Author Archives: Marco Trevisiol

About Marco Trevisiol

Born and resides in Melbourne, Australia.

Review: Logan Lucky

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logan_lucky(Warning: Contains mild spoilers)

Elaborate heists done by a group of people has always been one of my favourite film sub-genres. If done well, the plan’s intricacies, how it works out in reality, the expected and unexpected obstacles and inevitable tensions within the group can make for fascinating and entertaining films.

Clearly veteran director Steven Soderbergh (making his first film after a very brief retirement) enjoys these films as he made a trio of ‘Oceans’ films based around the same concept and now returns to it with ‘Logan Lucky’, albeit in a very different setting and social milieu.

The film’s plot centres around divorced and just-unemployed construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who decides robbing a stadium during a NASCAR event is the solution to his problems. He needs the help of multiple people including his one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and criminal Joe (Daniel Craig). Unfortunately Joe is in prison but where there’s a will…

I’ve only seen a handful of Steven Soderbergh’s films and while he’s clearly one of the smartest and skilled directors in Hollywood, his movies tend to feel a bit distant and cold. One admires his films without finding them particularly enjoyable or wanting to rewatch them.

And this is how I felt about ‘Logan Lucky’. It’s a smartly done heist film with some fine performances but I was never terribly engaged in it and it was never as entertaining or clever as it thought it was.

The film’s biggest problem is that the people involved in the heist seem to be operating at two intelligence levels depending on the requirements on the plot. In their regular day-to-day lives, they’re often simplistic, even moronic. Indeed, another set of brothers involved in the scheme (played by Jack Quaid & Brian Gleeson) are so idiotic they reminded me of the trio of yokel brothers from the 1980s Newhart TV show.

And yet we’re supposed to believe that this same group of people are able to carry off a highly elaborate and sophisticated heist, not only outwitting a substantial police and security force but also able to get multiple people in and out of prison without the authorities noticing. Perhaps it could be understood if Soderbergh was making a comment on how people like this apply considerable intelligence to an event like a heist while acting foolishly in the rest of their lives, but that would be giving him too much credit.

The other problem with the heist itself is that it relies a lot on lucky timing and people with no connection to it acting in ways that can’t be predicted. For example, how do they convince the prisoners to stage a riot for the required time the heist is run and how do they know the prison warden will react in the exact way they need to enable them to get back into the prison undetected? It’s a scheme that makes the finale to The Sting seem like child’s play.

As well, the film feels erratic and contradictory in its tone. Initially in the early scenes where we see Jimmy with his children, his job situation and his general struggles, it’s striving for a realistic, natural tone. But at other times when characters like such as the buffoonish NASCAR powerbroker (Seth MacFarlane) or a very monotone and robotic FBI agent (Hilary Swank) appear it has a comic, exaggerated and even goofy tone. There are pleasures to be had from both styles (Swank’s performance is quite amusing) but they don’t mesh which hurts the film overall.

This is not to say that ‘Logan Lucky’ isn’t a well-made film. It is stylishly and thoughtfully directed by Soderbergh as usual and the execution of heist is entertainingly (if unbelievably) done. Also, there are a lot of good performances in a fine cast. Daniel Craig practically steals the film with his delightful portrayal of the charismatic but unpredictable Joe. And I admired Channing Tatum for underplaying the central role when it would’ve been easy to try and share the limelight of the array of colourful supporting performances.

But overall, while ‘Logan Lucky’ has undoubted strengths (and is popular amongst critics), it was never as entertaining or substantial as it could’ve been.

Trivia Note: This is the second film I’ve seen at the cinema this year (after Alien: Covenant) that features both Katherine Waterston and has John Denver’s music as a pivotal part of the plot

 

Forgettable 21st Century remakes of 20th Century cinema

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Fame  footloose

A sub-section of 21st century cinema that fascinates me is the remake of a revered/classic film that is considered to be so insipid that a year or two after they’re made it’s as if they don’t exist and the original still thrives.
Below are six standout examples from this century. I haven’t seen any of these remakes so the comments below aren’t my views on it, just an assessment on what the general consensus was on them:

The Omen (2006) – The 1976 horror film was considered a classic of its time and remaking it 30 years on was an ambitious task. But it was backed by a smart marketing campaign which made explicit use of its opening date being 06/06/06. And it had a strong cast, with Mia Farrow in one of her rare post-Woody film roles being particularly noteworthy. But critics were disappointed (27% on RT) and despite it being a modest financial success it was completely unsuccessful in matching (let alone eclipsing) the memory of the original

Fame (2009) – In its capturing the spirit and liveliness of young aspiring New York artists, the original 1980 musical became a defining film of its era (and led to a successful TV series). A remake in 2009 seemed potentially rewarding and even had the curio value of TV’s Frasier & Lilith (Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth) both playing prominent roles in the film. Alas, a bad sign was that it was rated PG which stood in contrast to the original film which was quite rough and brutal at times. And the general consensus was it was a bland and plastic remake which would be soon forgotten, which it was.

Fright Night (2011) – The 1985 vampire original had been a surprise popular and critical success. It seemed an odd choice for a remake as the original’s semi-spoof, self-aware, humourous style still made it seem fresh today. Was there an audience for a modern remake of a horror film that still felt modern? As it turned out, No. Despite decent reviews, the Fright Night remake barely made any money anywhere, not even finishing in the Top 5 in its opening weekend in America despite an aggressive marketing campaign.

Footloose (2011) – The 1984 original became a iconic film of its era thanks in no small part to its famous Kenny Loggins title track. In truth it’s a pretty silly film and a remake seemed like a good chance to improve on it, especially when it was helmed by Craig Brewer who’d had notable success with ‘Hustle & Flow’. Alas, despite generally positive reviews the public didn’t warm to it (as a check of the IMDB user reviews shows) and it made little impression. Perhaps people were too affectionate towards the original to accept a remake.

Poltergeist (2015) – For decades the debate over whether the 1982 Tobe Hooper horror film was in fact actually directed by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg has been a fascination for many. Indeed just a few weeks ago a crew member on the film stated that Spielberg in fact directed it.

One thing this recent batch of stories don’t have to mention; that they’re talking about the 1982 version and not the 2015 remake because that’s been forgotten already. Despite being produced by Sam Raimi and having talents like Sam Rockwell & Jared Harris appear in it, the film was critically panned and audiences probably would’ve cared more if it had actually been a documentary about answering the Hooper/Spielberg mystery.

Ben Hur (2016) – Probably the most foolhardy of this list, it was impossible to see how this could ever be a success. For one thing, remaking one of the most iconic Hollywood films of the 20th century is just asking for trouble. Especially when helmed by director Timur Bekmambetov who it’s fair to say doesn’t quite have the reputation of a William Wyler. Also, biblical/Roman epics were hardly box-office gold in 2010s cinema.

