About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bond Films

With the release of “Skyfall” , I thought I’d take a look at the series thus far and list my best and worst films and songs in the series. The non-canon films “Casino Royale” (1967) and “Never Say Never Again” are included because, especially the latter, I consider them legit entries. Also, I’ve listed both title and end credits songs, at least as many as I’m currently aware of. As usual, feel free to flood my inbox telling me I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

On with the show...

Bond Films Best to Worst

1. Dr. No

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

3. You Only Live Twice

4. Tomorrow Never Dies

5. Live and Let Die

6. Octopussy

7. From Russia With Love

8. Goldfinger

9. Licence to Kill


11. Die Another Day

12. Goldeneye

13. Spy Who Loved Me

14. World is Not Enough

15. Skyfall

16. The Man With the Golden Gun

17. For Your Eyes Only

18. Thunderball

19. Quantum of Solace

20. The Living Daylights

21. Never Say Never Again

22. Diamonds Are Forever

23. Casino Royale (1967)

24. Casino Royale (2006)

25. Moonraker

26. A View to a Kill


Best to Worst Bond Songs (After Dr. No)

1. Live and Let Die by McCartney and Wings

2. Licence to Kill by Gladys Knight

3. Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey

4. Surrender by k.d. Lang (Tomorrow Never Dies End Theme)

5. For Your Eyes Only by Sheena Easton

6. Nobody Does it Better by Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me)
7. You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra

8. The World is Not Enough by Garbage

9. Skyfall by Adele

10. We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong (OHMSS)

11. Goldeneye by Tina Turner

12. All Time High by Rita Coolidge (Octopussy)

Middle of the Pack

13. If You Asked Me To by Patti LaBelle (Licence to Kill End Theme)

14. Writing's on the Wall by Sam Smith

15. From Russia With Love by Matt Monro

16. Another Way to Die by Alicia Keys and Jack White (Quantum of Solace)

17. Diamonds Are Forever by Shirley Bassey

And the Clunkers

18. Never Say Never Again by Lani Hall

19. Thunderball by Tom Jones

20. You Know My Name by Chris Cornell (Casino Royale)

21. Moonraker- Shirley Bassey

22. The Man With the Golden Gun by Lulu

23. The Living Daylights by A-ha

24. A View to a Kill by Duran Duran

25. Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow

26. Die Another Day by Madonna

Friday, June 8, 2012

Review: Libel

War veteran Paul Massie starts stirring up trouble for now privileged Dirk Bogarde by suggesting that he is an impostor (a slimy actor by the name of Frank Welney who was in the same POW camp as the other two men), and has clearly murdered the real Sir Mark Loddon. Wife Olivia De Havilland at first scoffs at such a ridiculous suggestion, but then again, there are whole sections of his own life that Loddon conveniently cannot remember (a side-effect of the war experience, apparently). The matter is taken to court, with Wilfrid Hyde-White the prodding prosecutor and Robert Morley the polite Defense attorney. Richard Wattis, sans spectacles, plays the judge, whilst veteran character actor Anthony M. Dawson is terrific as a distant and extraordinarily opportunistic relative of Sir Mark’s.

Dated, disappointing 1959 Anthony Asquith (“The Winslow Boy”, “The V.I.P.s”) film is like a mostly British, 50s version of “The Return of Martin Guerre” and like that famous case, it just seems so bloody hard to believe. Maybe it was based on fact, but I never believed the situation in “Sommersby”, and I certainly never bought the idea here that Olivia De Havilland couldn’t immediately tell if Bogarde was her husband or not. War doesn’t physically change a person that much, surely, and having Bogarde play the two roles doesn’t sell the idea any easier, despite the actor’s very fine efforts. An unbelievably happy ending doesn’t help, either.

