Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

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  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)

    2017 #23
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Hail, Caesar!

    The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

    Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

    Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

    4 out of 5

    Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    3 casinos.
    11 guys.
    150 million bucks.
    Ready to win big?

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 117 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 7th December 2001 (USA & Canada)
    UK Release: 15th February 2002
    Budget: $85 million
    Worldwide Gross: $450.7 million

    Stars
    George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Michael Clayton)
    Brad Pitt (Fight Club, World War Z)
    Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Jason Bourne)
    Andy Garcia (The Godfather: Part III, Jennifer 8)
    Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Closer)

    Director
    Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike)

    Screenwriter
    Ted Griffin (Ravenous, Matchstick Men)

    Based on
    Ocean’s Eleven, a 1960 film starring the Rat Pack.


    The Story
    A gang of crooks plot the biggest heist in Las Vegas history: robbing three casinos at once.

    Our Heroes
    Danny Ocean, a charming con man fresh out of prison, planning his biggest job yet — well, anyone’s biggest job yet. To do it he’ll need ten more men, including right-hand-man Rusty, newbie Linus, explosives expert Basher, inside man Frank, old pro Saul, tech head Livingston, gymnast Yen, general double-act support Virgil and Turk, and all of it bankrolled by Reuben.

    Our Villains
    Smug Las Vegas big shot Terry Benedict, owner of all three casinos the gang are targeting. Also: he’s shagging Ocean’s ex-wife.

    Best Supporting Character
    The aforementioned former Mrs Ocean, Tess, who’s shacked up with Benedict in part because he’s a more honest man than her ex. Or so she thinks…

    Memorable Quote
    Danny: “Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”
    Rusty: “Been practicing that speech, haven’t you?”
    Danny: “Little bit. Did I rush it? Felt like I rushed it.”
    Rusty: “No, it was good, I liked it.”

    Memorable Scene
    As with any good entry in this genre, the heist itself — which is less “a scene” and more “the third act”, of course — is the highlight of the movie.

    Letting the Side Down
    Don Cheadle’s cockney accent is less Guy Ritchie, more Dick Van Dyke. But then, as we know, that’s how cockneys are meant to sound anyway.

    Next time…
    A pair of less well regarded sequels followed in 2004 and 2007 (ten years ago! Time flies), while an all-female spin-off is out next summer.

    Verdict

    As slick and stylish now as it was a decade-and-a-half ago, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Rat Pack comedy-thriller is that rarest of all things in moviedom: a remake that’s better than the original. Apparently Soderbergh said that he saw this as an opportunity to give audiences “pleasure from beginning to end… a movie that you just surrender to, without embarrassment and without regret.” Well, he nailed it. It’s a film packed with likeable characters, memorable lines, snazzy direction, cool music cues, and the raison d’être of a heist movie: a final act that pulls the wool over the audience’s eyes. It’s pretty much perfect entertainment.

    Three Kings (1999)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

    They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
    But in the nicest possible way.

    Country: USA
    Language: English & Arabic
    Runtime: 115 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
    UK Release: 3rd March 2000
    First Seen: DVD, c.2001

    Stars
    George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
    Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
    Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
    Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

    Director
    David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

    Screenwriter
    David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

    Story by
    John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

    The Story
    After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

    Our Heroes
    Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

    Our Villains
    The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

    Best Supporting Character
    I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

    Memorable Quote
    Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
    Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
    Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

    Memorable Scene
    Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

    Making of
    The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

    Awards
    1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
    1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
    2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

    What the Critics Said
    “[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

    Score: 94%

    What the Public Say
    Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

    Verdict

    Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

    #91 never… lies dies.

    The Descendants (2011)

    2016 #57
    Alexander Payne | 110 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Comedy-drama starring George Clooney as a Hawaiian with family issues: his wife’s in a coma and may’ve been cheating; his daughters are unruly; and his extended family is considering a massive land sale that’s the talk of the islands.

    Though marred by heavy-handed voice-over exposition (it baffles me that it won a Best Screenplay Oscar), it’s lifted by strong performances from the daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and Clooney, inverting his usual confident demeanour.

    I guess “wry observations of middle-aged men in crisis” are Payne’s stock-in-trade. This one’s amiable, though (writing with three months’ perspective) perhaps a tad forgettable.

