- Cape Fear (1962): 8/10.
Highly effective thriller, much better than the 1991 version. Robert Mitchum’s performance as Max Cady is key to the film’s success; he’s creepy, malicious and relentless, and he instills genuine fear despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he isn’t shown being violent until the end. Beyond the monstrous villain himself, the other main source of fear is the utter uselessness of the authorities; our hero (ably played by Gregory Peck) attempts to work within the law but quickly and disturbingly discovers that it’s very much on Cady’s side. Bernard Herrmann’s score is excellent, ramping up the tension nicely. Outside of To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s hard to think of a Gregory Peck film better than this one.
- Cape Fear (1991): 3.5/10.
One of those remakes that takes the ‘bigger is better’ approach and consequently fails. Scorsese exhibits skill as a filmmaker, as he always does, but it’s all for nought. There are several reasons for this: there’s no proper suspense or sense of reality; things that are supposed to be scary or creepy are instead silly or muddled; the attempt to delve more deeply into the story’s underlying themes (mostly by making the protagonist less heroic and his family dysfunctional) doesn’t pay off; the unusual stylistic flourishes, such as occasionally flashing to negative film images, add precisely nothing; and Robert De Niro ruins every scene he’s in. I was shocked to discover De Niro was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, since I found his laughably bad Southern accent almost as distracting as his unfortunate overacting. On the bright side, it’s nice to see the stars of the 1962 version appear in cameos that play against their original roles, though it does have the effect of bringing that far superior movie to mind, and the comparison does Scorsese no favours. (In my case, watching this version immediately after the original made the comparison even more stark and certainly contributed to my distaste.) My least favourite Scorsese film.
- We’re the Millers (2013): 4.5/10.
Mostly unlikable comedy starring Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston. Sudeikis is bland and unimpressive as ever, making me wonder once again how he keeps landing lead roles. The pervy treatment of Aniston made me uncomfortable. Incidentally, she looks like she’s had far too much work done – her mouth in particular looks distractingly odd. Still, there are some laughs to be had, especially when Kathryn Hahn and Nick Offerman show up. Hahn’s probably the highlight of the whole movie. If you recognise Will Poulter (as I did), it may be from School of Comedy, the British sketch comedy series featuring a cast of children.
- In My Father’s Den (2004): 8.5/10.
Thoughtful, sad, moving New Zealand drama starring Matthew McFadyen (who I’ll always love for the first two seasons of Spooks, i.e. the good seasons) and impressive newcomer Emily Barclay. Of all the movies I’ve seen lately, the one this reminded me of most was Jeff Nichols’ excellent Mud. The story unfolds slowly, allowing us to gradually come to know more and more about these characters and the dark events decades beforehand that led them to this point. The sense of place – of this insular rural town surrounded by natural beauty but harbouring secrets and unwilling to extend trust to the returning prodigal son – is palpable. My only criticism is that toward the end it exhibited some of the traits I so dislike about formulaic television crime procedurals; thankfully, most of the way through it managed to elevate itself beyond that genre. After watching this, I immediately wanted to know what writer/director Brad McGann had gone on to make, but was saddened to learn that he died of bowel cancer in 2007; this was his only feature film.
- The Muppet Movie (1979): 6.5/10.
Funny first Muppet movie, but disappointing in comparison to 2011’s superior The Muppets. Some great visual gags, snappy dialogue and good jokes, but perhaps not enough of them. There are some definite lulls, and only some of the many celebrity cameos are worthwhile. Still, worth watching if you like the Muppets (and who doesn’t?).
- Poltergeist (1982): 7.5/10.
I’ve often found that classic horror movies don’t hold up as they no longer have the power to actually scare, but this was a refreshing exception. It features so many elements that are now regarded as horror tropes: a scary tree outside a child’s bedroom window, an evil clown, objects moved by unseen forces, a false ending, a house built over a cemetery, and a piece of modern technology (in this case a television) as a bridge between our world and ‘the other side’; it wasn’t the first movie to use these, but its use of them was undoubtedly influential. Some of the visual effects look a little hokey now, but they’re easy to overlook as everything else remains potent. The story, simple as it is, draws you in right from the start and doesn’t let go until the very end. There’s some pretty interesting trivia relating to this movie, such as the apparent ‘curse’ associated with it (premature deaths of key actors), the use of real human skeletons for the swimming pool scene, and the fact that Steven Spielberg probably did most of the directing rather than credited director Tobe Hooper.
- Arachnophobia (1990): 5.5/10.
