Excursions in Film Illiteracy

This page exists primarily to let me record my progress through various lists of great films, as well as whatever inane notes I might want to make on the films themselves. Its utility to anyone other than me is extremely dubious.

Seen Recently

A Passage to India (1984)

7

Stately David Lean adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel about a trial and a friendship against the backdrop of rising racial tensions in British India. While generally excellent -- and doing a particularly good job at showing India's natural beauty -- every time I try and remember anything about it I just remember Alec Guinness in brownface.

Mummy, The (2017)

6

It was supposed to relaunch the classic Universal horror films of yesteryear in a new "Dark Universe": first, The Mummy, a sort of high-octane action take, introducing Tom Cruise to lead the franchise and laying the groundwork for an eventual Avengers-esque team-up (one of the characters in the film is a certain Dr. Jekyll).

It doesn't quite work. The story goes that the Cruise had the film rewritten to his own specifications, reducing the part of the villain in the process; the result is disjointed and lacking the requisite air of menace. It's a shame, because the bones are there: it's closer to being good than most critics gave it credit for and I hope they do end up making the sequels.

Risky Business (1983)

7

I knew nothing about this movie other than the famous image of Tom Cruise sliding across the floor in shirt and without pants; the actual plot, in which young Joel (Cruise) successfully hires a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) and eventually turns his home into a brothel, is mind-boggling -- I imagine that gender politics would prevent it ever being produced today. If anything, though, it's refreshingly direct (other teen sex comedies would be much improved if the matter were dealt with using a professional in negotiable affection).

It's a tightly-written script with charismatic leads and some nice moments provided by "Guido the killer pimp" (Joe Pantoliano looking oh so young). Still worth a look.

Baywatch (2017)

4

I have sometimes asked myself, can The Rock's charisma make anything good? Baywatch proves that the answer is no.

Footloose (1984)

7

I thought I ought to fill in some holes in my pop-culture education, such as this 80s Kevin Bacon hit about a city boy clashing with a small-town preacher who has outlawed dancing.

And it's much better than expected. It's not some rebel-without-a-cause nonsense; characters are plausible and even the preacher, John Lithgow, is well-rounded and treated respectfully. It feels like an authentic portrait of a certain place and time, likeable and compelling.

(Or maybe it just seemed great coming right after Flashdance...)

Flashdance (1983)

5

In all honesty, I only watched Flashdance because I had it confused with Footloose. Alex (Jennifer Beals) dreams of becoming a ballet dancer while working as both an exotic dancer and a welder (?!). The main attraction seems to be the extended sequences of exotic dancing -- had I been a teenager in 1983 this might well have been my favourite film.

Jessica Jones (2015)

8

Jessica Jones might be the best of the Netflix Marvel shows, but, like the others, Jessica herself (Krysten Ritter) is the weak link. The best part of the first season was Kilgrave (David Tennant), so I was skeptical about the potential of the second. But it may be the best one to date, expanding the roles of the supporting cast, particularly Jessica's adopted sister Trish (Rachael Taylor) and a nice side-story for hard-bitten lawyer Jeri (Carrie-Anne Moss). The full package is a superb, compelling character drama about family -- and specifically mothers and daughters -- and about the effect of "superpowers" on society and on close relations. Excellent.

Longmire (2012)

6
Seasons 1-6

Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) is a Wyoming sheriff, haunted by the death of his wife, whose cases frequently involve clashes with the nearby Cheyenne reservation. Generally a sort of generic paint-by-numbers procedural, this focus does add a certain amount of interesting local colour -- murky jurisdictional issues, conflict with the tribal police, traditional practices.

But perhaps the very best thing about Longmire, as a six-season arc, is the development of characters initially treated with great suspicion, most notably tribal cop Mathias (Zahn McClarnon) and local businessman Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez). Walt has the gritty certainty of the aging detective, but it slowly becomes clear that his biases are not necessarily justified.

That all said, it's a solidly B-grade exercise, too sensational to be truly memorable or worthwhile; amongst other things, later seasons include a crazed survivalist cult-leader, the Irish mob, and a character staked out in the sun to die. Half-hearted efforts to engage with real native issues are sidelines at best.

Homefront (2013)

6

A former undercover cop (Jason Statham) moves to a small town for the quiet life, only to clash with a local heavy (James Franco) and have his past come back to haunt him.

Surprisingly good, but Statham is hopelessly miscast -- to type, but not credible in the role. Usually these B-grade actioners are B-grade through and through, but this one has quite a good script; it should have been better.