    4 out of 5

    Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

    aka: just Tomorrowland

    2015 #187
    Brad Bird | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG

    TomorrowlandAfter making his live-action directorial debut with the unlikely sidestep of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar alumni Brad Bird heads back in a familiar family-friendly direction for this Disney sci-fi action-adventure. One of several movies lambasted by critics this past summer, I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

    The story concerns a future city created by scientists and dreamers; a place of wonder and innovation not constrained by the short-term goals of politicians or moneymen. Boy inventor Frank is delighted to be invited along there by recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy); years later, teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) receives similar treatment… only it turns out something is wrong, and Casey and Athena must track down a grizzled and disillusioned Frank (George Clooney) so they can head back to Tomorrowland and convince its leader (Hugh Laurie) of the way to make things right.

    Something along those lines, anyway, because Tomorrowland’s storytelling can get a little muddled. It doesn’t quite conform to your usual action-adventure narrative shape — we spend quite a long time with boy-Frank, before the story essentially restarts with Casey, and eventually those two threads join up. The thing this makes me wonder is, is the storytelling actually muddled (this is not an uncommon criticism of the film), or does it just take an atypical shape, with the consequent lack of comforting familiarity making us think it’s poorly done? A counterargument might be that it helps foster some of the film’s mysteries, which might be reveals without setup if you restructured. I think if you just go along with it, the only real bump is in that restart; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth action-adventure.

    And that’s why I don’t really understand the negative response to it. Sure, the plot may have the odd hole, but there are worse in better-regarded movies; Raffey Cassidy, a findand there’s a moral lesson that’s arguably a little heavy-handed, but as it’s a moral lesson some people aren’t bloody listening to, I can’t say I blame Bird for that. The characters and performances are likeable, with Raffey Cassidy standing out as a marvellous young find, though Laurie is a little undersold. There are some suitably entertaining action scenes, some moments of visual splendour thanks to the future city, and one long take that is exquisite. I know I’m a sucker for a long take, but this is a really exceptional one, that deserves to be mentioned alongside the year’s more-praised unbroken shot, the opening of Spectre.

    It’s such a shame when original blockbusters like this get pissed all over by critics and an audience who are sometimes too keen to re-parrot critics’ opinions as if they’re their own (see also the Stateside response to Lone Ranger vs. how the rest of us received it). I’m not arguing movies should get a free pass just because they’re not adapted from something else, but really, when decent adventures like this get slated and consequently flop, what incentive do the studios have to try something new, when they know producing fifth Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean instalments will make shedloads whatever the reviews say?

    For anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi action-adventure movie, I urge you to ignore the critics and give Tomorrowland a go. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s a fun time with more than a few points to commend it.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

    2014 #95
    Wes Anderson | 83 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Fantastic Mr. FoxQuirky cult-y director Wes Anderson tries his hand at stop motion animation with this Roald Dahl adaptation, in which an all-star cast voice the tribulations of a gaggle of talking animals — led by the eponymous vulpine — who come into conflict with three vicious farmers.

    I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, but his reputation is such that I don’t think you need to have to spot that Mr. Fox has been heavily Anderson-ised. It’s probably for the best I’ve not actually read Dahl for decades, because the purist in me would hate it for that. So it’s Quirky with a capital Q, and yet, miraculously, not irritatingly so — it feels like it should be considered self-consciously Quirky, but somehow isn’t. Instead, it’s almost (almost) charming. Whatever, it works.

    Ostensibly a kids’ film, because it’s based on a children’s book and it’s animated, I don’t think it really is a film for kids. Not that it’s unsuitable for them, but only so in the literal sense that it’s an animated movie without extreme violence or swearing. A lot of the humour and the storytelling style, not to mention the slightly-creepy animation, are clearly aimed at a more mature viewer. The aforementioned animation was shot at the half-normal speed of 12 frames per second, to emphasis the nature of stop motion. That’s part of the creepiness, but it’s also the gangly designs, and that the animals look like they’ve been made out of real fur (because they have), which ruffles all of its own accord (accidentally moved by the animators’ hands, of course, but when seen in motion…) Honestly, I think it would give some kids nightmares more than joy.

