March 2011 March 31, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, progress reports, 2011 , add a comment
A quarter of the year down! Christ, where does the time go…
March saw me reach the 500th feature film to be reviewed on this blog. Not #500, mind you (that’ll be later this year), because I’ve also reviewed a variety of films that don’t count — hardly-different alternate cuts, a couple I’d just seen before, that kind of thing. About 25 of those, as it turns out. But still, 500 reviews — that’s a lot!
Though there’s still 13 to post before there’s actually 500 available to read…
#26 Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
#27 Cloak and Dagger (1946)
#28 Unthinkable (2010)
#29 Let the Right One In, aka Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
#30 Let Me In (2010)
#31 The Damned (1963)
#32 Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
#33 Death Race (2008)
#34 Night of the Demon (1957)
#35 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aka Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
#36 High Plains Drifter (1973)
#37 Young Guns (1988)
#38 The Day of the Locust (1975)
But April is where I stand a real chance to take a lead. Last year, for various reasons, I only managed to see three films in April, making it to a measly 41. So even four would put me ahead, but if I manage to keep up my current rate (of 12.7 films per month, to be precise) I’ll reach 51 (to round it up). Not only would I be well ahead of last year, but ahead of 2007 too — which, lest we forget, is still my best-ever final total.
#4: Synecdoche, New York (2008) March 30, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, 2000s, 3 stars, 2011 , 1 comment so far
Despite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to crop in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.
This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”
And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.
At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; and I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the Internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.
That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.
Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:
Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:
A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.
That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.
This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.
#35: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) March 28, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, Crime, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, Mystery, world cinema, alternate & director's cuts, 2011 , add a comment
From the same production company that brought us the popular Swedish Wallander series comes an adaptation of the other apparent cornerstone of modern Scandinavian crime, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first entry in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy.
Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by the head of the sprawling, filthy rich Vanger family to look into the disappearance of his favourite niece from an isolated and, at the time, inaccessible island. A (possible) murder in an isolated country mansion full of rich suspects? So far so Christie… except this crime happened over 40 years ago. Almost ironically, it’s this last fact that helps make the tale ever so modern: Blomkvist uses the Internet to death, enlarging and animating old photos, researching family members and connected cases, and accidentally roping in hacker Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl.
The original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, which is certainly very apt. The subject matter is grim and dark; horribly plausible, in fact. It’s unwaveringly depicted with some brutal, hard-to-watch scenes. They’re not exploitative though, as a lesser film merrily would be, and that makes them appropriate to the tale being told. Subplots about the two leads support the themes underpinning the main investigation — both about abuses of power, in different ways — justifying their apparent tangentiality, and consequently the film’s length.
I believe the title was changed by the US publisher, who felt such a name wouldn’t sell the book as a thriller to English-speaking readers. They were probably right, but it has an important side effect: it shifts the emphasis away from the story and its themes and onto Salander, arguably more so than is fair. I’m not entirely sure I see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Salander. She’s a good character and very well played by Noomi Rapace, who always looks so sweet and innocent in her normal persona, but I guess I’ve missed what makes the character so exceptional. Perhaps she’s just the victim of hype, too many other reviews telling me how incontrovertibly brilliant she is.
Despite the modern stylings, dark themes and attention-grabbing characters, much of the film unfolds as a procedural whodunnit like, for instance, the Wallanders, complete with piles of red herrings and last-minute twists. This is probably why the book has sold so well and the film has taken over $100 million worldwide: it tickles the same nerves as all those ever-popular TV police dramas. Indeed, this adaptation is rooted in a television miniseries (an extended version exists as two 90-minute TV episodes) but it doesn’t look like it: it’s quite beautifully shot; not showy or stylised, but there are some lovely shots of scenery in particular.
Naturally that popularity means an English-language version is on the way — “American version” is the standard designation, but despite Oscar-robbed American David Fincher directing and Oscar-winning American Steven Zaillian adapting, it’s being produced by BBC Films with an international cast: Brit Daniel Craig as Blomkvist, American Rooney Mara as an even more extreme-looking Salander, Canadian Christopher Plummer as the Vanger patriarch, and even a genuine Swede, Stellan Skarsgård, in a key role; not to mention the rest. I’ve long felt (though, it seems, forgot to mention it during my David Fincher Week) that Fincher’s films have thus far alternated between “good” and “great”, in that order, and that the merely “good” ones are (arguably) on a steady upward curve. With Dragon Tattoo featuring material that seems ideally suited to the director who gave us Se7en, Zodiac and The Social Network, his remake may prove to be the point where the “good” curve reaches the “great” line. Or he might balls it up — apparently they’re changing the ending, and unless they’ve come up with something very good that could be a bad misstep. Only time will tell.