Bright (2017)

7

Gritty urban action-cop drama (think Training Day) with an urban fantasy twist: the race being discriminated against are the orcs, and Ward (Will Smith) is partnered with America's first orc cop, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). There's a plot involving a prophesy and a magic wand, which works because it's played straight -- magic is uncommon and exceedingly powerful, so when the pair stumble into things they become the target of corrupt cops, gangsters, and of course the big bad killer elf herself (Noomi Rapace).

I heard it described as a buddy cop movie, but I'm not so sure; those have to be funny and Ayer has a tin ear for comedy. It's a generally serious script in any case but moments clearly intended as comic are just awkward. But Ayer does do the urban grit well (again, think Training Day) and was in many ways an inspired choice for this kind of fantasy race-relations story. The action is very good and the magic surprisingly grounded; they compare the wand to a nuclear weapon, and by and large it's treated in the same way as any exotic weapon in an action film.

Most frustrating for me, however, is the lack of worldbuilding, particularly by contrast to something like Hellboy 2. Bright is one of those fantasy worlds with magic (qua hocus pocus) but no magic (qua wonder): what exactly is the point of the exercise?

I hope the sequel goes somewhere more interesting.

Justice League (2017)

6

A pleasant surprised after the unrelenting negativity in early notices. Much has been made of the inconsistency (late reshoots by Joss Whedon adding his trademark comedic touch), and the tonal shifts are sometimes jarring, but in general those those scenes are for the better -- generally making the heroes more human, a much needed change. Henry Cavill's digitally-removed moustache is also unfortunate, but the rest is all... OK.

Where [The Avengers][flim:] was the MCU's triumphant set-piece, Justice League feels like a glue movie: Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill) and Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) get a bit of character progression to move them towards a team dynamic, while Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) get introductions. Even the villain, Steppenwolf (voice provided by CiarĂ¡n Hinds), is known in the source material as a minion of Darkseid; his presence sets up a future meeting, while an end-credits sequence foreshadows a Luthor-led Injustice League.

As such, it sets a low bar and generally meets it. Warner kept it to 120 minutes, which is a little light; Superman in particular is given short shrift and his recovery not given enough time to feel genuine. (This tendency to cut out character development to spare the action seems to be an unfortunate hallmark of the franchise.) The plot moves at a good clip, though, and the action set-pieces ticked off one by one. I won't say that it's great or even good, but it's not bad.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

8

Picking up after his cameo in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming is easily the best Spider-Man film to date and also one of the better entries in the wider MCU canon. New Peter Parker (Tom Holland) cracks wise and chafes that Tony Stark treats him like a kid, pursuing both The Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his teen love interest -- Peter here seems authentically young. Excellent script and great action.

A Christmas Prince (2017)

6

Amber (Rose McIver), a young journalist, stumbles into a job as tutor for princess TotallyUnimportant of a fairytale European country -- sister to handsome Prince Richard (Ben Lamb). Competently hits all the predictable beats for holiday fluff: maybe better performances than it deserves. Undoubtedly a waste of time, but not an unpleasant one.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

4

Odd neo-exploitation from S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) about Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a drug courier, who gets sent to prison and commits great violence. He's a sort of Jack Reacher antihero: indomitable, invincible, perfectly happy to kill people so long as it fits his own moral code.

Violence is realistic in that it's gorey and unpleasant; there are multiple sequences of face-down men having their skulls stomped into concrete, limbs snapped etc.

I say "neo-exploitation" because this violence appears to be the point of the exercise. Vaughn does stoic well, but lack of emotion means that Thomas has all the outward personality of a sack of potatoes. The format does not allow for exploration of any interior life.

The result is that, while it's very well made, there's very little appeal beyond seeing people get torn apart. The plot, such as it is, is good at propelling Thomas between assaults, but there's nothing at the destination other than more violence.

Mr. Housewife (2005)

5

Light Korean dramedy about a house-husband who goes on a TV quiz show for housewives to win back a lost investment. As I find with much Korean media, it's very inconsistent in tone, ranging from total farce to soaring melodrama -- e.g., in one scene Jin-man (Suk-kyu Han) dresses up as a woman to audition for the show, which fortunately/unfortunately ends before the movie can becoming a Korean-style Tootsie; other scenes involve the strain on the couple's relationship as Jin-man's lifestyle collides with Korean social norms.

It all ends without overthrowing those norms, of course...

