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

Green Book (2018)

7

Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to escort concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a tour of the deep south -- concerts where, as an African-American, he is allowed to perform but not eat in the same dining hall or use the same toilets as his white hosts.

There's not a great deal to the story but both leads are excellent and the slow pace gives the characters time to breathe. It would hardly be worth watching at all without those leads; it's mystifying that a film this insubstantial is in Oscar contention.

Innocuous.

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

8

Innocuous follow-up to Wreck-It Ralph tacking internet meme references on too. As good as the original, and the Disney princesses sequence is one of the best things ever put on film.

World of Henry Orient, The (1964)

6

Two 14-year-old girls in New York (Merrie Spaeth, Tippy Walker) first encounter womanizing pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) by accident, but then Val fancies herself in love with him...

This is a strange one, part coming-of-age story -- with that same blend of promise and melancholy that coming-of-age stories always have -- and part broad comedy. The two parts have their own independent charms but it never quite comes together; it feels like two movies in one.

The Goose Steps Out (1942)

6

Classic Ealing comedy in which a bumbling schoolteacher (Will Hay) who bears an uncanny resemblance to a German spymaster is sent undercover as an instructor for Nazi infiltrators. Silly but engaging.

Bird Box (2018)

4

The concept -- mysterious somethings (creatures? it's a mystery) will, if seen, drive most of the population into a suicidal rage, so Sandra Bullock and other survivors must run around blindfolded -- might have seemed more inventive if the timing did not cast it as an unwieldy knockoff of The Quiet Place.

It's an A-grade production with good performances and some good action but hamstrung by one fatal flaw: it's impossible to take seriously. Some pseudoscientific or mystical gabble might have been better than a mystery because suspension of disbelief is a real problem. It becomes almost a comedy: oh, you drove into something? Maybe it's because you were wearing a blindfold.

Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The (1966)

5

Don Knotts is most famous for his run as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, a movie put together by that program's writers and starring Knotts as a very similar character, seems almost like an episode they wrote but couldn't quite get to work.

Luther Heggs (Knotts) is a typesetter at a newspaper who becomes a local celebrity after spending the night in a seemingly haunted house. Most of the humour derives from the way that Heggs, an insecure bumbler, stumbles into both triumph and tribulation. It's all very uninspiring.

Venom (2018)

4

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) ends up host to the Venom symbiote in this bizarrely uneven adaptation that has "studio interference" written all over it. It's a Spider-Man-less twist taking elements from various comic adaptations and throwing in a big pharma twist.

Venom has a dark tone well-suited to its original R rating, with moral grey areas, body horror and gore. The black humour, which I suspect was written in after the success of Deadpool, is rather more out of place -- Eddie and Venom joke about biting off heads, there's a running gag about the word "parasite" even a scene in which Venom confesses to Eddie that it wants to stay on Earth because it was a low-status loser on its home world.

As far as I'm concerned, Venom is a character that should have stayed in the 1990s with the rest of the Todd McFarlane's too-gritty-for-you garbage. The only way to make it work coherently as a narrative would be to embrace the body horror of it all (Marvel by way of David Cronenberg), but that would never work in a mainstream superhero flick.

Creed II (2018)

4

Even more of a shameless retread than Creed (i.e. Rocky VII), Creed II (Rocky VIII) brings back Rocky IV's Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), whose son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) becomes the new contender.

It's like we're back in 1985; the only thing missing is the hammer and sickle shorts. Co-writers Sylvestor Stallone and Juel Taylor really drop the ball here by repeating the good vs evil nonsense of the last Russian installment. Ivan and Viktor are ridiculous cardboard cutouts. Hints that life has been hard for them after Ivan's defeat are not enough to engender any sympathy, so we're left with an unlosable fight against an uninteresting robot.

Oh, there are some stirrings of excitement when the Rocky theme starts to play during the final bout, but it's a tired, Pavlovian response to a paint-by-numbers effort. Any hope that there was life left in this franchise is dead. It's only moving because they keep kicking it.

Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987)

6

An even more shameless rehash of Police Academy 3, the new recruits this time are misfit citizens enrolled in a new program where members of the public work with the police as volunteers. Most notable among these is Mrs. Feldman (Billie Bird), an elderly woman whose bloodlust quickly impresses Tackleberry.

There are some pretty shameless repeat jokes in this one too, such as another fake-dub martial arts scene for Jones, but quality is generally consistent with the previous installments.

Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986)

6

A shameless re-hash of the first film sees Mahoney and co. return to the academy as instructors for a set of new misfit recruits. Better than Police Academy 2.

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)

5

Having graduate from the academy, the gang are put to work taking down a new gang, led by Zed (Bobcat Goldthwaite). It's competent enough and is probably most notable for expanding the role of Jones (Michael Winslow) after his popularity in the first movie.

Police Academy (1984)

6

One of those classic "misfits come good" comedies so popular in the 80s and 90s, Police Academy sees a group of unusual recruits -- including wise-cracking Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Dirty Harry wannabe Tackleberry (David Graf) and human beatbox Jones (Michael Winslow) -- come up against straight-laced Harris (G.W. Bailey).

