Movie Reviews (such as they are)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

When the Levees Broke

Spike Lee's four-and-a-half-hour post-Katrina New Orleans documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts has been on my must-see list since I first heard about it. I've got a lot of time for Spike, and while I haven't seen all his films, I've not yet seen one that I didn't like. I'm also going to add that, while some seem to think of Lee as a militant white-hater, I do not share that view and never have. I was pleased, therefore, that in this documentary it was quite clear that he did not see the New Orleans disaster as a "black problem", but rather as a human problem, with particular emphasis on the poor.

What happened in New Orleans was an absolute travesty -- you don't need me to tell you that -- but to see it all unfold is another thing entirely. This utterly avoidable human tragedy is really brought home when you hear the stories of people who had to sit there waiting for evacuation watching their elderly parents literally roast to death in the sun.

The first two "acts" of Spike's documentary exposé were totally compelling and kept me glued to my screen. I was, by turns, shocked, appalled, and in disbelief throughout. The pace flagged a bit in Act III, and then picked up again for the final hour.

We were privy to some intimate moments and heartfelt outpourings of grief from N.O. residents. And of course we got to see again some classic moments of the time: Bush being a total prick in general; Barbara Bush saying how everyone seemed to have done okay out of it; Kanye West saying Bush doesn't care about black people... It was all there.

This was an excellent, not to mention important, film. Obviously my scoring system doesn't really work so well for documentaries, so I'll come straight out and give it 73 points.

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Friday, December 29, 2006


Wife has a thing for the classic rom-coms of yore, such as Indiscreet, which stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (pictured). And since I'd watched the modern take-cum-parody on the genre Down With Love the night before, it seemed only right to watch this, too.

The story tells of a famous actress meeting a finance expert, with whom she immediately falls in love. He very quickly informs her, though, that he is a married man. Despite this, the pair continue to date whenever he visits London, because after all, his wife doesn't understand him and he can't get a divorce.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but there is some delightful, witty dialogue, and of course the two leads simply ooze star quality. Indeed some of the euphemisms used actually seem quite risqué considering the age of the film. The old cliché "They don't make them like this anymore" really applies here, and what a shame it is. And watching this so soon after Down With Love really helped put that film into perspective!

The scores:
Acting: 16
Story: 13
Direction: 14
Enjoyment: 17
Cerebral pleasure: 12
Total: 72

Down With Love

The Ewan McGregor/Renée Zellweger vehicle Down With Love is a parody of (or tribute to?) the old classic romantic comedies such as Pillow Talk and Indiscreet. And on a certain level it works quite well. Certainly I laughed more than I had expected, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The problem, though, is that it goes a bit too far in every aspect. As a result, it becomes too silly. Of course, "silly" is key to those old movies, but it feels just a little too forced in a modern flick.

Both of the leads put in good performances, and I'm not a huge fan of either, especially Zellweger. They are ably assisted by the likes of Frasier's Niles Crane himself, David Hyde Pierce, and he is funny enough on his own to keep viewers entertained.

The inevitable reveal/twist towards the end of the movie is just too long-winded and too huge on the silly-o-meter, and it was at that point that I kind of lost interest.

The scores:
Acting: 13
Story: 12
Direction: 12
Enjoyment: 13
Cerebral pleasure: 10
Total: 60

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Withnail & I

It's been a few years since the last time I watched Withnail & I, which is one of Wife's favourite movies. So when she suggested we watch it over Christmas, what could I say, in the spirit of democracy, other than yes?

For those of you who don't know it, the film tells the tale of two struggling actors living in London in 1969. They are out of work, out of luck, and, more importantly, out of booze. To get away from it all, they go "on holiday by mistake" to Withnail's uncle's house in the country.

I will preface my review of the movie with the frank -- and frankly unpopular -- admission that I don't really care for it all that much. Never have. Long before I ever saw it, I was privy to all manner of quotes that sounded just a little too contrived, perfectly calculated to strike a chord with British college kids.