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

6
BRRRRMMM and fury

I have noted in the past that I find the original Blade Runner worse on every subsequent visit; its unnecessary sequel fares little better. The look and feel has been updated -- directed by Denis Villeneuve, cinematography by Roger Deakins, BRRRRMMMM soundtrack by Hans Zimmer et al recycling leftovers from Inception -- but it crams an hour of material into three hours of Ryan Gosling emotionless in front of bright lights -- at this point a genre until itself.

The film does touch on interesting questions about memory, perception and about artificial life; it's just unfortunate that the plot chooses to leave these concerns in the background. There is nothing of interest in the foreground, just Ryan Gosling mugging for the camera and an aging Harrison Ford wheeled out to remind audiences of past glories.

By far the most interesting character is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), successor of Tyrell as the image of power, this time a transhumanist who uses floating camera drones in place of eyes. Wallace seeks an improved method of replicant mass-production as a cheaper workforce in order that humanity can colonise the stars; he gives and takes life with impunity.

Again, though, this is largely background noise. The plot provides no cause to believe in and no heroes to root for (such a cause does appear to exist in the background, but supported and executed by unknown characters off-screen); and at least Wallace does have ambitions for glory. The stars are surely a better dream than is offered by the other side.

Castle of Illusion (1990)

5

Ostensibly released for both the Master System and Mega Drive, the games were completely different. It's interesting to play them both in quick proximity because so many elements are repeated in such totally different ways -- like both teams took the same concept art and put a distinct spin on it.

Mega Drive:

Growing up I had few opportunities to play the Mega Drive so games like Castle of Illusion passed me by. It's a charming little platformer where Mickey runs through lavish cartoon levels jumping on enemies or throwing collectibles (apples etc.) at them.

It really looks beautiful and there are some wonderful touches in the level design; I particularly liked surprises such as falling into a teacup in the library or sliding down in the playroom.

Castle of Illusion's recent remake must have been driven more by nostalgia than gameplay, in my opinion, because the exercise -- richly-animated Disney atmosphere aimed to charm young players -- neither adds anything to nor gains anything from the genre. If it were made today it would be 3D, because that's how games today are; it's serviceable but mechanically disposable. A good analogue is the endless series of LEGO games (LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Batman etc.), which are a step above shovelware, but still much more about a good time enjoying the setting than anything particularly special in the gameplay.

Master System:

I thought I'd check out the Master System game to see how different they were and was surprised to find myself vastly preferring it. It's very, very short but has excellent (for the console) graphics, more precise controls and better hit detection.

Instead of throwing applies, as in the Mega Drive game, here Mickey can pick up rocks and other items. This lends itself to much more interesting level design, with light puzzles and semi-hidden areas containing treasure chests. The difference, I suppose, is that the Mega Drive game feels like an action platformer and the Master System release has elements of the puzzle platformer.

It's also easier, in part because of the lack of certain cheap hazards in the Mega Drive game -- it just plays better.

ARQ (2016)

5

Low-budget science fiction taking on the "time loop" concept (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow). Renton (Robbie Amell) and Hannah (Rachael Taylor) wake to a home invasion; when they die, they wake again at the same time. The macguffin is the "ARQ", a sort of perpetual-motion machine which it transpires that Renton stole from the evil faction in their post-apocalyptic future. Loops steadily reveal various double-crosses and hidden loyalties, particularly when the invaders also start to remember the resets... but we are heading too far into spoiler territory.

It's a high-concept story that is unfortunately less interesting than it thinks it is, primarily because none of the characters is interesting enough to care about; it's hard to get hung up on a betrayal by a character you don't know. The final twist is quite good, but again leans too heavily on characters not deep enough to invest in emotionally.

Not a waste of time but solidly B-grade.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

7

Enjoyed this even more the second time around and wonder whether I should be rating it higher.

Mickey Blue Eyes (1999)

7

Enjoyable romantic comedy about Michael, an auctioneer and typically diffident Hugh Grant character who discovers that his new fiancee Gina (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is the daughter of a gangster (James Caan). It's more of a light farce than a typical rom-com, and proceeds with that genre's typical building chaos: it starts out as "favours", such as auctioning off the hilariously terrible paintings of boss Vito's son, and ends with hiding bodies.

Much better than I remembered, even if undercharacterized.

Last Stand, The (2013)

6

It's hard to escape the feeling that The Last Stand was greenlit to go after the market cornered by a certain fast and furious franchise: explosions plus fast cars. Small-town police chief Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) faces off against Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), a cartel head who intends to use Owens' sleepy town as his exit into Mexico. To get there he's stolen a prototype supercar...

