Tuesday, 27 December 2011

My End of Year List: Best of 2011

As it's Christmas and I'm feeling bloated and lazy, I'm not going to provide proper write ups of the movies I saw this week. For the record, I saw the following films this week:

The Mist (2007) - very good Stephen King horror yarn, slightly let down by some weak CGI. Rating: 8/10

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Russell Crowe's finest nautical adventure since he went fightin' round the world with his good friend Tugger (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t87JRof-NHM). Rating: 7/10

The Cement Garden (1993) I saw this adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel on Christmas Eve. It's a festive treat, full of death, incest and bad '70s haircuts. Ho, ho, ho. Rating: 7/10.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) Now this one actually was appropriate festive viewing. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart team up for a classic, heartwarming tale. Rating: 8/10.

Anyway, as promised, here are my rankings for the best new films I've seen in the cinema in 2011.  I've excluded any older pictures which I watched on DVD, or were re-released at the cinema over the course of the year. To be honest, my list hasn't changed too much from the one I posted back in September, though I have rejigged the list slightly to reflect my current preferences. It's been slim pickings at the cinema recently, with only Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Contagion, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Drive coming in for serious consideration as additions to the list. In fact, on the whole it's not been a brilliant year at the movies. Though I've seen plenty of films which I'd classify as 'very good', there's been little which has really blown me away, in the manner that A Prophet, The Secret In Their Eyes and Inception did last year.


Kirk's Best of 2011 List:

1. Hanna -  I was highly skeptical after seeing the trailer for this film - how could an action film from the director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice possibly be any good? However, on seeing the film I was totally blown away. It's a movie directed with real panache by Joe Wright, with an exceptional lead performance from Saoirse Ronan and a propulsive score by the Chemical Brothers.

2. We Need To Talk About Kevin - When I initially reviewed this one, I likened it to being kicked in the stomach, and I stand by that. Despite being extremely upsetting at times, this is a compulsively watchable movie, anchored by some top notch acting by Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller.


3. Animal Kingdom - Fantastic Aussie crime drama showing the bloody consequences of a police campaign against Melbourne's leading crime family. Ben Mendolsohn steals the show as the terrifying and psychotic Andrew 'Pope' Cody.


4. Kill List For two thirds of the way through, this was my favourite film of the year - mixing some creepy and unnerving horror with some moments of unexpected comedy. Though I felt the ending wasn't quite up to the standards set by the start of this picture, a number of the scenes from this movie will be seared into my brain forever. Also, it features Tyres from Spaced, so it's got that going for it...


5. Senna I previously had very little interest in Formula One racing, so it's a mark of how successful this documentary is that I found myself so completely captivated by Ayrton Senna's battles against his great rival Alain Prost, and the fact that I was so heartbroken when Senna eventually comes to meet his tragic fate.


6. Super 8 This was definitely the best and most purely enjoyable big budget Hollywood film I saw this year. It might not quite be up to E.T. standards, but it's tremendous fun, and it's a movie I'll be returning to in the near future.


7. True Grit The Coen brothers rarely let me down, and this was another triumph, featuring some winning performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. In general though, I still prefer movies based on original Coen material, and it looks like I'm in luck - there's another potential masterpiece in the pipeline: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2042568/; 
 
8. The King's Speech When I came to see this film, it had received so much praise and Oscar hype that I was thoroughly expecting to hate it. Sadly, it turned out to be almost as good as everybody had said, and a worthy recipient of the many accolades and baubles it was given.


9. Black Swan Rather like the Coens, Darren Aronofsky is another director whose works I always seek out. For me, this isn't quite up there with Requiem for A Dream or The Wrestler, but it's still an enjoyably dark and twisted look into the mind of an obsessive ballerina.


10. Drive 2011 was in some ways, the year of the Gosling, and for me, this was the best of his many pictures. It's almost as stylish as it is violent, which is no mean feat considering some of the fearsome stompings that RG dishes out in this movie.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

That was the week that was (12 -18 December)

Looking at the list of previous posts on the side of this blog, it appears that I've reached my half century with this latest update. To be fair, a few of the previous posts which count towards that total are actually just one edition of TWTWTW which has been split into two posts. Still, I'm pretty impressed with getting to 50. Who knows whether this blog will be cut down in its early 50s (like a Ravi Bopara innings), or will go on to reach the heights of a 'daddy hundred' (like a knock by Alastair Cook)? I'll just have to keep on plugging away every week and see what happens...

In other news, I'm going to take a bit of a hiatus over Christmas so this will be the last edition of TWTWTW until the New Year. I am planning to put together my final top 10 films of the year though, so, as Patrick Bateman told his lawyer, keep your eyes open.

Essential Killing (2010)

A film by Jerzy Skolimowski which won a number of prizes at the Polish equivalent of the Oscars, Essential Killing see Vincent Gallo go on the run as a Taliban terror suspect who goes on the run from the US army. The majority of the action in the movie takes place in the opening 15 minutes, as Gallo is captured by US troops in a cave in Afghanistan, subjected to water boarding and abuse from his captors, transported to a Polish air base, then escapes from an armoured vehicle into a freezing cold and densely forested area of Poland. Even with a running time well under 90 minutes, things soon start to drag once the film's opening section has finished; Gallo never mutters an intelligible word throughout the entire film and for a good hour or so, we just follow him as he keeps running from his pursuers, eating insects and berries to survive. I found the film to be rather dull and slow paced, and we learn very little about Gallo's character, so it is difficult to empathise with him. Despite the slow pace, the film does have a number of redeeming features - particularly the cinematography, which features some beautifully shot and arresting images of the natural world. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I would be rushing out to give it an award if I was on the board of the Polish Oscars.

Rating: 6/10



Easy A (2010)

A modern reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as a high school comedy.Emma Stone stars as Olive, a good girl who finds her reputation in tatters after (incorrect) rumours of her promiscuity are spread around the school by a judgmental classmate, but decides to make the most of the situation and make a little money on the side. I have to say that I was a little disappointed by this one - I'd seen quite a few positive reviews, so was rather looking forward to it, but ultimately, I felt the film had a number of problems. Firstly (and I suppose this is a common issue with high school comedies) almost every student at the school looked way too old - I'd guess that the average age of the actors playing Olive's peers would be somewhere around 25, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were pushing thirty. Secondly, one of the central elements of the movie's premise was that until rumours of her 'easiness' were spread around, Olive was a completely overlooked and unremarkable girl; it seems pretty improbable that a girl as good looking and confident as Emma Stone would be so anonymous in her own school. Thirdly, it seems unlikely that in a modern West Coast high school, Olive would become such an outcast just because she had sex - I could maybe see that as possible if the film was set in the Westboro Baptist Church or Iran or somewhere, but in modern, progressive California? No way! Despite all of those issues, the film still almost worked for me, largely because of the impressive lead performance from Emma Stone. She has a natural charisma and charm that enables the viewer to look past the sometimes hokey nature of the script and the fairly ordinary performances provided by some of the supporting cast. I should also mention that I really enjoyed Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her (extremely) laid back parents - pretty much every scene in which they appear to offer their often unhelpful advice to Olive feels a cut above the rest of the movie. So, overall then, a pretty average comedy which is boosted by some great performances by certain members of the cast.