The biggest giveaway to this film’s impending doom is the YouTube trailer clip which actually has more dislikes than likes for it. One user observed it as ‘Fast And Furious A.D.’

And to the surprise of no one, the film was not only a critical disaster but a financial one as well as it searched for an audience that wasn’t there and was one of the biggest flops of its year. Amongst the plethora of bad decisions MGM has made in recent decades, this would be one of the worst.

Review: Marty (1955)

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MartyViewed on its own today, it may be hard to appreciate how significant the 1955 winner of the Best Picture Oscar ‘Marty’ was at the time of its release; British film critic Leslie Halliwell called it “a breath of spring” for Hollywood and just watching the film today on its own merits, it may be hard to appreciate that perspective.

But in the context of what had come before it in American cinema (especially since talkies came in), its significance and impact is much easier to understand. The realism in how the characters in ‘Marty’ behaved and especially how they talked had barely been seen previously in Hollywood mainstream cinema.

Take for example, the most dominant film studio of the 1930s and 1940s, MGM. Their films primarily had smart, usually well-to-do characters always being able to deliver clipped, sharp dialogue full of insights and memorable one-liners. Even a studio like Warner Bros in this era which was much more associated with working-class people (and gangsters) had the same issue.It was hardly naturalistic but it was for the most part extremely effective cinema; after all, it wasn’t called the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood for no reason.

Due to a myriad of factors, Hollywood cinema had a sense of staleness in the early-to-mid 1950s as the medium of television were providing a freshness and realism that was missing from increasingly bombastic, overproduced Hollywood films.

One of the most prominent writers in this medium was Paddy Chayefsky and he was employed to do an expanded version of his TV play ‘Marty’ for the big screen and his script broke all the rules for what constituted quality dialogue in a film. He eschewed having snappy, ‘clever’ dialogue to capture the ‘marvellous world of the ordinary’ of how people really talked. What he menat was capturing how people often ramble, say things that are nothing to do with a group conversation, how they have trouble articulating themselves and the repetition of words. This last aspect is particularly notable as the repeated phrases one hears during the film (“It was a very nice affair” “What do you want to do tonight?”) stay in one’s memory.

But apart from that highly significant aspect, how does ‘Marty’ stand up as a film today?

The film’s story focuses on the title character, a mid-30s bachelor Italian butcher (Ernest Borgnine) whose low self-esteem is exacerbated by associates and family pressuring him to finding the loving partner he’s always longed for. From a situation of hopelessness, things turn for when he falls in love with a teacher at a dance named Clara (Betsy Blair) but for their own selfish reasons those who wanted him married disapprove of this new relationship, putting Marty in a seemingly untenable position.

Chayefsky’s script sharply captures how Marty’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth is reflected by the people who associates with, particularly Angie (Joe Mantell). It appears they are best friends but Angie never seems to provide any real friendship or support to Marty. Indeed when Marty meets Clara, Angie tries to undermine it and just really wants to keep Marty down to his level for his own selfish reasons. If Marty were to marry Clara it’s safe to say Angie would quickly disappear from his life.

Another extremely well-written scene (and the high point of the film) is when Marty’s widowed mother (Esther Minciotti) and widowed aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) converse about moving in together. Catherine is full of bitterness and spite and initially one is repelled by her. But over the course of the scene we see the source of her unhappiness and how as a widow she feels unwanted by her children and is lonely and without purpose in life. By the end of the scene she is defeated and accepting of her fate. It’s a marvellously acted, deeply moving scene with profound insight; something you don’t get often in any scene in any film.

Overall though, it has to be said the passage of time hasn’t served ‘Marty’ particularly well. What felt fresh and unique in 1955 has been imitated so often in the decades since that it feels a bit restricted and formal now, as if trapped by the conventions that it created. And this exposes its weaknesses such as its rather stiff direction by director Delbert Mann, making his winning of the Best Director Oscar that year rather baffling in hindsight.

Overall, ‘Marty’ remains a likable, slice-of-life film with oodles of charm and is highly significant in the history of American 20th Century film. But is it a film which still holds up as being the only film to win both the Best Picture Oscar & Palme D’Or? Not really.

Review: Slums Of Beverly Hills (1998)

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SlumsDespite getting good critical reviews, the US low-budget film ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ went largely unnoticed when it was released in 1998. That’s a pity because not only is it a fine film in its own right but it’s an interesting insight into US independent cinema in the 1990s and since then.

Set in 1976, the film focuses on the Abromowtiz family (single father, three children) who are living a dismal existence in an endless series of dismal motels while their ne’er-do-well father Murray (Alan Arkin) can’t provide them a stable existence. This is told from the perspective of teenage daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) who – because of a lack of stable adult authority figures – has to stumble through the experiences teenage girls go through on her own.

The film doesn’t really have a narrative as such, it’s more of a snapshot of this particular family in this particular era and on that level it succeeds very well. We see the ethos and mindset of a family that has had better times and probably a comfortable middle-class existence in the past, that is now struggling to keep their heads above water. Also, despite its limited budget it convincingly captures of the period feel of life in 1970s American suburbia without resorting to clichés (most of the time anyway).

A big factor in the film’s success is Lyonne’s performance. Her role is the centrepiece of the film and it’s a fairly challenging role to play; if she’d stumbled, the film probably would’ve fallen apart. But she’s excellent in persuasively conveying a teenager who’s a mixture of insecurity, daring, awkwardness and brashness. She helps make Vivian and likable without pandering to the audience’s sympathies and it’s not surprising that after being stalled by personal troubles in the 2000s, Lyonne has gone on to a successful acting career with the talent on display here.

The smartest move writer/director Tamara Jenkins does is that it doesn’t try to make this a story of triumph where troubled characters with deep flaws overcome their problems to create a phony triumphant ending. She’s more interesting in portraying them as they are and with great empathy in how they bumble from one experience to another in life.

This is best demonstrated in the character of family cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), who stays with the family after running away from a rehab clinic. She’s clearly a frazzled mess, so totally lost in life that her desperate and delusional attempt to become a nurse is only going to end in failure. But the film treats her compassionately and for how all her flaws she has good soul and a confidant for Vivian. Wherever her life goes post-1976, you can’t help but wish her well.

The appearance of Alan Arkin as the hapless father is interesting in a context beyond the film itself. He had an excellent run in US cinema from roughly 1966 to 1980 as the ‘New Hollywood’ era of wanting challenging stories and real, unconventional characters created a culture where someone with his idiosyncratic, character-based talents could become a significant star.

But in the 1980s as Hollywood turned to special-effects, big-budget, bombastic films with even more bombastic personalities, Arkin’s talents fell out of favour and seemed that his career may drift away. But in the 1990s there was a revival of sorts of the independent, outsider, eccentric, lower-budget style of cinema and films like this were symbolic of that and that’s where Arkin prospered and he’s clearly having a great time with this role.

