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fatpie42 - LiveJournal.com

older | 1 | .... | 37 | 38 | (Page 39) | 40 | 41 | .... | 44 | newer

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    While the UK title, “The Pit”, might make clearer what the film is about, “Jugface” is a much cooler title.

    This is the simple story of an ordinary girl who lives in a small rural community where they regularly make human sacrifices in a pit. The film makes use of at least two actors from Lucky McKee's "The Woman" and Jugface has a similar sort of feel to some of McKee's work.

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    The basic mythology is dealt with in a creepy animated sequence at the start. Then our story begins in the middle of a well-established small community with ingrained social rules surrounding praying to and  sacrificing to the pit. Even though it's clearly demon worship, their 'traditional values' aren't much different from what you'd expect in a Christian community. The only real exception being the pit itself.

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    I'm reminded of Children Of The Corn. It's not the same central premise, but one element touched on in Children Of The Corn was that the children's violent religion is real. Both The Pit and He Who Walks Behind The Rows have clear powers and when there are clear observable consequences, why wouldn't you commit to that religion.

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    This idea was brought up explicitly in the movie "The Borderlands". Pagan worship pleads with real things like the sun and the moon and the fertility of the land and isn't that more sensible to worship than an all encompassing non-specific deity like the Christian God? Something that is definitely there is arguably more worthy of our time than a Great "What If?" in the sky.

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    It's weird how Jugface pulls you into the mindset of the film. Technically, in this world, The Pit isn't evil. Sure in another way it's definitely evil, but The Pit has an agreement with the local people. Everything it does is for a reason and it can only continue to terrorise them because they continue to stick around.

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    The Pit has great characters, a wonderful central performance and an interesting and thoughtful premise. Another wonderful recommendation from friends on Letterboxd. Excellent!

    A+


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    29. Black Lightning (Charnaya Molniya) (2009)
    Kind of a rip-off of both Iron Man and Spider-Man combined, but I genuinely found myself touched. Also the battling flying cars concept is super-cool. The same guys who worked on the "Night Watch" movie (based on the books by Russian urban fantasy author Sergy Lukanenko) bring a similar style here making us believe anything is possible.
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    Admittedly this anti-capitalism movie is Russian which might mean there's a possible pro-communism sentiment in the background here. The evil capitalist villain is going up against our working class protagonist who flies around in a souped-up old-fashioned Russian 'Volga' car. This is a brand of car developed by the Soviet Union in the 50s, so having our protagonist be a working class hero fighting capitalism while driving a symbol of the Soviet Union is a quirky twist on the very American sentiments of Iron Man and Spider-Man.

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    There are plenty of gags which worked for me and the sentimental parts had me mostly on board. There's an awkward third act, as is the downfall of so many superhero films, but Black Lightning is a lot of fun and makes a good attempt to capture the hearts of viewers. Did I mention battling flying cars? Battling flying cars! So cool!
    B-



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    28. Thor (2011)

    There's something really cool about making a Nordic mythological figure into a superhero. It wasn't clear how Thor would fit in with the relatively realistic world of Iron Man, but that was part of what made it intriguing.

    I have to admit, the opening battle scene felt a bit tedious to me. Thor is just ridiculously facepalm inducing in that opening, starting a fight on a planet he's been told to stay away from. Then, during the big fight, a fairly generic colossal monster turns up and I'm just not invested enough to care.

    However the Shakespearian brotherly rivalry, while not brilliantly structured, added a touch of class. It's hard not to credit Kenneth Branagh, the director, for this aspect of the story, even if he didn't write the script. Nevertheless, the best part by far and the reason why I really like this film is Thor's fish-out-of-water comedic scenes. It helps that Chris Hemsworth has excellent comic timing. The comedy is really my favourite element in all the Marvel films.

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    Also the robot that fires a giant laser from its head is cool. And Idris Elba is badass as Heimdall. This is just generally a fun little film with a whole selection of cool little moments. It's a satisfyingly goofy experience with a central performance which really holds it all together.

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    Loki's motivations are annoyingly convoluted here, so that leaves Chris Hemsworth's charisma to act as the special ingredient.

    B-


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    27. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

    I have a distinct impression that Nolan only very reluctantly worked on this final part in his trilogy of Batman films. The absence of The Joker can be keenly felt and the plot is one hell of a mess.

    A smart revolutionary called Bane is brought in as the villain in order to give the audience something new and different. But Nolan seems unsure what to do with this character.

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    Yet for all the problems here, this entry is one hell of a spectacle with the most awesome action sequences of the trilogy and losing none of Nolan's distinctive cinematic atmosphere. "The Dark Knight Rises" may not belong at the top of this list, but it is grandiose and triumphant enough to deserve a special mention.

    B-

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    26. Batman (1989)

    Not actually as well paced as it could be, but Tim Burton's bizarre sensibilities ensure a unique take on the caped crusader. Burton dared to put forward a dark take on the character which must have seemed like a gamble to the studios. Yet Burton's style also meant that it never totally left behind the bizarre absurdity of the tv show (which is somewhat both a blessing and a curse).

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    Jack Nicholson's hyperactive performance as The Joker is unforgettable.

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    Interestingly in one scene Bruce Wayne doesn't flinch when shot in the arm (while wearing a suit, not his superhero costume), raising the question of whether Burton believed Batman had super-strength.

    B-


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    Oculus (2013)

    There were mixed reviews for this horror film about a cursed mirror.

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    Essentially this is a ghost film. I can accept it a little better because there's an inhuman source of the haunting. I was able to accept The Grudge because it was an inhuman curse rather than 'people who are dead'.    

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    However, Oculus' biggest problem is unclear rules on what the mirror can do. It's not a huge problem because a lot of the plot involves our protagonists working out the rules. However, the mirror does appear to be given god-like powers and Karen Gillan's character, who makes preparations for handling the mirror, feels painfully naive in thinking that her precautions are good enough to tackle this all-powerful cursed antique.

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    Still, stupid decisions in horror movies are pretty much par for the course. The character interactions are actually very well handled, so the film works very well on that front. And it's a good thing too since without being satisfied by the journey with the characters, the ending would have felt pretty flat.

    B+


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    25. X2: X-Men United (2003)

    The first X-Men movie was the first movie in a long while to make superhero movies feel worth taking seriously again. While the story was a bit flat in the first instalment and there were some severe third act problems, it set up the universe well and its opening in a concentration camp really left an impact. X2 is able to build on what the first film established and ramps up the action.

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    The tale of misfits and outcasts who demand to be taken seriously by a world that finds change threatening is given extra bite by Bryan Singer's very subtle gay rights angle, though the struggles of the X-Men are like a placeholder for any number of human rights issues. It's a pity Jean Gray's death at the end feels so pointless. (Comic book fans were pleased, but newcomers were mostly confused.)

    B+


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    24. Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

    Though widely panned, "Amazing Spider-Man 2"  features some of the most realistic and adorable relationship scenes between a superhero and his love interest that we've ever seen in a superhero film. Marc Webb's background with "(500) Days of Summer", a romantic comedy, actually made him very suitable for a Spider-Man film. So much of Spider-Man revolves around Peter Parker's relationship angst and frankly I found that element to be excruciating in all of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films. Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield are so charming and funny, their scenes that I often prefer those to the main action scenes. While not helped by the script, the performances and imagery are consistently excellent.

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    There was an audible gasp at the shocking event towards the end, even though most people were expecting it. Annoyingly the film pointed towards an action-packed follow-up which the upcoming reboot completely rules out, but I found the way the film wrapped up was very emotionally satisfying anyway.

    B+


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    23. The Incredibles (2004)

    Pixar's take on superheroes combines a fall from grace for superheroes as a whole (out of "Watchmen"), a superpowered family (whose abilities mostly come from "Fantastic Four" specifically) and a lot of James Bond references. The most original element here is probably Edna the fashion designer who creates the superhero outfits.

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    Still even while the concept isn't as creative as normal for Pixar, the execution is top notch. It's a pretty simple story, but endlessly entertaining.

    B+



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    22. Chronicle (2012)

    There's been a bit of a backlash against found footage movies (as if it were the genre, not the filmmakers to blame). However, Chronicle is one of the stand-outs of the found footage genre.

    In this period in cinema we are overrun with low budget found footage films and ultra-budget superhero films. Yet this mid-budget film which straddles both genres does a pretty awesome feat by having stronger characters and greater originality than most entries in either.

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    Sure, in some ways this is the live-action American Akira remake the studios threatened us with, but it's a unique vision of super-powered teenage friends. The film is all the stronger for introducing general cinema audiences to Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan.

    Annoyingly Chronicle shares the over-blown third act common to most superhero films, but it's still funny, emotionally engaging and features some cool simple-but-highly-effective visuals.

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    B+

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    I recently rewatched a couple of films from one of my favourite directors: Alejandro Amenabar. I thought they both held up well.

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    The Others (2001)


    I love Alejandro Amenabar's films. I haven't seen Regression yet, but all his other films have been brilliant. The Others is no exception.

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    Initially a very puzzling ghost story, the compelling characters keep me interested as the mystery gradually unfolds.

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    The haunting doesn't quite work like a typical ghost story because of Amenabar's unique take on the genre. The photosensitive children mean that much of the film is set in the dark, but also that light is a source of fear. There are some pretty creepy moments in broad daylight.