Rating: 6/10



Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

A sequel to Guy Ritchie's 2009 movie, this one sees the master detective (Robert Downey Jr.) head around Europe in an effort to unravel a dastardly plot hatched by his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). He is ably assisted as always by Dr Watson (Jude Law), his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) and a mysterious French fortune teller (played by the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace), whose brother is somehow connected with Moriarty's evil scheme. As with the previous film, this version of Holmes is more like a 19th century action hero than the intellectual found within the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic stories. He brawls with muscle bound thugs on the streets, hurls soldiers from the doors of moving trains, attempts to defuse bombs and dodges bullets and shrapnel in a German forest in his efforts to bring down his foe. Although I have to say I am more of a fan of the original conception of Sherlock Holmes, as an action adventure, this film is difficult to beat. Ritchie stages the various major setpieces expertly, and the story moves from one European location to another at rapid speed, so we never really have time to question any inconsistencies. It's obviously a big plus that he's been able to put together such a talented group of actors for the film - though some of them are a little underused (poor old Eddie Marsan, as Inspector Lestrade, has all of two lines in the movie). The movie also has a terrific ending, which (without giving too much away) nods back to one of the greatest Holmes short stories of all. All in all, one of the best big budget films I've seen in the cinema this year.

Rating: 8/10



Man on Wire (2008)

An interesting documentary, which looks back to the year 1974, when Frenchman Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. To be honest, I'd never heard of this story before I became aware of this documentary, but it is a pretty astonishing tale. Petit and his accomplices had no support from the authorities for their actions, and in order to carry out the stunt it was necessary for them to pose as workmen, sneak into both of the towers (in separate teams) and set up the wire across the roofs of both buildings. All of this took a great deal of planning and it is apparent from the interviews carried out with key participants in the event that it could all have gone wrong on a number of occasions. Though I found Mr Petit himself to be a little arrogant, this is certainly a film worth watching - and one which seems especially poignant now, given that the September the 11th attacks mean that such a feat can never again be completed.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 12 December 2011

That was the week that was (5 December - 11 December)

Rather like the pompous lecturer played by Peter Capaldi in Peep Show, this week I've been spending much of my spare time reading, so haven't had a huge amount of time for watching films. (I've also been working on Rhombus magazine, my little folly). What have I been reading, I hear you ask? Well, nothing too highbrow, I'm afraid - I finished off Stewart Lee's collection of his stand up routines, and have now moved on to The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. It's not bad - the prose isn't always particularly elegant (possibly because it's a translation into English from Norwegian), but the plot is very gripping, and 450 pages in, I'm still none the wiser as to who the killer is.

Well, fascinating insights into my reading habits aside, let's move on to this week's reviews.

Being There (1979)

To be honest, I saw this picture on Monday and have already largely forgotten it - I'm not sure if that says more about my decaying mental faculties, or the quality of the movie. Looks like I may have to quit sniffin' glue in the near future. Anyway, this one stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a middle aged and slow witted gardener who has been working on the same country estate for most of his life. After his employer dies, he is left to fend for himself in a rough neighbourhood in Washington DC, but after being hit by the limousine of the wife of a wealthy businesssman (Shirley Maclaine), he becomes a friend of the family and is able to stay in their sprawling country home. Throughout the film, Chance's simple minded statements about gardening are taken as insightful and profound meditations on the state of the nation, and he rises to national prominence as an advisor to the president himself. I guess this is a comment on the way people judge others on the way that they look; Chance's impeccably tailored appearance makes him look like a wealthy and important person, so people around him view him on that basis. It seems a little implausible that Chance would be able to take in so many people, based merely on his appearance, but there you go. Despite the slightly implausible plot, from what I remember of it, this is a solid film, with good performances from Sellers, Maclaine and Melvyn Douglas.

Rating: 7/10



The Searchers (1956)

In which John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a grizzled old cowboy, on the hunt for the Indians who have kidnapped his niece. He's joined on his quest by the girl's stepbrother, Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter), who is himself part Cherokee. There are always high expectations when seeing a film which is regarded as a classic, and to be honest, for me, this film didn't really live up to them. I feel like a bit of a philistine in being so critical to a film which so many people have acclaimed, but as the film progressed, I was just looking forward to the end so that I could take the disc out of my DVD player, and send it back from whence it came (LOVEFiLM's big warehouse o' films). For me, one of the main problems was with the pacing of the film - the search went on, and on, and on, with little interesting incident en route. Some of the humour in the exchanges between Martin Pawley and his fiancee now seems very dated, as does the macho posturing of John Wayne's character. On the plus side, the cinematography is top notch, taking full advantage of the technicolour film with some gorgeous footage of Utah's Monument Valley. I wouldn't say watching this film was a total waste of time, but I don't see myself returning it in the future.

Rating: 5/10



We Are What We Are (2010)

My favourite film of the week and definitely the best Mexican cannibal movie I've seen this year. The film opens with the father of the family in great pain and distress, shuffling around an ultramodern shopping centre before collapsing on the floor and dying. At his autopsy, the pathologist makes a grisly discovery - contained within the man's stomach contents was an undigested human finger... We then get to meet the rest of the family - a mother and three teenaged children - whose life had previously been based around eating whoever Pop brought home to dinner. With their father now out of the picture, his progeny now need to fend for themselves, and they soon discover that it isn't going to be easy for them to find fresh prey. Despite the grisly subject matter, the film works as a satire of the failings of modern day Mexico - with incompetent and corrupt police and the marginalised and impoverished people on the edge of society (such as prostitutes and street children) easy prey for monstrous elements within Mexico City. Despite the family's horrific and deplorable actions, each member of the family is a recognisable and relatable character, and I found myself rooting for them to get away with it, even as the police drew ever close to them. From an acting point of view, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paulina Gaitan (who I also liked in Sin Nombre) as the strong willed and sensible daughter. The film is also strong on the visual front - with a striking contrast shown between the cold, antiseptic environs of the upmarket shopping mall, and the filthy, squalid conditions in the poorer areas of town. For some reason, this movie has only been rated as a '5.7' on IMDB, but I'd rate it much more highly than that.