This felt like one big missed opportunity. Had it been a straight horror movie, starting with the same premise and using the same great special effects, it could have been thrilling and scary and wonderful; but instead it’s one of those ‘comedy horror’ movies – a genre that, in my experience, can result in good comedy (e.g. Shaun of the Dead) but not good horror. Fear of spiders seems such fertile ground for proper horror treatment, and occasionally we get some, but it’s inevitably immediately undercut by something less serious: a visual gag, or a pesky quirky resident of the town, or John Goodman in comic relief mode. Nonetheless, Jeff Daniels is fine as our heroic doctor who – wouldn’t you know it – happens to suffer from arachnophobia owing to a traumatic childhood experience, and there are a few good parts (such as the opening sequence, which is somehow reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and a scene toward the end in which Daniels and his family flee their spider-infested house).
- World War Z (2013): 6.5/10.
The first half hour is perfect: gripping and visceral, it’s edge-of-your-seat, can’t-look-away stuff. It suggests a movie that will take everything that can be great about the zombie genre and ramp it up to a new level with one simple change: rather than your standard slow shufflers, these zombies are fast – shockingly, inhumanly so! However, once Brad Pitt and his family reach the UN ship, things go downhill. Pitt, initially presented as an everyman, suddenly becomes – not entirely convincingly – the only person with the right skill set to solve the zombie epidemic and save the world. He therefore embarks on a kind of ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?’-style international adventure to put the pieces of the puzzle together – or, more honestly, as an excuse for zombie setpiece after zombie setpiece (some of which are, admittedly, very cool). His uncanny abilities – from plane crash survival to random pathogen selection – stretch credulity. The family angle, strong at the start, fizzles out as Mireille Enos is given nothing to do and we instead focus on Pitt’s exploits; this effectively undercuts any emotional payoff at the end. Despite all these faults, there’s still a lot to enjoy; we haven’t seen zombies quite like these ones before, Marc Forster directs the action scenes well, and Pitt’s a good lead. However, I couldn’t help wonder how great it could have been had the promise of that first half hour been fulfilled.
- Save the Date (2012): 4.5/10.
Wholly unmemorable indie romantic comedy/drama. It stars, and proceeds to mostly waste, several people I like: Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, Masters of Sex), Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) and Martin Starr (Party Down, Freaks and Geeks). It has nothing interesting to say about relationships (its ostensible subject) and relies on some of the most overused clichés in the romcom book (love triangle! unexpected pregnancy!) without doing anything new with them. Perhaps I’m being too harsh; it isn’t completely terrible, the cast do their best with the material they’re given, and there’s a scene implying that the characters played The Settlers of Catan, earning a bonus half point from me.
- The Help (2011): 8.5/10.
An undeniably powerful story told in quite a straightforward, almost old-fashioned way. It’s the uniformly excellent performances from the large cast, mostly women, that truly elevate this; in particular, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain (all of whom were nominated for Oscars, with Spencer winning) are outstanding, with Emma Stone, Alison Janney and Bryce Dallas Howard close behind. The young twins who played Mae Mobley also do well, providing – together with Davis – some of the movie’s most moving moments (e.g. the lovely, and ultimately heartbreaking, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” refrain). Period music is used well, though there’s also one new song (by Mary J. Blige) that’s quite jarring and thankfully only appears right at the end. Final thought: given the movie’s subject matter, is it at all ironic or worrying that its protagonist, its writer/director, and the author of the novel upon which it was based, are all white?
- Tank Girl (1995): 6.5/10.
Dynamic but uneven comic book adaptation. The animated sequences and montages of comic book-style graphics are quite effective at giving it a snappy, fun feel and making the silliness feel organic rather than awkward. Cool ’90s soundtrack also helps in this regard. Having said all that, I think that without the title character’s winning smartarsery, and Lori Petty’s wonderful portrayal of her, this might well be unwatchable. As it is, there’s a lot that doesn’t work, not least the plot, everything involving the Rippers, and a pointless and nonsensical musical number half way through. Look for Iggy Pop as a paedophile and Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) in a small role as a bad guy who gets blown up early on.
- Sophie’s Choice (1982): 8.5/10.
Long but engrossing drama gives us three meaty characters wonderfully played by Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol and Kevin Kline. Streep in particular is a powerhouse: she puts on a thick Polish accent through most scenes, and speaks German through others, but remains entirely convincing and impressive throughout, deservedly winning an Oscar for her efforts. So far this year I’ve seen her in this, Kramer vs. Kramer, Out of Africa and The Iron Lady, and it’s now pretty difficult to think of any better actress. The story is told well, using flashbacks effectively and doling out key information about the characters only when it suits the narrative. The titular choice comes late in the film and – though I knew in advance what it would be – made me feel ill, partly due to its inherently horrific nature, and partly due to Streep’s work in the scene. But what kind of a name is Stingo??