For all its strengths and appeal, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ isn’t a perfect film. It’s shambling, non-narrative structure is one of its charms but can be a weakness as on occasion it feels rather shambling and messy. A section involving Murray’s interactions with a new love interest (a wasted Jessica Walter) goes nowhere, a segment where Vivian actually goes to a doctor to inquire about breast reduction surgery doesn’t convince on many levels and there’s a scene where an interaction between Murray and Rita that turns perverse that the film doesn’t really know how to handle.

Also, while it avoids most of the clichés of nostalgia films set in the 1970s, it does indulge a lot in the common one of showing TV footage from many popular shows of the day. Apparently there’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that any film set in the 1970s has to have a scene where someone is watching Archie Bunker or Mannix.

Probably the film’s biggest issue is that it lacks that level of social penetration and insight that the best of ‘New Hollywood’ independent 1970s cinema had. It displays empathy and sympathy for the central family but the in-depth social detail that could make their plight more penetrating isn’t there. Instead it replaces this with a level of quirkiness (a common trait of modern US indy cinema), which is best illustrated by a supporting character’s seeming total fascination surrounding Charles Manson and his infamous murders; there’s even a scene where he takes Vivian & Rita to where apparently Manson and his ‘family’ committed their murders. It really doesn’t add much to the film.

But despite these issues, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ is a fine film well worth seeking out. Jenkins has only made one film since then but does have another in the works; naturally as reflective of the late 2010s cinema, it’s being produced by Netflix.

Films that opened in America on April 28-30, 2017

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How To Be A Latin Lover (imdb rating 6.0) – Comedy about a middle-aged playboy starring Eugenio Derbez, who is apparently hugely popular in his native Mexico. In one of her very rare film appearances of recent decades, Raquel Welch. Film looks broad and obvious with the usual modern ‘comedy’ clichés but it did well at the box office and may see Derbez become a global name in cinema comedy.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (9.2) – This Indian historical film made some waves over the weekend as its box office broke records for an Indian based film there and are perhaps a highlight of the growing value of non-English language cinema in an increasingly diverse and immigrant-based country.

The Circle (5.2) – A tech conspiracy thriller starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks sounds like it has possibilities but the critical and IMDB reviews suggest this is a stinker. Watching the trailer, Hanks as a tech genius who does those solo talks in front of huge stages that Steve Jobs used to do just doesn’t convince. And the trailer makes the film seem small and amateurish.

Sleight (5.9) – Sundance entry from 2016 now getting a release about a street magician. Reviews are fairly lukewarm.

Battle Of Memories (7.0) – Chinese film with an intriguing premise that has echoes of the works of Christopher Nolan and Charlie Kaufman; in the near future a memory manipulation service sees a man caught inside a serial killer’s mind.

The Mayor (6.2) – South Korean film looking at the machinations of a battle for political power. I’ve seen these types of films by the bucketful from America & Britain but it would be interesting to see whether such a film from a different region tackles the subject in a unique way.

Natasha (6.9) Canadian romance made in 2015 gets an American release; 100% on RT

Buster’s Mal Heart (7.1) – Surrealist mystery film which going by the trailer (and indeed title) that feels like a typical American indy film, although this one does look interesting. That it’s fronted by the star of the popular Mr. Robot TV series means that all of the YouTube comments on the trailer clip reference the series.

One Week & A Day (7.0) – Israeli drama

Bang! The Bert Berns Story (7.6) – Doco on acclaimed 1960s pop music writer/producer who died very young 50 years ago. Currently 100% on RT.

Was Irving Thalberg right about the Marx Brothers or: How I learned to stop worrying and love their MGM films

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Whenever the topic of the Marx Brothers and their cinema careers is discussed these days, it’s become conventional wisdom to state that their earlier Paramount films were superior to their later MGM films.

This 2013 article from the now defunct website The Dissolve sums up this perspective. Namely that while MGM producer Irving Thalberg saved their careers after they’d fallen out of favour at Paramount, their 5 MGM films as a whole were weaker than their 5 Paramount films. This is because the 5 Paramount films showcased Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo at their anarchic hilarious best with virtually no restrictions placed on them whatsoever. In contrast, their MGM films (minus Zeppo) saw them become less inspired and zany, the jokes reduced, overblown musical numbers appeared more often and significant time wasted with boring romantic subplots involving even more boring personalities. The Paramount films may have been cheaper and more rudimentary but they contained the Marx Brothers at their peak.

This conventional wisdom – which has been around for a while – seems to be taken a step further these days. Just the other week I was heard on a podcast an expert on Marx Brothers say that ALL of their Paramount films were superior to even the best of the MGM films, specifically ‘A Night At The Opera’. This is a pretty amazing change in perspective as for decades ‘A Night At The Opera’ and their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ were battling it out for what considered the best film of their illustrious career.

Indeed, growing up I felt pretty much the same watching the Marx Brothers films. Their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ was my favourite not only because it had an insane amount of great jokes but because it didn’t have the endless music numbers that the MGM films or the Chico piano/Harpo harp solos which seemed like unnecessary intermissions from the comedy.

One on occasion when their first MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ came on TV, we actually edited out the romantic subplot and the music numbers so we could just have the 40 minutes of pure comedy. It was like YouTube before YouTube existed!
Time marches on and I hadn’t seen a Marx Brothers film for close to 20 years when the opportunity arose recently to watch a bunch of their MGM films and see how they held up. And I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed all of them on their own terms, even without edits.

It brought back to mind the process by which they were brought over to MGM by Irving Thalberg. His philosophy basically was that the brothers couldn’t be completely anarchic that they had to be helping people (usually a young romantic couple) to get more audience sympathy towards them. Also, he believed in reducing and spacing out the amount of jokes so audience laughter wouldn’t drown out the next rapid-fire joke. And also he believed in using MGM’s great resources for more elaborate music numbers, some with the Marx Brothers but not always.

It’s fair to say that these changes Thalberg installed (who died tragically young in 1936) – while well received by critics back in the day – are now considered at the heart of the decline of the Marx Brothers as a cinematic force.

It is true that there are issues with the Marx Brothers MGM films, especially the last three made after Thalberg’s untimely death. Post-Thalberg the studio seemed to lose a bit of interest in them and the A-Grade gloss and production they were given in ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Day At The Races’ is downgraded. The straight romantic leads get worse, the plots seem a bit more ho-hum and many of the musical numbers are dull and not even that well-staged.