Rating: 8/10



Tyson (2008)

This recent documentary from James Toback makes an interesting companion piece to the Bobby Fischer film which I saw last week. Like Fischer, Mike Tyson was a boy who grew up, neglected and (in Tyson's case) bullied, in a poor part of Brooklyn, was able to escape his humble origins by excelling in his chosen pursuit but was brought crashing down to Earth by his personal demons. The film tells Tyson's story entirely in his own words, though he isn't always the most articulate of storytellers, and of course this means that we only get one side of the story. Tyson's words are accompanied by footage of his career as a fighter, as we see him develop from a highly promising teenage Olympic champ, to the astonishingly brutal days of his 'Baddest Man on the Planet' era and through to his nadir as a washed up pug fighting second rate British heavyweights to pay off his extensive bills. Thankfully, unlike Bobby Fischer, it seems that Mike Tyson has been able to find some stability in his life now as a family man and pigeon fancier, so there is hope that his story will have a happier ending than that of the former World Chess Champion.

Rating: 7/10



Another Earth (2011)

Watching this film, I felt rather like I'd been subjected to a bait-and-switch manouevre by the film's promotr- from the title, I expected a sci-fi movie exploring the implications of parallel universes, but instead I got a low key indie drama about a young woman attempting to atone for a terrible mistake she made as a teenager. Which is fine, but y'know, if they'd decided to call the movie Atonement 'Intergalactic Space Warriors', I would have expected a rather different film than the one which I actually saw. To be fair, the film does include a background storyline in which a second planet Earth has been spotted orbiting our own planet - a world which acts as an exact double of Earth as we know it, complete with doppelgangers of every person on the planet. However, this concept is very much peripheral to the central plotline of the movie, which focusses on Rhoda (Brit Marling), who has recently been released from prison after serving a three year sentence for a drink driving incident that lead to the death of a Yale professor's wife and son. In an effort to make up for what she has done, she begins cleaning the man's house (though he is unaware of her true identity) and things start to get complicated as the pair develop romantic feelings for one another. Though a little on the slow side, the story is fairly well told, with a strong performance from Marling in the lead role. The film also gains plus points in my book for featuring the strange and eery sounds of the musical saw - it's the first time I've seen that instrument in a film since I watched Delicatessen. However, I felt like a potentially fascinating premise had been wasted, and I would rather have seen an exploration of the other Earth and its inhabitants. As such, I found the movie to be rather frustrating.

Rating: 6/10



How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

This is one story of a boy flying high on his magical dragon that does not, as far as I'm aware, have any drug connotations. Set in a remote village where Vikings have been battling dragons for generations, our hero is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the teenage son of the clan's chief, Stoick the Vast. As a scrawny youngster without any aptitude for fighting, he is a disappointment to his father, but he comes to discover that his talents lie in another direction. He is able to befriend and train a fallen dragon, and comes to realise that it may be possible for Viking and dragon to live together in peace without the need for bloodshed... After a weekend of rather depressing films involving Mexican cannibals, Mike Tyson's troubled psyche and a broken woman expressing her remorse over causing the death of a family in a car crash, it was a welcome change of pace to watch something a little more innocent and wholesome. Although this movie is aimed at a younger audience, there's plenty in there for adults to enjoy. The animation, particularly during the battle sequences, is highly impressive, the script is frequently amusing and the voice cast all do decent work with their respective parts. As a minor negative point, the film seems a bit confused, geographically and linguistically - for some reason, the elder Vikings speak with Scottish accents, while the younger ones are American. Anyway, while I wouldn't put this one up there with Pixar's greatest hits, it's a very enjoyable ride.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 5 December 2011

That was the week that was (28 November - 4 December)

A fairly quiet week, this time around. I had intended to see 50/50 at the cinema yesterday, but on discovering it was only playing at the 'Director's Hall' at the multiplex (where you have to pay something like £13 to get in), I decided against paying those outrageous prices. I think I'll just have to wait until it's out on DVD.

Bobby Fischer Against The World (2011)

As well as being someone who watches far too many movies, I'm also a keen chess player - yes, I'm THAT cool. Anyway, whether you're interested in the game of chess or not, the story of Bobby Fischer, one of the few Western players to become world champion, is a fascinating oneThe movie charts a course in Fischer's life, from his days as a teenage chess prodigy in Brooklyn, to his famous world title match against Boris Spassky, his withdrawal from public life and to his final years as a rabidly anti-Semetic lunatic. Fischer was, of course, a very private person, but the filmmakers here have found a fairly broad range of former opponents, relatives and friends who were prepared to shed some light on what the man himself was like behind the scenes. Though we may never know the exact reasons behind Fischer's eventual descent into madness, the film makes a compelling case that it was rooted in his childhood; as a boy, his father had left the family before he was born, and his mother was far more interested in radical politics than in her son. This drove Bobby to immerse himself in the world of chess, to the exclusion of all other interests and activities. Though at first he was able to exploit this obsession by virtue of his prodigious talent over the chess board, once he won the world championship, he was unable to deal with the fame - and the paranoia and eccentricity which had been present in his character even before his victory over Spassky took over to the point where he became a recluse. It's a very interesting documentary, and recommended for anyone with an interest in Fischer, or chess in general (though one slight quibble I do have is in the lack of actual positions from Fischer's games shown in the film).

Rating: 8/10



The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

From Bobby Fischer to another film about a tormented outsider. Tony Richardson's classic early '60s movie is a look into the life of working class tearaway Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), who has found himself in a Borstal after burgling a local bakery (How's that for alliteration?!). Smith's aptitude for cross country running wins him the admiration of the headmaster of the institution, who wants to exploit the boy's talent as a showcase for the excellent work he feels the reform school is doing. Colin, however, has other ideas...  I was a little reluctant about seeing this movie, thinking at first that it might be rather worthy and dull, but I came away having thoroughly enjoyed the picture. I was very impressed with the way the story of how Colin came to end up in the Borstal was told through stream of conciousness flashbacks during the course of his long distance runs, and the film combines great visual flair in its direction, an interesting and fitting jazz soundtrack, some strong performances (particularly from Tom Courtenay) and a stirringly rebellious climax.