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    Don't worry if you've had the twist spoilt. I had it spoiled for me by some students on a bus. The film is constructed well enough with sufficiently colourful characters that being a bit ahead of the game doesn't matter. In fact, like with Fight Club, there's an added dimension to the film once the secrets are revealed.

    A+


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    Tesis (Thesis) (1996)

    After rewatching The Others, it seemed time to watch Tesis again too. The story of a student who is drawn to examine the elements which we are not allowed to see. She is attracted to danger and she is horrified by it too; which is not so different from the fascination of a horror fan, except that the horror and violence is real.

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    A few scenes show our protagonist only listening to the snuff tape she finds in her possession, yet by holding back from showing us the material the film is able to play on our imagination to elevate the horror.

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    Interestingly there are some similar lines of dialogue in both Tesis and The Others. "My name is Chema and I'm walking."

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    Does Eduardo Noriega ever play anyone nice?

    A+


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    Eyes Without A Face (1960)

    I understand that this is an important film in the history of horror cinema. However, I found it incredibly irritating. Sure, the central premise is horrifying and the mask that the girl wears is rightly iconic. But on top of the glacial pacing we have characters who are really hard to empathise with.

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    The central girl shows no real emotion at all (and frankly even without a face, one can still express emotions). I suppose she's lethargic and borderline suicidal, but seemingly not particularly sad.

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    The parents are a bit frustrated with their daughter's attitude, but there's seemingly no conflict between the two of them and neither seems to have any doubts about their activities.

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    Imagine you have a film about a heist. Their motive may be greed and it may be completely immoral and the film may not question that much, but there will still be drama from the interactions between the thieves and their various personality conflicts. There also may be logistical issues when planning how to carry out the heist. There may be antagonists in the form of law enforcement officials or scary crime bosses.

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    Eyes Without A Face has no source of drama whatsoever. The ethics of the facial operations performed is mostly unaddressed. The characters have no clear personality conflicts There's no controversy over how to perform the operation or scarcity of time or materials to perform it. Finally there are no antagonists really since the whole family are equally complicit.

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    Eyes Without A Face is based on a cool idea and has some neat visuals, but as a story I find it severely lacking.

    D-


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    21. Iron Man (2008)

    Marvel Studios’ first film is a fairly straight-forward action comedy romp about a man kidnapped by terrorists (which is practically the opening shot of the film) who escapes by building a robot suit which he then develops so he can use it as a weapon of war. Though Iron Man has since become a household name, when the film was first released this was still a pretty daft plot line. It helped that Marvel kept their first film clear of god-aliens, magic rocks or talking animals, but even so the levity of the film was vital.

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    It's not even particularly controversial to say that Marvel owe their current dominance in the box office to Robert Downey Jr's now iconic performance as the roguish billionaire Tony Stark.

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    Just one question: What actually WAS the villain's big master plan at the end? He really seemed to have gone completely loopy.

    B+


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    20. Superman - The Movie (1978)

    The movie which pretty much started it all. Audiences were told that they would believe a man can fly.

    Sure, much has dated now and some elements are downright goofy, yet I'm still impressed by how effectively it sells me on the story of an alien who grows up and has to rediscover his lost culture. There are many different interpretations from the rather boring Jesus analogy to the remarkably fitting analogy with Jewish immigrants to America.

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    The iconic score and the epic scale of the film, along with the wonderful central performance from Christopher Reeve, helps to offset the goofiness of the villains and the  awkwardly-dated elements.

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    Superman the movie is an indisputable classic.

    B+



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    19. Batman - The Movie (1966)

    Putting the movie connected with the old 60s Batman series ahead of Superman the movie may be tough to justify. I've heard one modern commentator blame this for the unwillingness to take comic adaptations seriously. Frankly, I think the content of those comics plays a part in that, but also you must remember that the old Batman tv series was spoofing the ridiculous wartime serials.

    One gag which stood out for me when rewatching this film was Batman and Robin's outrage at being labelled as vigilantes. "'Support your local police force' is our message!" Robin confidently announces. This seems very likely to be a direct dig at the old serials which used Batman to promote wartime propaganda.

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    As a spoof of superheroes the series with Adam West's Batman is unique. Outright superhero spoofs aren't all that common and the first to come to mind is "Mystery Men", but Batman has an absurdist element which is all its own.

    The array of bat-themed items from the batmobile to the bat-copter to the bat-cycle to the shark-repellent bat-spray are increasingly ludicrous. Then there's the bat cave, overrun not with bats, but with labels; not least, the 'instant costume change lever' label.

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    Undoubtedly there's an element of nostalgia here, but the old 60s "Batman - The Movie" holds a special place in my heart. Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Batman!

    A-



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    18. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

    While I remembered loving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child, I wasn't expecting the movie to hold up so well as it did. I wasn't actually terribly keen on the cartoon when I was young, but the movie had the appeal of being more adult, more gritty and finally having the word "Ninja" in the title. In the UK the censors insisted that the children's cartoon swap the word 'Njnja' for 'Hero'.

    And I've got to admit, when the human-sized rat Splinter tells us, "All fathers love their sons" I find, in spite of evidence in real life making his claim most likely false, I am really moved and a little tearful. This is a Jim Henson project and keeps up with the standards you'd expect from Jim Henson puppetry.

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    Okay admittedly the Turtles bizarrely don't use their weapons and the puppetry isn't good enough to show the Turtles doing complex martial arts work. Yet considering they are in heavy animatronic suits, the performers do pretty great work.

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    As I keep repeating in this list, the premise is utterly ludicrous. (One of my favourite parts is where Splinter is imitating martial arts moves while still an ordinary rat.) Yet the film really makes us care. I feel that Raphael's anger issues in particular are really well-handled.

    A-


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    Spring (2014)

    A monster romance movie. Starts off with a down-to-earth backpacking tourist film, not unlike the movie Afflicted, only with a less boisterous protagonist. But when he meets a mysterious lady in Italy, that mystery becomes more and more interesting the more it unfolds.

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    I found as I watched that I was speculating whether the girl was a vampire or a werewolf, but in the end this is more focussed on characters than on monster mythology. But I found the story really sweet.

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    And in the end it is whether you find the romance sweet or not that will decide whether you really enjoy this film. The mythology of the monster isn't central enough to the story to be satisfying otherwise.

    Thankfully, as with these directors' last film, Resolution, I got caught up with the characters and loved it. (I wasn't quite so keen on the British tourists our protagonist meets up with, but they were alright.)

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    I've heard that this is like Before Sunset with monsters. I've not been able to bring myself to check out any of the Before series, but I think I'd prefer it with monsters.

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    Spring is a beautiful, interesting, character-driven film that is equal parts monster movie and romance in a way that shouldn't work as wonderfully as it does.

    A+



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    Bug (2006)

    There's a (relatively short) time gap around half way through the film where I find the developments a little hard to accept. But that is pretty much my only complaint about this bizarre film.

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    The relationships between the characters at the start is a little confusing, so perhaps that's another problem. As we begin, Ashley Judd is hanging out with a girlfriend. The two have a very familiar kiss suggesting that they are sleeping together, but Ashley Judd is worried about her possessive ex-boyfriend who is due to be released from prison. But her casual girlfriend has brought around a friend who she clearly finds attractive, played by Michael Shannon.

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    In spite of some scepticism, Judd finds herself intrigued by Shannon's ideas on how to live and his knowledge of insects.

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    We then flash forward and her relationship with Michael Shannon has intensified. The craziness that unfolds is mostly sold by the performances and it felt to me like Shannon was doing the majority of the legwork, though the chemistry between the lead actors is also vital.

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    What with Bug and Killer Joe, it's clear that Friedkin is a master of intense drama (and frankly it's the intense drama in the non-supernatural parts of The Exorcist which I liked most in that movie too). In Bug, the atmosphere is particularly thick.

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    Despite a fairly slow start Bug quickly escalates to an utterly bonkers character driven claustrophobic set piece. Totally nuts, yet unforgettable.

    A+


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    Bridge Of Spies (2015)

    A very solid film, owing some definite credit to the Coen Brothers as script writers. Spielberg decides to go super-schmaltzy in the last couple of minutes, but it's a small enough blip not to matter too much.

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    I feel like the mild-mannered Russian spy's Scottish accent adds a neat quirky comedy element which perhaps would be more emphasised if the Coens were directing this film  themselves. But even so, there's quite a bit of comedy here.

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    Tom Hanks is in very familiar territory as the rational centre of the film, yet he also has a maverick edge that I like to see from him in movies like "Charlie Wilson's War".

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    A great sense of humour makes what is essentially a cold war thriller into a delightful tale of a man negotiating in a time where nobody is willing to compromise. I'd heard this was a less impressive Spielberg film, but besides the lack of special effects spectacle I'd say this was a highlight in his career, particularly considering his work in recent years.

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    Schmaltzy endings are a problem for Spielberg, but this isn't an AI situation. The film had finished and tied up loose ends very nicely and the final few minutes, clearly intended as a final flourish, could easily simply have been cut out. The ending doesn't ruin the film, but it's a little annoying when everything else was so great.

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    It's a nice touch to have Sebastian Koch, star of “The Lives Of Others” about the Stasi in East Germany, playing the representative from the GDR.

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    A sure sign that Spielberg hasn't lost his touch. A very enjoyable film about the cold war.