- Kick-Ass 2 (2013): 3.5/10.
I loved Kick-Ass and was really looking forward to this sequel. I saw that it had been savaged by critics, but as I recall lots of critics disliked the first movie too, so I didn’t totally lose hope. Then I watched it… what a piece of crap! It has occasional moments of fleeting entertainment, but by and large it feels entirely pointless. It begins with both Kick-Ass and Hit Girl lacking any of the confidence and heroism they had mastered by the end of the first movie, and then spends the rest of the movie contriving to enable them to get their respective mojos back. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is considerably less engaging than he was in the first movie, especially at the start, when he’s kind of annoying. Hit Girl’s entire character arc felt like a chore to get through; OK, we get it, your guardian doesn’t want you to be a superhero but you’ll obviously end up being one, whoopee! Christopher Mintz-Plasse is still fun but the role is fairly charmless and one-note this time around. Jim Carrey’s role is little more than a cameo, and it doesn’t add much. One of Mother Russia’s supervillainous rampages is accompanied by a rock version if the Tetris tune – get it, she’s Russian? – but they don’t even have the gumption to include any actual Tetris gags in the sequence. Writer/director Jeff Wadlow had nothing at all to do with the original movie, and from this point forward I shall have nothing at all to do with him.
- Sling Blade (1996): 9/10.
Brilliant, unique, sensitive rural drama about an intellectually disabled man finding his way and developing a friendship with a young boy after being released from long-term incarceration in a mental hospital. It’s hard to decide whether Billy Bob Thornton deserves more praise for his writing, his direction, or his singular performance as Karl. It’s a performance that could easily have come across as over-the-top or condescending or distracting or unbelievable, but it ends up being none of those things. An interesting point of comparison is John Malkovich’s performance as Lennie in the 1992 adaptation of Of Mice and Men: in that case, familiarity with the actor, combined with his overacting, make it hard to swallow; in this case, on the other hand, though I’ve seen Thornton many times, and this is not a subtle performance by any means, he somehow seems to just become Karl and you quickly stop thinking of it as Thornton pretending to have an intellectual disability. Anyway, beyond his performance, there’s so much more to this: wonderfully drawn supporting characters, great work from the actors playing them (especially John Ritter, Lucas Black and Dwight Yoakam), a depth of sadness matched by an undercurrent of optimism and hope in humanity, a palpable sense of pathos, and numerous moments of extreme power. The ending feels somewhat inevitable, but I wouldn’t have it another way. I can’t write this review without reproducing this quote from Doyle in full: “Hey is this the kind of retard that drools and rubs shit in his hair and all that, ’cause I’m gonna have a hard time eatin’ ’round that kind of thing now. Just like I am with antique furniture and midgets. You know that, I can’t so much as drink a damn glass of water around a midget or a piece of antique furniture.”
- The World’s End (2013): 7/10.
Enjoyable conclusion to Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto (or Blood and Ice Cream) trilogy. This time Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are joined by Martin Freeman and a couple of others for a nostalgic pub crawl through their home town but end up facing an alien invasion. Everyone’s obviously having a lot of fun, and it’s pretty infectious. There are a quite a few jokes (not all of which land, of course), but I would have preferred more. I especially liked the running gag about band names. The parts lighter on jokes and heavier on action – e.g. the various fights and chases – are less successful (the notable exception being the scene featuring twins with legs for arms). The story told at the very start of the movie, and the names of the pubs themselves, both actually foretell the plot of the movie, which is kind of neat. If you enjoyed Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz or both, you’ll want to see this and you’ll probably like it.
- Blackfish (2013): 5.5/10.
Documentary about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of killer whales and the danger they pose as a consequence. It’s been extremely well-received but I found it disappointing; it did little to rise above the level of a mediocre TV documentary. The focus is quite narrow and the film’s message is clear from the first few minutes, which means the only reason to watch the rest is in the hope that we’ll get to see incredible (or gruesome) footage of attacks or hear explosive allegations of corruption or misconduct; unfortunately, we get very little of either. Still, some of the clips and revelations are interesting at least. I don’t mean to trivialise the injuries and deaths caused by killer whales in captivity, or the suffering of the animals themselves, but as far as ’causes’ go, if you’ll excuse the pun, I feel like there are far bigger fish to fry. After all, there are apparently only 45 killer whales in captivity in the entire world right now, and they’ve only caused 3 or 4 deaths.