Rating: 8/10



Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

I watched this one as the second part of a double bill with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - and it was a fitting companion to that film. Both movies are by the same writer, Alan Sillitoe, and both explore issues of class and rebellion in a similar period in British history. On this occasion, our protagonist is Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney, looking rather more youthful and handsome than when I last saw him on the big screen - playing the family patriach in Big Fish). Arthur is a machinist at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham by day, but outside of work his interests include philandering, drinking, philosophising about his situation in life - and shooting his neighbours on the backside with a BB gun. The plot in this one largely centres on Arthur's romantic entanglements - he's been having an affair with the wife of one of his colleagues at the factory, but when he meets the beautiful but proper Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), he has to decide in which direction his life is to go. The cinematography here is fine, though is a little lacklustre in comparison with the more inventive work seen in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. One interesting thing I noticed was that the title of the Arctic Monkeys first album is a direct lift of a quote from this movie, one which sums up Arthur's contradictory nature: "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." This was an amusing and entertaining movie on the whole, despite Arthur Seaton being rather an unsympathetic character.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 28 November 2011

That was the week that was (21 - 27 November)

Another pretty busy week - six movies to cover, all movies I hadn't seen before, too. After a few weeks without venturing into the multiplex, I was back with a (bit of a) vengeance this week, watching In Time and Moneyball. More on those films below...

In Time (2011)

This movie is set in an alternative future in which everybody stops aging at 25, but on reaching that milestone, you need to earn time to top up a clock located on your wrist; if you fail to do so, you'll drop dead. In this world, those rich in time live forever in exclusive areas of the city, while the poor work, beg or steal in order to avoid their body clocks running down. Justin Timberlake plays a put upon drudge from the city's 'ghetto' who unexpectedly comes into a windfall of 100 years from a suicidal businessman. With his newfound fortune, he is able to access the rich and decadent world of the immortals, and ultimately goes on the run with a wayward rich girl (Amanda Seyfried), as they seek to play Robin Hood and do a little time redistribution...  To be honest, I went into this one as an Orange Wednesday with pretty low expectations - and all I really say is that I'm glad I wasn't paying full price for the experience. It's a pretty interesting concept on paper, but the execution is off in a number of different ways. Some of the acting is pretty poor - I liked Timberlake as the charismatic web entrepeneur Sean Parker in The Social Network - but here he seems a little out of his depth , and struggles with scenes in which he's required to emote. Another issue I had with the movie is that the set design, special effects and costumes seemed to have been put together on the cheap, with the effect that rather than seeing dystopian future, I was always aware that I was just watching some actors run around some industrial parts of the greater Los Angeles area. Finally, there were a high number of plot holes and implausible situations in this picture. Like - how come you can access a bank's safe by driving through its plate grass windows in a truck? Why doesn't Cillian Murphy (as a time cop on the trail of the two leads) bother to top up his time when he's so close to dying? How the hell is Timberlake's magic arm wrestling manoeuvre supposed to work? And that's just scratching the surface. On the plus side, the movie does star Amanda Seyfried, who's pretty easy on the eyes, as well as Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men's Peter Campbell) who's good value as the villain of the piece. I suppose I wasn't exactly bored watching the movie, and it wasn't like I was ever tempted to walk out, but it fails in too many areas for me to give it a passing grade.

Rating: 4/10



One Night in Turin (2010)

A recent documentary which looks back at England's World Cup campaign in 1990, when Bobby Robson and his boys came heartbreakingly close to winning the trophy on foreign soil for the first time. For me, this was a welcome wallow in nostalgia; I was eight years old during Italia '90 and fascinated by football, so I have vivid memories of that tournament which I really enjoyed reliving. It was also interesting to see the ways in which the players acted - back then, football wasn't the megabucks business it's become in this day and age, and the players (particularly Gazza) act in a natural way, mercifully free of all the media training which today's players receive. Despite the all that, I can't rate this documentary too highly, and it's mainly for one reason - the editing of the match sequences. Rather than just using footage from the England games in question, the filmmakers have decided to splice in close up footage (which is supposed to be of the players at the time, but has obviously been shot recently), which has a jarring effect and on occasion means you can't even see the goals being scored. England's journey at Italia '90 is a fine story and one dear to my heart, but I feel the way it's been told here could do with some work.

Rating: 6/10



The Town (2010)

After he starred in a number of turkeys like Gigli and Pearl Harbour, Ben Affleck's stature as an actor was pretty much shot. He managed to turn that around (to some extent) by directing and starring in the gritty Boston crime drama Gone Baby Gone. This is his follow up to that movie, again set in a working class Boston neighbourhood, but this time focussing on armed robbery rather than kidnapping. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, the leader of a gang of bank robbers, who falls in love with a bank employee (Rebecca Hall) who had been kidnapped by the gang in their most recent raid.  MacRay initially tracks the girl down in order to see whether she is likely to give his gang away to the FBI, but as their relationship progresses, his affection for her leads to him questioning whether he should be pursuing a life of crime. However,  Affleck's chief lieutenant (Jeremy Renner) keeps pushing him to commit bigger and bigger scores, despite the authorities increasing interest in the gang's activities. I wouldn't say I was blown away by this movie, but it was solidly entertaining, if a little on the long side. Rather like the '90s heist drama Heat, The Town features long sequences in which the crims question their choices in life, followed by explosive set pieces in which the robberies take place; the most memorable of which sees the gang enter into a pitched battle with the police on the streets outside Fenway Park. Affleck has assembled a pretty impressive cast for his second effort as a director, and the likes of Pete Postlethwaite, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner all put in solid work. I'm not sure that he's quite banished the ghosts of the series of stinkers he put out not so long ago, but Affleck is definitely rebuilding his reputation as a credible performer and director.

Rating: 7/10



Inferno (1980)

Dario Argento's sequel to the brilliant Suspiria is another bloodcurdling tale of witchcraft and grisly murder. In this picture, it is established that there are three powerful witches who control the world: Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sorrow (who was dispatched in Suspiria); Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness (who is the main antagonist in this movie), and Mater Lachrymarum, the beautiful Mother of Tears (who appears briefly in this film, but would have to wait until 2007 to get her own movie). Unfortunately for Mark Elliot and his sister Rose, they both have the misfortune to choose to live in houses occupied by the two remaining witches. This is a hard film to assess - on the negative side, it's poorly scripted, some of the scenes here are laughably bad (my favourite being the bit where the crazy old antique seller decides to try and drown a sack full of cats, but instead falls into the river and finds himself being eaten by rats. We know this because he keeps shouting "I AM BEING EATEN ALIVE BY RATS!" at the top of this voice); the plot makes little or no sense;  the characters act like idiots, making some ludicrously stupid decisions; and some of the acting is really, really bad. Despite all of the above, I still kind of liked this movie. Argento is able to create almost unbearable tension at times, with some terrifying scenes in which our protagonists are stalked around dark spaces by barely seen, black gloved assailants. The movie is beautifully shot and undeniably stylish, with Argento using some wonderfully vivid colours in the decor of the haunted houses. For me, it's a deeply flawed picture, with brilliant highs and embarassing lows - but a film which has moments which will probably stay with me far longer than anything in any of the other, more conventional films I've seen this week.