    A+


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    Avanti (1972)


    A frikkin' wonderful Jack Lemmon movie from Billy Wilder, the director of “Double Indemnity” and “Some Like It Hot”.

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    I saw this many years ago when it was randomly on tv and was totally caught up with it. While it begins as a send-up of Italian culture it plays just as much on stereotypes of Americans in the lead male protagonist.

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    The really nagging problem for me is that the main actress constantly claims that she is fat. She's not even remotely fat! Okay so she's supposed to be insecure then? Well yes, but other characters comment on her weight too. She's clearly supposed to be playing a chunkier character than would fit her Hollywood figure. But there's a further complication. She puts a specific number forward for her weight at one stage and it's a ridiculously small amount for someone who claims their doctor needs them to lose some pounds.

    Sigh!

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    Okay so it's not a point to belabour. This film has some wonderful characters, consistent laughs and endless supplies of charm.

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    A rich American man travels to Italy to collect the body of his father. However, the local Italians aren't making it easy to keep to his hurried schedule. It's not a particularly interesting premise, yet the resulting film is brilliant.                  

    A+



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    Shaun The Sheep (2015)


    I'm not particularly familiar with the Shaun The Sheep tv series. However I'm very familiar with the Wallace And Gromit films (from which the character of Shaun the sheep originated).

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    Checking the disc I found myself on a random scene with the 'audio descriptive' sound track on. A voice explained that, “a fish flies across the room and is worn on a man's face like a mask”. The descriptive audio really struggled to explain what was going on visually and still keep up with the film. This is a film with no lines. Everything is in the visuals, the sound effects and the odd bit of writing on signs or bits of paper. And each scene is painstakingly planned out and executed.

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    It's odd to hear that Omid Djalili does the voice of Trumper, the animal warden, since he makes noises rather than speaking (like all the other characters). I'm a big fan of Djalili's performance in the film "The Infidel", but I'm not convinced they really needed him here for a serious of grunts, mumbles and angry sounds.

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    The animation is excellent, the humour is consistently brilliant and, as an outsider to the world of Shaun The Sheep I found it easy to become caught up in the action.

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    One rather cool moment is where we hear some baa-baa shop singing (lol). But don't hang around for the ‘Shaun The Sheep rap’ during the end credits. It was a little too “down with the kids” and rather spoilt the mood for me.

    A+



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    Belle (2013)


    A fairly by-the-numbers costume drama elevated by the excellent performances and by the novel premise surrounding the anachronistically self-aware protagonist.

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    Belle tells the story of an illegitimate daughter born to a rich English aristocrat. Her mother is a black slave so she also has black skin causing some degree of backlash when the father insists that she be an equal member of the family.

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    When she grows up, our lead protagonist recognises, more fully than any Jane Austen character, the difficulties of trying to marry for love in this era. She compares and contrasts the inequality of the sexes and classes with the inequality of between the races.

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    The film has some interesting points to make, but it also feels inauthentic. That our protagonist is caught up in the same honour-based culture with the same standards of what is 'fitting' and what is not, makes perfect sense. People in this era were clambering for social status and so it's only to be expected that she would insist on her status as a lady in aristocratic society and would feel ashamed of any social differences.

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    But for the movie to make points about the structure of the society as a whole, Belle must speak from a more modern standpoint. This probably happens in period dramas all the time, but the popularity of the Austen adaptations like the "Pride and Prejudice" tv series with Colin Firth or the movies of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma" we can tell rather more quickly that something is off.

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    There are some great moments in Belle but I wasn't really drawn into the character drama as much as I'd have liked. The film has to perform an awkward balancing act between the moral senses of the audience and of the time period being represented and in the meanwhile there's not really the sense of fun we'd expect from Austen-style adaptations. Probably because this is critiquing the entire society rather than particular sorts of people within that society. So while Austen and other authors like her poke fun at certain types of characters, this tries to respect almost everyone and seeks to understand the social structure and the way it limits and shapes the people within it.

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    But for all my misgivings, I enjoyed Belle a lot and found the premise very engaging. Tom Wilkinson in particular brings his A game as the old fashioned judge who is a father figure for Belle.

    B+

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    (Above: The painting which inspired the movie)





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    Retroactive (1997)


    I'm a big sci-fi fan, so when I heard that there was an unsung time travel movie I ought to check out, I rushed it onto my rental list right away.

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    Unfortunately the time travel scenario feels incredibly contrived. Jim Belushi plays an unstable bigoted redneck. The protagonist happens to escape into a facility where a scientist is working on time travel, which seems way too convenient. Still, the real problem is the repeated scenario isn't interesting.

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    To make matters worse, the ending is a waste of time. The scientist is told that he needs to destroy the time machine, yet I have no idea why. Apparently one low-life psycho reliving the same 20 minutes over and over is some kind of massive threat. I don't buy it.

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    This had potential and it was really annoying as it gradually dawned on me that it wouldn't ever meet that potential. What's more, Retroactive was released a few years after Groundhog Day and by comparison to that very clearly 90s film, Retroactive is utterly horribly dated as well as unoriginal.

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    Don't get me wrong. This isn't unwatchable. The performances are pretty good and there's violence and a few explosions thrown in. I can see why some people might quite enjoy this. I just found the ending left me cold.

    C-


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    17. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


    Captain America is a bit of an annoying superhero for me. He's supposed to be patriotic because of his memory of warfare back in WWII, but that makes little sense to me. World War II was utterly horrible. Veterans returning from war generally did not want to talk about their experiences. The idea that a veteran sent directly into the future would be frustrated is understandable, but that they would be instantly pining for a 'simpler time'  just beggars belief.

    Having been involved in the devastating technologically advanced warfare of WWII with clear memories of the nighmarish experiences of soldiers returning from WWI, the relatively peaceful modern world must seem like an improvement mustn't it? To start then ranting against an array of attack aircraft carriers on the grounds that it undermines our freedom (what?) just comes off as painfully naive.

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    However, after the remarkably bloodless first movie with Nazis that are super-evil because they have laser guns (what?) which took itself way too seriously, the sequel really switches gears. This time around Captain America does some awesome martial arts moves and there are some great action set-pieces. We also get some quality time with Black Widow, which doesn't make up for the lack of a Black Widow solo movie but I guess you have to take what you can get. Also the organisation of Shield gets to pretend to be important and does a fairly decent job of it.

    Still this is an awesome action film with great sequences and a super-cool intense scene with the amazing Toby Jones. And like so many of these films it has the important quality of being able to pull the audience along no matter how silly things become.

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    Nevertheless, the winter soldier isn't really all that central to the storyline. Imagine if the movie "Goldfinger" were instead titled "Oddjob"...

    A-


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    16. The Dark Knight (2008)

    Often praised as the best superhero film of all. There's an excellent first act and an amazing performance from Heath Ledger.

    Nolan's dark atmosphere is incredibly powerful. Still Nolan seems to have a problem handling female characters and while Maggie Gyllenhaal is awesome, her material seems somewhat unrewarding.

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    As much fun as this film is, it succumbs to a common problem of having a villain whose motivation is insanity. Strangely the Joker doesn't have this issue, but a secondary villain does.

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    Whether you can forgive the ridiculousness in the third act or not, this is a wonderful cinematic experience.

    A-


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    15. X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)


    Wow, nearly missed this one out.

    While a bit of a middle child in an increasingly jumbled franchise, it also unreboots the reboot, making this the longest consistently running superhero franchise.

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    The central glue tying the franchise together is surely Hugh Jackman (so his cameo role in Matthew Vaughn's almost-reboot was pretty important after all).

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    The film is set both in the future and the past. The past is the period that really matters, while the future is for cannon-fodder mutants with colourful powers and exposition.

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    Still the time travel element makes for an interesting extra dimension to the scenes in the past. Both new and old aspects of the franchise are forced to come to terms with one another and this has some neat results.

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    As before we have some excellent cast members. By now Hugh Jackman has more than shown his mettle and is a great addition to Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence when his character of Wolverine jumps to the past. Meanwhile we have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan being characteristically awesome in the future. The addition of Peter Dinklage as a villain is also cool.

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    It's not a mind-blowing work of art. But it's interesting, exciting and consistent enough to earn a solid place in this list.

    A+



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    14 - X-Men: First Class (2011)


    Bryan Singer's second X-Men film was very well received, but by the time Matthew Vaughn made this sequel, X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine had both left audiences pretty burnt out on the genre. Within both those films we'd seen a wider array of mutants than ever without feeling the same level of wonder at their powers.

    This film started out as 'X-Men Origins: Magneto' and then became essentially a reboot. Still some attempts were made to keep things relatively in-line with the original continuity.

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    Not only are we introduced to a wide range of new mutants with new powers, but they are all given their own exciting moments. The handling of major mutant characters is great too. Charles Xavier gets a bit more moral ambiguity than he'd previously been allowed, regularly getting drunk and chatting up girls. Magneto is so awesome here, that I could have gladly watched a whole film about "Erik: Nazi Hunter". And in the middle of these two figures, an awesome performance from Jennifer Lawrence clarifies the conflict between the two through her very different relationships with each of them.

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    Matthew Vaughn's film manages to bring back the smart social commentary in X-Men which builds on what we already know about the franchise rather than simply rehashing old material. Plus the 60s setting is groovy.