That said, there are some genuinely funny moments, even if the film runs about 20 minutes too long in the countryside section. Both the leads give strong turns, with Paul McGann as "I" easily outperforming Richard E Grant as Withnail, who is just a bit too hammy for my liking. Great support comes in the shape of Ralph Brown as Camberwell Carrot-rolling dope dealer Danny.

The scores:
Acting: 15
Story: 12
Direction: 12
Enjoyment: 13
Cerebral pleasure: 13
Total: 65

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tears of the Sun

It's no secret that I have a penchant for Bruce Willis films, and if he happens to be in one that co-stars Monica Bellucci (pictured), well, what's a boy to do, even if it's directed by Antoine Fuqua, who disappointed me so with Training Day?

Tears of the Sun is a hokey Hollywood picture about a bunch of African tribespeople under the protection of international aid worker Bellucci. Some shit goes down, as is the way between African villages and tribes, and another bunch of Africans come in wanting to slaughter everyone, à la Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs.

The cavalry takes the form of US troops under the command of Brucey boy and including the excellent Eamonn Walker of Oz fame. Cue standard Hollywood action fare with pretty appalling dialogue and some unconvincing acting. Although Wife tells me some of the soldiers were cute.

The scores:
Acting: 10
Story: 11
Direction: 10
Enjoyment: 12
Cerebral pleasure: 6
Total: 49

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

I'd kind of forgotten that this film existed until it popped through the letterbox, and then I remembered that it had received quite good reviews on its release. Then I remembered something else: it was written and directed by the guy who almost single-handedly ruined one of the most promising young careers in Hollywood.

You see, before Wes Anderson teamed up with The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, he had previously made at least two of the best films in the past 10 years: Rushmore, which sits in my Top 50 of all time, and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Then Anderson wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with Baumbach, and all was lost. Oh my.

So I was slightly scared at the thought of what this rovinatore [made-up word for "someone who ruins something"] might do under his own steam. Scared and curious in equal measure.

And you know what? The boy done good.

In many ways, The Squid and the Whale plays as a perfect companion to The Royal Tenenbaums. Indeed, I suspect both families are based on the same source material. But where Tanenbaums was hugely funny and then hugely sad, Squid is wholly more desperate from start to end, the story of a dysfunctional family with the parents getting divorced and its effects on the two teenage sons.

This was definitely a surprising film, in a good way, and is well worth 80-something minutes of your time. Baldwin brother William is particularly good as a tennis tutor.

Acting: 13
Story: 13
Direction: 14
Enjoyment: 15
Cerebral pleasure: 13
Total: 68

Friday, December 22, 2006

Born Equal

Usually I tend to avoid TV dramas because they are often overly long (split into two parts or more) and lacking in characterization. However, Britain has a long history of making first-rate one-off dramas, such as Cathy Come Home, Made in Britain, and The Firm. Born Equal looked set to be something in this mould, so I decided to give it a go.

Robert Carlyle (pictured) was the first indication that it might be worth my time. Plus there was Colin Firth -- not a personal favourite of mine, but I respect that he's good at his job. And a young woman who I'd previously seen in the frankly marvellous movie The Magdalene Sisters. A promising line-up, and no mistake.

The premise is sort of a British Crash, I suppose. But where that over-awarded, underachieving piece of contrived Hollywood nonsense failed, Born Equal succeeded admirably, creating compelling, threatening, three-dimensional, believable characters in largely untenable situations, for whatever reason: homeless, socially confused, ex convict, battered wife, immigrant refugee...

From the above description, you can gather that I thought this was a striking little film, all the better for the lack of expectation that comes with something made for TV.

It may not be easy to track down after the event, but if you see it kicking around in the TV schedules, be sure to catch it.

The scores:
Acting: 14
Story: 12
Direction: 13
Enjoyment: 13
Cerebral pleasure: 14
Total: 66

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last Days

I have been looking forward to this movie and putting it off in equal measure for quite some time. My opinion of Kurt Cobain -- drug-addled loser that he may have been at times -- is pretty fucking high, and I wasn't sure I was ready to see some schmo rip off his likeness in the name of art and/or entertainment. Still, Gus van Sant movies are often interesting with some worthwhile elements to them.