For Dragon Tattoo’s legions of fans, this version will be tough to beat — though I’d wager if anyone can top it, Fincher can. For now, though, there’s this, a well-made dark thriller, which serves primarily as a mystery but also supplies themes and characters that may offer further contemplation.
This time next week, The Girl Who Played With Fire. Hopefully.
#9: Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) March 26, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Anime, Crime, 5 stars, adaptations, 1970s, Adventure, world cinema, 2011 , add a comment
The Castle of Cagliostro, the second animated big-screen spin-off from manga-inspired anime TV series Lupin III, was the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who even non-anime fans have heard of these days thanks to Spirited Away’s Oscar win (eight years ago now!) and Pixar’s recent championing of him.
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t see a great deal of Miyazaki’s output, so I can’t comment on how much of an indicator (or otherwise) Cagliostro is of what was to come, but it’s a fine film in its own right — Steven Spielberg reportedly called it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, and I’m inclined to agree.
For starters, the action sequences are brilliant — exciting, inventive and varied. I don’t know if Spielberg saw this before tackling any of the Indiana Joneses, but you can feel the tonal connection. There’s also a similar amount of humour. The animation itself is very good — there are prettier examples of the genre, but the locations especially are beautifully painted, and it’s aged very well for a ’70s-produced animation. The score is rather dated though.
As I mentioned, this is the second spin-off film from a TV series, and at times it does feel like it: characters turn up under the impression the audience already knows who they are and what their connection is to the others. It’s not a major problem — most are introduced well enough within the context of the film that it can still be easily followed — but it’s there.
Is this a good film to interest non-anime fans? Maybe. The plot and structure are familiar (in a good way) from the wider adventure genre, and some of anime’s regular stylistic flourishes aren’t as much in evidence as in some other works. The genial tone may make it too “Saturday morning cartoon” for some — and by “some” I tend to mean teenagers or the teenage-minded, who would be better suited to something like Akira because it’s all Dark and Serious and Grown-Up; the kind of person who would’ve chosen a PlayStation over a Nintendo console because it was black instead of white/coloured and therefore Adult and Not For Children; childish idiots who think they’re Mature, in short.
Um, where was I? Oh yes: Indiana Jones; Roger Moore-era James Bond — it’s that kind of tone, more or less, and if you enjoy that kind of film then I don’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy this. Unless you think cartoons are for kiddies only (in which case, see the long sentence at the end of the last paragraph).
The Castle of Cagliostro is a fun and exciting adventure, and convinced me enough that I bought the only other Lupin III title currently available on UK DVD (the film that precedes it, The Secret of Mamo). And when the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park says something is “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”, one really ought to listen.
The Castle of Cagliostro placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.
#11: Bolt (2008) March 25, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Disney, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, Adventure, films about films, superhero films, 2011 , add a comment
Bolt is the 48th film in Disney’s animated canon (whatever the official name for that is these days), from their CG-only era that filled most of the ’00s. It’s a period already remembered as When Disney Lost Its Way, after the second (or is it third? I forget) ‘golden era’ of the early ’90s; the time that produced flops like Treasure Planet, Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons. Things are looking up — it’s been followed by The Princess and the Frog, where a return to 2D animation distinctly marked a more widespread change of direction, and the praised Tangled — but it may be Bolt that comes to be seen as the true turning point, because it’s actually rather good.
Let’s get the worst bit out of the way first: thankfully, Miley Cyrus’ part is quite small. She’s adequate, but one suspects she got roped in because a) Disney were already trying to find a way to continue making money out of her post-Hannah Montana, and b) she provided a surefire-selling song for the end credits. Chloë Moretz reportedly recorded all of Penny’s dialogue before Cyrus was brought in; one can’t help but feel that, age-wise (and probably acting-ability-wise too), she would’ve been a better fit for the character.
But it’s not about Penny, it’s about Bolt, and he is excellently realised. Bolt, if you don’t know, is a dog, and the animators have captured dogs’ behaviour perfectly. It’s not just the obvious things, as seen during the sequence where Mittens the cat trains him to be a ‘regular dog’, but all the little mannerisms throughout. The animals are anthropomorphised, of course, but they’re not just animal-shaped-humans; they’re what these animals would be like if they could talk. Crossed with humans, anyway.
Also noteworthy are the action sequences. Far from being perfunctory attempts at liveliness, these are properly exciting, making full use of 3D CGI to create exciting and dynamic sequences. I’m not just talking about the couple we get from the TV-series-within-the-film either, but also the ‘real world’ ones as Bolt, Mittens and Rhino jump onto trains, out of moving vans, escape from a pound, etc. Of course, the TV-series-within-the-film is completely implausible — like you could film a TV show with massive action sequences in such a way that you only ever do a single take, never mind achieve all those effects on a TV budget. But then this is a film where a talking dog, cat and hamster work together to travel from New York to Hollywood entirely of their own volition — I think it’s safe to say no one’s aiming for documentary levels of realism.