    A+


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    13. Avengers Assemble (2012)

    While Iron Man started off Marvel Studio's cinematic universe with a bang, there were mixed reactions to subsequent sequels. The precursors to the 'Avengers Initiative' were often annoying and sometimes seemed to detract from the central story in each film. (The geek debate on which out of Captain America and Thor was the better b-list 'phase 1' movie still rages.)

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    Even though there was plenty of hype for Avengers Assemble  (the ridiculous UK title of what everyone else knows as "The Avengers") I was sceptical about the project.

    What I ended up loving about the Avengers movie is the way the characters interact. Joss Whedon influence on the writing is clear. He orchestrates witty interactions between the larger than life characters. In one scene we even get to see the good guys fight one another with some interesting results.

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    The bombastic third act may look pretty cool, but the villains are disposable and the central glowy world-ending macguffin was already getting tired when this was released. But the gags continue in this final act too so the film is consistently fun.

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    For me the best parts of the movie are always the superhero interactions rather than the fighting sequences, hence why my favourite part of the sequel is where they all try to lift Thor's magical hammer. In the sequel they replace endless disposable aliens with endless disposable robots, but the thorough introduction of this specific group of characters in the first Avengers movie helps to ensure more consistent investment from the audience. Every main character has already been introduced and established beforehand in their own solo movie, so we're focussed enough on those characters not to worry so much about the generic baddies.

    A+


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    imageDemons (1985)

    Since I found Mario Bava's Black Sabbath seemed a little overly cheesy, I was a little surprised that I ended up throughly loving Demons. It has that same craziness you expect from Italian horror, but I thought it worked really well. I had thought, however, that this was another Mario Bava movie and not, as it turns out, a film by Mario's son Lamberto Bava.

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    I especially liked the build up during the first half, with the audience reacting to the film within the film. However, I found the demon attacks in the second half became rather tiresome.

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    The pacing was inconsistent and the side characters, who start out snorting cocaine out of a coca cola can (I see what you did there), were very obviously acting as filler to pad out the runtime.

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    However, these characters weren't that bad and I remained fairly consistently entertained.  

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    The demons are genuinely horrifying and  while there are a caricatures and female characters acting all helpless, Demons has that essential ingredient for a quality horror movie: a sense of fun.

    A-



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    Martyrs (2008)

    Amongst the most controversial horrifying movies of the last 10 years. SO YEAH...

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    I have trouble working out how to rate this. It's a very well made film with some stark visuals and a great sense of atmosphere and tension.

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    Actually I really loved the first half of this film and until the second half I would have said this was a horror film which got us, more than ever, into the head of the victims. I could feel every blow and was compelled to care about pretty much all characters.

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    The premise is that a little girl who escapes from abusive captors grows up traumatised by her experiences. She is haunted by an imaginary figure who she blames for her self-harm. She feels like she is regularly assaulted by this figure who represents her trauma.

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    The first half of this film is horrifying, but is also a serious exploration of the protagonist's pain and the way abuse has destroyed her life.

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    Unfortunately the second half is completely dumb and rather boring too. There's a lot of potential in exploring the philosophy of the baddies. There's something very twisted about an evil character who claims what they are doing is for the greater good, or even for the victim's own good. It can also be pretty cool when the villains are right. (What? That child they were trying to kill really WAS the Anti-Christ?) But having the film give some quasi-religious justification for devastating abuse and torture wasn't interesting; it was just disgusting.

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    The first half was a great film. The second half is godawful nonsense.

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    Yet in spite of this, the fact that this is so well produced and that the first half is so visceral, the bad ending, and even the whole bad second half, can't entirely turn me against this film. But I am so disappointed that this film had to go off the rails.

    D+




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    The Strangers (2008)

    Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play a couple who aren't celebrating an engagement because Liv's character said no.

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    Then intruders start terrorising them.

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    Quite frankly Liv Tyler's performance is worse than ever. Her whispering, mumbling, non-performance irritated the hell out of me. Also, the villains just felt rather lame to me.

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    Nothing that happened really seemed to matter until the final climactic scene - and by that time it was too late to matter anyway.

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    I understand that this is trying to do something different with the slasher/home invasion genre. I just don't think there's enough substance. If the rest of the film beforehand hadn't felt like filler, the final scenes might have been more impactful. Heck, it's a testament to that ending that it remained as impactful as it did in spite of Liv Tyler and the general plodding inconsequential plot.

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    A bad movie with a good ending can be better than a generally good movie with a terrible ending. I can see why some might find the ending here makes the rest of the film worth it. Heck it's not so much that I disliked the bulk of the film so much as that I found it uninteresting. The ending perked things right up, but I felt it was way too late.

    C-


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  • 12/25/15--01:47: Happy Christmas Everyone!


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    While We're Young (2014)

    I've never been a big fan of Ben Stiller, perhaps liking him best as Mr. Furious in "Mystery Men". I'd also been disappointed by Amanda Seyfried in "Les Miserables" and "In Time". Yet both are very impressive here. Noah Baubach really knows how to get a great performance out of his cast.

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    Less surprising to me are the superb performances from Naomi Watts and Adam Driver.

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    While We're Young is a lot of fun. After Frances Ha, it admittedly does seem to be going back to the Wes Anderson-esque quirkiness from Squid And The Whale which I'm not such a big fan of. Nevertheless Baumbach has a very good focus on character and a great sense of humour.

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    The thing about While We're Young is that it's a clash of an older couple who are feeling distanced from their baby-centred friends and a younger couple who are quirky and exciting. The surprise is that the younger couple have videotapes and vinyl records while the older couple have smart phones.

    In some ways this feels like a more grounded real-life version of Ayoade's The Double. The quirky events in While We're Young never go out of the realm of possibility like they do in The Double, yet everything still often seems utterly crazy in its own way anyway. The older and younger documentary makers become friends, but there's a consistently strong element of competition too. The older couple are jealous of the other couple's youth and confidence and are confused that they don't seem more experienced with age.

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    While We're Young has quite a subtle sense of humour and the laughs don't come as often or as effectively as they could. But it's very cleverly put together, and a very satisfying watch with some great moments and a wonderful sense of fun.

    A+

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    Cop Car (2015)

    Kind of like Jeff Nichols' "Mud", this is about a couple of young boys who get into big trouble.

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    As "Cop Car" begins, we see the two boys practicing insults. They aren't calling each other names. One boy says a rude word and the other boy repeats it. I had no idea at this stage that the two boys were actually going to be quite sweet and naive.

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    The owner of the 'cop car' turns out to be  Kevin Bacon and he ends up being both a villain and a figure of fun. But there's a delightfully dark edge to this film, much moreso than you'd expect from a film with two central child stars. Our child protagonists are constantly under threat whether from one another, from being caught by authorities or being caught by Kevin Bacon's character.

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    A dark comedy that is unafraid to delight in wackiness even while keeping events firmly grounded. This is a carefully plotted thriller. It's interesting how this film has children throwing a spanner in the works without expecting us to be believe that adults are dumb.

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    One of the best films of the year. I hope I'm similarly impressed when this director takes on Spider-Man for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I doubt he'll surpass the quality of this exceptionally wonderful film.

    A+


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    12. Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

    I don't know that Spider-Man is my favourite superhero, but he's the only Marvel hero I followed in comics as a teenager. As such the adaptation side of things matter more for me with this one and, quite apart from the prior movie trilogy being cheesy as hell with groan worthy moments galore, they also never really felt like Spider-Man. In the suit the hero had no sense of humour and in public his ultra-geek persona felt contrived.

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    I was very excited about Amazing Spider-Man because it was the first time I'd seen Spider-Man on the big screen in a form that properly gelled with the character I followed in the comics. I also loved it because i found it hilarious. When Peter first discovers his powers there's an almost baletic sequence of him instinctually avoiding danger yet causing havoc for those around him.

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    The wrestling origin is slightly altered because genuinely becoming a wrestler will inevitably involve giving away your identity. However, importantly the 'responsibility' message is more thoroughly embedded in the story. Spider-Man has to make mistakes in order to recognise the importance of taking responsibility and his search for revenge leads to questions about his legitimacy as a vigilante.

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    The Amazing Spider-Man is a rare superhero film with a realistic central romance and a genuine message. It also cracks me right up. I've mostly enjoyed the sweet and fluffy Marvel movies for their humour and, coming out the same year as Avengers Assemble, Amazing Spider-Man made me laugh more, just about giving it the upper hand.

    A+

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    11. Thor 2: The Dark World (2013)

    After Avengers, the following two movies were two sequels centred around central superheroes already established in the franchise. Both sequels are absolutely hilarious and effects centred extravaganzas and for me they represent the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak. They are also strangely underrated by online fanboys.

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    One of these is Thor 2. After a prelude with a cool action sequence and some neat creative weapons like gravity bombs, it starts off the maon story with a sequence between Natalie Portman and Chris O’Dowd. This scene establishes that comedy will be the main focus and gives Natalie Portman more personality than she'd ever been allowed in the previous instalment.

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    The sequences with the portals in the third act are a lot of fun. The third act of most superhero films normally falls a bit flat for me, so the way this showed Thor's hammer shooting into space and Thor having to get the tube and Portman working the portal devices and Deeling kissing the intern, there just seemed to be something for all the characters to do rather than an impersonal hero-focussed effects showcase.

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    Also all of Loki's scenes are awesome.

