Category Archives: 8

Movies that score 8/10.

Review: WarGames

Director: John Badham
Year: 1983
Score: 8/10

The WarGames movie tie-in version of the arcade game Galaga features Matthew Broderick's face staring out at the player in an effort to cause distraction.

The WarGames movie tie-in version of the arcade game Galaga features Matthew Broderick’s face staring out at the player in an effort to cause distraction.

This sci-fi(ish) thriller could very easily have not stood the test of time given how reliant it is on computer technologies that are supposed to seem futuristic. However, it still holds up, primarily because it’s really good fun, with a perfect tone and the right balance of humour and techno-thrills.

Young Matthew Broderick (several years before he was Ferris Bueller) is a great asset, nailing the role of David Lightman, the bright high school student hacker who’s quickly in over his head but manages to pull MacGyver-esque stunts to get out of any fix and solve problems his seniors just don’t understand. Other members of the cast are also good, especially Dabney Coleman, who rarely disappoints. Also look for John Spencer (The West Wing) and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill) as the pair of missile launchers in the prologue.

A few minor criticisms: despite being one of the first mainstream movies to feature a hacker as a protagonist (a step forward in the fight for equality for nerds and geeks!), it nonetheless perpetuates stereotypes about computer nerds (Exhibit A: the scene featuring two of David’s nerdier hacker friends); David’s parents’ lack of concern about (or knowledge of) his activities, even once he’s been effectively taken into custody by government agents, is hard to believe; and there’s a bit where the love interest played by Ally Sheedy has a moment of stupidity that seems jarringly out of character, seriously asking David whether his detention by the authorities was “because of what you did with my grade?” despite already knowing that his hacking had caused a temporary military crisis. Just ignore these minor quibbles and enjoy the ride as I did.

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Review: The Color Purple

Director: Steven Spielberg
Year: 1985
Score: 8/10

Ye olde porn.

Ye olde porn.

Moving tale of hardship and redemption in the Deep South, directed by Steven Spielberg but unlike anything he had made before it. There are some wonderful performances, most notably from Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut, future cult leader Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery; all three received Oscar nominations but none won. There’s also a strong sense of the time and place, and a feeling throughout that these characters and their communities are grounded in reality. It’s hard to make it through the ending without shedding a tear or two (in my case, around about the same time I arrived at work… helpful!). I do have a few gripes, of course: the time jumps tend to be somewhat jarring; there’s some exaggerated slapstick humour that doesn’t gel well with the serious drama elsewhere (you can tell that Spielberg just can’t help himself!); and Danny Glover’s character is too bastardly for too long, with a comeuppance that isn’t satisfying enough.

Review: Boys Don’t Cry

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Year: 1999
Score: 8/10

Ah, bad karaoke: responsible for almost 80% of tragic romances.

Ah, bad karaoke: responsible for almost 80% of tragic romances.

Harrowing tale of a trans man and his relationship with a girl from backwater Nebraska. I didn’t realise it was based on a true story until the very end, which made that crushing ending all the more powerful. Several scenes, particularly in the final half hour, are very difficult to watch, but that’s kind of the point. Beyond the compelling and upsetting nature of the real-life story, two aspects really make this stand out: the first is Hilary Swank’s remarkable (and deservedly Oscar-winning) performance as Brandon; the second is the decision to use the love story as the film’s dramatic centre, which gives us something positive and hopeful to focus on within all the tragedy. The cinematography is also quite good, as are some of the supporting performances. If there’s a moral to be drawn from this, it’s the fairly obvious one that ignorant drunk rednecks and transgender people don’t mix well.

Review: American Splendor

Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Year: 2003
Score: 8/10

The kid does a spot-on Paul Giamatti and Paul Giamatti does a spot-on Harvey Pekar. Or perhaps, if the kid's even better than I give him credit for, he does a spot-on Paul Giamatti-as-Harvey Pekar.

