Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

2007 #124
Woody Allen | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Manhattan Murder MysteryWoody Allen mixes a bit of the thriller into his usual relationship-based comedy/drama style, with effective results. The combination produces an engaging thriller with the usual character-focused drama woven around it, and a decent dash of comedy too. The first half hour or so is a tad slow, but the pace picks up as the story rattles into the second half.

Murder Mystery has been criticised as lightweight — the comedy stops the thriller being too serious, the thriller stops the drama being the focus, and they both prevent the comedy from overpowering — but Allen has dealt with these elements in isolation elsewhere, so it’s refreshing to see him do more than merely repeat himself.

This is an underrated gem in Allen’s relatively vast body of work.

4 out of 5

Goodfellas (1990)

2007 #123
Martin Scorsese | 139 mins | DVD | 18 / R

GoodfellasThese days perhaps even more praised than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill’s 25-year career as a gangster.

It’s certainly a notable achievement on virtually every level, which are too numerous to list here. The use of popular music struck me especially though, creating a sense of time (and never too obviously) while also complementing the visuals in its own right.

In the lead role, Ray Liotta seems to have been underrated, lost behind the top billing of De Niro and the award-winning craziness of Joe Pesci. He carries the film, with a performance that isn’t showy but is perfectly pitched.

I didn’t fall in love with the film as so many seem to have, but I also don’t think there’s really any denying its worthiness for full marks.

5 out of 5

A new, restored Blu-ray of Goodfellas is released in the UK today, 25th May 2015.

Taxi Driver (1976)

2007 #122
Martin Scorsese | 109 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Taxi DriverMuch praised, discussed and quoted, Taxi Driver needs little introduction. The weight of expectation also makes it hard to judge when first viewed.

Personally, I didn’t buy Travis’ slide into psychosis, which is unfortunate as it’s the core of the film and why it’s meant to be so great. In fact, I found Robert Pupkin’s broadly similar, self delusion-based character arc in The King of Comedy more believable. The ending was also dubious, although one theory does make it work better, so it perhaps depends on what you choose to believe.

Further viewings may help the film work better for me — as my rating shows, I still liked the film as a whole, but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d been led to believe I would be.

4 out of 5

The King of Comedy (1983)

2007 #121
Martin Scorsese | 104 mins | TV | PG / PG

The King of ComedyUnderrated black comedy from the prolific partnership of director Scorsese and star De Niro.

De Niro gives an excellent performance as an obsessive wannabe comedian, stalking the host of a popular talk show in his desperation for a guest spot. The depth of his delusion is both hilariously funny and deeply unsettling; subtly woven between the laughs is the impression that this sort of behaviour must be all-too-real among those over-obsessed with celebrity culture. Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard are also worthy of note in their supporting roles.

Rarely mentioned when it comes to discussions of Scorsese’s work, I think it’s the best film I’ve seen from him. (This closing comment is subject to the fact that I’ve only seen The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York and Bringing Out the Dead, a list clearly missing most of his highly-praised work.)

5 out of 5

Hellboy: Director’s Cut (2004)

2007 #120
Guillermo del Toro | 127 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Hellboy Director's CutA surprise hit on release, this live action adaptation of the cult comic book is an exciting and entertaining, though flawed, mix of pulp fantasy, gothic style and action.

Surprisingly, it spends more time focused on the characters than the plot; while this is nice, and those scenes are expertly played, they do seem to throw the pacing off kilter somewhat. And, in an amusing reversal of the usual action movie cliche, while the character bits are great the action scenes are a tad underwritten! The score is also pretty lacklustre: it sounds like a typical, appropriate SF/F action score, but one where the cues have all been incorrectly placed.

But these flaws are easily overlooked when the characters are such fun, the dramatic moments suitably poignant, and the action passable enough. Hopefully the forthcoming sequel can see to the faults and be even better.

4 out of 5

I haven’t seen the theatrical cut of Hellboy, hence why this is numbered.