Rating: 6/10



Spider (2002)

Another week, another David Cronenbourg film that can be checked off my list. (Of DC's major releases, I think the only ones I still need to see are Shivers, Naked Lunch and Crash. I probably shouldn't watch those three as a back-to-back triple bill unless I fancy spending an extended period of time with a psychiatrist afterwards...) Spider is one of Cronenbourg's more recent offerings, and though it lacks the visceral shocks of his earlier movies, it's just as disturbing, albeit in a slower, subtler way. The film tells the story of Dennis "Spider" Cleg, a severely disturbed man in his 30s (played by Ralph Fiennes). Mr Cleg has recently been released from the mental institution where he has spent most of his adult life into a halfway house, located in some dingy, anonymous part of London. Once there, he withdraws from the company of the fellow residents, instead spending his days running through a series of traumatic events from his childhood. Though a little slow paced, this is a fine film and features a wonderful lead performance from Ralph Fiennes as a mumbling, shambling husk of a man, forever haunted by his tragic past. As a paranoid schizophrenic, Cleg is the definition of an unreliable narrator, so we are never quite sure if what we are seeing is something which really happened, or is just the product of his fevered imagination. As part of Cronenbourg's efforts to ensure that we look at the world through the eyes of a paranoid and delusional individual, he uses Miranda Richardson in three different roles - intially as Spider's affectionate, idealised mother, but also as the tawdry prostitute who begins an affair with Spider's father, and finally (in the latter stages of the film) as the unpleasant landlady of the halfway house.  It's another brilliant film by David Cronenbourg, one which rewards the viewer's patience with a powerful climax, in which we realise what has really transpired in Spider's past, and the reasons why he has ended up in such a terrible place (both literally and figuratively).

Rating: 8/10



Moneyball (2011)

My second trip to the cinema this week turned out to be a much more worthwhile experience; in stark contrast to the disappointing In Time, Moneyball is a highly polished film which is likely to be in the running for a few Oscars next year. Based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, the movie is a fictionalised account of the fortunes of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in their 2002 campaign. In particular, we look at the way the team's General Manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) decides to use the statistical knowhow of Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in an effort to gain an advantage over teams with far higher payrolls. In taking this approach, Beane angers the majority of the scouts and coaches within his organisation, who seek to rely on the old fashioned, less tangible methods of evaluating a player's worth. For me, the film works largely because of an excellent script from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, who give Brad Pitt some fantastic dialogue to deliver as the charismatic Billy Beane. A number of actors in supporting roles also do a good job, particularly Jonah Hill who is cast against type as the rather shy, ineffectual Brand. I should also mention the crisp, beautiful cinematography provided by Christopher Nolan's regular director of photography, Wally Pfister. As a minor caveat to what I've stated above, this is a movie where some knowledge of baseball is required; for those people without a rudimentary grounding in the basics of the game, the discussions between Billy Beane and Peter Brand may well seem to be incomprehensible. Still, if you are a fan of America's national pastime, it's definitely one to catch.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 21 November 2011

That was the week that was (14 - 20 November)

After gorging myself on an excessive diet of horror movies last week, I'm back with a sensible sized portion of movies this time out. In other news, I decided to upgrade and get myself a Blu Ray player - which means I'm now up to date with the year 2006. At some point I'm going to trade in my Penny Farthing for a modern 'bicycle', and replace my fob watch with one of these new fangled 'wristwatches' I've been hearing about too.

Juice (1992)

Made back in the halcyon days of the early '90s, Juice tells the story of four young men growing up on the mean streets of Harlem. We have the natural leader Raheem, his pudgy sidekick Steel, wannabe DJ Q and the crazy but charismatic Bishop, who leads his friends down a dark path when he persuades them to help him hold up a convenience store.  I used to be quite keen on this sort of hip-hop movie when I was a student - I remember really liking Boyz N The Hood (and to a lesser extent) Menace II Society.  Watching this one some years later, some aspects of the film look pretty dated (such as the DJ scratching contest MC'ed by Queen Latifah), but overall, this is one of the better examples of the genre. The cast are generally solid, and include a supporting turn for Samuel L Jackson, but Tupac Shakur steals the show with his powerful performance as the charismatic but psychotic Bishop. On the negative side, the way the film ends seems highly implausible to me; without going into too much detail, one of the characters is shot in the arm, but is able to carry on running with barely a break in his stride - he then engages in a fistfight, using the arm in which he had previously been shot. I don't want to get too down on the movie, though - aside from that misstep, it's a well told story and definitely worth checking out.

Rating: 7/10



The Consequences of Love (2004)

This recent Italian movie is set in an upscale but dreary Swiss hotel, where our protagonist, a mafia bagman named Titta di Gerolamo whiles away his hours. In a previous life as a financier in Southern Italy, he lost the mob a huge amount of money and as a result was placed in exile in Switzerland, unable to return to his family. His years of isolation have left him numb and lost in his own little world - until he forms an attachment to a waitress at the hotel which finally shakes him out of his torpor...  I came across this movie as it was a Guardian journalist's selection for his favourite film in their recent series, and I'm glad that I did. The cinematography is cold, precise and beautiful - a perfect match to the movie's themes of isolation, loneliness and regret. It's all backed by an appropriately melancholy and dissonant soundtrack of modern electronica. As with Juice, my only real complaint with this movie is the ending - I don't want to give out any spoilers, but I wasn't convinced by Titta's motivations for acting the way he did in the final scenes. Otherwise though, this is a fine piece of filmmaking.

Rating: 8/10



The Color of Money (1986)

In which Paul Newman reprises his iconic role as 'Fast' Eddie Felson, who is now a retired pool hustler schooling his raw young protege (Tom Cruise) in the arts of making money from his natural gifts as a champion nine-ball player...  I'm not sure how LOVEFiLM sort out which movies from my list I get sent in the post, but occasionally, those films are linked together - as was the case this week, when I received a couple of pictures from the mid '80s starring everyone's favourite Scientologist, The Cruiser. To be honest, I'm not really a fan of the guy - his offscreen craziness has really affected my ability to accept him in roles where he's playing an everyday Joe. Still, I can't deny that at times he can be a very effective actor, and I've liked him in those roles where he decides to stretch himself - such as in his portrayal of the odious motivational speaker Frank Mackey in Magnolia. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those films - by the end of this movie I think we're supposed to feel bad that getting involved in the shady world of pool hustling has changed Cruise's character (Vince) from a loveable innocent into a . From my perspective though, Vince was pretty obnoxious from the start, so his journey from one form of obnoxiousness to another didn't really move me. This movie wasn't all bad though - this movie is a follow up to the classic The Hustler, was directed by Martin Scorsese and co-stars Paul Newman and (in a small role) John Turturro, so there are definitely a number of redeeming features. For me, the end of the film, when the emphasis was shifted away from Vince and back onto Fast Eddie (making his comeback as a pool player), was the most successful part of the film. Ultimately, I didn't really care too much about Vince's character arc, but seeing Paul Newman get back into action was really rousing stuff.