The kid does a spot-on Paul Giamatti and Paul Giamatti does a spot-on Harvey Pekar. Or perhaps, if the kid’s even better than I give him credit for, he does a spot-on Paul Giamatti-as-Harvey Pekar.

Unusual movie about an unusual man. Paul Giamatti gives another sterling performance as our decidedly unheroic hero Harvey Pekar, perhaps improved by regular glimpses of the real Pekar as a point of comparison; in fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role (other than Pekar himself!). The writer/director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini play with the form in some really interesting ways, forcing the audience to ponder how much of what we’re seeing is real and how much is just another layer of fiction. The more innovative sequences, and the sequences that use art from Pekar’s comic books, mostly succeed and blend in well with the rest of the movie. The story as a whole doesn’t have quite as much drama as I would have liked, but to be fair, it’s all based on fact, and I wouldn’t want them to have manufactured drama that didn’t really happen. By the end, as much as I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have worked better as a straight documentary, given that the use of real-life people and archival footage somewhat undercuts the sense that we’re watching a work of fiction. Or maybe that’s a moot point and I should just appreciate that it offers a new (though largely unreplicatable) way of telling a true story? I also have a confession to make about Judah Friedlander’s scene-stealing performance as Toby Radloff: I saw his name in the opening credits, completely failed to recognise him throughout the movie, and then had a sheepish ‘ohhh yeah!’ moment when I saw his name again (listed with the character name) in the end credits.

Review: It Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra
Year: 1934
Score: 8/10

Apparently this scene is the reason Bugs Bunny eats carrots. I shit you not.

Apparently this scene is the reason Bugs Bunny eats carrots. I shit you not.

Screwball comedy from Frank Capra about a reporter who stumbles upon a huge scoop in the form of a hunted socialite he meets on a long-distance bus trip – and the inevitable relationship that blossoms between them (partly because she appears to suffer from Impulsively Falls In Love Syndrome). It’s still utterly charming all these decades later. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are perfectly matched and by the end it’s hard not to root for them. The comedic elements are a little uneven but there are some raucously funny parts, such as the scene in which our couple fool a pair of detectives (with Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter) and the scene in which Gable demonstrates his hitchhiking techniques. It’s odd to realise that the use of newspaper headlines throughout the movie to signpost story developments would have seemed fresh and original when this was released. It’s also kind of funny that our endearing hero threatens a man’s children (he’s pretending, but still) and yet we continue to like him. The (unintentionally) funniest line is when Colbert says to her husband: “Promise you’ll never let me get off”. Highly recommended for fans of classic cinema or romantic comedies or both.

Review: 8½

Director: Federico Fellini
Year: 1963
Score: 8/10

An image that promises to haunt my dreams just as it did the protagonist's (and presumably Fellini's).

An image that promises to haunt my dreams just as it did the protagonist’s (and presumably Fellini’s).

Ambitious film from Fellini that works on several levels at once: it’s a self-referential movie about movie-making, an intensely personal glimpse into his psyche, a piece of philosophy about creativity and art, and a meditation on memory, life and happiness. It’s also often very entertaining, and though it’s uneven, it has moments of great clarity and a spectacular ending. What could so easily have failed or come across as pretentious wankery somehow comes together neatly and still holds up well today. Western fans will recognise Claudia Cardinale from Once Upon a Time in the West. Nino Rota’s score features one song very reminiscent of his theme for The Godfather a decade later. Sgulp!

Review: Thirteen

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Year: 2003
Score: 8/10

I don't want to live in a world in which the only two movie options at a fictional cinema are a Jack Black vehicle called The Misadventures of Ezekial Balls and a John Cusack vehicle called Operation Kandahar.

I don’t want to live in a world in which the only two movie options at a fictional cinema are a Jack Black vehicle called The Misadventures of Ezekial Balls and a John Cusack vehicle called Operation Kandahar.