What makes the film watchable are the performances, which are almost persuasive enough, especially Bogarde (in a tour-de-force) and a scene-stealing Hyde-White (for once not playing the kindly servant) and Dawson. Morley and De Havilland aren’t given nearly enough to do, I’m afraid. Look for Geoffrey Bayldon and a young Robert Shaw as reporters (Shaw’s the one with the unmistakably piercing eyes that damn near burn one’s retinas). The screenplay is by Anatole de Grunwald (“The Winslow Boy”), and Karl Tunberg (“Ben-Hur”, “Beau Brummel”) from an Edward Wooll play.

Rating: C+

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Black Swan

Natalie Portman stars as a ballerina in the NY Ballet Company, and has landed the lead in “Swan Lake”. However, whilst director Vincent Cassel finds her perfect for the Swan Queen, she’s far too controlled and ‘too perfect’ for the darker flip-side, the Black Swan. Portman, who lives in claustrophobic hell with her clingy mother Barbara Hershey, starts to find the task of enacting the two differing personalities an enormous strain, both physically and psychologically. This becomes even more amplified when Mila Kunis turns up as Portman’s alternate, an outgoing, adventurous sort, who is everything Portman is not. She tries to get Portman out of her shell and away from her mother, and they even end up in bed together. However, is Kunis really all she appears? Is she plotting against Portman so she can take her role? Winona Ryder turns up as the bitchy, aging, and recently sacked premiere ballerina.

Despite all the Oscar nominations and wins, and a somewhat arty subject matter, if you go into this 2010 Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”, “The Wrestler”) film expecting a dainty little arthouse film about ballet, you’re in for a helluva shock. As in psycho shocker, because that’s what this somewhat Polanski-esque film is, a claustrophobic psycho shocker set in the world of ballet. Think of it as “The Red Shoes” meets “Peeping Tom” or “Repulsion”. If ever there was an industry you’d think could breed psychologically fucked up people, ballet would be at the top of the list. All that pressure, restriction, etc. Throw in Barbara Hershey well-cast as a nutjob mother while you’re at it. Aronofsky creates a film so so tense and tightly wound as its lead character that I almost felt like I was hyperventilating at times.

Right from the word go, the film grabs you visually, with a wonderful colour scheme, lots of dark colours throughout. The presumably handheld camerawork by Matthew Libatique (“Tigerland”, “Requiem for a Dream”) has a dizzying quality in the dance scenes that might just be the most apt use of handheld I’ve seen. Meanwhile, the music score by Clint Mansell is equally impressive, taking the music of Tchaikovsky and tweaking and distorting it.

In some ways I admire Aronofsky for going all-out with the horror aspect of the film, but it has a drawback too. Aronofsky brings out the little visual flourishes and doppelganger symbolism so early on in the film that it doesn’t take long for the audience to work out what is going on. This isn’t a film that depends on a twist ending, but the lack of subtlety in this regard does rob the film of greatness (Imagine what kind of overblown ego trip a guy like Brian De Palma would’ve made out of it, however, and you’ll feel better about Aronofsky’s work here). It’s a little too transparent, and by the end of the film, a little overdone, especially when someone appears to have grown an abnormally elongated neck and wings. I mean, come on.

However, let me say that this does not mean that Portman’s character is mad from start to finish in a one-note fashion, as some have suggested. There is definitely a trajectory the character goes on. I’m just saying that the trajectory is obvious from the start, mostly due to all the visual flourishes and heavy-handed ‘clues’.