Rating: 7/10



Rabid (1977)

Continuing my recent interest in David Cronenbourg movies, Rabid depicts the outbreak of a highly contagious rabies-like disease, which turns those infected into rage filled zombies, desparate for the sweet, sweet taste of human flesh. The outbreak is spread around by a Typhoid Mary-like young woman (Marilyn Chambers), who wakes up from a coma to find that she has an overwhelming desire to drink blood...  I found this to be a very uneven movie - the first half hour, which sets the scene, is very slow-paced, and the budget constraints are all too apparent in the cheap looking hospital location and hammy acting of the cast. However, once the disease spreads to the city, the pace really quickens, and there are a number of genuinely scary (and a few very funny) scenes in which rabid zombies attack unsuspecting bystanders. Of course, being a David Cronenbourg picture, there is an element of bizarre body horror - it is established that for some inexplicable reason, the source of the new disease is a kind of fleshy stinger which grows out of Marilyn Chambers armpit while she's in a coma. Much like the fleshy USB ports in Existenz, it really has to be seen to be believed. The film is a bit of a mixed bag really and not as good as The Brood or The Fly, but it's still entertaining enough.

Rating: 7/10



Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

So, here we have the second Tom Cruise movie of the week, and it represents an interesting contrast to The Color of Money. In the Scorsese movie, for me, Cruise really dragged the quality of the film down, as I found his the swagger and bravado of his character grating even before his transformation into an unscrupulous pool shark. In this movie, directed by Oliver Stone, I was very impressed by Cruise's performance, in which he was required to portray real life figure Ron Kovic in various stages of his life, as Kovic progressed from wide eyed, all-American boy to angry, hard-drinking disabled veteran and finally to the anti-war protester that Kovic became. As I say, I really liked Tom Cruise's commitment to his performance here, so I think it's just a bit of a shame that this movie has some major issues. I felt that Oliver Stone could have really used a little subtlety and restraint in telling Kovic's story - as a powerful story in it's own right, it really doesn't need to be delivered in such a brazen fashion. Instead, in many of sections of the movie, he at times goes way over the top in making sure the viewer gets his anti-war message. The opening scenes are set in a wildly idealised nostalgic view of pre-Vietnam America, and  pretty much every conversation held between the young Kovic and his schoolyard pals is designed to let us know that THESE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN BRAINWASHED BY THE GOVERNMENT. Things get better (and less OTT) in the effective scenes set in 'Nam itself, and the filthy VA hospital where Kovic finds himself after his injuries, but a scene late in the film in which a desparate Kovic hits ROCK BOTTOM by fighting (a similarly wheelchair bound) Willem Dafoe is so excessive that it becomes unintentionally amusing.  Still, while directed in a very bombastic way, Stone gets his message across, and when he isn't bashing us over the head with his beliefs, some of the quieter scenes, in which Kovic comes to realise what he's lost, are very moving.

Rating: 7/10



Stand By Me (1986)

As I have now upgraded to Blu Ray (see preamble, above), I decided to buy a couple of films to try out the exciting new technology. I chose this classic Rob Reiner movie as one of them. Old Rob had quite a run of success back in the '80s, directing great movies like This Is Spinal Tap, Misery and The Princess Bride, though he's subsequently been responsible for quite a few duds. Anyway, the movie itself was as good as ever, a bittersweet tale of growing up in Oregon in the 1950s with a great soundtrack. It features a brilliant performance from a young River Phoenix as part of a gang of four off in search of a dead body which has reputedly been dumped near some railway tracks nearby. He's ably supported by Corey Feldman (before he went a bit crazy and went on reality TV), Wil Wheaton and Jerry O'Connell. I'd say this is up there with the very best Stephen King adaptations - not quite as great as The Shining perhaps, but in the same bracket as Misery, The Shawshank Redemption and Carrie. As for the Blu Ray trial,  I think the colour on my TV needs to be turned down a bit for Blu Ray discs - everything looked unnaturally vivid, with the effect that it appeared that certain (male) characters were wearing lipstick...

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 14 November 2011

Horror Week (7 - 13 November) - Part Two


Here we go then, part two of Horror Week...

Friday

Unlike 'Zombie Thursday', there was no real theme to the movies I watched on Friday - I started with Audition (1999), a film with a fearsome reputation. I'd read about the film extensively before I watched it, which may have taken away some of it's power (I understand that the best way to experience it is to go in cold with no knowledge of what awaits you - that way, the unexpected shift from the film's quiet first half to its brutal ending will be more powerful). All the same, it's a wonderfully made film, featuring some beautiful cinematography and an incredibly disturbing ending. Rating: 8/10. Next up was The Crazies (1973) - another Romero film, though probably the weakest of his pictures which I've seen. A plane has crashed near to a small town in Pennslyvania, meaning that the town's residents have been exposed to a deadly and contagious virus with the ability to turn those exposed to it into a violent lunatic. It's a promising idea for a movie and I really like the opening scene, but I felt the execution was a little off - there were too many scenes of army officers and scientists shouting at each other, and too few scenes of the townspeople going nuts. So for me, it's only a 5/10. Next up was Drag Me To Hell (2009), which stars Alison Lohman as a young bank clerk who becomes the recipient of a terrible curse after antagonising an elderly gypsy lady. This was a film which improved on second viewing - perhaps my expectations were too high going in the first time, but this time around I really liked it. Sure, it's a little lightweight and unfortunately features the acting 'talents' of Justin Long, but it's funny, well paced, has a number of excellent gross out moments, and likeably eccentric performance from Dileep Rao as a spiritual advisor. Rating: 8/10. I finished up the day with something a little lighter - Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), in which Steve Martin and John Candy play a pair of mismatched travelling companions trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving. I'm not a huge John Hughes fan, but for me this is probably his best movie - it successfully combines the comedy with some heartwarming scenes as the pair become friends (and does so without going too far into mawkish sentimentality). There were also a couple of moments which worked particularly well for me - one where Steve Martin completely loses it with an irritatingly chipper car hire employee, and another where John Candy attempts to barter his way into getting a motel room for the night: "I have two dollars... and a Casio...". Rating: 8/10