But while many carp about what’s absent from the MGM Marx Brothers films, too often it’s forgotten how much good stuff there still is in them. Their most acclaimed MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ has more laughs than probably all of the comedies released this decade combined. One only need to look at the Quotes section on its IMDB page to see the incredible array of great one-liners it had. And of course this excludes all the great silent comedy Harpo provides.
Even what is widely considered to be their weakest MGM film, ‘The Big Store’, has some great comedic scenes, particularly an early scene where Groucho & Harpo are trying to fool a potential client that they are a prestigious detective agency.

And the bigger budgets MGM were able to offer over Paramount could be used not just for surface gloss, but for impressive comedic scenes. For example the finale to ‘Go West’ where the Marx Brothers are driving a train to overtake the bad guys while totally dismantling the train at the same time is a marvellous comedic and technical scene, and above all else a great demonstration of the comedy team actually being good guys while being total anarchists.

And, as derided as it is by Marx Brothers aficionados, Thalberg’s belief that having the brothers act not as total anarchists and instead be helping other characters actually works for me. It’s not like they’ve abandoned their anti-establishment ethos; they’re almost always helping out individuals who are being pushed around by people in power, whether they be pompous establishment types and/or powerful crooked businessmen. And they not only save the day but totally humiliate those in power in the process.

To be sure, the later MGM films began to seem tired and uninspired. Especially their MGM farewell ‘The Big Store’ which has some misfiring comic routines, a neverending musical number ‘The Tenement Symphony’ whose negative reputation is fully deserved and it’s rather sad to see stunt men obviously standing in for the Marx Brothers during the action finale.

But overall, rewatching four of their MGM films again was a highly enjoyable experience. I think the critical consensus now has gotten too negative to these films. Perhaps they don’t reach the inspired lunacy of their peak Paramount efforts but they have so much pleasurable to offer. Just enjoy them for their own sake.

Other films that opened in the USA, February 2017

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As we went a couple of weekends in February without doing posts documenting the films released on those weekends, I thought I would fill in the gaps by documenting them here

The Great Wall (IMDB rating 6.3) – Notable as being a major hybrid US/China film aiming to create a blockbuster and appealing to both countries, this Matt Damon starring action film has had a poor critical reaction and disappointing financial results (in both America & China) so that concept will be put on hold for now seemingly.

Fist Fight (5.8) – A film based around a looming fist fight between two teachers after one gets the other fired seems a pretty thin concept for a feature-length film and judging by its IMDB rating and critical reaction, it didn’t seem to be up to the task. Certainly the trailer suggests it all has the negative clichés of modern Hollywood ‘comedies’: crude, clumsy and no sense of comic timing at all.

A Cure For Wellness (6.6) – Watching the trailer for this film about a mysterious ‘wellness’ clinic made it seem initially intriguing but this is a classic case of a trailer giving away far too much of its narrative so it ended my interest in it. A box office flop and critically maligned.

Everybody Loves Somebody (6.6) – Mexican film about a woman running into complications when she gets a co-worker to pose as a boyfriend for a family wedding

Keep Quiet – (6.1)  Documentary about a European politician who is openly anti-Semetic… only to discover that he is Jewish!
XX (4.7) – Something that used to be quite common back in the late 1960s/early 1970s (especially in British cinema) – a horror anthology. In this case its four stories all written and directed by women. Unusually for a horror-related film it’s been much better received by critics than by the public judging by its IMDB rating.

From Nowhere (7.3) – This story of undocumented teenagers trying to not only stay in school but stay in the USA certainly seems timely considering the political climate at present in the country and it certainly seems to have struck a chord with critics and at film festivals leading to it getting a release. Also of interest is that the director is Australian Matt Newton who is from a very well-known and successful showbiz family and had developed a fairly successful acting/director career in the 2000s before constant public headlines for his behaviour and legal troubles stopped it in its tracks. Having relocated to the USA this seems like an impressive first step in rebuilding his career.

Lovesong (6.4) – Relationship drama between two female friends which uses that old trope of the low-budget indy film – the impromptu road trip! Well-received by critics according to Rotten Tomatoes

Get Out (8.3) – One of the most significant films of the year for multiple reasons. A breakout box-office smash that has had an enormously positive critical response (99% on RT) and clearly had a very positive public response. These aren’t qualities you usually associate with a horror film. Its racial and socio-economic elements certainly seem to have helped it strike a chord amongst the USA public in these politically tumultuous times.

Rock Dog (5.6) – Animated film which apparently is another China/USA co-effort which like The Great Wall has flopped at the box office. Luke Wilson provides one of the voices who seems to have completely disappeared this decade after being everywhere in the 2000s.

Autobahn (5.7) – This action film about drug smuggling and the like has a a troubled history – originally scheduled for release in 2015 but the distributor went bust and it’s limped out to virtually no interest. Even the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley and up-and-comers like Felicity Jones in the cast hasn’t saved it from public apathy and critical derision.

Bitter Harvest (7.2) – Judging by the critical reaction and trailer, this mixture of romance and war in 1930s Soviet Union/Ukraine seems like a cornball version of Dr Zhivago. Has a decent IMDB rating though.

My Life as a Courgette (7.9) – This stop-motion European animated film was Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature and considering it has a 100% RT rating, that isn’t a surprise. Certainly seems like one to watch out for.

Fabricated City (7.9) – South Korean film about a person trying to prove his innocence with the help of his virtual gaming friends certainly feels like a more modern narrative than most films.

Pelle The Conqueror (2017 re-release) (7.9) – Re-release of the 1987 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, starring Max Von Sydow.

Review: Bright Lights Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (TV) (2016)

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When a documentary on the famed mother/daughter combination called ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ was in the works last year, it already promised to be a notable event.

Reynolds and then Fisher both had been part of pop culture for over 60 years and had rather similar careers; both had one film that defined their lives, both were multi-talented enough that when their film careers stalled they were able to successfully branch out into other areas (Fisher with screenwriting, Reynolds on Broadway and cabaret) and both had messy private lives that often played out in public

But when they tragically died almost simultaneously late last year, this documentary carried extra weight and poignancy to it and its release was brought forward due to public interest.

The documentary isn’t a traditional biography on Reynolds & Fisher; it’s more a potted history of them mixed with fly-on-the-wall observations of their lives interspersed with old home movies. Also, while this documentary is portrayed as a joint Reynolds/Fisher take, it really is largely from Fisher’s point of view and is mainly her story and her perspectives on her mother and life in general.

As a take on Carrie Fisher’s life, the overall impression one gets is that she was finally at peace with herself and the life she had lived. She was at peace with the tumult of her childhood when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor which became a huge international story. While it isn’t directly said, clearly the whole saga had a major impact on her psyche for decades; how could it not?

We see Carrie at peace with her relationship with Debbie, which had at times been on rocky ground in previous decades. We see them live next door to each other with both of them bantering and conversing like they’re an older version of the mother/daughter from The Gilmore Girls.