    Fox familyCompositionally, I thought I’d get sick of the squared-off 2D style, but Anderson’s cleverer than that. It might look flat and lacking in dimension at first, but that’s the starting point for variation, including some great bits of depth (farmer Bean trashing a caravan is a particular highlight of this), and when it breaks form (like a rabid dog chase) it’s all the more effective. There’s also a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. Not your usual plinky-plonky Quirky Kids’ Movie music (though there are instances of that), but something more raucous. Nice spaghetti Western riffs, too.

    The main downside is the ending: it kind of reaches a conclusion, but also kind of just stops. It’s like Anderson doesn’t know how to end it… which, as it turns out, is almost exactly true. The ending isn’t the same as the book, because Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach weren’t happy with it, but they couldn’t think of anything else. The final moments they’ve ended up with are apparently based on alternative material found in Dahl’s original manuscript, making it faithful (in its own way) while also settling the writers’ desire for a new finale. As I said, I’m not convinced.

    (While we’re on trivia, residents of or regular visitors to Bath may spot the recognisable red facade of the Little Theatre towards the end. Its appearance is indeed based on the real one, though goodness knows why.)

    Fantasticer in the future?Fantastic Mr. Fox is the kind of film I feel I may enjoy more on a re-watch. Indeed, some comments on film social networking sites (e.g. Letterboxd) do suggest that it only improves the more you see it. Having parked any desire for faithfulness to the original at the door, then, I feel there’s a chance the film’s boundless originality and almost-incidental outside-the-norm creativity may potentially render it an all-time favourite. But that’s something future viewings (if or when ever they occur) will have to ascertain.

    4 out of 5

    Gravity (2013)

    2014 #13
    Alfonso Cuarón | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

    Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
    10 nominations — 7 wins

    Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Production Design.

    GravityOn its theatrical release, a commonly-cited recommendation was to see Gravity in 3D on the biggest screen possible. Obviously, I didn’t bother. Some say it isn’t as effective on a small screen in 2D. Maybe it isn’t as effective, but it’s still a damn fine film.

    A near-future thriller (albeit one set in space), the destruction of a satellite sees a cloud of debris hurtling round the Earth, in the process destroying the space shuttle of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and other less-fortunate crewmembers. Using Clooney’s experimental space-jetpack, the survivors set off across the void for the nearest space station, racing against their oxygen supply to find a way home…

    As many have noted, Gravity is a little light on plot. That’s a dealbreaker for some, it would seem, which I think rather misses the point. This is a survival story, predicated on two things: one, the desperate attempts of our heroine to triumph against increasingly-poor odds; and two, the spectacle of weightlessness and space. Not every movie needs a complex storyline to keep it going; not every film needs to only be about its plot. As co-writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón drives the film admirably on the aforementioned survival attempts and some swiftly-sketched character development.

    The spectacle may have worked best on the big screen in 3D, but Cuarón’s talent as a director means it translates at home, too. That most of the film was created in computers means his penchant for long takes is indulged, but the impact of those is paramount: rather than fast-cut action sequences (even if the speed of cutting has been pushed to extremes in recent years, He said DON'T let goquick editing has always been a way of creating excitement in that arena), the never-ending shots serve to make you feel closer to events, right alongside Bullock, almost wishing it would stop. Plus there’s skill in being able to show us what we need to see from a single vantage point, without the easy option of being able to cut to a different angle to clarify a detail.

    Left to carry much of the film solo, Bullock’s performance is strong enough, but this isn’t a deeply-drawn character. There’s something to her, and the situation she’s been put in is trial enough without the need for backstory, but is it really a performance that cries out for awards recognition? Not as much as the rest of the film.

    Speaking of which, controversy has occasionally dogged Gravity — on two fronts. Firstly, that BAFTA awarded it Best British Film. Cue varying degrees of outrage and incredulity that an American-funded film about American astronauts could be considered British. The flipside to this is that Cuarón has made Britain his adopted home; and while the Big Studio may ultimately be American, the production company and producers are British. It was shot in Britain by a British crew, and the groundbreaking CGI — which even James Cameron, he of great determination and resultant innovation, said couldn’t be done — was created in Britain by British artists. Made in BritainThe most high-profile jobs — the actors, the studio — may be American, but everything else is pretty darn British. Rather than cry “that’s ridiculous! Give it to a proper British film!”, we should be keen to point out that, actually, this surprise global mega-hit wasn’t made in America, but in Britain, by all the talented filmmakers we have here. Rule Britannia, etc etc!