Saturday

Getting into the tale end of the week now, and I began with Roman Polanski's excellent satantic horror flick, Rosemary's Baby (1968). Polanski adeptly builds the suspense and paranoia, as Rosemary starts to realise that her neighbours are in league with the devil - and are after her unborn child. It contains great work from Mia Farrow (in her first major screen role) and Sydney Blackmer (as the avuncular leader of the conspiracy). Rating: 9/10. I then moved on to A Bay of Blood (1971), Mario Bava's early slasher movie. I'd read a number of pieces praising the film, but I'm afraid I wasn't too impressed with it myself; the murder scenes were well executed (and were later copied in the Friday the 13th series), but the acting was pretty poor on the whole, and I never got particularly interested in the convoluted whodunnit plot. Rating: 5/10. Much better was Dark Water (2002) (the Japanese version rather than the American remake). This movie sees a single mother move into a haunted (and very damp) block of flats with her young daughter. As with Them (Ils), the quotes on the DVD rather misrepresented just how terrifying the film is - it isn't particularly scary, but it does works very well as a moving, poignant ghost story. Rating: 8/10. Finally, I caught another excellent Romero film, Martin (1976). It's a very unusual vampire movie - set in the present day (or at least it was when it was made), it tells the story of the eponymous adolescent, a young man who thirsts for human blood. However, Martin isn't constricted by many of the rules which typically affect vampires - he is able to walk around in broad daylight, has no fear of garlic or crucifixes, and rather than using a hypnotic glare and sharpened canines, he attacks his victims with a razorblade and hypodermic needle filled with a sedative. I think the movie works so well because we're never quite sure whether Martin is actually a vampire - or is just a regular mortal with a thirst for blood. Just as my interest in the film was beginning to wane a little, I was jolted back to attention by a brilliant and brutal ending. Rating: 8/10



Sunday

The final horror movie I watched this week was probably one of the best horror films of all time: The Exorcist (1973). Though the movie is now nearly 40 years old, the famous and tremendously unsettling scenes in the bedroom where the possessed Linda Blair pukes, swears and flies about the place still hold up today. This titanic battle between good and evil contains a number of memorable characters, particularly Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whose struggle with his faith provides the movie with its heart. Not sure if I'll end up seeing it 200 times like Mark Kermode (if I do, I still have 198 more times to go), but it's definitely one of the best films I watched this week - and I'll give it a 9/10. I didn't think it likely that any other horror movie I had to hand was going to top The Exorcist, so I finished off the week with a couple of non-horror titles. First up was Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos) (1997), an interesting Spanish movie which was remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky. Watching it for the second time (and knowing the shock ending to the film) meant that it wasn't quite as involving as the first time, but it's a decent enough movie. Rating: 7/10. The final film of the week was Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), based on the stage play written by David Mamet. It's just a great, great movie - an unbelievable ensemble of actors (Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin and Alan Arkin) bring Mamet's crackling dialogue to life. It's a film which acts as a searing indictment of unfettered capitalism, where the weak are brutalised by the powerful. Perhaps just as importantly, it brought the character Gil to the Simpsons (one of the few late period characters who would be just at home in the show’s golden age)... Rating: 10/10

Horror Week (7 - 13 November) - Part One

Well, it's finally come to pass - my much hyped week o' horror movies has finally taken place, and only a couple of weeks after Halloween, too. Unfortunately, as I was off work this week and had quite a bit of time on my hands, I watched rather more films than I have time to do proper reviews for. I've therefore decided to set this week's blog post out as a sort of diary of each day's events, with a few thoughts on each of the films I watched. Normal service will be resumed next week...

Monday

The week started slowly - I was busy writing up last week's reviews and catching up on Curb Your Enthusiasm, so I didn't get the chance to watch any movies.




Tuesday

Horror week started slowly with the so-so horror/ thriller picture The Hitcher (1986). I must confess I was a little sleepy when watching this one, but the plot didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense - C Thomas Howell spent much of the film running from one explosion to the next, closely followed by a large contingent of Texas sheriffs. Still, Rutger Hauer made for a creepy and charismatic villain, and Jennifer Jason Leigh was good in her smallish supporting role, so it wasn't all bad. I'd give it 6/10. Next up, a real classic '80s horror movie - David Cronenbourg's The Fly (1986). Jeff Goldblum gives a brilliant performance as the mad scientist Seth Brundle, whose DNA is spliced with that of a fly. I suppose the reason why the movie works so well is because we are able to empathise with Brundle, even as his physical condition deteriorates and his actions become increasingly inhuman. Cronenbourg also uses the bigger budget he was given to make this movie to great effect, showing us in grotesque detail the process by which Brundle gradually transforms into the Fly. I love this film - it's probably my favourite Cronenbourg movie - I give it 9/10.



Wednesday

 As promised, I finally got around to seeing Them (aka Ils) (2006), but this was a case where the box promised things such as 'sheer blind terror' which weren't delivered by the movie itself. In some ways it was better than the American remake (The Strangers) - the characters were better developed, the acting a little better - but as a horror film, I didn't find it to be nearly as scary. A couple in an isolated location are chased around their home by a gang of intruders, but here it's all build up, and no pay-off. First they run around their house, then through some woods, then through some tunnels - and after a while all that running gets boring after a while. Rating: 6/10. Next up was Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which asks the question: what if the guy playing the vampire in the 1920s horror film Nosferatu actually was a vampire? Willem Dafoe was suitably sickening as Max Shreck/ Count Orlok, a vampiric being whose grotesque appearance and lust for blood and/ or sex is about as far from the romantic notions of a vampire as you can get. Unfortunately, to my mind, John Malkovich's turn as the director of Nosferatu is much too hammy, and the film as a whole is too slow paced for my tastes. Rating: 6/10. Finally, I watched the surprisingly good Bride of Chucky (1998). I hadn't seen the original Child's Play movies (though I guess I will have to rectify that omission now), but I liked this one. It wasn't scary at all, but then it wasn't really supposed to be (I mean, how frightening can a two foot doll really be?) - it's all played for laughs, and on that score, it's a resounding success. Brad Dourif, who seems to specialise in playing creeps and lunatics does excellent work in voicing the demonic doll, with fine support from Jennifer Tilly as his lover/ partner in crime. Rating: 7/10



