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.

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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.

Beetle Juice (1988)

6

Loving couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) die in an unfortunate accident; their life of deceased domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the obnoxious Deetz family, fresh from New York -- nervous patriarch Charles (Jeffrey Jones), wannabe socialite Delia (Catherine O'Hara), goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) and Delia's flamboyant style maven Otho (Glenn Shadix). To rid themselves of their new living pests, the Maitlands make the mistake of turning to freelance bio-exorcist Beetlegeuse (Michael Keaton), a rather unpleasant poltergeist.

It might be a quintessential 80's family flick but it hasn't aged well, particularly the dreadful special effects, which are very much a product of their time. Beetlegeuse himself is a particularly loathsome character, and on re-watching the film it's interesting to note how little he actually contributes. It's a curious mix of (largely unnecessary) horror and family-friendliness that I'm inclined to think works in spite of the darker elements and not because of them.

Gifted (2017)

7

Mary (Mckenna Grace), a child prodigy, has lived with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) since her mother, a famous mathematician, took her own life. Her entry to the public school system -- and corresponding noise from faculty about advanced education requirements -- attracts the attention of Mary's grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who belives that Mary deserves to be the best: an accelerated course of study that, like her mother, would leave little in her life besides the joys of mathematics. Frank believes that Mary deserves to be a child.

It's a charming, pitch-perfect character piece, not so self-important that it feels like Oscar bait but neither a slight Lifetime exercise. Performances are excellent and it looks great.

Dear White People (2017)

8

I was surprised at the low IMDb rating for Dear White People until I looked at the detailed breakdown and saw 30% votes of one to counterbalance the 30% tens -- an extremely unusual curve illustrated by the current top comment referring to it as "race-baiting garbage". It's the story of a group of (primarily) African-American students navigating race relations at an Ivy League institution. Most episodes follow a different central character, but most are involved in black activism and a central plot does progress -- starting with simmering tensions over a blackface party held by a white-run "satire" mag.

It's actually all rather mystifying; racism in Australia is very different to racism in the USA and its centrality to the lived experience of these characters is almost incomprehensible to me (my society's defining tension is, after all, not race but class). But it's wonderfully written, with well-drawn and likeable characters; it's very funny. Excellent.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

8

John Wick was surprisingly good, but its sequel is a worthy entrant to the action canon. Wick (Keanu Reeves) is pulled back in to repay the favour he requested in order to get out, then spends 90 minutes killing everything that moves.

Part of the improvement this time around is the character's more sensible motive (not this time driven to serial murder by the loss of a family pet) and part is the worldbuilding: it's a much better view into the mysterious and colourful world of Wick's secret society of assassins. But mostly it's better because it's packed with some truly fantastic action sequences, excepting perhaps an unfortunate mistake involving a hall of mirrors. As before, an unstoppable machine on a mission to curbstomp is not particularly sympathetic, but Reeves does convey an appealing air of relentless melancholy.

I'm genuinely interested in seeing what comes next. After that ending there better be a sequel.

Free Fire (2016)

7

It's the late 1970s, the IRA wants to buy some guns, and more is about to go wrong than the fashion. Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is probably best though of as the world's first extended, character-driven black comedy gunfight. The cast spends quite a lot of time lying around wounded, leaving bloody trails while they crawl along the floor, and so on, but they also manage some surprisingly endearing banter. Armie Hammer is particularly enjoyable.

There's not really a whole lot there once all is said and done, but it's a fun ride.

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

5

The follow-up to Under Siege seems like the kind of sequel created by people who didn't understand why the movie they were following up worked. Where that film's charm largely derives from the idea that one man can wage a guerilla war, setting the sequel on a train rather reduces opportunities for anything other than pitched gun battles. And while it's true that the first film saw SEAL-turned-chef Ryback (Steven Seagal) prevent the theft of dangerous nuclear weapons, there was no need to trump that threat with earthquake-causing satellite superweapons: that conflict was never the interesting part.

In any case, it's a charmless sequel inferior in every respect (even Seagal is, somehow, more wooden). Probably now most notable as an early role for Katherine Heigl.

Under Siege (1992)

7

When I was a lad, Under Siege was a name spoken of in the same awed tones as Die Hard: the very top tier of action. Watching it again 20+ years later, it's fair to say that it does not quite hold up to that, with blame primarily laid at the feet of erstwhile star Steven Seagal.

Casey Ryback, ex-SEAL turned ship's cook, has to save the day when his ship, laden with nuclear weapons, is hijacked by ex-CIA asset Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) and the treacherous Commander Krill (Gary Busey). Seagal is dreadful but the action is engaging and the villains delightful.

It's just great fun.

Frat Star (2017)

2

It's about time I learned to stop trusting Netflix's awful star ratings; at time of writing, it's about 4.8/5 stars vs. 3.8/10 at IMDb. It's billed as a black comedy, but it's more accurate to say that it's darkly satirical -- the latter not implying laughs. Nick Cooper (Connor Lawrence) attempts to join a prestigious fraternity; they're wealthy scions who see women as sport, little knowing that their affiliated sorority is eager to play the same game, seeing sex as a means of control.

Nick is persuaded to masquerade as the heir to the Cooper Tyre fortune and abandon his morals, losing everything in the process.