Also, we see Carrie at peace in her relationship with her father Eddie Fisher. In perhaps the most poignant segment of the documentary, we see Carrie taking care of Eddie only months before his death in 2010. To see Eddie – once one of the most popular singers in America – sickly and incapacitated sharing tender moments with a daughter who’d he had a difficult relationship with, is genuinely moving.

And we see Carrie at peace with her eternal fame from the Star Wars franchise. We see her at a fan convention (something she only took to late in life) signing autographs and conversing with people of all ages who see her as a heroic figure. Fame overwhelmed her when it hit in the late 70s (especially as she had no desire to be an actress) but as she discusses after the convention she clearly has come to terms with how much her role and performance have meant to others.

A great asset of the documentary is the plethora of home movie footage it shows of Reynolds/Fisher in the early years right down to Carrie at The Great Wall Of China in the 1980s. The most significant home movie footage from a Reynolds cabaret show in the early 1970s where a reluctant Carrie is brought on to stage to impressively sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. To then see Reynolds in the present day get emotional at how Carrie never wanted to sing publicly is touching.

As for Reynolds, we get to see her perform in the present day in her one-woman shows. It’s rather sad in one way as she clearly struggles at times (her health problems are a constant theme throughout the documentary) but the admiring older audience at the shows don’t seem to mind and are glad that she’s still performing after so many decades.

As a documentary, ‘Bright Lights’ is rather frustrating at times. It jumps about in time constantly and feels a bit messy, although the closing stages surrounding Debbie receiving a SAG Lifetime Achievement award helps give it focus. Also, one feels that the documentary might’ve had better structure and purpose if the documentary had been told from the perspective of Carrie’s brother Todd (who does provide observation & narration on occasion).

But perhaps ‘Bright Lights’ is better served by its rather messy style than being a more traditional style as it isn’t about providing a comprehensive analysis of Debbie & Carrie’s lives, but capturing what made them tick and observing the chaos and contradictions they lived through. And especially with Carrie, it does seem to capture her essence as a personality and what made her so appealing to the public during her life.

Overall, ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ is a worthy celebration of two remarkable lives.

Review: The Founder

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During the 2000s Michael Keaton’s film career had fallen into the abyss. It was a mixture of non-starters and thankless roles in films no one liked much where he played the father of a popular young female star of the time. It appeared the comedic and dramatic talents he’d displayed in 1980s and 1990s cinema weren’t going to be seen on the big screen again.

But out of nowhere he came right back into the spotlight in the past couple of years, getting rave reviews for prominent roles in two consecutive Best Picture winners (Birdman & Spotlight). And his performance in John Lee Hancock’s ‘The Founder’ may be the best work he’s ever done.

In this true story, Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman in mid-1950s America with a wife (Laura Dern) tired of their struggles and his long absences on the road. His life changes when he is intrigued by a fast food restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch) that seems far superior to all the other diners he’s been at throughout the country. In a marvellous extended sequence, the McDonald brothers explain how they came up with a restaurant that delivers burgers faster and more efficiently than anyone else around. Kroc sees the enormous potential and starts up franchises of the format to great success. But soon the McDonalds & Kroc come into major conflict into how the business should be run and Kroc pulls out all the stops to win the battle.

There are multiple reasons as to why ‘The Founder’ works so well; firstly in demonstrating the battle between the McDonalds and Kroc and how they’re a metaphor for how America operated during the 20th century. The McDonalds belong to the first half of that century, utilising hard work and knowhow to develop a successful, well-run business that they can take pride in. For them that’s the American Dream.

But unfortunately for them they’re now in the 2nd half of the 20th Century and a different mindset amongst American business and culture is developing, represented by Kroc. It isn’t enough to be a good stand-alone small business, you’ve got to expand and dominate the market. Not only should you look to expand statewide, but countrywide and then globally.

Kroc is the personification of this mentality. He may not have created the McDonalds concept but he knows how to market and exploit it and in the latter stages of 20th Century America that becomes more significant. Constantly throughout the film we see Kroc chaffing at the restrictions imposed on him to exploit the brand by the old-style, more considered McDonalds brothers and something has got to give. Eventually Kroc transforms into a ruthless businessman who (notwithstanding a large lump sum) takes everything from the brothers, right down to their surname.

For this to convince (even though it’s a true story) we have to be convinced that Kroc is transformed from a likeable, frustrated, battling salesman to the ruthless businessman who will destroy and discard anyone who doesn’t fit into his mindset. It’s a difficult challenge but Keaton is fully up to the task. The role is a great fit of not only his manic comedy energy but the ruthlessness and cold-blooded nature he displayed in his more villainous roles. He doesn’t make Kroc a hero or even entirely a villain but a real characterisation of someone who was sinking in life and decided that to rise above the waves he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way, not even his wife.

In the early stages of the film I was dreading the domestic scenes between Kroc and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) as I thought it would go through the standard domestic clichés that films like this do; but here it’s far more interesting. We see in the early scenes when Kroc is struggling that while there’s a level of discontent between the two, they seem to get along fine. If Kroc had remained a battling salesman all his life, they probably would’ve stayed married till death; but this isn’t that story. As Kroc becomes successful and admired for his business acumen, it’s clear that it’s leading to a rift in the marriage because the roles have become reversed. When he was struggling, she could mildly admonish him for not being stable enough for them to enjoy their middle-class existence. But when he becomes a successful entrepreneur, he has desires for an upper-class elite lifestyle and she is stuck in wanting the modest suburban existence. Even though the end for them comes in a sudden and callous manner, it makes sense with how their relationship deteriorated.

Director John Lee Hancock takes an interesting style to the film. Considering there’s pretty ruthless behaviour and devastated individuals during the latter stages, he could’ve easily made it into a downbeat, sombre affair about the ruthlessness of modern American capitalism but instead gives it a fairly breezy, light touch (perhaps because he’s more sympathetic to Kroc’s behaviour than most would be?). In anycase, I think it works well as it treats Kroc objectively instead of one-note monster, and giving insight into how and why he became the ruthless and cruel corporate power he was.

Overall, ‘The Founder’ is an excellent film that amongst its other virtues gives fascinating insight and detail into how McDonalds became the worldwide phenomenon it still is today. And it also contains at its centre an outstanding Michael Keaton performance that might enable him to get the Oscar some thought he was going to get a couple of years ago.

Films that opened in the USA Oct 21-23, 2016

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Boo! A Madea Halloween (IMDB rating 4.8) – I’ve never seen any of the Madea films but I wouldn’t be alone here in Australia as afaik none of them have ever had a cinematic release here in Australia. As it is, at what appears to the 10th Madea film in the series managed to top the US box office. The films never do well with critics (or IMDB ratings) but clearly a significant section of the population love seeing Perry and his creation.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (6.4) – This is getting amongst the weaker reviews for Tom Cruise in his lengthy career as – whatever you think of him – he’s maintained a pretty impressive standard in his film work for someone who’s been almost exclusively mainstream Hollywood for his career. It would be interesting to see him try some character roles instead of the endless action/Reacher/MI films he’s been in in recent years.