Last Days, though, is not one of van Sant's finest hours. Indeed, I found the film to be disappointing, perhaps because of my inherent interest in the subject. But beyond that, it was also frustratingly disjointed. We see actions that take place simultaneously in different rooms: that is, a scene is played out, and then a few scenes later we cut to the beginning of that earlier same scene and see what was happening in a different location at that same time. But ultimately these gimmicks achieve very little in terms of informing the viewer.

The lyrics that the seemingly ever-mumbling "Kurt" composes while writing on his own in a room are simply shit. That's not to say that some of Cobain's darkest moments may not have produced unpublishable drivel, but never on any Nirvana record have I heard words as banal and contrived as "It's a long lonely journey from death to birth". And that refrain is repeated ad nauseam.

The oddity of "Cobain" being left-handed when writing but right-handed when playing guitar is annoying, too. I know this can happen, that people aren't as straightforward as we want them to be when it comes to manual dexterity, but since we know Cobain played guitar left-handed, it would have been nice to see that in this pseudo-fictional character, too, especially since he writes left-handed.

I guess all of the above leads me to mention that I feel too much of this story was obviously fictionalized. As such, perhaps van Sant should never have made any claim for it to be "inspired by the last days" of Cobain. He should have cast a dark-haired fat guy, or a black bloke with a crewcut, anything to get as far away from the look of Cobain. As such, what we are left with is a non-event, a film that is rendered of no value in documentary terms, when it could have been so much more insightful and interesting. Indeed, much of what we do know about Cobain's last days -- burger bars and heroin buys -- was conspicuously absent. Why?

And the last scene -- SPOILER ALERT! -- when the spirit of the dead "Cobain" comes out of his body and climbs the wall (to Heaven?)... Ugghh, do me a fucking favour!

Not even the presence of the great Ricky Jay, "Black Parade" video star Lukas Hass, and cute horrormeister offspring Asia Argento could lift this film from its eternal slumber. It pains me to say it, but this film should be avoided at all costs.

The scores:
Acting: 12
Story: 7
Direction: 8
Enjoyment: 5
Cerebral pleasure: 3
Total: 35

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cop Land

I remember when Cop Land was at the London Film Festival before its nationwide UK release. There was a lot of buzz about it, I guess because Sylvester Stallone was playing an overweight everyman type of sheriff, a bit like Bill Paxton had in the excellent One False Move. Here, though, the town under the sheriff's control is a New Jersey suburb entirely populated by policemen and their families, ostensibly all paid for by the Mob.

The film begins with a young hero white cop shooting dead two black youths who he thinks have shot at his tyres on the George Washington Bridge that runs from Manhattan to New Jersey. When the evidence seems to prove he made a terrible mistake, he jumps to a near-certain death in the river below. Or did he? Well, no, he didn't. And that's where the story gets going...

The film has a stellar cast, which is often a bad thing, but it works just fine here. As well as Stallone, there's De Niro, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel, Michael Rapaport, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick... Stallone puts in a great performance, widely considered one of his best. De Niro is on form, as is Keitel. And Liotta shows that he's still got a bit of that magic, too, despite being in so many shit films.

This is a short film, but it remains punchy for that. The ending, while almost a tiny bit disappointing, is the only conceivable way the story could go. Thankfully, there's no cop-out in Cop Land.

The scores:
Acting: 17
Story: 14
Direction: 15
Enjoyment: 16
Cerebral pleasure: 16
Total: 78

Sunday, December 17, 2006

kiss kISS bAng banG

I had mixed feelings about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang prior to sitting down to it, but the reviews had generally been good, and a couple of friends had said they'd really enjoyed it. Wife was less sure. She used to quite like Robert Downey Jr until I bought his album The Futurist. All right, it ain't a great record, but she really hates it, and I think he's plummeted in her estimations since then!