    Secondly, there’s the genre issue. Most have labelled the film “science fiction”, primarily because it’s set in space. The hardcore SF brigade take umbrage with that, however: technically it’s set almost-now, with present-day technology. This is a story that Could Happen Today, not a distant dream of what Might Happen Tomorrow. Really, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: technically it is set in the future — that’s proven by little things like flight numbers and the existence of a finished space station that, in real life, is still being built — and makes use of technology that doesn’t actually exist (the space-jetpack I mentioned earlier), plus it depicts a massive-scale disaster that, obviously, hasn’t happened. But that’s no worse than many an earthbound thriller, which routinely use just-beyond-possible tech (look at all of Bond’s gadgets, even (at times) in the newly-grounded Craig films) and depict huge events that haven’t actually occurred (Presidential assassinations, nuclear detonations, etc). So, really, Gravity is no more sci-fi than those, except for it being set in space… which immediately categorises it as SF to your average viewer.

    Space jetpackWhile I sympathise with the idea that it’s not A Science Fiction Movie, but instead A Thriller (That Happens To Be Set In Space), you can’t really deny its SF-ness. OK, if we’re classing this as SF then so too should be films like The Sum of All Fears, or most of the James Bond canon; but really that’s just an argument over technicalities — one I’ve indulged for far too long.

    The point is, however you classify it, Gravity is an exciting, spectacular, technically-impressive movie; one that overcomes the alleged need for a huge screen and 3D to work even in the corner of your living room.

    5 out of 5

    Gravity debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4:30pm and 8pm.

    It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

    Up in the Air (2009)

    2011 #25
    Jason Reitman | 105 mins | TV | 15 / R

    Up in the AirSometimes, it’s best to just come clean: I don’t have much to say about Up in the Air.

    The plot, as you’ll likely know (it was an Oscar Best Picture nominee after all, meaning everyone’s heard of it… for a couple of years, anyway), concerns George Clooney playing someone who flies around America firing people for bosses too chicken to do it themselves. He’s very proud of the air miles he’s accumulated. He meets Vera Farmiga who also does something that involves flying around the country a lot and begins an on-off sex-based relationship with her. Anna Kendrick joins Clooney’s company and creates a plan to do his job via videoconferencing, thereby saving tonnes (sorry, tons — this is an American film) of cash by not having to fly people like Clooney all around the country. Clooney does not like this, so takes her out on the road for a bit to show her the reality of the job.

    That’s probably a fair chunk of the film explained, which is not something I usually like to do, but the real point of it — whatever, exactly, that point may be — occurs once all these events are set in motion. And there are a few twists to the plot anyway, which I’m not even close to revealing there.

    Clooney and girl 1Cowriter-director Jason Reitman has created a surprisingly likeable film. It’s easy to see how Clooney’s character — very much the centre of the piece — could be irritating or vapid or any number of other negative adjectives, but instead he’s… well, he’s George Clooney, isn’t he? He’s all charm. If you were going to be fired, you’d probably want George Clooney to be doing it. For a character who is essentially an expansion of the Fight Club Narrator’s “single-serving friend” concept, he gets to become quite rounded and go on quite the journey. (Not just plane journeys either. Ho ho.)

    The tone is pitched firmly at comedy-drama (or “dramedy”, if you’re American), which — as we know from experience — means it’s neither the most dramatic nor funniest film you’ll ever see. It does both nicely enough though, eliciting laughs and smiles where appropriate (and sometimes where not, naturally) and providing food for thought on occasion. It might be airplane food, but not everything’s cordon bleu.

    Clooney and girl 2Up in the Air got its Best Picture nom in the first year the Oscars went back to 10 nominations for the big prize. I’m not sure many would disagree that it’s one of The Other Ones — one of the ones that quite probably wouldn’t’ve been there if it hadn’t been for the category doubling in size. And if it was, it’d be The Other One — the token indie/comedy nomination that everyone knows isn’t going to win but was quite good all the same.