- Romancing the Stone (1984): 6.5/10.
Tolerable but formulaic adventure romcom greatly assisted by a very appealing performance from Kathleen Turner. Her co-star Michael Douglas, who also produced, is merely passable. The identities of and relationships between the bad guys are a bit muddled, but I don’t think we’re supposed to be focusing on that. Worse, there are about 58 remarkable coincidences, which is about 57 more than I could stomach. Some of the music dates it in a way that isn’t flattering. Despite all that, when Turner does her thing, things get entertaining. I especially enjoyed the opening sequence.
- Behind the Candelabra (2013): 7/10.
Engaging HBO film by Steven Soderbergh about Liberace’s relationship with Scott Thorson, a much younger man. The performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (if you can overlook that he’s too old for the role) are excellent, with Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd (who I initially didn’t recognise!), Scott Bakula and Cheyenne Jackson all fun and solid in support. It’s Emmy winner Douglas, though, who I’ll remember: he gives such a brazen, committed, dare I say flamboyant performance, so different to anything he’s done before, and a nice reminder of what a great actor he can be. The production itself is very good too, with top-notch music and stage performances and costumes and other period details. Performances and production aside though, all told, it’s not entirely successful as a drama. We witness the rise and fall of the relationship, and learn how Liberace operates in his personal life, but despite spending all this time with him, we never really understand the man.
- Fatal Attraction (1987): 6/10.
As a PSA warning married men against having affairs, it’s potent enough, but as a thriller its results are more mixed. Michael Douglas is quite good, and Anne Archer is fine, but Glenn Close overdoes it a little, going from sexpot to pitiful to stalker to psycho without ever being entirely believable (yet somehow she was nominated for an Oscar!). The first half of the movie is better than the second; it’s when things begin to spiral out of control, and events become more outlandish, that cracks really begin to show. The ending is pretty silly, but I watched the alternate ending too and it’s worse. How did this score a Best Picture nomination?? Look for a young Jane Krakowski as the babysitter right at the start.
- Blue Jasmine (2013): 8/10.
The best late-career Woody Allen film I’ve seen (though I admit I haven’t seen many; this year, at least, I’ve focused more on his classics). I often dislike Cate Blanchett but she’s marvellous as his latest leading lady: neurotic, fragile, perhaps already broken, but utterly compelling. The movie is full of interesting characters brought to life by a great cast, especially Bobby Cannavale, Louis CK, Andrew Dice Clay and Sally Hawkins. The flashback structure works well; he certainly knows how to put a story together. I admit I found the ending somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. I watched this before A Streetcar Named Desire, so the parallels went over my head, but on reflection, having subsequently caught up on it, I appreciate what Allen was going for.
- This Is the End (2013): 7/10.
Great premise for a comedy, and it gets off to a great start, but the second half is mostly pedestrian and lacks the punch of the early stuff. I like a lot of these actors – which helps, since they’re playing fictional versions of themselves – and it’s fun to watch them messing around with each other; I just wish the plot didn’t intrude so much, and so harmfully, on all that messing around. The many cameos are lots of fun, especially when they subvert our expectations of how these celebrities would behave in real life. Michael Cera, in particular, is hilarious.
- Anne of the Thousand Days (1969): 7.5/10.
Yet another of those old-fashioned British costume dramas, this one is a solid retelling of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold are very good in the lead roles, but interestingly, according to the IMDb trivia listing for the movie, Burton hated it and his performance (despite the Oscar nomination he got for it). Anthony Quayle, who I recognised from Lawrence of Arabia, does a much better job as Cardinal Wolsey than Orson Welles did in A Man for All Seasons, though I’ll grant Quayle has much more screen time to work with. A nice quote from the movie version of Henry: “Divorce is like killing: after the first time, it doesn’t seem so difficult”.
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): 7.5/10.
Tragic, compelling tale brought to life through some stellar performances, especially Marlon Brando’s celebrated turn as Stanley Kowalski. Going into it I knew only what I’d gleaned from ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’, the episode of The Simpsons in which Marge and Ned play Blanche and Stanley in a musical version of the play, and Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s new reimagining of the story (incidentally, I noticed at one point Blanche says to Stella, referring to Stanley, “Why, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume”; presumably this is why Allen used the name Jasmine). The famous “Stellaaa!!” comes early on, but is actually “Hey Stella! Hey Stellaaa!!”. Given the film’s age, I was surprised by the challenging nature of some of the material. Definitely worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999): 5.5/10.