It holds up pretty well.

Shoplifters (2018)

10

It starts like Shameless: Tokyo Edition; father-son duo Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) do a bit of shoplifting, mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) isn't averse to rifling through pockets at the commercial laundry she works at. The sister (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a peep show and grandma (Kirin Kiki) supports the lot of them on her pension.

When Osamu finds a young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) outside in the freezing cold, he takes her home, where she is adopted into their unconventional but happy family.

The quote is that all happy families are alike, but I've never found that to be true. No family is happy all the time; the closer you get, the more you can see the damage. Shoplifters brings us in to the family, past the superficial kindnesses to the fierce, raw, fragile love inside, to the co-dependence, to the secrets laid bare.

The Shibata's relationships are more fragile than most, and their truths darker, but they still have something beautiful.

I haven't seen a Hirokazu Kore-eda film since Nobody Knows (and won't that catalogue be a treat to catch up on). He seems to have spent the intervening decade sharpening the same themes into a razor-sharp stiletto to the heart. Just fantastic, with wonderful performances across the board but especially Sakura Ando, the luminous Mona Lisa at the centre of it all.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

7

I watched this again thinking I hadn't seen it. Still a fun time; Peter O'Toole steals the show.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

7

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an American-Chinese professor at NYU, hops on a plane to Singapore with her partner Nick Young (Henry Golding) -- unaware that he is heir to old, old money.

The movie tackles this from the perspective of a classic romantic comedy: Rachel must prove herself to the family, particularly Nick's mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh); there's a false crisis and then a real crisis and finally tears of sadness and tears of joy. Oh, Hollywood.

A little more unusual is its setting among the Singaporean elite. Much is made of the distinction between the old money -- Chinese who brought their riches from China to Singapore long before the cultural revolution -- and the tacky, nouveau riche billionaires of modern China.

It differs significantly from Kevin Kwan's book, but happily in entirely positive ways. It's a strange novel, tonally inconsistent full of hollow characters; Eleanor in particular is significantly improved in the film adaptation.

Part of the problem with the book is its frequent oscillation between naked lust for the life of the ultra rich -- lavish descriptions of clothes, jewellery and extravagant purchases -- and satirizing of those same rich. For good or ill, the movie only laughs at those with poor taste: like all good stories of Disney princesses, the exotic life of wonder is something for the audience too to dream of.

Thoroughly enjoyable and I hope they can make similar improvements to the following two books -- the trilogy might have a satisfying conclusion but oh my is it a ridiculous ride to get there.

The Brood (1979)

5

These days David Cronenberg is a critical darling so it's amusing to read contemporary reviews, e.g. Roger Ebert:

Now here's a particularly nasty little number. "The Brood" is an el sleazo exploitation film, camouflaged by the presence of several well-known stars but guaranteed to nauseate you all the same.

That's after it bores you first.

Taken at face value, he's quite right: it doesn't work particularly well as horror (the murderous child-things seem more ridiculous than menacing for much of the film) and it seems awfully pretentious for the schlock on display.

It gets more interesting if you take Cronenberg at his word that it's his Kramer vs Kramer -- a divorce movie with emotional pain come horrifically to life. For all that I can appreciate this interpretation, I'm not fully convinced and I'm quite certain it's not worth the slog.

Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)

7

Like most people my age I have fond memories of the Wolfenstein 3D (1992); no-one I knew ever bought the full game, just replayed the first free shareware chapter. The series had a patchy history in the interim, providing nothing worth playing other than the pure-multiplayer Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003). But at last The New Order gives us a worthwhile modern update, set in a grim alternate reality where the Nazis won World War II with killer robots.

(OK, when you put it like that it does not sound worthwhile at all.)

It's a story-driven first-person shooter with an engaging, if occasionally rather gory, story, huge variety in missions and some very well-done stealth sequences. Late-game firefights follow the worst impulses of the genre and just have more of the much tougher, damage-soaking enemies, so difficulty spikes and it becomes more of a grind.

Very good game.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

7

Drew Goddard tries to be Tarantino: a band of misfits gathers at the El Royale hotel, half in Nevada and half in California, and their stories resolve one by one (with occasional ultraviolence).

Unfortunately, the stylish and engaging setup eventually collapses when it becomes clear that the limited payoff is not worth the languid journey there. It might be better to turn it off 2/3rds through and dream of the promised conclusion.

First Man (2018)

9

Damien Chazelle's follow-up to La La Land is the story of the first man on the moon. I hesitate to call it a Neil Armstrong biopic; Josh Singer's screenplay seems less interested in telling the story of the man behind the landing than in using him as a narrative vehicle.

When it quotes the Kennedy moon speech towards the end ("not because they are easy, but because they are hard"), it sums up what has come before: a story of determination, of ambition at great cost, and shows just what drove one of those ambitious men to take so many risks. Some of the very best sequences are those of claustrophobic danger -- fragile men in flammable tin cans.

