Movie Reviews (such as they are)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Quo Vadis, Baby?

To be honest, it's a while now since I watched Quo Vadis, Baby?, and it hasn't really stayed with me at all. Much of the time, if I don't write a review straightaway, it's because I was uninspired. That's not always the case, but often.

Essentially, this is a film about a female private detective trying to track down who killed her sister some years earlier. What prompts her to do this after 16 years is the arrival of hours and hours of video-diary type material made by her sister that arrives on her desk one day.

The plot leads her to pay particular interest in her sister's last lover...

While watching this film, I was half enjoying it, but it was rather dull, and even though it didn't always go where you thought it would, it still had a sense of the obvious about it, the mundane, the retrodden.

It was all right, but not much more than that, with a couple of half-decent bits here and there.

The scores
Acting: 13
Story: 13
Direction: 13
Enjoyment: 12
Involvement: 12
Total: 63

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Good Night, And Good Luck.

It was with a degree of trepidation that I approached the George Clooney-helmed Good Night, And Good Luck., so bitterly disappointed had I been with his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And on the surface of it, a parallel could easily be drawn between the two films.

Both movies deal with that classic perceived Cold War threat to America, Communism; and both deal with behind-the-scenes life in the world of television -- a world, of course, that Clooney knows only too well, albeit in another era.

That, I am delighted to say, is where the similarities end. Good Night, And Good Luck. is almost flawless if not always thrilling, telling a small story of CBS TV anchorman Ed Murrow taking on Senator Joe McCarthy at the time of his "witch hunts", seeking out supposed communists across the USA.

The film is beautifully shot; it has a message that is probably more relevant today than it was in the 1950s, when this true story is set; and the acting is perfectly understated by the strong ensemble cast, which includes Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, and Clooney himself, and is headed up by the wonderful David Strathairn, who surely would have picked up the Oscar had it not been for Philip Seymour Hoffman's knockout performance in Capote.

And this film also knows how not to overstay its welcome, clocking in at less than an hour and a half once you take out the end credits. Perfect!

Acting: 16
Story: 16
Direction: 14
Enjoyment: 15
Involvement: 16
Total: 77

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lost Highway

As a longtime David Lynch fan, I have decided to rewatch both Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. in advance of seeing Inland Empire next month. I've previously seen the former twice (once at the cinema and once on DVD); this was my third viewing.

I find Lynch movies to be terrifying. Most of the most Lynchian ones among them -- i.e., not The Straight Story, The Elephant Man, and Dune -- are, to me, more horrific than most horror movies. Indeed, I think of Lynch as the creator and one true exponent of what I term the "urban horror movie", a genre that takes the most grotesque elements of our everyday lives and tosses them all into the pot, making us hope we never have to venture out into the world again.

Third time around, I found LH to be less scary than the previous times, but this is almost certainly because I was already aware of the gist of the movie, and also because I was watching with a view to seeing things I hadn't noticed before.

On the surface, LH is a murder mystery. There are touches of noir and Hitchcock in there, too: the doppelganger; the platinum blonde; the wrong man. But beyond that, don't ask me to say what's going on. And there's a lot of humour, as always in Lynchland: who among us can forget the "I hate tailgaters" scene with Mr Eddie (expertly played by the great Robert Loggia)? Less funny, of course, is the glass-table scene.

The acting -- going back to a comment-box conversation I recently had with Red and Candy -- was something I paid particular attention to this time. And I found it more convincing than I have before. It's so awful and so stilted, and the dialogue so ... banal ..., that it is absolutely the way people are in real life.

I loved Lost Highway. But then I never understood why the critics hated it anyway. And now I'm itching to see Mulholland Dr. again too.

Acting: 15
Story: 16
Direction: 18
Enjoyment: 17
Involvement: 18
Total: 84

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I had high hopes for Junebug because I seemed to read quite a lot of favourable reviews here and there.

The story starts with a female gallery owner (or worker, I forget which) meeting a potential art collector and soon after marrying him. On a trip to check out some work by an artist, the pair realize they are going to be near to his family home. She has never met his family, so they decide to go visit. This is where the fun both begins and ends.

It turns out that this classy, intellectual art lover of a husband actually comes from a family not far removed from trailer trash. They are nice, but they don't fully understand the new daughter-in-law and are a little hostile towards her, fearing she is being judgmental.

That is, all except the other non-blood-family member (wonderfully played by Amy Adams), who is about ready to give birth to a baby. This sweet girl really takes to the newcomer and wants to be her BFF.

This is another of those bittersweet comedies that seem so popular in Hollywood these days. They start out all comedic, and then after the first 45 minutes, it all gets really depressing and it ends up that you feel like slashing your wrists. Or just switching off and going to sleep.

