable (I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe once throughout the scene), as was the ending of course.
  • Animal House (1978): 5.5/10. Look, don’t get me wrong, there are some funny bits, and I guess it’s worth a watch to see what these sorts of movies looked like 35 years ago, but really, most of it doesn’t hold up comedically. Interesting to see a young Tim Matheson (he grew up to become VP on The West Wing). And now I know where my dad got his ‘human pimple’ gag from.
  • The Bad News Bears (1976): 6.5/10. Walter Matthau plays a grumpy drunk who ends up coaching a hopeless little league baseball team. This is supposedly a comedy but there aren’t many laughs. That said, the kids are quite endearing and it’s easy to go along for the ride with them. The ending is nice.
  • Manhattan (1979): 9/10. I admit I haven’t seen very many Woody Allen movies (this, Hannah and her Sisters, Whatever Works, Midnight in Paris, and maybe one or two others), but this is by far the best I’ve seen. The dialogue sparkles, New York is shot beautifully, the three central characters are fascinating, and ultimately it’s quite moving. Did I mention how good the dialogue is?
  • 21 Grams (2003): 7.5/10. A powerful story told in a non-linear way that’s initially disorienting but eventually quite interesting. I’m not usually a fan of Naomi Watts but she’s not bad here; in particular, she nails the scene in which she receives some very bad news (to the extent that a robot such as myself could be moved to tears). Sean Penn is one of my favourite actors and he’s solid here as always. One criticism: a key moment toward the end is presented in an unhelpfully unclear way.
  • The Ice Storm (1997): 3/10. Ugh. A couple of nice moments, and the performances are OK, but what’s the point? Most of it’s pretty unpleasant and tedious.
  • Blow Out (1981): 5.5/10. Brian De Palma movie with a pretty outlandish premise: John Travolta is a sound effect artist working on low-budget horror movies who witnesses – and captures an audio recording of – the assassination of a would-be presidential candidate, and must then thwart a conspiracy by using his technical skills. It all gets rather silly. This would serve as a weird counterpoint to Olver Stone’s JFK.
  • Auto Focus (2002): 4/10. Another movie that left me asking what the point had been and feeling like I’d wasted two hours of my life. Greg Kinnear is good and it evokes the time period well, but it has nothing interesting to say and takes 105 minutes to say it.
  • The Longest Day (1962): 6.5/10. Epic depiction of D-Day from multiple perspectives is very impressive in its scale, particularly some of the beach scenes. Dramatically, some parts were fairly hokey, and overall it didn’t have enough emotional impact.
  • The Descent (2005): 6.5/10. For what it is (a horror movie about six women trapped in a cave with subterranean humanoid creatures), this is pretty good. Actually, it’s hard to imagine the same premise being executed any better than this; but with a premise like that, it can only really be so good.
  • Zero Dark Thirty (2012): 7.5/10. Jessica Chastain is good (if a little one-note), the film is very well-made, and the climactic raid sequence is hard to fault. But I came out of it thinking there might have been better ways to tell the same story; perhaps using Chastain’s character as the through-line was a mistake? Always fun to see Chris Pratt. And I don’t agree with the claims that this is pro-torture propaganda.
  • The Master (2012): 8.5/10. Very compelling movie about a charismatic leader and the misfit who becomes his protégé (sort of). Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are all excellent. Like all P.T. Anderson films, there’s a certain confidence to it that grips you throughout. The ending is odd and perhaps not as strong as what came before it, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving the audience with something (or several things) to ponder.
  • Jarhead (2005): 7/10. This felt quite fresh, possibly because there still haven’t been very many movies made about the Gulf War. Engaging insight into the lack of action many marines and soldiers experienced over there, and the impact that would have had on them. My main criticism – beyond the fact that it didn’t pack as strong an emotional punch as the best war movies do – was that the protagonist’s semi-breakdown, seemingly triggered by being dumped by his girlfriend, didn’t seem consistent with what we knew of him up to that point.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991): 3/10. I went into this knowing almost nothing about it and came out with a considerably lower opinion of Gus Van Sant than I’d started with. River Phoenix is fine and Keanu Reeves less a liability than he could have been, but it’s self-indulgent and just not very interesting. The attempt at Shakespearean parallels doesn’t work.
  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009): 5/10. I’d seen the original Bad Lieutenant (a 1992 Abel Ferrara film anchored by a gutsy lead performance from Harvey Keitel) and heard good things about this Werner Herzog remake. Unfortunately it didn’t really work for me. Nicolas Cage dominates in the title role, but I couldn’t stop thinking that these days, rather than genuinely acting, he’s basically just doing a passable and slightly exaggerated Nicolas Cage impression. Like his performance, much of this movie is over the top to the point of silliness.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): 8/10. Very sweet movie, this. Aspects are clichéd and predictable, but there’s enough meat on the bone to satisfy. The cast is quite good, particularly Ezra Miller (Patrick), who steals most scenes he’s in. The part where a character is asked if he writes poetry and unironically responds with “Poetry writes me” made me laugh out loud in an airport.