Well-made but ultimately unsuccessful. The main problems are the pace, which ranges from deliberate to interminable, and the story, which doesn’t really work as a thriller, an erotic adventure, or a marital fable. There’s effective use of a simple piano melody to build suspense, though it never pays off. Tom Cruise is reliable as ever; Nicole Kidman is adequate but doesn’t excel. Overall, while it managed to hold my interest, once it was over it was hard to ascertain what the point of it all had been; consequently I began to wonder if my interest had only been held because of who directed it, how well he does so, and who it stars. Thus far my least favourite Kubrick film.
- Being There (1979): 9/10.
Superb satire strains credulity but that’s kind of the point. It is a comedy, though as is often the case with Hal Ashby films, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny very often. Peter Sellers is flawless in a difficult role; much like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, everything depends on him getting it just right so we can go along for the ride, and he nails it. At one point, when Richard Dysart’s character starts asking questions, I feared the spell would unravel and everyone would discover the truth, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. The outtakes in the end credits, which I’ve read Sellers hated, only increased my joy after the glorious closing moment. A real gem, made somewhat tragic by Sellers’ death seven months after its release.
- The Jewel of the Nile (1985): 5/10.
What charm Romancing the Stone had seems to evaporate in the African heat. Kathleen Turner still edges out Michael Douglas but neither of them seem especially committed to the material. Danny DeVito is shoe-horned in rather clumsily, partly as middling comic relief and partly for consistency with the first movie. Once again there’s an overreliance on coincidence. Perhaps the silliest and least believable part is when Douglas – no pilot – drives a plane around as though it’s a car. I think the depiction of Omar’s climactic address to his people, with stadium lights and pyrotechnics and Hollywood production values, is supposed to be satirising something, but I couldn’t discern what. There’s a slight veneer of racism too. Skip it.
- Duck Soup (1933): 7/10.
Considering it was made 80 years ago, this Marx Brothers comedy – regarded as their best – holds up well. I only belly-laughed occasionally, but I smiled, snorted and chuckled throughout. Some of the physical comedy is good (the mirror sequence being a special highlight, later reprised by Woody Allen in Sleeper to less success), but it’s the dialogue and wordplay that’s most amusing. In contrast, the musical interludes aren’t very funny. At 68 minutes, it’s short for a feature film, but the length feels just right. I imagine it plays very well to young audiences, presuming they can stomach its obvious age.
- Jobs (2013): 7/10.
Good biopic of Steve Jobs falls short of being great for a few reasons: it lacks subtlety (two examples: 15 minutes in Jobs declares “I just can’t work for other people!”, and much later someone tells him “Steve, you are your own worst enemy – and this company’s!”), it often fails to make events and their causes clear (e.g. the launch of the Macintosh initially seems a success but suddenly isn’t), and Ashton Kutcher’s performance is mostly fine but sometimes veers too much into impersonation mode. An obvious point of comparison is The Social Network; that had much more of an edge and a feeling of depth to it. Still, this does a fair job compressing a lot of time and events into a coherent narrative, and it does convey something of the essence of the man (however inaccurate). The cast is large, decent, and full of “Hey, It’s That Guy!” recognisable character actors. James Woods shows up early on for about three seconds, which seems a waste. I enjoyed the fact that – as someone who rarely used Apple products during the period depicted in the film – I watched it on an iPad.
- The Hangover Part III (2013): 5/10.
A movie I watched solely for the sake of completism. It’s marginally better than Part II, but only because it doesn’t recreate the original movie beat-for-beat. There’s still very little new, fresh or exciting. However, I did find myself laughing quite regularly at Zach Galafianakis; he seems funnier this time than in the previous movies. I believe I literally got only one laugh out of anything else the whole way through. The attempt to throw in some sentimentality toward the end doesn’t really work, and the epilogue is pretty lame. All in all, I’m glad this is (apparently) the end of the series.
- Crash (2004): 6.5/10.
The performances are fine from the huge ensemble cast, and there are moments of undeniable power, but it’s all in service of an exploration of racial tensions so crude and unsubtle that at the end of most scenes I half-expected someone to turn toward the camera and solemnly say “racism”. The initial invisible cloak scene is quite nice, and the payoff is one of those moments. Given how much I dislike both Sandra Bullock and her character, far and away my favourite bit is her hilarious tumble. How this could have won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, not to mention The New World and Syriana (neither of which were even nominated), is beyond my comprehension.