Ouija: Origins Of Evil (6.8) – This is a modern rarity: a horror film with an excellent RT score. Seems pretty interesting going by its trailer – certainly the scariest trailer that’s ever had a Herman’s Hermits Song.

Keeping Up With The Joneses (5.4) – This comedy seemed promising; a time-worn but potentially amusing plot, a promising cast (reckon Jon Hamm would be great in the right comedy vehicle) and a director who has had some acclaimed films. But all indicators are that this is a misfire as it’s had terrible reviews (including one in the local paper here in Oz), poor imdb rating and even worse box office. That it’s release was delayed by six months was probably a warning sign. Seems like the umpteenth modern Hollywood comedy that is a misfire.

I’m Not Ashamed (6.4) – Story of one of the students who died in the 1999 Columbine school massacre and her Christian beliefs and perspective. Amongst the cast is 1970s star Jennifer O’Neill who apparently has been married 9 times!
Moonlight (8.6) – Youth drama (with Brad Pitt as one of the producers) which has got excellent IMDB and RT ratings.

El Jeremias (7.8) – Mexican family film.

American Pastoral (6.3) – Based on an acclaimed Phillip Roth novel looking at 1960s/1970s US society, this potentially could’ve been one of the most notable films of the year. But it critical and public reaction suggests its a disappointing misfire; perhaps star Ewan McGregor in his debut directorial effort bit off more than he could chew.

ISM (7.8) – Indian drama

Luck-Key (2016) – South Korean drama about an assassin who gets amnesia (see, not only Ron Howard films use this plot device) and becomes an actor.
The Hand-Maiden (8.0) – South Korean period film which has had much critical acclaim and was nominated for the Palme D’Or this year.

Michael Moore In Trumpland (5.9) – Michael Moore on his Twitter account has been pumping up the ‘record-breaking’ box office figures for this hastily-assembled film of his one-man show about the upcoming election. But in truth box-office mentions just highlight how far he’s fallen from 2004 when Farenheit 9/11 was a major cultural event (and a huge box office hit) that even here in Australia had people writing film reviews of it in the news section of the newspaper. You could dislike Moore back then, but you couldn’t ignore him.
Now, his influence has dissipated significantly, and this documentary which is apparently a love letter to Hillary Clinton (almost as unpopular as Trump and widely seen as the epitome of the political establishment) probably won’t help much.

In a Valley of Violence (6.0) – This American Western starring Ethan Hawke & John Travolta has gotten strong critical reviews (76%). With this and his great turn in the OJ miniseries, Travolta may be making yet another successful comeback against the odds

Tampopo (7.9) – Acclaimed 1985 Japanese film has been restored and re-released

King Cobra (7.1) – Biopic about a gay porn star has an interesting cast starring James Franco and various notable 80s/90s stars appearing in rare film modern-day film appearances (Alicia Silverstone, Molly Ringwald, Christian Slater).

Wildflower (6.4) – American drama

We are X (8.7) – Documentary film about a Japanese rock band called… well the title gives it away

Spices Of Liberty (4.8) – Story of immigrants in America

It Had To Be You (7.5) – A neurotic jingle writer is offered marriage and has to weigh up whether to become married or pursue her fantasies. If this doesn’t sound like a cliché of modern American indy film it’s in there pitching.

Ugly, Dirty & Bad (7.9) – Re-release of a 1976 Italian black comedy

The Uncondemned (9.6) – US documentary

Review: Inferno

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A decade ago I saw at the cinema the film version Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Highly anticipated due to the success of the book, the film was considered a disappointment by many (although a big box-office hit) although I enjoyed it for what it was. While it never reached a level of profundity it perhaps desired, in terms of a throwaway mystery it was satisfying, with the mysteries worked out by main character Robert Langdon quite fun and the history and scenery of old Europe giving it a cultural aspect unusual in Hollywood big-budget films.

I didn’t see the 2009 followup ‘Angels And Demons’ and hadn’t really given any recent thought to any of the Dan Brown books/films, but because of circumstances I had the chance to see the third film in the series Inferno’ last night at the cinema and took it, hoping that would provide the same level of entertainment that The Da Vinci Code did. Alas, it was not to be.

The film dives right into the action with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awaking in an Italian hospital having suffered injuries and amnesia after being apparently attacked. Still groggy, he is rushed out of his hospital room by the doctor taking care of him (Felicity Jones) when an assassin attempts to kill him. Eventually it becomes clear it’s all associated with a plot by wealthy geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) to severely reduce the world’s population. But how can Langdon save the day, not only still unwell but especially as most things aren’t what they seem?

Among the many things ‘Inferno’ gets wrong, probably its biggest one is forgetting how Langdon’s using his historical knowledge of ancient culture and artefacts to work out mysteries and provide knowledge was the most entertaining aspect of TDVC. We do get occasional mystery solving and bits of knowledge (you do learn where the word ‘quarantine’ comes from) but far too little.

And what we get instead isn’t impressive. Director Ron Howard – perhaps trying to compensate for the thinness of the material – frantically overdirects the film’s many action scenes and endless horror nightmares using every cinematic trick he knows. But instead of these scenes being exciting, the action scenes feel incoherent and uninteresting and the nightmare scenes are so overhyped they almost descend into parody territory. In his desire to make the film cutting-edge, Howard makes the film and his own directorial style seem distinctly old-hat.

Indeed a lot of this film seems to be based around things that would’ve been considered clichéd generations ago, starting with the central character having amnesia… an amnesia that of course that doesn’t impact the plot when required.

Even in minor details the film feels hackneyed. Whenever the film moves to a different location, we not only get the name of the city displayed but the time displayed. If the film made use of its race-against-the-clock concept it might be of value, but instead it almost feels like something you’d see in an Abrahams/Zucker film. And of course whenever a character uses the Internet or play a YouTube it occurs instally just as it never does in real life.

Also, we see a scene where there’s video evidence of Langdon stealing a precious artefact (Langdon can’t remember due to his memory) and I’m still not clear how this was resolved. As well, would a geneticist like Zoborist really be a billionaire?

There aren’t many positives to be had from ‘Inferno’. Irrfan Khan is enjoyable as a mysterious high-level security operative, the film gets a bit more interesting in the closing 25 minutes once a revelation is made about a major character and the scenery of various European cities is lovely to look at on the big screen.