Frightening drama about teenage girls getting up to mischief. The sense of realism is heightened by Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial style and the knowledge that co-writer/co-star Nikki Reed based much of the script on her own then-recent experiences. Great performances all around, particularly from Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter. Some of the music is jarringly late-’90s sounding. It serves as a fitting companion piece to Larry Clark’s Kids, though it’s not quite as good. The scariest part is that Hunter’s character really is doing her best, but it isn’t nearly enough to stop her daughter from spiralling out of control. I’m suddenly very glad I don’t have any daughters of my own.

Review: Dead Poets Society

Director: Peter Weir
Year: 1989
Score: 8/10

Apparently 'Carpe Diem' means 'seize the opportunity for non-consensual sexual contact with a girl passed out on a couch'.

Apparently ‘Carpe Diem’ means ‘seize the opportunity for non-consensual sexual contact with a girl passed out on a couch’.

Probably the best movie I’ve seen in the ‘inspirational teacher’ subgenre, though I haven’t seen Goodbye, Mr. Chips or To Sir, With Love, so take that with a grain of salt. It’s also hard to think of a better dramatic performance from Robin Williams (I guess maybe Good Will Hunting, but it’s a tough call); he’s believable and genuinely inspiring as the unorthodox teacher who urges his boys to seize the day. It’s not a subtle movie by any means but it packs quite an emotional punch. I’ll admit I found some of the boys – including even some central characters – hard to tell apart for a good chunk of the movie; I imagine if I rewatch it, they’ll be more readily distinguishable to me. I wish Neil’s father got more of a comeuppance (or was more obviously shattered by what transpired) in the final act. Interesting piece of trivia for readers of this review who are familiar with Scots College in Sydney: director Peter Weir apparently wove many elements of his own schooling at Scots into the film.

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Director: John Ford
Year: 1962
Score: 8/10

"Hear ye, hear ye! My finger's lodged halfway up my nose and I can't fathom any means of retrieving it!"

“Hear ye, hear ye! My finger’s lodged halfway up my nose and I can’t fathom any means of retrieving it!”

Masterful John Ford western with a great story, great characters, and great acting from a great cast (led by James Stewart and John Wayne). Everyone involved seems to be working at the height of their powers. The framing story works quite well, adding a sense of foreboding, sadness and wistfulness, particularly to James Stewart’s character. My only two criticisms are that it sometimes lacks excitement and that the villain (played by Lee Marvin) is so two-dimensional; he’s just an arsehole with no redeeming features or explanation as to what made him so or what his motivations are. Note for any fans of the Gene Pitney song ‘(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance’: though it was written and recorded for the movie, it doesn’t actually appear in it. No great shame, I reckon.

Review: Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne
Year: 2013
Score: 8/10

This gave me an idea for a photography exhibition: a collection of photos of families sitting around watching TV, taken by placing a camera on top of each family's TV set, hiding, and waiting for just the right moment.

This gave me an idea for a photography exhibition: a collection of photos of families sitting around watching TV, taken by placing a camera on top of each family’s TV set, hiding, and waiting for just the right moment.

I’ve become such a big fan of Alexander Payne; his movies always have real warmth, humanity and truth to them. Nebraska is no exception, and in fact is one of his very best. It’s the bittersweet story of an old man, played wonderfully by Bruce Dern, and his quest to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the million dollars he thinks he’s won. More than that, it’s the story of how his son, Will Forte in a long-overdue serious role, finally gets to know his father by accompanying him on his quest and meeting the denizens of his home town. As good as Dern is, I was even more impressed with June Squibb’s scene-stealing performance as his wife. The film is populated by a ragtag collection of small town folk, most of them getting on in age and all of them ringing true. There’s some great humour which might seem mean since it’s often at the expense of these characters, but it’s coupled with enough wryness and affection that it never feels spiteful or sneery. A surprising amount of the humour involves old people talking about sex, which has its charms. It’s beautifully photographed in black and white, with plenty of lovely landscape shots of rural Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The wistful score, heavy on violin and accordion, fits well too. Recommended.