Should I give a synopsis? It's a murder mystery, ostensibly, with Val Kilmer (in one of his finest roles) and Downey trying to track down the killer of the sister of a girl that Downey grew up with. [The girl Downey grew up with, incidentally, is played by Michelle Monaghan, who will be playing the part of Angie Gennaro in the first screen adaptation of a Denis Lehane Kenzie/Gennaro novel, Gone, Baby, Gone, due out in 2007.]

The opinion: The film fancies itself as a bit of a postmodern take on the film noir, with narration that is slightly too clever for its own good. It plays with the film-making convention too, rewinding to an earlier scene à la the work of Michael Haneke. The plot is twisty and turny and downright silly at times, but it's always full of fun. Everyone puts in good performances, and it brings quite an interesting original take to an old, tried-and-tested formula.

The scores:
Acting: 16
Story: 15
Direction: 15
Enjoyment: 18
Cerebral pleasure: 13
Total: 77

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Domestic Disturbance

I figured I'd give this a go since it was on TV, although Wife said she thought we'd seen it before. As it happens, I hadn't; although I had previously seen the last ten minutes, funnily enough.

Synopsis: John Travolta's ex-wife is marrying Vince Vaughan, and Travolta's kid sees Vaughan kill a man (Steve Buscemi, pictured). The kid tells the cops; Vaughan gets pissed at the kid; Travolta doesn't believe the kid for a while; things go bad all round.

Opinion: Predictable, but pretty well paced, and short enough not to be a major bore. Buscemi is great, as always. I say 44 points out of 100.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Night Watch

If vampires are your thing, why not check out Night Watch ? It's a Russian movie, apparently the first in a trilogy, and it was actually quite enjoyable. Not wholly original, though, since it clearly draws a lot of influence from both the Blade and Highlander franchises. What I will say is that it is über-fucking-stylish.

Also, I watch quite a lot of subtitled movies, and this one absolutely takes the cake for its subtitling. The humble text at the bottom of the screen almost becomes a character in its own right: coloured red it shifts in the water like the blood flowing from a child's nose; when a computer geek talks, the letters appear on screen one word at a time, as though being typed; when someone shouts, the words grow to half the size of the screen; when a character gasps, the words shimmer and flutter. They also sit on a plane somewhere within the action, so a person might walk past and wipe the words away as they move.

The subtitling in this movie is great. And the movie's okay, too. A blood-sucking 64 out of 100.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Historias Mínimas (aka Minimal Stories)

From the maker of Bombón El Perro comes another wonderful little flick, Historias Mínimas.

I enjoyed this much more than Bombón because I wasn't expecting danger at every turn. It's a story of three folk from the same small Patagonian town heading to the city, some 200 miles away, for various reasons.

There's barely a word more suitable for this than just "delightful". In the best possible way. Not much happens really for us as viewers; the journey here is all about the characters. I can't say fairer than 75 for this one.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hercules in New York

It would be unfair to score Hercules in New York since I really saw only 20 minutes or so over lunch the other day. This is Arnold Schwarzenegger's first movie role, and he is so fresh-faced that it's hard to believe that he had even started shaving. This is unmissable if you get the chance. So terribly bad that it's great.

In the scenes I saw, Arnie, playing Greek god Hercules, demonstrated his all-round prowess to a New York athletics team, before going off for a horse-and-carriage ride through Central Park with the daughter of the team's coach. Meanwhile, a European brown bear escapes from the zoo and finds its way into the park, whereupon Arnie wrestles and boxes the beats to the ground, thankfully subduing rather than killing it (not like that cunt from Metallica, who goes shooting bears in Russia for fun). The great thing about the bear scene, which takes place after dinner one autumn evening, is that it moves from dead-of-night-darkness to midday daylight. Fucking insane!

This fish-out-of-water tale is really the forerunner of Borat, but 30 years earlier. Not scored.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

From Hell

I approached From Hell with caution, since I know it's been disowned by comic-book legend Alan Moore, who wrote the original graphic novel on which it is based. He was also the man behind The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, and he has also disowned those two films too. So it's safe to say that this man believes film-makers are doing a disservice to his stories.