    A+

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    10. Iron Man 3 (2013)

    In 2005, Robert Downey Jr came back after a long hiatus and wowed audiences with a fast-talking comedy character in a movie with an action-filled finale. That movie was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the director was Shane Black and arguably without that film to put Robert Downey Jr back in the spotlight, Marvel Studio's Iron Man could have been very different.

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    Shane Black is mostly known for his writing on the Lethal Weapon films and other 80s action films. So who better to do a film in a movie series characterised by both action and comedy?

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    Despite making an absolutely colossal amount of money and receiving pretty high praise initially, this movie now seems to be dogged by fanboy backlash. Does it have a more convoluted storyline than other Marvel Studios films? I'm not convinced that it does. I'd actually say that this was one of the most action-packed and definitely one of the funniest of the Marvel Studios movies.

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    Much of the backlash surrounded Ben Kingsley's role. I won't go into the details here, except to say that I thought Ben Kingsley was brilliant. I was also very happy to see him reprise his character in a Marvel short film "Hail To The King" as an attempt to 'solve' the issue.

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    However another crticism was that we don't get enough Iron Man (i.e. that Tony Stark isn't in his iron suit enough). Strangely, for me, this is yet another plus. Tony doesn't have access to all his technology so we get to see him make do with less resources. As a result, in this story more is at stake and it was a more exciting film for me.

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    Of course, a big highlight of all the Iron Man movies is Tony Stark getting snarky. He is on top snarking form with a child he meets and full credit must go to the child actor who holds his own in those scenes.

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    A+


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    9. Watchmen (2009)

    Perhaps this graphic novel was big in the 80s, but I must admit it was mostly lost on me. Many of the panels have writing that doesn't match the image, seemingly trying to parallel one scene with a different scene (in a way which I often found contrived). The reference to psychics in a supposedly 'real' world and the super-strength displayed by supposedly non-superpowered characters. There was much here that confused me.

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    Also, regarding the central plan of: Giant Alien -> ??? -> World Peace!!! This must be the dumbest plan I've ever heard.

    Snyder's change to the central plan worked really well for me. It tied the film together better.

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    Giving the heroes super-strength only seems honest considering the violent acts the characters perform. Generally I felt that Snyder's vision put emotion into what had felt to me like a cold empty comic book. The director's cut is definitely the better version. Much more carefully paced and impactful than the theatrical release.

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    Sure Alan Moore hates this movie (though I've heard that he never watched it). Alan Moore hates all adaptations of his work. And that's his right. But I still say it's a pity he cannot embrace this film, since it is one of the better comic book to movie adaptations.

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    Okay so the Hallelujah scene doesn't work quite so well. But the intro set to Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' is absolutely superb.

    A+

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    8. Hellboy - Director's Cut (2004)

    Oh what difference a director's cut makes. I felt the Watchmen director's cut made a clear improvement on an already spellbinding visual feast and the Daredevil director's cut changed that film from a fun mess to a pretty competent film.

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    But Guillermo Del Toro's director's cut of Hellboy is unbelievable. The atmosphere, the pacing and the comic timing are all vastly improved while the story remains pretty much unchanged.

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    Perlman's performance as Hellboy and Doug Jones’ performance as Abe Sapien provide a great character-driven core to this fantasy-themed action movie. In fact, while Selma Blair is playing a very withdrawn character, in the director's cut we get to see more of the nuance in her performance. She has an extra scene where she discusses how she is using elastic bands to control her emotions and her magical fire powers which are linked to her emotional state.

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    In one of my favourite scenes in the movie Hellboy resurrects a grumpy old man to act as a guide. I was convinced that this was missing from the theatrical cut, but it seems that the director’s cut mostly just adds in extra character moments and it is the extra set-up in between the action scenes which makes the director’s cut such an enormous improvement.

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    Hellboy introduces us to a fantasy world of Lovecraftian horror existing in a mostly urban environment. The Hellboy movies are the only ones to employ urban fantasy in the superhero genre. So Hellboy is not only fun and exciting, but also pretty unique amongst high budget superhero flicks.

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    A+


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    7. Big Hero Six (2014)

    Being a Marvel/Disney superhero film but not actually created by Marvel Studios, there's some contention as to whether this is really a part of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). If it DOES belong in that series then it's my favourite MCU movie. (Though certainly, taking place in San Fransokyo, it's definitely some kind of alternate dimension.)

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    No surprise to see the Bolt director, Chris Williams, involved here (I love Bolt), since this too is a very character driven piece of work evoking Pixar levels of emotion (yes, Pixar is an adjective now). Baymax is the cutest robot ever, but there's a wide range of expressive and endearing characters presented to us who all get a decent level of attention.

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    Big Hero Six is a beautiful film which exudes joy and is able to take the superhero antics to greater extremes because of its cartoon format. It also has those deeply emotional beats we've come to expect from high budget 3D animated films and those are exacted with aplomb.

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    Admittedly Big Hero Six focusses a great deal more on characters than story, but that suits me just fine. I mainly judge the Marvel movies, with their more upbeat tone, on laughs.

    A+


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    6. Masters Of The Universe (1987)

    I was a massive fan of the toys and the cartoons when I was young, but the movie improves a hundredfold on the cartoons. Essentially it does this by being a Star Wars rip off. Make that: the BEST Star War rip-off of ALL TIME!

    Instead of a cackling coward, Frank Langella's Skeletor is a deep-voiced imposing tyrant. And to make him even more threatening, as we begin with him having already captured Castle Grayskull, the source of our hero's power.

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    Would I like the whole film to take place in He-Man's world of Eternia rather than them being transported to Earth? Sure. But with that decision being accepted they do a great job. The brutality of some of the villains against mostly unnamed innocent bystanders is pretty shocking considering that this is a children's movie and the hypnotising electronic collar used to interrogate one character is downright creepy.

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    Dolph Lundgren was perhaps not the best person to play the lead here, but he's pretty charming and He-Man is a hero well known for being backed up by sidekicks with more personality. There are plenty of expressive sidekick characters in the Masters Of The Universe movie. Man-At-Arms is a veteran hinting at old war stories and Teela establishes herself as being equally tough, along with being the spokesperson for Eternian vegetarianism (which I think is an element actually missing from the cartoons). Last but not least is Gwildor who some might recognise as the guy who played the old wizard in Willow. He's an inventor essentially replacing Orko, the floating wizard creature from the cartoon. This change seems like a good decision to me.

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    Even though some bold ideas for the third act confrontation apparently had to be dumped I don't feel like we are short-changed for action. The awesome score also helps to rev up the excitement.

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    As our more recent He-Man equivalent Thor has said in his movie, in his world magic and science are one and the same. Well in the live action He-Man movie we can see clearer than ever how this world combines fantasy and sci-fi. We see lizard-like baddies using electronic devices to track the heroes so they can fight with swords and we see the sword of Grayskull placed in an electronic device in preparation for a magical ritual. I just adore the aesthetic of the He-Man universe.

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    One last thing: Megan Foster was born to play Evil Lyn. I've seen her in a few other films now and I find it really hard to stop thinking of her as this awesome villain.

    A+


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    A bunch of dedicated fans got together to create high quality versions of the original Star Wars trilogy. They found an old scratched up copy of the original film reel, they used techniques to remove the blurring in the limited edition re-release, and they colour corrected the purpley tinge that runs through the Blu-Ray release to provide maximum quality where possible.

    The result is what your typical DVD or Blu-Ray advert promises. Your favourite classic movies like you've never seen them before. The old sets and costumes with their old fashioned charm are all left alone and look more gorgeous than ever. The heightened quality makes it easier to appreciate the workmanship that went into everything.



    Star Wars (1977) - Despecialised Edition

    The original Star Wars is still my favourite. After all this time, somehow the world of Star Wars still has a unique feel to it, in spite of its many imitators. (And this version doesn't yet have the title "A New Hope" or even any indication that it is the fourth episode. It's just straight-up Star Wars 1.)



    This is a film which revolutionised the genre. Combining sci-fi with fantasy and, ingeniously, using mystical religion instead of magic. Buddhist and other eastern traditions have long believed that concentration and training can imbue human beings with supernatural power, but I struggle to think of a movie which explores this concept in movies before Star Wars without making use of magic wands or spells. (I suppose horror movies about satanic cults had worshippers granted supernatural power. But those still tended to be tied to witchcraft rather than concentration or faith.)



    In this early stage in the franchise the Jedi don't yet seem like superheroes. They are more like futuristic knights with electric swords. Like Zatoichi, Luke is being taught to fight without the need for sight. Meanwhile, the idea of the force feels more like religion than magic. The biggest hint that something magical is involved is the sudden dramatic disappearance of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the third act. Of course magic and religion are only separated by a thin line, but the point is that the mythology of Star Wars has a neat simplicity in this first instalment.



    While I've known some to criticise this film for its slow pace, I love the sense of fear and wonder as R2D2 and C3PO are transported with a jumble of creepy looking robots all picked up by the squeaky short creatures in robes known as 'Jawas'.



    The Cantina bar also looks awesome without the unnecssary special edition alterations. That Han is the only one shooting a gun is the least of it. The creepy wolf alien is very cool and more clear and detailed than ever.



    I love that the despecialised version is a wonderful quality version of a classic 70s movie. Watching a version pretending to have been made in the past 20 years feels odd. The original version of the film has an old school charm which is muddied by the alterations in the so-called "Special Edition".