Manhattan (1979)

2007 #119
Woody Allen | 92 mins | DVD | 15 / R

ManhattanDrama (though it does include some very funny bits) focusing on the interrelationships of a handful of 40-something New Yorkers.

Allen fails to convince as a bit of a womaniser, even if he is notably less neurotic than usual; however, once the viewer gets over that little fantasy of his, I believe there’s a lot to be had here. It’s a much more traditional film than Annie Hall — events occur in chronological order, with no unusual comedic breaks, or monologues to camera — and, as a drama, it’s all the better for this.

The black & white photography is gorgeous throughout, helping the city to shine far brighter than any of the characters — for me, the best bit of the entire film is the opening three-and-a-half minutes, in which the beautiful images, Allen’s narration and Gershwin’s music combine in a tribute to what must be the most genuinely loved of all cities.

(A 5-star rating system only allows minimal delineation, so for the sake of clarity I’d like to point out that I personally preferred this to Annie Hall, though it falls just off attaining a full five.)

4 out of 5

Play Time (1967)

aka Playtime

2007 #118
Jacques Tati | 115 mins | DVD | U

Play TimeI know some people love the work of Tati, just like there’s always someone who loves everything; personally, I find his films largely dull. His character, Monsieur Hulot, is like Mr Bean but less funny (don’t worry, I know Hulot comes first by a good few decades). There are some laughs to be had in Play Time, but they’re a long way in and not necessarily worth waiting for.

Play Time is certainly pertinent to the ‘Cityscapes’ course we were shown it as part of, but even the subtext (which is about as ‘sub’ as a space station), about the depressing similarity of modern cities, is repetitively over-done.

Recommended only as a cure for insomnia.

2 out of 5

Play Time featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

New York Stories (1989)

2007 #117
Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola & Martin Scorsese | 119 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

New York StoriesAnthology of three shorts, connected only by the New York setting (which, incidentally, may as well be anywhere in all but the last segment).

Scorsese’s Life Lessons opens the film, a tale of an artist and his love for his younger assistant. It’s an alright little drama. Next is Coppola’s dire Life Without Zoe, concerned with an irritating rich little brat and her irritating rich little brat friends (none of whom can act). Mercifully the shortest piece, but its very existence is lamentable. Finally, Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks drags the quality up. It may largely be typical Allen fare (see my Annie Hall review), but it’s quite funny and the fantastical twist halfway through is brilliantly bizarre.

As a whole, then, an unsurprisingly mixed bag.

3 out of 5

The segment Life Without Zoe featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

Wild at Heart (1990)

2007 #116
David Lynch | 120 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Wild at HeartMy experience of David Lynch’s work has so far been limited to Dune, the first short season of Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive. Admittedly, a list including the latter two isn’t that bad, but it fails to encompass any of the acclaimed films that made his name.

Wild at Heart doesn’t come much closer: a quick look at IMDb reveals that it only beats Dune and the Twin Peaks movie in user ratings. I think I can see why: it’s filled with mannered performances that can seem cheaper than those in daytime soaps (I presume this is deliberate, but some people just won’t get, or like, it); characters and plot threads that meander off and seem pointless, while others don’t come to anything; plus it lacks the opaqueness that many seem to hold as the key worthy feature of Lynch’s work.

In spite of its many faults I quite liked a lot of it, so my rating falls on the generous side. I still have no idea why there were so many Wizard of Oz references though.

4 out of 5

Annie Hall (1977)

2007 #115
Woody Allen | 90 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

Annie HallWidely considered to be Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie and winner of four of the ‘Big Five’ Oscars. One might call it a romantic comedy, but it’s very much an indie comedy-drama (for one thing, it utilises the ever-popular tactic of not taking place in chronological order), rather than the mainstream cliché-fest that first springs to mind whenever “rom-com” is mentioned.

Annie Hall is either the basis for or just exemplifies all the clichés of Allen films (essentially, neurotic Jew who struggles with life), but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s very funny in places, suitably realistic in others, and has a nice line in comedic philosophy too.

4 out of 5