And it’s funny too, especially once Rhino the hamster turns up. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made (and the level of praise attributed to Rhino in some quarters may have taken it too far), but it’s genial enough and elicited a few decent laughs. It even had me getting a little emotional at the end, which isn’t something I ever expected to feel about a film starring Miley Cyrus and a dog made out of polygons.
Despite being computer-generated and 3D, there are attempts to add a painterly look to the film — brushstrokes, pastel colours, that kind of thing. It works rather well when seen in isolation in backgrounds, some of the big wide shots, etc; but the obviously-CG main elements jar against it, the painterly style not extending to the characters or main environments fully enough for it to gel. Especially when the apparently-flat paint-styled backgrounds begin to move in three dimensions (for instance, as the camera pushes into scenery, so that trees/buildings move relative to road/field/hills/streets), it becomes a little weird. An interesting experiment, but not a wholly successful one I think. Something like Ratatouille’s attempt at softening CG animation’s usual hard crispness was more effective.
It would be easy to dismiss Bolt as part of Disney’s CG folly, especially as it stars Miley Cyrus and is immediately followed by their return to 2D animation, but I think that would be a mistake. It’s a fast-paced and fun adventure, with accurately-captured animals meaning it’s especially likely to appeal to dog lovers. Disney’s next golden era just might begin here.
Some thoughts on star ratings March 22, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Star Ratings, films about films, video game films, 2011 , 4 comments
Last week’s run of films from 1953 got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, about coincidence — out of a pile of 20 unposted reviews, it happened to be those that were among the first four I had ready to post. But, more pertinently, it was the last two, and the scores I gave them — four for The Big Heat, five for Roman Holiday — that gave me the most to mull over.
To put it simply, I wondered “why?” Why is The Big Heat only worthy of four stars and Roman Holiday worthy of five? They weren’t scored relative to each other — I watched them almost a month apart, and while I take forever to post my reviews I usually rate the films straight away — so this contrast hadn’t been thrown up before, and probably would never have been had I not happened to post them side by side.
The thing is, when considered against each other, The Big Heat is more my kind of film than Roman Holiday; if asked to pick a favourite, I’d probably choose the noir; I’d be more likely to buy it on DVD; I’d be more likely to watch it again. That’s nothing against Roman Holiday — it’s a great film — but, in direct comparison between just these two films, The Big Heat is more my kind of thing.
And yet, for all that, and having considered changing both scores, The Big Heat still has four stars and Roman Holiday still has five.
Putting The Big Heat up to five didn’t sit wholly easy, especially when I compared it to the scores I’ve given other noirs. This led me to wonder if I’m harsher on film noir because it’s a genre which, though I’m unquestionably still discovering it (most of those I’ve ever seen are reviewed here), I have a good deal of affection for it — and, therefore, expectation for its films. The same could be said of other favourite genres — action, thriller, etc.
Dropping Roman Holiday to five seemed wrong too, as if underrating it. This made me wonder if I was influenced by expectations — Roman Holiday is just the kind of film one gives five stars too, thanks to Oscar wins and making a star of Audrey Hepburn and all that. I don’t think this is always an influence on me — I’m happy to give a respected film a slating if I disliked it, and vice versa — but when something sits borderline, I can be swayed by reputation.
Are star ratings just inherently rubbish? There’s a reason why reviewing publications from Sight & Sound to Doctor Who Magazine choose not to use them — and that’s in part because they invite instant, arguably invalid comparisons (such as the one I’m discussing). “Is W a whole star better than X?” “Are Y and Z actually worth the same score?” On many occasions the answer to such questions is “no”; that’s the inherent imprecision of having five possible scores and thousands of things that need scoring. By rating things with five stars the reviewer is placing them in broadly defined groups, and some will always be better than others within their group, and some will always be on the borderline — and some will get placed on the wrong side of it.
Many games magazines and websites using a percentage system (or they did in my day — several now seem to use an out-of-10 score, but merrily use decimal points… so it’s the same damn thing). I guess it’s an inbuilt cultural thing, because (other than an aggregate site like Rotten Tomatoes) I’ve never seen films reviewed with a percentage. Theoretically, this method allows for 100 different scores — much more precise. In practice, of course, the lower ones are rarely used and the tippity-top ones are seldom (if ever) reached. Partly this is because you find your ‘average’ review score sitting less at 50% and more at 70% or higher. I believe this is because (like almost any reviewed art form) the bulk of what one encounters has been polished enough to earn a higher score — the average quality of work is of above-average quality, if you will. It also makes the system more liable to awkward questions: give one thing 95% and another 96% and you provoke “is the second definitely superior” arguments you wouldn’t get if they both just had 5 out of 5. Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does require one to be frighteningly precise with scores.