    A+



    Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Despecialised Edition

    I've always had issues with Empire. The big twist confused me when I was younger and still seems a little dumb. Also I've always felt irritated by the way they don't just go back and rescue Han Solo. I know they couldn't really do that, but they never state out loud why.



    On the one hand, I'm glad there's no tacked on ending like in Peter Jackson's "Fellowship Of The Ring" where the characters tell each other that they'll succeed in the end. But on the other hand there's not really a cliffhanger or a mini-arc. The story just stops with Luke and Leia staring into space.



    Oh and Boba Fett's popularity is mystifying. He tracks a ship and that's about all he does. What's with all the fans? Does it all just come down to the popularity of the toy when this movie first came out?



    While the scenes with Yoda are cool and the way they expanded the mythology is interesting, the initial scenes with Han Solo and Leia hiding in Cloud City drag a bit. Lando is a welcome addition to the cast, but I actually wish they'd used him a bit more.



    But the final confrontation between Luke and Vader is awesome. The background sets, the music and the whole way it is framed makes this scene very powerful and memorable.



    Criticisms are generally pretty minor but this is nevertheless a film which relies on the quality of the follow-up. As far as awkward middle films go,
    however, this is how it's done.

    A+



    Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi (1983) - Despecialised Edition

    Well immediately the despecialised edition corrects a big issue for me. Possibly the biggest issue I have with any of the special editions: Jabba The Hut's resident rock band. Quite apart from the way the CG has quickly dated and quite apart from how poorly the band fits with the style and tone of Jabba's palace, my biggest problem is the way the band detracts from the murder of one of Jabba's dancers. It's a particularly memorable moment for me. We see her decide to attack this is alien monster and we see her fall to her doom when it looked like she was winning. And the overemphasised cartoon band that is inserted into the special edition just serves to practically camouflage that whole dramatic moment.



    I'm not sure how much else was changed in the special edition, but I definitely feel very pleased with the despecialised version of this opening. C3PO and R2D2 are on top form as they come to give a message to Jabba. And when Luke turns up wearing all black and force chokes the guards this is a very dramatic way to show how his character has changed since the last film. Now a serious master of force powers rather than a whining trainee.



    Admittedly the rest of the story doesn't live up to the intro. While I very much enjoy the tribal ewok aliens and the landspeeders zipping between the trees, the story is more focussed on Luke than on Han or Leia. Lando has a ridiculously small role and so while he is the main character in the attack on the Death Star (they are doing THAT again) the big space battle isn't as exciting as it should be.



    The arrival of the Emperor is very cool and Ian McDiarmid is awesome in the role. While Samuel L Jackson and Ewan McGregor's performances would come off a little flat in Lucas' prequels, Ian McDiarmid remains deliciously hammy throughout - and it all starts here in Return Of The Jedi.



    I'm not entirely sold on this idea that Vader still has good in him. Neither am I convinced that killing Vader, a viscious killer who regularly murders his own men while pushing forward the military wing of a horrifying oppressive regime, would instantly turn Luke to the dark side. Luke has shot down goodness knows how many enemy ships filled with ordinary enemy soldiers, but for some reason killing Darth Vader is the end of the world. It's certainly a surprising route for the story to take. Still, I'm not going to knock ROTJ just for its bizarre philosophy, just like I don't hold it against The Dark Knight that Batman would rather crash his motorcycle than kill a serial murderer who evades the police at every turn. Overall Jedi is a fun and iconic film, with an incredible opening act and some very inventive aspects.

    A+



    Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

    Starts off a little haphazardly. Max Von Sydow appears in the opening scene and disappears all of a sudden and Oscar Isaac is left to awkwardly talk to a robot as if it's a person. However, we are then introduced to the new villain who does more than just strut about in a cool costume and force choke people. He's genuinely creepy and has some new tricks. The actor will be familiar to many and I found it very intersting the way his human face jars with the creepy super-evil persona.



    The evil forces in Star Wars have always been fascists and to play the more typical black-shirted space-Nazi is Domhall Gleeson, at one point going into a full-on passionate screaming anti-democracy Nazi rally speech. Another cool baddie is played by Game Of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie taking on the role of the first ever explicitly female stormtrooper.



    The first half of the movie is remarkably inventive and we are introduced to our two most central characters. My personal favourite is John Boyega who has a casual humour akin to Harrison Ford's performance in the original trilogy, yet isn't so cocky. In spite of the obvious comparison, he strikes me as the most unique character of this new instalment.



    I feel the film begins to go a bit downhill when Harrison Ford makes his reappearance into the franchise. It's not bad at all and still feels very much like the old Han Solo, but Ford keeps giving knowing looks which remind us that this is all just a performance. Still I feel like Chewie is better than ever, having some very funny moments.



    The worst performance in the entire film has to be Carrie Fisher. She has a whole load of expositional lines to be delivered in a moving way alongside Harrison Ford, but the two of them have no chemistry and where the attempts to fill us in on the story so far are distinctly lacking in depth.



    Overall this is an exciting extravaganza and in first half there were action sequences which compelled a reassuring series of excited giggling fits from me.



    While I started out loving the characters, including the new beepy robot, the script gives them rather less opportunity to develop in the second half. Instead there are some somewhat unconvincing plot revelations which have only limited importance in this particular movie.



    Is "The Force Awakens" better than the prequels? Undoubtedly so. Despite a daft title which I never felt paid off, this is a lot of fun. The incredibly exciting action sequences, particularly in the first half, make up for a distinct lack of character development or compelling plot points in the second. It might be questioned why I am rating this higher than JJ Abrams' first Star Trek movie. While both films are extravaganzas which focus more on moment to moment excitement, Star Wars has to sell us on brand new characters and I was more caught up in the action. Force Awakens also doesn't suffer in the villain department like Star Trek did.



    I also personally found this to be a distinct step up from this year's lacklustre Bond film.

    B+


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    Set Fire To The Stars (2014)

    Elijah Wood is in some really interesting films lately. This one, about a College professor who has to babysit the alcoholic welsh poet Dylan Thomas, sounded like it had a lot of promise.



    Elijah Wood, admittedly, gives as awesome a performance as ever as the put-upon professor struggling with the unrewarding task of keeping Dylan Thomas in check. His trademark horrified look has served him well even back in his child actor days with films like “The Good Son”.



    Celyn Jones’ performance as Dylan Thomas is fine. However, the poet is done a disservice in that his poetry is interrupted by violin music whenever he, or anyone else, decides to read it. It’s almost as if the filmmakers think their music is more moving than Dylan Thomas’ poetry could ever be. There’s one exception, late in the movie, where a poem is read all through. But each line of the poem is read by a different performer, which doesn’t work very well and after so many poems aborted part way through, it feels like too little too late.



    I must note that, now listening to Dylan Thomas’ real life readings of his poetry, the actor copies his style pretty closely and actually improves on it.



    The biggest problem for me is that this is supposed to be the story about a College professor’s experiences with Dylan Thomas, but inevitably Dylan Thomas is the central focus and the final act revelations are about him. (Chekov’s ‘letter from the wife’ comes into force. But within the film, the significance of the letter remains rather cryptic.) It ends up feeling like Dylan Thomas’ story is dropped half-finished.



    The story doesn’t really end for Elijah Wood’s character either really, except for that presumably his time with Dylan Thomas was the most important thing to happen to him.



    While the performances are great, the story has nowhere to go. There’s not really a decent payoff to this snapshot of life with Dylan Thomas, the great welsh poet. With a fairly poor representation of his poetry too, I couldn’t help but feel very dissatisfied.

    D+


    Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

    Often I rewatch a film and have nothing new to say about it. Occasionally I'll come back to a film like Calvary (with Brendan Gleeson) and realise I had the wrong expectations. On another occasion though, I'll realise that the excitement of a cinema trip has clouded my judgement.



    I had thought Age Of Ultron was appropriately silly fun, but this time around there weren't as many successful gags as I remembered. And, perhaps worst of all, every attempt to suggest a relationship between Black Widow and Hulk fell flat as a pancake.



    The major criticism from some fronts was that Black Widow thinks that being infertile makes her a monster. I still disagree on that front. Black Widow recognises that infertility was forced upon her as part of a plan to make her an unquestioning killer and to keep her divorced from typical human relationships. Her infertility is one more reminder of her dark past and the way it has shaped her. Most infertile women are not made that way to make them more efficient killers.



    The Hulk vs Iron Man fight was more enjoyable this time, but that's at least partly because in the cinema I was hoping for some decent story developments, whereas I knew this time not to get my hopes up. It's a fun sequence, but Age of Ultron feels like a whole selection of fun sequences with no real sense of direction.



    Age Of Ultron features all our favourite Marvel characters and has some good gags and some good spectacle. However, overall it's rather hard to care.



    All credit to Paul Bettany for his performance in the role, but why is Vision a MAGIC robot? I can see this time around that he reaches inside enemy robot baddies like a ghost. Weird!

    C-

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    5. Kick-Ass (2010)

    Matthew Vaughn is one of my favourite directors and he has never made a film I didn't like, but he actually had a surprising amount of trouble releasing this spoof superhero movie.

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    The film presents the story of an ordinary kid who decides to become a superhero. It's not so much a "what if superheroes were real?" story as it is a "wouldn't it be crazy if superheroes were real?" story. The film is very much a larger than life tale with lots of craziness all lovingly presented in bold colours.

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    Things get particularly crazy when our protagonist meets the professional killer Hit Girl, a young pre-teen brought up to be a deadly assassin and fight crime by her father Big Daddy.