The best bits are those with Adams, closely followed by the subplot about the artist, who was also played brilliantly.

I didn't mind this film, but Hollywood needs to get out of this "you mustn't laugh; life is a sack of shit" funk in which it has found itself.

Acting: 14
Story: 12
Direction: 12
Enjoyment: 12
Involvement: 13
Total: 63

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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Break-Up

As you might have imagined, The Break-Up tells the story of the dissolution of a relationship. The couple in question are played by Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan.

After dinner one evening with both families at their flat, Aniston and Vaughan have a bit of a falling-out. It ends with her saying it's over; he leaves the apartment. When he returns later that night, she's asleep in their room, and he takes the sofa-bed.

You know right there that this whole thing could likely have been resolved by him joining her in bed, or by her waiting up for him. We've all had arguments with our partners, so we recognize how little things can get blown out of proportion in the aftermath of a row.

There's a sad inevitability to the ensuing events, even though the film is peppered with humour. Both leads put in great efforts, and Aniston really shines. Not for the first time, she impressed me. Vaughan is Vaughan, only bigger than ever. And of course wherever Vaughan is, you also get Jon Favreau. Yeah, we loved you both in Swingers, guys, but isn't it enough already? (That said, the gag about not being Columbo was reasonably funny only because you were both in Made with Peter Falk.)

A good film. I enjoyed it while watching it. I laughed; I got that it was sad. But I don't think I'd watch it again. Perhaps it's just not that sort of film, though.

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

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Inside Man

I had been looking forward to seeing Inside Man for quite some time. I like Spike Lee generally, and I have liked him from way before he became "accessible" to mainstream white America.

What I find now, though, is that his fiction movies are becoming less politicized. Not that that's a bad thing. And I wonder whether this stems from his greater involvement in documentary film-making in recent years. Perhaps now that he has an outlet for his political thoughts, he doesn't feel the need to bog down his fiction with it? It will be fascinating to see how he gets on with TV drama if his show about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina comes to fruition.

Anyways, that's a whole other ball game. For now, let's talk about the movie at hand, which stars Brits Clive Owen and Chiwetel Ejiofor alongside heavywight Hollywood Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. As much as I like Ejiofor, I was never a fan of Owen until Sin City and Closer. In both films he was a revelation, and I've come to quite like him now. He was good again in Inside Man.

This film combines several of my favourite things:
a heist plotline; a macguffin; a 1940s-type noir-inspired soundtrack, with shades of Herrmann and even Badalamenti.

Almost the whole of the plot is the heist, and I'd go on to say that this is a first-class heist picture. I wish Lee had left it at that. Because although I like macguffins, this one could have been dropped altogether, doing away with Jodie Foster entirely, and it would have been a far stronger picture. As it was, the last 15 minutes felt tacked on and a letdown after what was a blistering, exciting film up to that point.

That said, this is one of the best films I've seen in a long time, and it certainly deserves a place on my DVD shelf.

The scores
Acting: 16
Story: 16
Direction: 17
Enjoyment: 16
Involvement: 18
Total: 83

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Naked Kiss

Longtime readers may well remember that I am quite a fan of the work of Sam Fuller, and The Naked Kiss is one of my favourite Fuller movies. I got the Criterion Collection DVD of this film for Christmas, so I put it in the player and forced Wife to sit beside me and watch it.

She's not big on Fuller. It goes back to one time when I was watching Shock Corridor while she was sleeping beside me on the couch. The thing with Shock Corridor is that it goes from very quiet, non-speaking parts, to sudden screams of anguish, being as it's set in an asylum and all. Her being woken up by screaming loons is, I think, what has put her off the Sam. But I digress.

Like many of Fuller's movies, The Naked Kiss is heavy on melodrama. Sheesh, it's the tried-and-tested tale of a whore with a heart. Former call girl moves to new town to make a change and starts working at an orphanage/children's hospital. She falls in love with the town's chief benefactor, much to the chagrin of his best mate, a cop who she slept with on her first night in town. Melodrama. That's why we love Fuller's films, though. While he perhaps wasn't the best director of actors, he sure knew how to tell a story, how to show it on the screen, how to make you not want to watch anymore and yet, somehow, feel you have to.

This is what happened to Wife watching this film with me. And oh! the audible gasp from her lips with that big reveal. It was a joy to behold, let me tell you.

Sure, there's a lengthy sequence of children singing that may well test your patience. But it's so long and so over the top that it can only be Fuller pushing the boundaries. It's sweetly sick rather than sickly sweet, though.

This is rightly a classic that should be enjoyed and savoured. Warts and all.