Thursday

Thursday was all about George A. Romero. I'm a little ashamed to admit that until this week, Dawn of the Dead was the only part of his original zombie trilogy which I'd seen. Well, I've now seen that trilogy, though I felt it started a little slowly with Night of the Living Dead (1968). I can appreciate that it's a very important film in horror cinema history, in that it laid down the groundrules of the modern zombie picture, but the film was made on the cheap and, at times, it shows. Still, confining the action to an isolated farmhouse, and focussing on the tensions between its inhabitants, as they debate the bext way to survive, does make for an interesting middle section. I'll award it a 6/10. Dawn of the Dead (1978) on the other hand, is just a fantastic movie. Here, we have a different group of survivors hole up in a shopping mall. The increase in the budget results in some much improved special effects and make up work, which is showed off in impressive fashion when the survivors face off against both zombies and a rampaging gang of bikers. As many other people have noticed, Romero uses the shopping mall location as a chance to make some observations about the fact that the zombies aren't too different from the dead-eyed consumers normally found roaming around the shopping mall. For me, this is the best film of the trilogy - my rating for this one is 9/10. By the time Romero made the third part of the trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985) (set inside a military bunker which is one of the last strongholds for the human race after the zombies have taken over), budgets and technology had increased to permit some wonderfully gruesome make up and effects. Unfortunately, the script here isn't quite as sharp as the second instalment, and the evil army captain in charge of the bunker is a rather one dimensional villain. There are still a lot of interesting ideas and concepts here though, and through experiments carried out by scientists at the army base, we learn some interesting facts about how the zombies function. (Also, that they can be trained to fire guns). Rating: 8/10. I also watched a non-horror movie on Thursday evening - The Ides of March (2011). It's a political thriller with an exceptionally strong cast - including Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Marisa Tomei - but the plot is only moderately engaging. I didn't find it to be as interesting a picture as as the real life based All the President's Men, or the more paranoid The Parallax View. Rating: 7/10


Right, I'm going to have to split this post into two parts (I seem to have exceeded the amount of space permitted for labels). Part two coming up in a jiffy...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

That was the week that was (31 October - 6 November)

So, here we go then - another week of reviews. I have the week off next week, so will finally get around to this year's Halloween fest. I had the chance to warm up for it with a couple of horror movies, in anticipation of that extravaganza...

The Brood (1979)


I've become increasingly impressed with the films of David Cronenbourg - I think I've liked every film of his which I've seen - and this early effort is another highly original horror picture from the Canadian maestro. Apparently based on Cronenbourg's real life divorce, which was taking place around the time the movie was filmed, the plot focuses on an invention called 'Psychoplasmics', by which a person's internal neuroses and phobias manifest themselves in physical form. This highly controversial branch of psychiatry is the brainchild of the creepy Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Dr Raglan's star patient is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), who has such severe emotional problems that following a course of psychoplasmic treatment, her rage at the world around her has birthed a group of murderous dwarves, intent on seeking retribution on her family. Meanwhile, her husband, Frank (Art Hindle), must fight to protect his daughter and in laws from these agents of vengeance... Although certain aspects of the movie have been seen before (the diminuitive figures in red raincoats resemble a similar figure in Don't Look Now), the psychiatric angle brought to this film by Cronenbourg makes this film unique. It's a horror movie which ticks all the boxes - it contains moments of genuine suspense, subtle creepiness and disgusting body horror. Though Art Hindle is a little lifeless as Frank, he is more than ably supported by Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, who are both highly captivating in their roles. Having thoroughly enjoyed this movie, as well as Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners and Dead Ringers, I'm now very eager to seek out other early Cronenbourg pictures - Rabid and Shivers sound very interesting indeed...

Rating: 8/10



Big Trouble In Little China (1986)


Watching this movie, I was very aware that how favourably I might look upon a film at least partly depends on my mood and level of wakefulness at the time I'm watching it; I saw the first half of this one late at night, and missed half the lines as I kept drifting off to sleep. At that stage, I wasn't inclined to think too highly of it - from what I saw it consisted mainly of Kurt Russell looking on incredulously as his friends provided line after line of exposition heavy dialogue explaining the mysterious ways of the Far East. However, when I awoke and watched the second half in a much more wakeful frame of mind, I liked the film a great deal better - I was laughing along at the jokes and enjoying the '80s special effects, rather than concentrating on the sometimes clunky dialogue. Anyway, the film itself is an amusing trifle from John Carpenter, in which wisecracking trucker Jack Burton is set adrift in a bizarre underworld of gang warfare and supernatural forces in San Francisco's Chinatown. It's not Carpenter's best work, but contains enough good humour and well executed action sequences to be worth a watch. It also features a strong turn from Carpenter regular Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, rocking a magnificent mullet, a white muscle shirt and some sweet stonewashed jeans. He's able assisted by Dennis Dun and a surprisingly foxy Kim Cattrall. This is a film which was recommended to me by my best friend at school when I was about 9, but for one reason and another, I never got around to seeing it. I'm not sure if it was quite worth the 20 year wait, but it's still pretty good fun.

Rating: 7/10



Saw III (2006)


I had pretty low expectations going in to this one, so I was mildly surprised when it turned out to be not too bad. Of course, 'not bad for a Saw sequel' is hardly a resounding endorsement, but it's entertaining enough, if you don't think too much about it. Of course, it's all wildly implausible - in order to set up his vicious games (kind of like a higher stakes version of the Crystal Maze), Jigsaw would need to have a huge amount of money, impressive skills as an engineer and surgeon, access to psychological profiles for each of his victims, and the good fortune to live in a city with the world's most inept police force. The fact that he's able to do all of this while being on his deathbed, suffering from cancer makes all the more impressive - even more so when the only assistance he has comes from former victim Amanda, who on the evidence of the movie, seems to be incompetent, hotheaded and squeamish. Still, I don't think many people watch a Saw movie for a particularly cohesive plot or fine acting - it's all about the ingenious games, and in this instalment, they come up with some particularly nasty ones. (Particularly the machine which threatens to drown one of its participants in liquified pig guts. Yuck.) All in all, it's a pretty diverting hour and a half, as long as you're prepare to check your brain at the door - and I dare say at some stage I will continue my journey into the exciting world of Jigsaw and pals with Saw IV.

Rating: 5/10



The Sweet Hereafter (1997)


Following on from Saw III, we have another film with a high body count, albeit one which treats the deaths of a group of school children in a school bus disaster with appropriate solemnity. The central storyline here follows lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), as he attempts to persuade the members of the small Canadian town afflicted by the tragedy to pursue a (rather frivolous) law suit against the manufacturers of the bus. Stevens has problems of his own, however - his estranged daughter is fighting a losing battle with a self destructive drug habit. I have mixed feelings about this one; I found the pacing of the movie to be a little ponderous, but there were some beautifully shot footage of the icy Canadian wilderness, and I was impressed by the acting across the board. Ian Holm and Sarah Polley (as the one child in the town to have survived the crash) merit special praise for their respective performances.

Rating: 7/10