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    The soundtrack is pretty awesome with a couple of tracks from The Prodigy and a surprising insertion of the theme from 28 Days Later. The music contributes to the fast pace of this action-packed absurdly violent vision of the world of superheroes.

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    When it comes to comics I've long been a Garth Ennis fan. With Mark Millar's bad taste being reined in by Jane Goldman's in the adaptation stage, the final result is quite reminiscent of Ennis. A clear thematic narrative and heart lies beneath the gleefully violent surface.

    A+

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    4. Dredd (2012)

    With Ex Machina having blown me away, perhaps it's not surprising that this awesome sci-fi action movie is also written by Alex Garland.

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    Plenty have compared this to the martial arts flick "The Raid" and for me Dredd's character-centred storytelling makes it by far the more engaging of the two.

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    Judge Dredd is just a badass character and Karl Urban does a great job portraying his emotional state with little more than his chin to work with.

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    Arguably the film could have done more to embrace the silly comic book world of Judge Dredd, but on the other hand this needed to distinguish itself from the earlier movie with Stallone. I don't think Stallone's film was the worst thing ever, but it was certainly trashy, tried to cram in too much and felt rather overly reminiscent of Stallone's prior sci-fi film Demolition Man (which I feel has aged rather better).Actually, the new Dredd's more down-to earth tone helps us in the audience to take the characters more seriously and makes the wackier elements stand out.

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    The slo-mo drug is one outlandish element, but also the idea of the mega-blocks: tower blocks so big some people may never leave their block for their entire life. With a less serious tone this idea would be a fairly small insignificant jump for our suspension of disbelief. But Pete Travis and Alex Garland's take on this world gives us a little bit of crazy at a time, allowing us room to ponder the basics of this dystopian sci-fi environment.

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    And it's the specific sci-fi environment which sets this film apart from Robocop (which was originally written as a Judge Dredd movie until the studio lost the rights). Olivia Thirlby is also really cool as the rookie on a trial day whose psychic powers give her a different approach to the role of a walking judge, jury and executioner. It also means she's seen as a freak though. Dredd is an anti-hero with a no-nonsense approach to justice, living in a dystopian future where the system is borderline fascist authoritarianism because in the massively overpopulated urban environments seemingly nothing else will work.

    A+


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    3. Batman Begins (2005)

    Originally there were rumours that Aronofsky was making this film and I still wonder what his film would have been like. (And what his Wolverine movie would have been like) But I'm very glad that he was replaced by a similarly fascinating director: Christopher Nolan.

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    Nolan's film explores the mythology of the Batman. Not the mythology of the comics, but the mythology of a man who strikes fear into the criminal underworld by dressing as a bat. Nolan seeks a more plausible version of the Batman, which was particularly important after Schumacher's films magnified Burton's goofiness to astronomical levels. (I still think the worst thing to happen to a Batman movie was Jim Carrey.)

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    Batman Begins is my favourite Batman movie. A down-to-earth intelligent origin for a bizarre concept. This version of Batman threw down a gauntlet for all filmmakers working in this often ill-served genre. And as much as there might now be some backlash against Nolan's dark and gritty superhero style, his was the first film since the first half of the first Superman movie to take the superhero concept seriously.

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    I'm going to quickly address a couple of common complaints about the film. I've come to accept that Katie Holmes' weakness as the love interest is Nolan's fault. He has a problem handling female characters, though I believe he's working on it.

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    Another issue I've heard is of sexism from Bruce Wayne, particularly in his handling of a secretary at Wayne Tower. Yes it's borderline sexual harassment and yes she's going along with it because he's her boss. However, it is also play-acting. Bruce Wayne's public persona in this movie is a rich playboy buffoon. - That being said, Bruce also regrets this later on because he doesn't want everyone to see him that way. I don't really have a problem with the idea that Bruce is a flawed character who actually enjoys his playboy persona a little too much.

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    I've enjoyed most portrayals of Batman, but I'm worried about the idea of him threatening to make Superman bleed in the upcoming Batman Vs Superman movie. Perhaps that's normal in the comics, but that's not the kind of Batman we see here. For me, this Batman who becomes a master of fear because he is so frightened, angry and conflicted himself will probably always be the definitive Batman.

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    And why is this movie superior to its two sequels? Well let me ask a question about the sequels: Where did all the bats go?

    A+

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    2. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

    Apparently, when Guillermo Del Toro began making Hellboy 2, he was told that it needed to be brilliant or the studio would think Pan's Labyrinth was a fluke. I don't know if that's true, but it feels to me like Del Toro succeeded.

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    Del Toro's Hellboy movies combine a superpowered being with a fantasy mythology and Hellboy II takes this to the nth degree. The troll market, a kind of elven royalty, a mostly extinct elemental creature and the creepy "tooth fairy" monsters: Hellboy II has no shortage of inventive fantasy creatures for Del Toro to get stuck into.

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    And this isn't simply for show either. The presence of fantasy creatures on hiding parallels Hellboy's own situation as a fantasy creature in hiding.

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    Dr. Johann Krauss, essentially a ghost contained in a special suit, is a wonderful addition to the team. It's a little hard to understand how such a figure would never have worked with them before, but as yet another cool figure to threaten Hellboy's place in the spotlight, he's makes a very cool contribution to the group dynamic. (I had no idea, when first watching, that this was a character voiced by Seth MacFarlane. Whatever you think of his work outside of this, he gives a great performance here as this sweet and funny character.)

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    Yeah sure, there are a few little issues with the third act. The final fight is not the best fight or the most meaningful, but it is a satisfying finale to an excellent story in this superhero world. Hellboy II goes beyond typical superhero fare and gives us an unforgettable fantasy extravaganza.

    A+


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    1. The Matrix (1999)

    Nope it's not based on a comic, but is there really any doubting that this is a superhero origin film?

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    The One is not going to be able to team up with another superhero without some serious dimension jumping, or time travel logic with a lot of careful coincidences to smooth down the edges. The One lives in a very specific world with a very specific premise, but that's also what makes this movie so cool.

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    Philosophers have been asking whether their world is real for centuries. It's also worth noting that The Matrix isn't just about epistemology. It also has a lot of relevance to political philosophy. Concepts like the happy slave and the meaning of freedom, free will and destiny.

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    The Matrix explicitly examines the idea that people can be persuaded to protect a system that is not in their interests. In fact Morpheus' group of freedom fighters actually start off seeming pretty creepy precisely because they are so mistrustful of people who are still 'plugged in' (holding a gun on Thomas Anderson, or 'Neo' as he is known online, because "it is necessary for our protection.”)

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    Just two years before 9/11 this movie had audiences cheering for a terrorist group. That being said, in the following years when less inspiring sequels were keeping The Matrix in the public mindset, arguably overbearing anti-terrorism legislation made the anti-establishment message of The Matrix more relevant than ever.

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    Masked vigilantes like Batman appeal to us because it's the idea of someone going out and giving justice to those who normally cannot hope for it. (Batman also has James Bond-y gadgets thrown in.) The Clark Kent/Superman hero appeals to us because it suggests that seemingly mild-mannered people can have greatness hidden inside them.

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    The One is more of the latter kind of hero. In this initial story at least, The One cannot stop missiles or rescue children falling down Niagra Falls, but his villain is the system we live in. And what's more, there's a sense in The Matrix that anyone could discover they have this kind of power. Sure the central message is the cheesy "believe in yourself" line, but it's just so wonderfully set-up.

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    I'm realising that there is actually another non-comic hero who has a similar sort of 'believe in yourself' superpower: Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. (I suspect there may be other similar non-comic heroes I didn't think of; many of which probably deserve a place in this list.) Still, The One stood out for me and since The Matrix is one of my favourite action movies of all time, it just had to take the number one spot.

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    A+

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    I like to do an end of the year list and then I try to catch up with any films I may have missed (such as obscure indie films and films caught up in the end of year Oscars rush) ready for a proper list the following year.

    My top 7 for 2014 surprisingly hasn't changed at all, but there were some neat little entries which pushed their way into the bottom three ranked positions (as well as a couple of honourable mentions which I had not seen until this year either).

    I've got to be honest. Much to my annoyance, I still haven't had a chance to see Christopher Smith's Christmas movie starring Jim Broadbent as a 'Santa on the run'. I also have entirely failed to see "Two Days One Night", "Boyhood" or "The Grand Budapest Hotel".

    See my original end of year list for 2014 here. (Plus part one here.)


    10. The Guest
    UK Release Date: 5 September 2014
    The follow up from the creator's of the surprise cult hit "You're Next" release a highly enjoyable action film about a mysterious guest. The film features a horror movie premise, a tense atmosphere broken by some cool action moments, and cool soundtrack reminiscent of the movie Drive.

    The guy in the lead role is excellent but everyone in the cast does a great job. Is making mix CDs retro already?





    9. Afflicted
    UK Release Date: 6 October 2014
    For all the bitching about found footage, occasionally there's a REC or a Troll Hunter to prove the haters wrong. After an intro which left me sceptical (because it looks so genuine I very nearly believed that the filmmakers were taking it seriously) we quickly get some cool effects and eventually some absolutely awesome kinetic sequences rushing through quaint European locations.

    Afflicted is an awesome movie and while I don't want to reveal what happens, trust me that this is horror movie that most movie fans will love.