    So I liked Up in the Air, and I even had more to say about it than I thought, but I didn’t love it. Indeed, while I’m not intending to avoid it as one would a bad film, I feel no particular desire to ever watch it again. It is, if you will, a single-serving film.

    4 out of 5

    The Good German (2006)

    2010 #103
    Steven Soderbergh | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

    The film was shot as if it had been made in 1945. Only studio back lots, sets and local Los Angeles locations were used. No radio microphones were used, the film was lit with only incandescent lights and period lenses were used on the cameras. The actors were directed to perform in a presentational, stage style. The only allowance was the inclusion of nudity, violence and cursing which would have been forbidden by the Production Code.

    So says the IMDb trivia page for The Good German, Steven Soderbergh’s delightfully thorough attempt to create a 1940s-style film noir in the ’00s. It’s even in 4:3, donchaknow.

    But is this a case of style over substance? Some critics accuse it of just that, saying it concentrates more on the look & feel than the characters. They do have a point, but the style is, if not incidental, then still not the sole purpose. The tale is more about the mystery — indeed, mysteries — than the characters. Films like The Third Man and Casablanca spring readily to mind; tales where characters cross and double-cross, where you can’t be certain who’s on whose side, or why, or when, or for how long. Though, yes, The Good German does lack the depth of character found in either of those examples.

    Still, this isn’t merely a pastiche — or at least not as much of one as it could have been in lesser hands — but instead is a work that conforms to the genre conventions and the filmmaking style of the era it’s both set in and sets out to emulate. It’s very believably done too, so much so that the very modern levels of violence, sex and swearing are uncomfortably incongruous. Perhaps this was Soderbergh’s intention, but you can’t help but think that it’s a misstep. If you’re going to all that trouble to recreate The Good Rainthe visual, audio, acting and plot styles of the era, why not ensure the dialogue and action follow suit? There’s no need for the violence, sex and swearing in this particular tale; at least, no need for it in a way that couldn’t be conveyed as effectively using Production Code-friendly methods. I’m uncertain if I like the film less for failing on this measure, but it does add to its inherent oddness.

    Thematically the film is quite strong, though thanks to an assortment of almost red-herring-ish mysteries it might take more than one viewing to tease them all out. The setting, in both place and time, gives away the central issues: Berlin, after the war, as the Allies decide who will be prosecuted for the atrocities Germany committed and who will be allowed to escape without a trial. Who was responsible — the ringleaders, their underlings, ordinary people? Every character is connected to this somehow, every one has their morals tested or examined.

    We’re certainly given a fair look at each of the three leads, as the film switches its focus between them around-about each act break, signalled by a brief voiceover from the new central character — one of which casually reveals the answer to what had, for a while, seemed to be the central mystery. The Good BlanchettBut how much do we get to know them, really? It’s easy to see why critics said “not very well”, because they’re too busy uncovering the conspiracies and revealing their part to actually show us much about themselves. But then why should that be a problem? It’s a noir thriller, not a character drama. Surely it’s about the mysteries and, if you like, the themes, rather than letting us understand the people caught up in them?

    Indeed, the array of mysteries distracts from thematic pondering, or the wider conspiracies that the tale is ultimately concerned with. To list them would spoil plot twists, but each in turn seems to be the Main Story — until all is revealed and we have a chance to see the bigger game that’s been played all along. I suppose in that respect it’s like some of the best classic noirs — The Big Sleep springs to mind in this field, not that The Good German is quite as unknowably complex.

    Soderbergh’s exercise in era-recreation can be deemed a success: if you can ignore the famous modern cast and the pristine visual quality of a recently-produced film, it looks and sounds exactly like something from the ’40s. Is that enough to sustain a feature? No. But the accompanying story — which, as this is an adaptation, surely inspired Soderbergh’s The Good Referencesproduction intentions rather than being invented to slot into them — provides meat on the stylistic bones.

    And yet, having seen it, I can’t help but feel that The Good German is little more than an interesting curio; one that deserves to be seen but, following that, viewers would be better off sticking to real noirs.

    3 out of 5