The film is impeccably well-cast down the line, but in particular a fragile Natalie Portman really did deserve her Oscar win, no doubt about it. This is the kind of tricky, emotionally/psychologically brittle characterisation that could easily have gone over-the-top, especially given how hyperbolic the film itself gets at times. At no point does Portman play things for histrionics. Barbara Hershey also deserves credit for similarly not falling into clichĂ©. This is not just an overbearing stage mother as such. Yes, there’s a demand for perfectionism, but Portman is hard enough on herself, and it’s not necessarily clear if that is tied directly to her mother’s influence, or a mental imbalance removed from anything to do with her mother. It’s a more complex character than just a stage mother, she’s actually quite frightening. Stage mother or not, she’s still an overbearing and frankly unpleasant ‘Smother’, the type of  mother who is so painfully lonely and insecure themselves (she’s a former ballerina) that they want to be their child’s one and only friend. Even though they never seem to have anything nice to say to one another, I might add. Hershey might even secretly hope Portman fails. But is that because she’s a horrible and jealous person who wants Portman to fail so that she doesn’t get to enjoy the success that she herself never had, either? Or is it because she can then be the one to comfort Portman in defeat? It’s certainly a very sad and completely psychologically destructive relationship between two neurotics. Does Hershey have a reason to be clingy and suffocating, or is her behaviour causing Portman’s mental disintegration to some degree? That was something constantly on my mind throughout, although there are also hints of abuse (sexual and physical) that do tend to tip the scales one way instead of the other.

Vincent Cassel is also spot-on in another role that might lend itself to caricature, but Cassel steers away from it. I do have to wonder, though, how it is that European men, no matter their looks (I’m sure some consider Cassel a sex symbol, I think he’s a bit odd-looking), are always able to  get away with being lascivious, misogynistic, chauvinistic pigs. I just don’t get it. In a way, Mila Kunis comes across as the most likeable (and certainly the most jaw-droppingly beautiful) thing in the entire film, and even when her character seems to be something of a ‘bad girl’ or a bitch, one can never be too sure if it’s the truth or just what Portman’s mind is projecting. Kunis’ performance is effortlessly able to suggest either theory, and I found it interesting that she had a fiery, passionate, yet bubbly quality- things that Portman’s character clearly lacked, so even though she may not have been an especially likeable person, she was still a breath of fresh air in an otherwise suffocating nightmare. That said, even though I know practically nothing about dance, I felt Kunis’ character had more of a Latin/ballroom vibe about her, rather than ballet. I reckon Kunis (who has come a long way since “That 70s Show”) deserved an Oscar nomination for this, easily. I feel a bit sorry for Winona Ryder finally getting back into some fairly big, mainstream (or in this case, at least Oscar worthy) films after some troubling times...and she’s cast as the has-been diva. That’s really gotta fuck with her head a bit. Having said that, by the time you get to the hospital scene between her and Portman, it is obvious, at least to me, that the role was written (and presumably played) with tongue firmly in cheek, and as black comedy. Certainly, she’s better in this than she was in “The Dilemma”. Fans of TV’s “Lost Girl” (and if you’re not, you damn well should be), will want to take note of Ksenia Solo in a small-ish part as one of the less than friendly ballerinas.

In addition to the slightly obvious nature of the symbolism in the film, the only flaw for me is in the frustrating lack of nudity in the film. Here’s a film that shows Portman masturbating and engaging in lesbian sex, but (presumably due to no-nudity clauses in actresses contracts) no one gets naked at any point in the film. The material needs nudity, and I would never hire an actress with a no-nudity clause. Screw it, cast someone with less talent and a hot bod if you have to. Why show Natalie Portman masturbating in the bathtub if you’re not going to show us everything? That said, the sex scene between Portman and Kunis is still hot. Nudity would’ve made it hotter, though. I’m not just being a perve, the material seems to demand overt sexuality, and not including nudity in that sexuality just draws attention to that lack of nudity.

The screenplay by Anders Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John McLaughlin, is based on a story by Heinz, and to an extent based on “Swan Lake”. This is a hyperrealist psychodrama that loses points for being a tad transparent, but terrific acting under some histrionic circumstances make this a solid film. Not for all tastes.