Ryan Gosling is typically stoic as Armstrong; Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, is the emotional centre.

9 La La Land (2016)
7 Next Gen (2018)

Father of the Year (2018)

2

I have to stop watching these things just because they are on Netflix.

The Package (2018)

5

It didn't exactly start well, but the nature of the story truly came into focus when, fifteen minutes in, it was revealed that the "package" in question in question is the severed penis of Jeremy Abelar (Eduardo Franco). The member in question is left behind when he is helicoptered to hospital and it's up to his friends to get it the rest of the way.

Irredeemably puerile as this all might be, it's surprisingly tightly written and some of the twists along the way are enjoyably madcap.

I rather suspect that its very poor rating is in part a consequence of the too-coy-by-half advertising strategy because I think it holds up quite well against much better-regarded films in the same genre (e.g. American Pie).

Like Father (2018)

6

When Rachel (Kristen Bell) is dumped at the altar, she ends up taking her honeymoon cruise with her long-estranged father Harry (Kelsey Grammar). It's a relatively by-the-numbers bit of light entertainment, with a few gags, some light pathos and a familiar structure. But the screenplay by Lauren Miller Rogen does deserve credit for subverting rom-com tropes to tell a story about a different kind of relationship.

Far Cry 5 (2018)

7

AAA publishers' stock-in-trade is iterating on past successes (and adding microtransactions), and so Far Cry 5 is essentially Far Cry 4 in a new hat: open-world, outposts to conquer and secrets to find, with a dash of Decisions Matter.

This time the setting is Hope County, Montana, where resistance fighters battle the Eden's Gate cult, an end-times group headed by the charismatic Joseph Seed. The terrain is attractive but the writing is more problematic; particularly challenging is the overall narrative structure. Where Far Cry 4 padded an essentially linear story with open-world side content (accomplished by e.g. restricting players from entering the northern end of the map at the start of the game), 5 has far fewer restrictions. Not only can most activities can be done in any order, the Father's three "heralds" each control a rough third of the county and each has a completely independent storyline.

Achieving a certain number of points in each of the regions triggers a clumsy cutscene and story mission -- for example, John Seed sends out capture parties with one-shot-knockout tranquilizer guns; they'll take you no matter if you're in a car, in a gunfight, or flying in a wingsuit. It's never particularly believable in context and the novelty wears off quickly.

In total it's a strange package. The core gameplay is excellent, though as ever there are a few too many mini-games of no interest whatsoever (e.g. fishing). There are no more fucking eagles. The narrative is compelling in fits and starts: there are a handful of arresting moments that will stick with me, I think. And it's best not to talk about the ending, which is memorable but very poorly signalled and not in keeping with the rest of the game. The antagonists, too, are rather weak; one of Far Cry 4's best features was the character development given to Pagan Min and there's precious little here.

Set It Up (2018)

6

Bland Netflix rom-com about overworked assistants trying to manipulate their workaholic bosses into bed so they won't stay at the office 16 hours a day. The leads, alas, have zero chemistry, and fail to elevate a very by-the-numbers script. Competent but disposable.

America's Sweethearts (2001)

7

It's probably not right to call America's Sweethearts a rom-com; it's too light on the romance to fit the bill. It's a comedy about Hollywood monsters: to distract the press from noticing that visionary director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken) hasn't provided the movie they're on a junket to see, beleaguered publicist Lee (Billy Crystal) tries to reignite the romance between estranged power-couple Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones, queen bitch) and Eddie (John Cusack, heartbroken mess now a full-time resident at a New Age clinic). There's a romance there, between Eddie and Kiki (Julia Roberts), Gwen's sister, but the charm is in the unfolding trainwreck.

It's just an effortless good time -- light satire, enjoyable twists, and a cast who seem to be having a lot of fun. I've seen this one at least three times and it's always good comfort food.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

8

Ant-Man was perhaps the nadir of generic Marvel movies: a tired exercise in the rote formula. So it has proven a pleasant surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of the best, and certainly one of the funniest, to date.

The plot owes a lot to farce, with various factions fighting for control of Pym's lab, which can be shrunken to the size of a suitcase. The main chase sequence is surely one of the best (and strangest) ever filmed.

The serious elements are less convincing, but the rest is a delight.

6 Ant-Man (2015)

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

6

Underwhelming follow-up to 2014's Walmart murder-fantasy The Equalizer. The reason I typically dislike Antoine Fuqua films is that the action (which is always good) is inevitably embedded in an offensively dour framework full of self-importance and Life Lessons. So it is that here, McCall (Denzel Washington) finds time between killing rogue CIA operatives to mentor a young man from his building who has taken up with the gangs (Ashton Sanders).

It's fine -- generic action with A-grade production values.

The story was so forgettable that I spent the climactic battle debating whether they had just forgotten to move Denzel's jacket in the CGI hurricane.