I’m not convinced the answer is to ditch all forms of rating. Perhaps a skilled reviewer could always present a perfect balance between their pro and anti thoughts on a review subject, but I don’t think there are many of them about. Giving something a score stamps your opinion nice and clearly: there have been a good few reviews where I’ve mainly discussed the negative points of a film I’ve primarily liked, for whatever reason, and without the score at the end readers might get the wrong impression; I may even have penned a review or two where I’ve tried to draw out the positives from something I was giving a low score to. I’d wager this is true of most reviewers — it’s always possible for your text to be misinterpreted; for a reader to see a positive (or negative) bias, however balanced or actually-the-other you thought you were being.
That all said, a definitive summary sentence or paragraph would serve just as well — better, maybe — than a little line of stars. Hm.
I’m not going to ditch my star ratings, but this has caused me to have a good think about them. It’s clear the way I apply them is not always accurate (as if the fact I often include four-star films on my top tens while excluding numerous five-starers hadn’t made that clear), but — if only for my own satisfaction — I like the way they separate the bad from the good, the good from the great… however broadly.
#21: Roman Holiday (1953) March 18, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 5 stars, 1950s, 2011 , add a comment
Roman Holiday is the kind of film where its list of achievements don’t quite precede it — Best Picture nominee (it lost to From Here to Eternity), places on the IMDb Top 250, They Shoot Pictures’ 1000 Greatest and one of the AFI’s 100 Years lists — but something else certainly does: this is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star.
So let’s start with Hepburn. Here she plays a European Princess on a world tour, for various diplomatic reasons, which is coming to an end in Rome. She’s not happy, running off to see the real Rome, and sending her entourage into a quandary as they try to cover up her disappearance. It’s a role that could easily be intensely irritating — the spoilt little brat who doesn’t know how good she has it / with no sense of responsibility — but Hepburn seems to be effortlessly likeable, and it’s easy to sympathise with the idea that seeing the sights and having fun in an iconic city is a lot more better than meeting a bunch of stuffy old men.
Through various contrivances, the Princess winds up in the flat of journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck. He initially doesn’t realise who she is; he’s helping her out by giving her a bed for the night — the fact he’s Fundamentally Kind will become important in a bit. The next day, when he sleeps in and misses his scheduled interview with the Princess, he twigs who she is and sets about a plan to secretly get a world-exclusive, roping in photographer friend Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to get candid shots of the Princess as they take her on a day messing about in Rome.
So, essentially, Joe is conning her. He doesn’t let on that he knows the truth, keeping up the act that he thinks she’s a school runaway after a good time; he tricks her into it so he can get a story that will undoubtedly bring some degree of shame, shock and/or scandal to her family and/or country. His moral underhandedness occasionally undercuts the movie: they seem to be allowing her to finally do the things she wants to do, but all along he’s memorising quotes and Irving is secretly snapping away. It all works out in the end — realistically, and therefore, perhaps, surprisingly — but on the way there…
On the other hand — and without wishing to give too much away — morals do get the better of Joe and Irving, and they do often seem quite genuine in the way they help the Princess do what she wants, and they have a good time too (and not because they stand to be rolling in it if they pull it off); and, naturally, Joe ends up in love with the Princess and all that, and it does all work out in the end… It’s a matter of interpretation, perhaps. If you choose to focus on Joe’s ultimate aim — selling the story — then most of the film is a nasty trick. If, instead, you remember that he’s Fundamentally Kind, it might be less troubling that he has a secret plan most of the time.
Morals aside, the cast work well together. The film is often painted as a Peck/Hepburn two-hander — easier to sell the romance angle that way — and I’m sure it would work as that, but Albert’s in it enough to qualify for attention, and is fairly essential to what makes it quite so likeable in my opinion. He and Peck carry much of the humour while Hepburn charms as a sweet girl finally allowed to be herself.
The bulk of the narrative is structured as a series of set pieces and individual sequences/moments, taking the cast from situation to situation: her scooter riding, cafe foolery, barge dancing/fight, and so on. In some ways, it’s just taking the audience along with them — there’s the Princess’ entourage trying to recover her and Joe formulating his story, but it’s more about the fun the characters are having doing whatever than the way it contributes to either of these plots. Wyler puts the genuine Rome locations to good use — and when you’re the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely in Italy, why wouldn’t you? It’s a cliché I know, but the city is as much a character as any of the cast.
In spite of some characters’ moral underhandedness, Roman Holiday emerges as a very likeable film about, essentially, having a lovely time on holiday somewhere nice. Hepburn may not be as obviously iconic here as she would become thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I think it’s clear to see how she would become a beloved star.