I would normally avoid spoilers but this is not a movie which deserves to be seen. Performances are fine, though various flavours of smarmy douche are not particularly demanding. It's shot without artistry, and crucially fails to reflect any of the energy that ought to make the frat lifestyle appealing; even I've been to parties more exciting than anything on display and I like to be home before 11pm.

The critical problem is the story. It feels like a short film padded out to feature length, produced by creators so young and sheltered that they think Nick's ungraceful descent from nice guy to asshole is in any way interesting. The worst sort of indie garbage.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

5

Third in the nonsensical action series started with 2002's xXx, featuring Vin Diesel as an extreme sports nut, Xander Cage, recruited by CIA agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) for missions too X-X-eXtreme for regular spooks. Diesel didn't even appear in the 2005 sequel (he was replaced by Ice Cube); the series' resurrection after more than a decade is a transparent attempt to capitalize on his current success with the billion-dollar Fast and Furious franchise.

It apes the Furious formula as far as possible, with a large ensemble of misfits (one for every taste!) to blend comic relief with increasingly ridiculous action set-pieces.

The plot is actually rather enjoyable: with Gibbons killed by a falling satellite, Diesel (now living in South America) is recruited to track down the team of thieves assumed responsible. There are enough twists and turns to keep things moving at a cracking pace, which is to say that action sequences are punctuated by occasional dialogue. That the action holds up as well as it does is thanks in no small part to the casting of Donnie Yen as Xiang (Tony Jaa, by contrast, is criminally underused as Talon).

The actors, unfortunately, are given very little to work with. It's not just that the dialogue is terrible; in most cases the delivery is also severely lacking. I'm inclined to blame director D.J. Caruso for this latter issue, but regardless the outcome is embarrassingly terrible. Does the action save it? Maybe. But it's a close thing.

Murder Party (2007)

5

After seeing Green Room I read about this earlier Jeremy Saulnier film and thought I'd dig it up.

Chris (Chris Sharp) receives a Hallowe'en invitation to a "murder party" and is surprised by a group of avant garde artistes who plan to kill him -- to make a statement about, well, something, and more importantly win a key grant.

It's low budget comedy-gore; the characters are absurd and there are some good laughs. I'm not sure that quite so much blood is required, but the horror presentation (like awful late 80s/early 90s moody synth soundtrack) does add something to it. Long-time Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair is a highlight.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

7

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) leads an unhappy, solitary life, one not improved by the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and return to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. By the time the story ends, you will understand just why he is so unhappy.

Affleck is excellent, but I find myself thinking that much of the film's charm is in Kenneth Lonergan's choice to avoid the sort of "healing" so beloved of similar stories closer to the Lifetime end of the spectrum. It's a story about grief and the kind of wounds that don't heal; it's more real for Chandler's small, slow steps forward.

Worth it for Affleck's performance more than anything else.

Green Room (2015)

7

Tightly-written, effective thriller from Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) that draws on horror tropes -- primarily the "isolated location with crazy natives" so beloved of hicksploitation -- but more grounded and played more for realistic, grounded fear than that of the alien other. The villains here, including Macon Blair, Eric Edelstein and Patrick Stewart, are all too real.

It's also part of that recent wave of horror films in which the helpless victims put up unexpected resistance, which I find far more enjoyable.

It looks great, performances are generally solid and there's not a wasted line in it. Excellent.

Moonlight (2016)

8

Beautiful, excoriating, exhausting story of a young black man growing up and discovering his sexuality in a culture dominated by drug abuse and violent machismo. Tough to watch but moving and memorable.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

8

A return to the world of Harry Potter, this time with an original screenplay by J.K. Rowling very loosely based on her charity mini-encyclopaedia Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Magical animal rights activist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in a New York beset by mysterious attacks.

Harry Potter and friends were always the least interesting part of the Wizarding World, and (unsurprisingly) Fantastic Beasts feels both true to the universe and original (North American magical society is rather different than British), and with rather better actors. If it's guilty of anything, it's of cramming in too much -- but the cast are delightful and the result endlessly watchable.

I'm delighted to hear it's the first of five films because it's easily the best Harry Potter film yet.

Accountant, The (2016)

7

Autistic savant "Christian Wolff" is the accountant the criminal elite call in to audit their cooked book, and he's stayed alive by also being a ruthless and efficient combatant (maths and violence hand in hand, like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes). With the heat on, he takes an innocent gig...

Easily one of the best action movies of recent years, with an interesting protagonist in Affleck and twists that surprise by coming where you most screenwriters wouldn't bother -- throwaway side-plots given unexpected depth and heart.

Grandma (2015)

5

A teenager gets help from her grandmother (Lily Tomlin), a crotchety lesbian poet, to fund an abortion. If you've ever wanted to see what a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl looks like when she gets old, this is the movie for you. Expect to die halfway through from an overdose of quirk.

Doctor Strange (2016)

7

Tiresome as these origin-story movies have become, Doctor Strange -- arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange (a perfectly-cast Benedict Cumberbatch) delves into the mystic arts after an accident causes nerve damage -- works very well, in large part because of tightly-structured plotting and unusual action sequences. Rather than explosions and laser beams, most of the action involves manipulation of time and space using effects ripped from Inception.

There's a genuinely clever climax, introduced with just the right amount of foreshadowing to be both unexpected and obvious.

If the plotting is perfect, however, the pacing is a little off, particularly the contrast between the languid introduction and the final act. There's something particularly off about the time given early in the film to relationship between Strange and love interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and its total absence from the finale.