  • Django Unchained (2012): 7.5/10. Tarantino’s latest is a lot of fun, stylish as always, and has some very memorable characters (particularly Schultz, Stephen and Django himself). It doesn’t have a whole lot of substance, but when it comes to Tarantino movies I don’t think substance is the attraction. Tarantino’s cameo is jarring solely because of the terrible fake Aussie accent he attempts.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962): 7.5/10. It may not have been the smartest idea to pick a movie lasting almost four hours as part of a project in which I’m trying to get through lots of movies! But this has been on my to-watch list for a long time so I’m glad I finally got to it. Peter O’Toole is great and his character is compelling enough to hold your attention throughout despite the length. A criticism: he was presented as an expert on Arabia with a more progressive view about Arabs and Arabian independence than all of his contemporaries, but we never find out where he got his ideas from (i.e. there’s no equivalent to the scene in Braveheart in which William Wallace’s uncle says to him, “You don’t speak Latin? Well that’s something we shall have to remedy, isn’t it?”, promising to educate him in Europe and giving us a basis for his enlightenment). Also, I wasn’t as moved by the film as I wanted to be. Still, easily the best movie I’ve ever seen featuring this many camels. And the theme music is still stuck in my head.
  • King of New York (1990): 3/10. Very disappointing Abel Ferrara gangster movie featuring Christopher Walken as the titular character, a drug lord in New York who’s released from jail and has soon killed off all of his competitors – and, bizarrely, wants to save New York’s ailing hospital system (?!). Most of his gang members are black and there’s a certain racism to it all (particularly the blue-lit scenes of black characters partying) I found uncomfortable. I also found it hard to suspend disbelief through quite a few of the plot developments. Still, interesting to see some actors (e.g. Steve Buscemi and Giancarlo Esposito) in minor roles.
  • Hoosiers (1986): 7/10. Uplifting sports movie doesn’t have any bells or whistles (OK, it has some whistles), just tells its story in a straightforward way with no guile or flash, and that ends up being part of its charm. Gene Hackman is fine as the protagonist, a basketball coach looking to redeem himself in a small town. I was amused by how soon we got our first training montage. Dennis Hopper is excellent as the alcoholic basketball expert Hackman’s character hires as assistant coach, and his relationship with his son (one of the players) is played very nicely. Definitely worth a watch.
  • JCVD (2008): 5/10. It sounded like a great premise: Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a fictionalised version of himself who gets caught up in a post office heist gone wrong. Unfortunately the execution is fairly muddled and it doesn’t do anything interesting with the situation or with Van Damme. Oh, what might have been.
  • Lone Star (1996): 6.5/10. I interpreted this movie as a thoughtful meditation on the question of whether we’re trapped by our history and the history of our community, or whether instead we can strive to live our lives unburdened by the stains of our past. Either that or it was just a crime procedural about a sheriff (Chris Cooper) investigating the murder of a corrupt sheriff decades beforehand and suspecting his own father – yet another sheriff (Matthew McConaughey) – of having committed the crime. Also has some interesting things to say about racial tensions in small Texan towns.
  • The Player (1992): 6/10. I was looking forward to this but was disappointed, possibly because it suffers by comparison to the other Robert Altman film I’ve seen – the wonderful Nashville. Tim Robbins is fine and the many celebrity cameos are quite funny, but as satire I don’t think it succeeds. Still, there’s that excellent self-referential opening shot that lasts for almost eight minutes without a single cut (and features characters talking about previous films that used similar techniques).
  • Hoffa (1992): 5.5/10. Jack Nicholson stars in this biopic about corrupt and mob-connected union leader Jimmy Hoffa, with Danny DeVito both directing and playing Hoffa’s closest friend and associate. Several things ruin it: plodding direction by DeVito, a dodgy performance from Nicholson (he’s basically doing an impression of Hoffa rather than actually playing the character, and his impression is wildly inconsistent, especially in terms of the exaggerated nasal Hoffa voice that he only uses about half the time), and a misguided decision to try to heroise Hoffa. Funnily enough, in terms of acting, I thought DeVito’s performance in this was the best I’ve seen from him.
  • Five Easy Pieces (1970): 8/10. Powerhouse lead performance from Jack Nicholson as an intelligent but dissatisfied and often angry man. As viewers we empathise with him so strongly even as he mistreats people around him, and that’s what makes the film impressive. It’s not a hugely eventful movie, but it really packs a punch.

Some neat and mostly unintentional pairings and connections:

  • The first three movies featured rats, cats and a dog respectively, and they were shortly followed by Animal House;
  • There were two underdog-sports-team-gets-new-coach-with-chequered-past movies (Bad News Bears and Hoosiers);
  • There were two epic war movies from 1962 (The Longest Day and Lawrence of Arabia);
  • There were two Werner Herzog movies (Nosferatu the Vampyre and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans), both of which were remakes;
  • There was one movie directed by Abel Ferrara (King of New York) and another that was a remake of a movie he’d directed (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans);
  • The last two movies both starred Jack Nicholson.