The players are caricatures, but that's part of the charm; it's a B-movie with A production values. It's an enjoyable combination of bombastic melodrama and ultraviolence, like a telenovela by way of John Woo. Not good, but a good effortless filler.

Little Evil (2017)

5

Eli Craig's previous film Tucker and Dale vs Evil is one of my favourite horror-comedies (the author says with no intention to damn with faint praise), so I was understandably excited at Little Evil's promise of a comic take on the "my child is the antichrist" classic The Omen.

Gary (Adam Scott) has trouble connecting with his step-son Lucas (Owen Atlas), but his support group tells him that what he perceives as clear evidence of demonic intent is justsomething they all go through -- "my daughters literally spend every day working out new ways to torture me", etc. The film (written and directed by Craig) tries, with limited success, to have it both ways; it plays with tropes of saccharine Lifetime movies about parents bonding with step-children while also showing clear evidence of supernatural evil.

I rather suspect that, in script form, Gary's experience comes across as more subjective and perhaps reflecting unreliable narration. On film it doesn't quite work and the tonal shifts are jarring. A similar trick of split perspective worked well in Tucker and Dale, where the audience's omniscient perspective made it clear just how mistaken the characters' assumptions were. In Little Evil, Lucas' mother Samantha (Evangeline Lilly) just comes off as delusional and Gary's character arc nonsensical. The commentary on parenting is clever but as a story it just doesn't work.

It feels like it was greenlit on the basis of a good concept that Craig couldn't quite get to work.

Aladdin (SNES) (1993)

6

It's strange to look back from this era of cross-platform titles -- third-party publishers now command far more influence than they did during the 16-bit console wars -- at this bizarre case of competing publishers releasing very similar games, based on the same licensed property, in the very same month.

Both essentially replay the story of the 1992 Disney film, and if this version (by Capcom for the Super NES) is worse, it's primarily because the Virgin Games release for the Sega MegaDrive was a graphical marvel which even included new animation from Disney. The SNES edition is a solid but comparatively barebones effort pretty far from "Nintendo hard" -- it's short and easy. There's probably a bit too much precision-platforming for a game with controls this imperfect but the level design is generally quite solid.

In terms of actual gameplay it's more of a Mario-style platformer (jumping on enemies etc.) and I prefer that to Virgin's sword-swinging.

Defenders, The (2017)

7

After five seasons of prelude across Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the big Marvel/Netflix team-up is finally here. The bad half of Daredevil season two (i.e., the part with Stick and The Hand) and the worse half of Iron Fist (i.e., the part with The Hand) had Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) already involved with this season's key antagonists, with Cage (Mike Colter) and Jones (Krysten Ritter) stumbling into things from different angles.

It's pretty limp stuff, though mercifully compressed into eight relatively action-packed episodes. Truthfully, it's pretty fantastic action-hero TV, with pretty solid pacing and, of course, fight choreography. The main issue, though, is that these characters' solo outings were generally carried by either the villains or the supporting cast; the main villain here (a good outing for Sigourney Weaver) isn't quite enough and there's not a great deal of room left for the heroes' offsiders. Most of these heroes just aren't very interesting.

Dunkirk (2017)

10

I was skeptical that there was anything new left to do in a war movie, but I was wrong. We've had visceral immersion, patriotic rah-rah, cynical takes, close-up psychological studies etc. etc. Nolan has a reputation for making cold, puzzle-box films and he plays to his strengths; I've never experienced a film so centered on soldiers' distance and alienation from the instruments of war.

Death in Dunkirk comes from enemies unseen. Bullets fly from offscreen, fighter pilots strike from the glare of the sun, bombs fall from untouchable, unreachable distance. The action of Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach is a far cry from Dunkirk's grey light and queues of silent, miserable men waiting in the open for rescue or death. I've never experienced a war film so much about waiting.

The contrasting perspectives -- Cillian Murphy's shivering, shell-shocked rescuee; Tom Hardy's calm pilot dealing death from a distance -- add up to a uniquely horrifying portrayal of the old "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror", but also one with a uniquely uplifting payoff. Wonderful.