The scores
Acting: 10
Story: 13
Direction: 13
Enjoyment: 16
Involvement: 16
Total: 68

Click here for my review of Fuller's Pickup on South Street, too.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

United 93

We all know the story told in United 93. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda hijackers took control of four aeroplanes in a terrorist attack on the United States. Two of them ploughed into the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center; one was flown into the Pentagon; and the fourth was United 93. On that plane, fearing the worst, and having learned from frantic calls to loved ones that their plane was going to be used as a flying missile somewhere in the United States, the passengers fought back, albeit ultimately in vain.

These are the facts such as we know them today, notwithstanding numerous conspiracy theories of varying credibility.

I have watched almost every film and documentary on 9/11 that has crossed my path, but this is far and away one of the most traumatic I have seen.

Some of the reasons for the power of this film include: several key roles of armed-service and air-traffic control personnel are played by the people themselves; the cast of actors is largely made up of "unknowns"; and incredibly taut direction by Brit helmer Paul Greengrass. He puts you right in that plane on the edge of your seat for a huge chunk of the running time.

How this movie is not in contention for Best Picture at the Oscars this year is beyond me. I don't think I will see a film as good as this in quite some time. Thankfully, Greengrass has not been overlooked, and he is up for Best Director.

You might say, "Well, it's easy to manipulate the viewer and provoke an emotional response when you use a true story with an inevitable ending." Sure, I accept that on a certain level. But how many true-life films have you seen that are shit? My guess is: almost every one you ever watched. This is a horse of a different colour entirely. All those disaster movies you've seen? All those plane-hijack scenes you've watched? They will be as nothing to you once you have watched United 93.

The one thing that caught me off guard slightly, and I don't understand why Greengrass did it, was the use of David Rasche in a small but potentially important role. Rasche used to play the lead role in an offbeat US comedy show called Sledge Hammer! way way way back, so his appearance slightly shattered my concentration on the film at hand. This unnecessary known actor broke the tension a little too much for this viewer.

The scores
Acting: 14
Story: 14
Direction: 17
Enjoyment: 16
Involvement: 18
Total: 79

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Inside Deep Throat

Never having seen Deep Throat, I nonetheless threw myself in to watch Inside Deep Throat, which is a documentary about the making, impact, and legacy of that seminal porn movie. The film is narrated by Dennis Hopper and was made for HBO, so how bad could it be?

Truth is, it's not a bad movie. Indeed, it's good enough that you want it to be a bit longer than its 90 minute running time; but at the same time, the reason you want it longer (ooh er, missus) is because it's a bit lacking in substance. So, something of a dilemma, then.

Of course, while the film is, on the surface, about a porn movie, it's really about breaking social taboos and fighting censorship in general. It's about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. So there really was plenty of scope to make something of an epic documentary here. A lost opportunity perhaps.

Still, there's a bunch of talking heads of varying degrees of interest, including Norman Mailer, Bill Maher, Larry Flynt, and Hugh Hefner.

A couple of standout scenes for me were:

(1) porn actresses at a recent Adult Video Awards ceremony being asked if they'd seen Deep Throat. They all replied that they hadn't, with one asking, "Oh, isn't that with that woman who died? I forget her name." This is a bugbear for me, and so commonplace these days: that people have no idea of their history, not even within their chosen professions, whether porn, "respectable" film-making, or the music industry. Get aware, people.

(2) the idiot prosecutor who prosecuted Deep Throat way back when. He said something to the effect of how he was looking forward to getting the world rid of terrorists and heavily implied that then we would be able to get on with the real work of fighting immorality such as porn. Fucking dumb cunt.

So, the scores on the doors for this: 60 points -- not all it could have been, but not bad.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hidden (aka Caché)

This is an old review, but I'm re-running it up-front, so to speak, because I think it's a sin that this movie has been overlooked in this year's Oscar nominations.

Michael Haneke is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. I think of him as the David Lynch of "foreign" cinema. Indeed, so much so that Hidden starts with a couple receiving video tapes of their house under surveillance, à la Lynch's Lost Highway. A little further in, a dinner guest tells a story about a dog, the punchline of which is identical to Jack Nance's canine tale in Wild at Heart. A fair amount of the film plays out in near darkness, as does much of Lynch's oeuvre, especially the last third, apparently, of his upcoming Inland Empire.

So, is Haneke a dirty robbing bastard? Well, I rather think not. What he is is a great film-maker creating often challenging pieces of work that play with notions of time and personal interrelations. Hidden sees a return to the theme of rewinding time, in this case, videotape, much as he did so brilliantly in one key scene in Funny Games. It also adds fuel to my belief that he is obsessed with doorways.

I really liked this film, despite having to watch it in three sittings. Just think how much more I would have liked it in one. 80 out of 100.

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