But overall, just about everything about ‘Inferno’ seems tired, uninspired and dreary; even Tom Hanks can’t do much to save it. In the lengthy career of Ron Howard, this would have to go down as one of his weakest directorial efforts.

Films that opened in USA on Oct 7-9, 2016

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Know it’s late but always like to keep a record of the films that opened in the US since this blog started, especially because if we see one of these films we can post a comment in the related thread:

The Girl On The Train (IMDB rating 6.7) – A big hit in America last weekend, and an even bigger hit here in Australia (where it was heavily marketed for weeks). Not really of interest to me and after seeing the trailer, even less so. Interesting to note that in supporting roles are Alison Janney, Laura Prepon & Lisa Kudrow – all who had roles on highly-successful TV series in the late 90s/early 00s era.

The Birth Of A Nation (5.6) – This was such a ‘hot’ film coming out of Sundance that many were talking about it being a major Oscar contender for months. But controversy over events from star/director Nate Parker’s past appear to have ended that speculation, with the lacklustre opening box office not helping. The oddly low IMDB rating suggests something similar to the Ghostbusters remarke; people who haven’t seen it piling on it because of Parker’s past, or perhaps the film’s ideology in his heavily politically charged year in the US.

Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life (5.8) – Has a low IMDB rating but the trailer for this school comedy actually makes it look pretty fun. Interesting trivia note: this is the first film for director Steve Carr to get a ‘fresh’ RT rating after 8 rottens.

Premam (8.4) – Indian romantic drama

The Greasy Strangler (5.8) – Saw a headline suggesting this offbeat black comedy may be the weirdest movie ever and after seeing a trailer, they may be right! Seems to be worth a look

Asura: The City Of Madness (7.0) – South Korean crime thriller
Under The Shadow (7.5) – Horror film set in 1980s Iran.

The Battle Of Algiers (8.1) – Appears to be a reissue of the great 1960s historical war film. Was lucky enough to see this on the big screen several years ago and highly recommend it – my abiding memory of it is a quieter scene where the Colonel in charge of the occupation (under fire from media over his conduct of the occupation) asks the media whether they support the occupation; when they say they do they’re exposed as not really being oppositional at all.

Being 17 (7.3) – French drama

Newtown (5.5) – Doco on how a town recovers from a mass shooting. The user comments on the IMDB site for this are rather disconcerting.

Blue Jay (7.4) – Romantic drama (filmed in a week) in seemingly mumblecore style written and starring one of the prominent members of that style, Mark Duplass. Also starring Sarah Paulson who was sensational in the great OJ mini-series. Looking at the trailer and it being filmed in B&W, reminded me a bit of the late 00s film In Search of A Midnight Kiss which I reviewed here many years ago

Theo Who Lived (7.2) – Doco on an American journalist captured by Al-Qaeda.

The Hollow (5.3) – US murder investigation thriller.

Homeland (N/A) – War-related film about a citizen of war-torn Syria living in Sweden.

Review: Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

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When trying to understand the significance of a great filmmaker, sometimes it’s more insightful to look at their less successful films or when their career is in decline. A good example is famed writer/director Billy Wilder and his 1964 film ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’.

Wilder had many peaks during his lengthy and illustrious career but his run of three exceptional films from 1959 to 1961 – ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’ & ‘One, Two, Three’ was never bettered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s career never reached such heights again and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ was made when Wilder’s career was beginning its steady decline, culminating in 1981’s abysmal ‘Buddy Buddy’.

But ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is probably more valuable for study anyone interested in Wilder’s career as it showcases his significant strengths as a filmmaker but also the weaknesses that began to develop in his work from this point onwards.
The plot of ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ sees Orville Spooner (Ray Waltson)as a small-town frustrated piano teacher looking to break out of his dreary lifestyle by becoming a famed songwriter with friend Barney (Cliff Osmond). Their opportunity arises when they dismantle the car of popular singer Dino (Dean Martin, obviously playing a variant on himself) driving through town. But because of Dino’s voracious sexual appetite, Orville is obliged to send his wife out of town and have local prostitute Polly (Kim Novak) pretend to be her. But things get only more complex from there.

‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fascinating mix of old-style and modern cinema. Watching the film in its black & white photography, long takes and limited camera movement, the film could easily pass for a film made 10, even 15 years before.
But whereas its filming style wasn’t ‘modern’, its content certainly was. In fact, the film not only feels modern by 1964 standards, watching it today one is surprised by how it didn’t just stop at innuendo but actually followed through with multiple infidelities carried through by central characters. Even in this era of ‘raunchy’ comedies, if a mainstream film like this were made today it wouldn’t go as far as ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ does.

Also, like most of Wilder’s post-1961 films, ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ feels slower and longer (at around 124 minutes) than it needs to be. Perhaps this is because Wilder was first and foremost a writer and was reluctant to condense his words when possible and didn’t have the deftness the best directors have to make a film more succinct without any value being lost.

Probably the film’s biggest problem though is the casting (or miscasting) of Ray Walston as Orville. In a role crying out for Wilder regular Jack Lemmon, Walston displays none of the vulnerability or likability required to pull off a difficult role. Indeed, an early comic scene where he chases a music student out of his home out of paranoid jealousy leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of the way Walston plays it. One wonders if a more likable central performer had been in the role, that all of the claims of moral indecency wouldn’t have surfaced?

But for all that’s wrong with ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, there is a lot that’s right with it and that includes Wilder’s script (written with long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond). It may be not the best script they ever wrote but compared to many of today’s comedies that almost try to make virtues of having no sense of timing or narrative, it feels like a comparative masterpiece. One of the refreshing aspects of a Wilder film is how well-organised and structured they are. And ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is very well put together from a plot structure point of view with all the main characters reaching resolutions of some kind.
Wilder/Diamond scripts always felt well-structured plot wise in that they accommodated narrative and key character resolutions and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is no exception. And their famed comic one-liners are backed up by lots of nice little details; for example how a local hardware store is incorporated deftly into the film.

Apart from the Walston,, the cast does a pretty good job and it bats pretty deep with the likes of John Fielder, Alice Pearce and even Mel Blanc appearing in small roles. Dean Martin is obviously having a ball mocking his own persona and Kim Novak (someone who I’d previously felt was a dull performer) gives the film zest as Polly.

A fascinating part of the film from a sociological perspective is how the dream of the central characters is to become great songwriters as they were not only financially successful but were revered figures in American culture. Indeed, many of the most famous ones like Cole Porter were household names. And yet just as the film was getting made the new wave of popular musicians like The Beatles (who are referenced in the film) and Bob Dylan were becoming famous for not only being great performers but writing and composing their own material. As a result the role of the pure songwriter/composer was – while not redundant – going to be far down the pecking scale when it came to fame and fortune.