    8. We Are The Best
    UK Release Date: 18 April 2014
    A sweet film about a bunch of kids who start a punk band. The chemistry between these young girls is very compelling and they are just such sweet characters. This is a small down-to-earth drama and yet for what it is, it's simply perfect.





    7. The Lego Movie
    UK Release Date: 14 February 2014
    So many people seemed surprised by this one, but I'd learnt from 21 Jump Street to not underestimate directors Lord and Miller. I LOVE Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which was in my top 10 for 2009 and I was absolutely ready for them to go all out with animated Lego. They didn't let me down.





    6. What We Do In The Shadows
    UK Release Date: 21 November 2014
    The Flight Of The Conchords guys do vampires. I am absolutely disgusted that Mark Kermode reviewed this movie in about a minute and just said that it was boring. For someone who often apologises for not wholly appreciating crass overblown American comedies, to see him give no time at all to this Python-esque comic genius has really turned me against that beloved critic. With Letterboxd quickly highlighting obscure films now, I'm beginning to wonder whether I need Kermode's reviews any more.

    What We Do In The Shadows is one of the best horror comedies of all time. With one Nosferatu-esque housemate who doesn't talk, one medieval Dracula-esque vampire who has a torture chamber, one 19th century vampire who wants people to keep up with their chores and one younger 'bad boy' vampire who spent some time working for the Nazis. Hilariously Twilight gets mentioned, but pretty much any kind of vampire gets dealt with here and it's incredible how original so much of the jokes are. Love it!





    5. Edge Of Tomorrow
    UK Release Date: 30 May 2014
    For all the controversy about the oppressive cult Tom Cruise is spending his money on, he is making some of my favourite sci-fi action movies of recent years. Minority Report, Oblivion and now Edge Of Tomorrow are all sci-fi favourites for me.

    Edge Of Tomorrow features stunning effects, gritty quick-paced action, a tight story and some laugh-out-loud humour. Brilliant!





    4. Pride
    UK Release Date: 12 September 2014

    A sweet British drama featuring a smorgasbord of incredible British performers. Each of the enormous array of characters is very carefully juggled so that we are never bored and not one of the characters feels neglected or superfluous.

    I was initially puzzled by the idea that gay pride could be connected with the miner's strike, but it's a pretty neat idea. This is admittedly one of many films deploying some revisionism, or at least a modicum of context blindness, when handling the miner's strikes, but it captures the feelings of the characters well. The contrast between the two groups is as important as their alliance. Very fun and moving.





    3. Snowpiercer
    UK Release Date: Oddly still not released in the UK, but you could import DVDs of it in 2014 so I'm counting it as a 2014 movie anyway.

    Joon-Ho Bong's sci-fi film dives headfirst into a world where one train represents the entire human race. To keep up the symbolism the scenario gets a little crazy on numerous occasions, but in the most wonderful way. Within one generation the adult generation have practically developed a cult which worships the train. And the train kind of abuses children, in a way.

    An inventive and unique sci-fi film with an awesome cast. For me this was the Mad Max Fury Road of last year. A unique mind-blowing cinematic experience unlike anything else you are likely to see.





    2. The Double
    UK Release Date: 4 April 2014

    Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as the two central characters in this hilarious black comedy. This is the

    sort of film Terry Gilliam cannot seem to make anymore. Both chaotic and intricate at the same time with a gorgeous timeless dismal setting.

    Somehow Paddy Considine almost steals the show as the star of a low budget sci-fi show regularly seen on tv sets called 'The Replicator'. Mia Wasikowska is also wonderful.





    1. Nightcrawler
    UK Release Date: 31 October 2014

    Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible in this role. A Drive-esque aesthetic and a message about the darker side of our modern culture which has led to numerous comparisons to the film 'Network'. A very important darkly comic thriller with some wonderful dialogue and a captivating central performance.




    Honourable mentions


    Jug Face (The Pit)
    UK Release Date: 9 June 2014

    My first introduction to Jug Face was a Letterboxd review telling me not to read any reviews and to just check it out. That's the best advice I can give really. A few actors are reused from Lucky McKee's 'The Woman' and if you like McKee's films you are going to love this.


    The Boxtrolls
    UK Release Date: 12 September 2014
    My favourite of the Laika films so far. An excellent sweet animated film making for wonderful family fun.


    Other films I recommend from 2014:
    Almost Human
    UK Release Date: 4 August 2014

    Excellent low budget sci-fi.

    All Cheerleaders Die
    UK Release Date: 27 October 2014

    Lucky McKee's latest, about witchcraft run amok.

    Found
    UK Release Date: 13 October 2014

    Very interesting smaller film exploring violence in fiction and violence in life.

    Honeymoon
    UK Release Date: 26 September 2014

    A neat twist on the 'body snatchers' concept.

    Horns
    UK Release Date: 29 October 2014

    Interesting fantasy film with Dan Radcliffe about a man mourning his dead girlfriend who gains strange powers... from the devil?

    The Imitation Game
    UK Release Date: 14 November 2014

    Simple but effective biopic about Alan Turing during WWII.

    Interstellar
    UK Release Date: 7 November 2014

    Christopher Nolan's ambitious sci-fi epic was not going to reach the top ten, but it is unmissable all the same.

    Locke
    UK Release Date: 18 April 2014

    Tom Hardy carries a film which entirely consists in him sitting in a car.

    Maps To The Stars
    UK Release Date: 26 September 2014

    Cronenberg's satire of Hollywood benefits greatly from Mia Wasikowska as its psychopathic lead actress.

    Marvellous
    UK Release Date: 25 September 2014

    A tv film with Toby Jones about an unbelievable true story. Toby Jones is so incredibly versatile.

    Proxy
    UK Release Date: N/A - Import only

    Absolutely nuts and very disturbing. Blew me away.

    Raze
    UK Release Date: 16 June 2014

    Women are forced to fight to the death by a secret society. And Doug Jones is there!

    The Sacrament

    UK Release Date: 8 June 2014
    Ti West's latest film brings a suicide cult into the found footage horror genre.

    Tracks
    UK Release Date: 25 April 2014

    A beautiful film with Mia Wasikowska being awesome again.

    X-Men: Days Of Future Past
    UK Release Date: 22 May 2014

    I was surprised to find this was my favourite superhero movie of 2014.

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    Three Kings (1999)

    Before David O. Russell made Oscar contenders like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, he made this comedy about the Gulf War starring George Clooney.

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    One big surprise was to see Judy Greer randomly turning up as a journalist having sex with Clooney, seemingly for access to soldiers to interview in their army base in Iraq, but possibly just because she wants to. I'm becoming a bit of a Judy Greer fan, particularly after seeing what an upgrade she gave to the character of the PE teacher in Carrie.

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    David O. Russell seems to be the only one who can get a really great performance from Mark Wahlberg. I'd forgotten how great he is here and looking at other films like Burton's “Planet Of The Apes” and ... you wouldn't think he was capable of it.

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    Ice Cube is pretty cool too, though I remember him making more of an impact. Another surprise however is Alia Shawkat (Maeby from Arrested Development) playing a very young Iraqi girl. I'd been confused to see her playing a Palestinian immigrant in the film "Amreeka", but perhaps there's a reason why this seemingly white girl keeps being given middle eastern roles.

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    While I've found David O. Russell to be a bit up and down as a director, this must be one of the better David O. Russell films. I'd say it was second only to "The Fighter". Apart from Three Kings and Jarhead, what other Gulf War films are there? I'd say Three Kings was the better of the two and it's certainly the most fun. It's got to be said that, for all the attempts to show cultural differences in the middle east in military or otherwise violent scenarios, none have seemed quite as nuanced as this.

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    This crazy-enough-to-be-true story of soldiers independently tracking down stolen Kuwaiti gold in Iraq is one of the better films in George Clooney's early movie career. It's somewhat reminiscent of the British TV series The Thick Of It (or even the US equivalent, Veep) in its cynicism and general chaos. ("No need to use  terms like 'sand n***ers'. Not when 'towelheads' and 'camel jockeys' are perfectly good substitutes, sir!") But while there are plenty of scenes where our protagonists get away with being terrible, there are also scenes where they are quite seriously confronted with their own selfishness, thoughtlessness or bigotry.

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    Three Kings has aged a lot better than I would ever have imagined.

    A+




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    Kill The Messenger (2014)


    It certainly seemed like a cool idea for a movie. Anyone who's seen the American Dad episode where Stan sings a song about Ollie North will have a pretty good gist as to what happens in Kill The Messenger.

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    Jeremy Renner plays a reporter who decides to reveal the extreme  corruption of the Reagan administration whereby the US government sold drugs on US soil to fund their operations overseas.

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    Sadly, once the story is out the movie quickly loses momentum. Having been threatened, very little happens for a fair old while. At once stage Jeremy Renner is accusing the FBI of stealing his motorbike. I feel like the filmmakers were pulling punches. Tackling the vague threat without daring to spend too long pointing fingers. Even American Dad pointed a finger firmly at Ollie North but, as great a performance as Jeremy Renner gives, I barely felt like I understood much about his character in the end.

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    This film has a great leading man and an interesting topic, but the presentation of the material is rather uninspired. As with films like "Fair Game” the message is that the US government will often bury criticism by making their critics into the news story. Kill The Messenger does nothing new with this idea in spite of a dynamite example of government  corruption to work with.

    C-


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