That said, I am a sucker for Johnny Depp films, even ones in which he adopts dodgy Cockney accents. At least his Cockney wasn't as bad as Heather Graham's Irish attempt. Who knew we had travelled such a short distance from the days of Dick Van Dyke as the chimney sweep?

I like Jack the Ripper tales, though, and as it happens I don't think this was too bad. Opium wasn't Depp's only addiction, and when he fell for Graham's whore, I couldn't help but wonder whether absinthe makes the heart grow fonder. This one gets a throat-slashing 62 points.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Shooting Dogs

It's obvious that I'm going to compare Shooting Dogs with Hotel Rwanda, which I watched a wee while back. Much of the background info is obviously the same, but the setting is new: this time we're in a technical college rather than a hotel, and the heroes of the hour are a Catholic priest and his young protegé.

Immediately after watching it, I felt that it wasn't as strong as that other film. For example, I hated the young male lead. Hated, hated, hated. Maybe it's a class thing, but he just came across as an annoying wimpy ponce, which, granted, the script kind of implied he was, when his character says something like: "I grew up with everything, so I came here to give something back. Sometimes I give myself a pat on the shoulder and say, 'You're starring in your own Oxfam ad'." Indeed, he realizes what a terrible cliché he is. Still, it didn't stop me from finding him annoying as fuck.

And John Hurt as the priest. I don't know... I just don't get priests. He just came across as a deluded, crazy old fool.

Of course, all of this can't take away from the horrific situation that people like this were living through. But at the end of the day, most of them walked away back to their safe European homes and left the locals to be machete'd to death. Nice. This period in such recent history should be a huge blot on the UN's conscience. But I fear it is merely indicative of what a shitty, toothless waste of space it really is.

On the plus side, this film at least didn't have the happy Hollywood ending that Hotel Rwanda had (I'm talking within the setting of the film, rather than of the war itself, obviously), and I can't help thinking how much better this film might have been if made by the team behind that other movie and with different actors. (Although even this film had to have a tacked-on "five years later" happy coda.)

Bottom line: Good horrible story, unappealing actors, annoying epilogue. 62 out of 100

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Saturday, December 02, 2006


My knowledge of Truman Capote pretty much begins and ends with what I learned during Capote. Of course, I already knew that he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood and that both of those books had been turned into successful movies. But beyond that, zilch, zero, nada, niente. But I'd been looking forward to the Oscar-winning tour de force performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous scribe.

The plot is simple: It's 1959, and author Capote goes on a magazine-column mission to report on the shock random murder of an entire family in a small town in the middle of nowhere. But when the perpetrators are tracked down and arrested, Capote's involvement grows, as does the scope of his article, which turns into a book: "the first non-fiction novel".

But he can't finish his book until the legal process is over. The ending of the story dictates the ending of his story, you see. And a string of appeals drags the process out and tries Capote's patience. It is here that we start to see Capote as nothing more than a self-serving arrogant prick, and yet his charm and intelligence are such that you know he would be good fun to hang out with, as long as the booze supply was limited.

I thought this was a truly great film. Naturally Hoffman was a standout. But then he is probably the finest actor working in the world today. Catherine Keener, as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was great, too. I think she is a fantastic actor, and time after time I get so pissed off at how underused she is in everything. People should go to the gallows for the talent they waste when employing her for a job, seriously. And Chris Cooper, too: great job.

In fact, this has landed a spot in my list of Films You Should Watch If You Want To Know How To Act: it's right up there with Citizen Kane and Raging Bull. Kudos to Hoffman.

The film doesn't fully hold up to the lead performance, but then how could it? But I do believe that in years to come we will ask ourselves, "How the hell did Brokeback Mountain beat this to Best Movie?"

The Such As They Are score for this flick is a shotgun-pumping 82 out of 100.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

How I Killed My Father (aka My Father and I)

What can I say about the French film How I Killed My Father? It was all right, I suppose. Put the missus to sleep, though. I give it 59 out of 100.