Message from the King (2016)

6

Jacob (Chadwick Boseman) arrives in Los Angeles from South Africa in earch of his estranged sister, long since fallen victim to Hollywood's sleazy underbelly. It's Taken by way of The Nice Guys and feels like a solid script ruined, at some point, by interference from an idiot. The core plot is intriguing and unfurls in neat stages; Jacob methodically follows the clues up the chain until the whole sordid mess comes to light, and is resolved (Taken). But even insofar as the plotting is tight, it's padded out by an insipid romantic (?) subplot featuring hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Kelly (Teresa Palmer) and some unnecessary bloviation, particularly on the part of dentist Wentworth (Luke Evans).

In hindsight, the Armand subplot also feels tacked on and neither does the final "twist" make any real sense; it's clear that Jacob is more than the taxi driver he claims to be, but not clear why he would make the pretense in the first place. I'm inclined to think that this was once an excellent script that was "developed" until it wasn't.

It's a shame, because performances are excellent (particularly Boseman and Alfred Molina as a venal film producer) and cinematographer Monika Lenczewska does a great job showing off Los Angeles' grime.

Like so many films that first see the light of day on Netflix it's pretty clearly an also-ran. Video on demand is the new straight-to-DVD.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

6

The critical disdain of this spoof on the summer camp genre is easy to understand; it's a very mixed bag, one moment played straight, the next parodying some niche trope. Changes in tone can be jarring. But perhaps explaining the details would constitute spoilers: part of the charm is in the way various story threads -- Henry (David Hyde Pierce) teaches the nerds about science, damaged veteran Gene (Christopher Meloni) complains in the kitchen -- abruptly elevate their levels of absurdity. It works because of, not in spite of, the abrupt changes in tone.

Pleasantly surprising.

RWBY (2012)

7
Season 4

RWBY's fourth season feels more like a "real" show: better quality animation (change in production software), 20 minute episodes, substantially more time gone to character development.

It also deserves a special shout to the terrible, terrible design of the grimm horseman boss and, to a lesser extent, Tyrian; the loss of Monty Oum has never been so keenly felt.

The good does outweigh the bad, even as its new focus on storytelling -- and the split of the central characters into several groups -- means that very little actually happens. It feels more like the introduction to season 5 than a full season.

RWBY (2012)

7
Seasons 1-3

The confusing title, pronounced "Ruby", reflects the naming convention at Beacon Academy: each team of four student monster hunters is given a colour-themed name derived from the names of its members -- here "RWBY" for Ruby, Weiss, Blake, Yang.

Though evidently inspired by anime and JRPGs -- cute anime girls with huge weapons, each character with themed special abilities and so on -- the series is animated via cel-shaded 3D models and looks more like a game cutscene than an anime.

This description does RWBY a disservice, though, because at its best it's packed with amazingly cinematic action. The production method lends itself extremely well to dynamic camera movement which, combined with surprisingly good fight choreography, allows for scenes that would typically require a vastly higher budget. The highlight to date is likely the food fight in the first episode of the second season, but there are a great many battles and most are well done.

I'm quite confident that the series would not have been so successful if it were not available for free; the first season is not very good and while it does pick up it's still rough around the edges. After it settles in, though, the characters are appealing, there's a compelling overarching story and some of the comic relief is very well done. It's enough to hold you over between battles, at least.

Note for future re-watching: it's actually important to watch the four colour "trailers" before starting season one. Not only are they better than the first episode, elements in them will be referred to later on.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

7

Guardians of the Galaxy holds an interesting place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel's comic universe has always had an unusual tension between small-scale concerns (DareDevil battles crime in Hell's Kitchen, etc.) and its extraplanetary cosmic threats. If it is hard to take The Kingpin of Crime seriously when compared with HYDRA, both are small potatoes compared the empires of Skrull and Kree, Thanos, Galactus, the Living Tribunal etc.

The Thor films have explored the Asgardian cosmology, but other than a cameo in The Avengers only the Guardians have explored the vast, colourful universe away from Earth.

Unsurprisingly, the result is a CG-heavy spectacular forced to try and ground itself with concerns of family and friendship even as the plot progresses through hordes of golden-skinned Mean Girls and a living planet. The requirement to further develop the characters proves somewhat problematic, particularly in the case of Drax (Dave Bautista), recast from dangerous fighter to obnoxious comic relief, and Quill (Chris Pratt), whose character arc is hurt by the requirement that he stay amusingly childish. The lightness of tone and seriousness of action -- e.g. Yondu's (Michael Rooker) lighthearted slaughter -- is occasionally jarring.

It's delightful, though, so have a story so much weirder and wilder than most of the MCU canon, a throwback to Silver Age psychedelia. It's entertaining as heck.