Review: Philomena

Director: Stephen Frears
Year: 2013
Score: 8/10

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in... Law & Order: Irish Adoption Unit.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in… Law & Order: Irish Adoption Unit.

Dramatisation of real-life events as a washed up journalist (Steve Coogan) pursues a ‘human interest’ story by helping an old Irish woman (Judi Dench) search for the son that was taken from her fifty years ago. It could so easily have been saccharine or exploitative or depressing or effectively the kind of mundane story Coogan’s character initially maligns. Instead, scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope and director Stephen Frears nimbly weave between all of these and create a thoughtful, engaging, respectful film that tells its story in a straightforward but effective way. With Coogan co-writing, there are welcome regular doses of light humour, most from his character but some from Dench’s too. Having a son close to the same age as Dench’s character’s son at the time of the separation – which we see in flashbacks – added an extra level of emotional resonance for me. Even without that though, there are several heartfelt moments that are enough to warrant tears, all hinging on Dench and her outstanding performance in the title role. It’s not a perfect movie by any means (one gripe, for example, is that Michelle Fairley as Coogan’s character’s editor is a bit one-dimensional, never missing a chance to play into the ‘unscrupulously exploitative editor’ stereotype), but it’s very nicely done and well worth a watch – even if just to see Dench do her thing.

Review: Evil Dead II

Director: Sam Raimi
Year: 1987
Score: 8/10

Sing it with me: "There ain't no way to hide your flyin' eyes..."

Sing it with me: “There ain’t no way to hide your flyin’ eyes…”

The best film in the franchise, this one is funny and scary and gross, all in just the right proportions. Bruce Campbell is perfect, bringing Ash to a new level. It’s the Evil Dead II Ash that we all remember; it’s here that he really gets his mojo (plus his chainsaw arm and boomstick), and it’s here that he best delivers the catchphrases he’s known for (all of which were later ripped off by 3D Realms in the video game Duke Nukem 3D). Big chunks of the movie feature him on his own (apart from demon/s, possessed hands, etc.), which is not a bad thing. So many great scenes; I think my favourite is Ash vs. his hand (still attached at that point). The biggest flaw of the film is that the final act is mostly used to set up the weak third instalment, Army of Darkness, instead of providing a satisfying stand-alone ending.

Review: Thelma & Louise

Director: Ridley Scott
Year: 1991
Score: 8/10

Hmmm, nine cars chasing one across a plain... remind anyone else of the Arwen/Nazgul horse chase scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring? The similarity is really quite uncanny.

Hmmm, nine cars chasing one across a plain… remind anyone else of the Arwen/Nazgul horse chase scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring? The similarity is really quite uncanny.

This really isn’t the kind of movie that comes to mind when I think of Ridley Scott, but regardless of its dissimilarity from his usual fare, he does a sterling job with the material. It’s long, almost languid at times, giving us plenty of time to get to know and love Geena Davis’ Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise. Both actresses are in top form, as are many members of the supporting cast: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, the great Stephen Tobolowsky, and especially Brad Pitt in his breakout role. Thanks to them and the fine script, it’s funny, touching and quite moving. It’s also beautifully shot, with scenery that gets more and more picturesque as our heroines drive closer to their doom. The soundtrack’s good too, full of boppy tunes that help get the tone right. And that ending! I just wish I hadn’t known about it in advance.

Review: Flight

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Year: 2012
Score: 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.

Review: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Director: Michael Cimino
Year: 1974
Score: 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.

Review: Before Sunset

Director: Richard Linklater
Year: 2004
Score: 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).

Review: The Last Picture Show

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Year: 1971
Score: 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.

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Director: George Roy Hill
Year: 1969
Score: 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??”

Review: Cape Fear (1962)

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Year: 1962
Score: 8/10

Gregory Peck, expert hat-spotter.

Gregory Peck, expert hat-spotter.

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.

Review: Harvey

Director: Henry Koster
Year: 1950
Score: 8/10

Harvey

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.