Back to Billy Wilder, why did his career gradually decline from mid-60s onwards when his skills, cynicism and preparedness to take on ‘adult’ subjects suggested he could’ve prospered in the permissive Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is – as already mentioned – a technique issue as his old-style filmmaking would’ve seemed out of whack with the increasingly inventive, risk-taking and ground-breaking style of 1970s cinema.

But more significantly while Wilder was always prepared to attack aspects of American society, it would usually only go so far. Often he’d direct his scorn towards those on the lower rungs of society as being full of deviousness and hypocrisy such as struggling screenwriters, scheming lawyers or those trying to make a quick buck. But Wilder never seemed to direct his criticism at American society as a whole and its institutions that helped create a culture develop where ordinary citizens would act so cravenly. And in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s that tended to criticise American society overall and show more empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Wilder’s satire felt more brittle and nasty instead of incisive as it had once been.

Nevertheless, despite these issues ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fine film worth seeking out, especially for those despairing at the standards of modern mainstream Hollywood comedies.

The top 100 film of the 21st Century (so far)

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A story of note in the movie world was the BBC publishing the results of a survey of 177 film critics from dozens of countries about what the best films of the 21st century are to date. They have a detailed not only to the results but all 177 top 10 lists which is arguably more interesting (website is here).

Inevitably the results led to much discussion and debate, so why not do that here?
The top 10 were:
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Suffice to say it certainly has an international flavour as isn’t heavily biased towards American cinema (or English-language cinema) as has often been the case with lists like this in the past.

Personally, I’m not really qualified to comment on them as I’ve seen very few – probably less than 20 – but I do have some observations.

The biggest surprise in the top 100 list was the absence absence of any Alexander Payne films. Notwithstanding that his best film was probably done last century (Election) and I always haven’t been satisifed by his recent films, he’s still a high-class filmmaker who has usually had a high rep amongst critics. To be specific, Sideways was one of the most acclaimed films of its year and I thought would’ve been a certainty to be in the top 100, yet only two out of the 177 critics mentioned it. And About Schmidt (definitely one of my favourite films this century) didn’t even get mentioned once.

I was also a bit disappointed that some of George Clooney’s best work as actor/director was overlooked – both ‘Good Night… And Good Luck’ and ‘Michael Clayton’ got mentioned by just two critics each. Also, I was surprised at the lack of mentions (two) for ‘Ghost World’ – perhaps it just came too early in the century.
I was interested that Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ managed to get as high as 31 on the list. I thought it was a fine film when I saw it but I do wonder whether it would’ve gotten so high if not for being delayed in post-production for years and it became a ’cause celebre’ for some critics.

Looking over the individual submissions, probably the least deserving was such mediocre Hollywood comedies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’ (both voted twice!). And yes, one of the most maligned filmmakers of his era in Michael Bay got a vote from a critic (for ‘Pain And Gain’).

 

Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

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wotw (warning: contains spoilers)

I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds when it was first released in 2005. Critical response hadn’t been great and star Tom Cruise’s antics while doing publicity were creating a negative aura around it. But I generally enjoyed it although my only vivid memory of it over the years was a scene of throwing a baseball between Cruise and his son that leads to a broken window.

As the years marched on, it’s reputation seems to be cemented as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a missed opportunity that magnified his weaknesses (especially for the relatively upbeat ending which many critics felt was misguided). Having not seen the film in over a decade, I decided to watch it again the other day and see how it has held up.

This version of WOTW has Cruise playing crane operator Ray Ferrier who is divorced and estranged from his children. While his children are visiting, unusual weather patterns signal something is awry and when an invading alien force arises in the local town, it begins to incinerate most of the nearby humans. Ray and his family escape but with a seemingly unstoppable alien force devastating society, how will they survive?

The startling thing I found watching the film this time is how grim and depressing it is; even in this present day of big-budget films often being cynical and downbeat, WOTW is a particularly harrowing film to take at times.

Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the film is in the first half when the aliens start to attack the general population. Spielberg manages to genuinely convey the horror of an unstoppable superior force wiping out human lives in an instant, especially through random individuals being turned to dust. It makes one think of the endless modern wars humanity has suffered and the countless lives wasted by an unstoppable military power. Later scenes which briefly show humans being harvested by aliens for their blood and matter-of-factly rummaging through personal human belongings further underline that.

When the focus shifts to Cruise and his family in the film’s second half, the film loses a some of its impact (although still reasonably effective) because it feels a bit misguided and redundant. While perhaps inevitable under conventional narrative structure, WOTW would’ve been a powerful if it had a broader scope and focussed on the whole fate of humanity.

And it’s the prime reason for the most criticised aspect of WOTW – namely the final scene where not Ray returns his daughter to her mother (curiously in a part of town unscathed by alien attacks) and his seemingly dead son returns unscathed. The critical consensus seemed to be that the finale was too positive and unlikely considering the devastation that had occurred previously. I think this criticism is valid to an extent but the seeds for it are laid in the decision the film makes to move its focus from society getting attacked by the aliens to primarily Cruise and family being attacked. Once the film chooses that path, the final scene is inevitable.

Another criticism of the film was that Cruise as a working-class parent (albeit a divorced one) was unconvincing. It is true that this is a very atypical role for him (even now he’s still playing individualistic action heroes) and he doesn’t seem a natural fit for such a role. But that sense of awkwardness actually works in the film’s favour because Cruise’s character has clearly been a poor parent (and husband) that even his own kids are reluctant to call him Dad.

And the underlying theme of the story is how Cruise’s character matures in the most heinous situation possible and becomes the strong parent that he would never have been without the alien invasion. When you factor in all the physicality required for the role, Cruise in the role makes sense and he generally does a good job with it.

Apart from Cruise, there isn’t a chance for many other actors to make an impression. One of them is Dakota Fanning as Ray’s daughter who starts off as one of those know-it-all pre-teener who only seem to exist in the movies and then, when the aliens attack, becoming understandably hysterical at the fear and horror that is surrounding her. Perhaps the filmmakers made her character a self-assured preteen to outline how useless this attitude is in real life? In anycase, while there seemed to be criticism of how hysterical her character was that seemed far more believable than the early scenes.

Another performance of note is Tim Robbins who plays a disturbed individual whose residence Ray and his daughter hide out with for a brief period of time. What’s most effective about his character (helped by Robbins’ whose perfectly cast in the role) is that he has that uneasy mix of being seemingly perceptive one minute, then clearly disturbed the next minute. Eventually it becomes clear that he’s someone who can’t be trusted, leading to a grim realisation from Ray about what must be done.

Overall, WOTW holds up as a generally impressive experience. It misses the potential for greatness by not looking at the big picture of how such an alien invasion would impact humanity on a grand scale and instead focussing on the small beer of the fate of one family, but it’s a fine film and an undervalued work in Spielberg’s career.