Rating: B-

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: Hereafter

Matt Damon stars as a man with apparent psychic abilities (and a fondness for Charles Dickens). His brother (a surprisingly low-key Jay Mohr) wants him to use his abilities to make money, but Damon has tired of it. It especially makes life difficult for Damon when he wants to have a ‘normal’ relationship, such as with his cooking class partner Bryce Dallas Howard, who quickly disappears once Damon’s psychic readings hone in on childhood abuse at the hands of her father. Meanwhile, French TV presenter Cecile De France undergoes a dramatic change when she has first-hand experience with a tsunami. She goes under the water, starts to see some vague images of shadowy figures and a bright light as she comes dangerously close to death. Or perhaps momentarily ‘crosses over’, before being resuscitated. She subsequently struggles to come to grips with just what it is she experienced, and it starts to affect her work and her relationship with Thierry Neuvic. Frankie and George McLaren play British kids with a drug-addicted mother, whom they are about to be taken from by child welfare. A cruel twist of fate (and hooligan violence) sees one of the boys dead, and the other left with questions he’s having a hard time getting answers to. Stephen R. Schirripa (the loveable butcher father on “Secret Life of the American Teenager”, which I swear I don’t watch every week) plays the cooking class teacher, Richard Kind is a grieving widow whom Damon does a reading for, Derek Jacobi has a bizarre cameo as himself at a book signing, and Marthe Keller (where the hell has she been lately?) is a doctor at a Swiss hospital, who tells of people with similar visions and possible afterlife experiences to De France’s.

I’ll sometimes admire a film that tries for something grand or different and doesn’t quite pull it off, to the point where I’ll actually give it a recommendation. Such is the case with this 2010 offering from the increasingly eclectic and surprising filmmaker Clint Eastwood (“Play Misty for Me”, “White Hunter, Black Heart”, “Million Dollar Baby”). Even though the film ends in a disappointing fashion, even though I’m a pretty staunch agnostic atheist, I still found most of this film interesting, reasonable, and thoughtful enough for the rest of the film’s length that I couldn’t live with myself if I taxed it too much. Let’s face it, no one really knows what happens when we die, so one person’s guess is as valid as the next person’s (So long as they don’t try to pressure someone into accepting it as fact when it is unknowable one way or the other).

The real surprise to me was how Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”, “Frost/Nixon”, “The Last King of Scotland”), the latter an apparent sceptic of the afterlife, treat Damon’s supposed ‘gift’ in the film. Aside from one moment in one scene where it appears that Damon is faking his abilities for a good purpose, his psychic abilities are treated as though they are real. Eastwood even offers up a bunch of ‘phony’ psychics, suggesting that Damon’s character is nothing like them. Having said that, the film does not offer any explanation or even any real details about them. Hell, he stops short of actually confirming that Damon is for real, just strongly suggesting it. Nor is there any definable religious connotation to what Damon reportedly sees (nor anyone else in the film for that matter). An afterlife doesn’t need to have anything to do with heaven, necessarily. The former is necessary so that the protagonist can be seen as likeable enough to spend two hours with and invest in his story, and the latter is important in making the whole thing palatable to even sceptics and atheists such as myself.

A good cast helps. Matt Damon is one of the best actors of his generation and is utterly believable (even if I don’t believe in psychics), and completely sympathetic as this man who’d sooner forego his ‘gift’ in favour of being able to actually have a normal life and human intimacy. It’s good casting because Damon doesn’t give off any ‘psychic medium’ vibes in his screen persona or performance, he plays the role somewhat straight and (not sure if this is the right word but I’ll go with it) honest. I liked that, because it grounded what could otherwise be extremely silly stuff. Cecile De France is terrific as a woman who starts out sunny and vibrant, then after encountering tragedy, near-fatality, and a possible glimpse of the hereafter, is a slightly changed woman. De France enacts that transition perfectly. The McLaren twins also make a strong impression as Marcus and Jason, especially Frankie McLaren as the brother left behind. His near-silent interpretation of a grief-stricken young boy looking desperately for closure is absolutely heartbreaking. There’s also an unforgettable appearance by Bryce Dallas Howard (never better) as a potential mate for Damon’s, who ends up regretting asking him for a psychic reading. It’s an extremely sad scene (Even though, when you think about it, Damon should’ve seen it coming and prevented it from happening, not to mention he should’ve filtered his psychic findings before telling Howard verbatim). The way the relationship is set up, you’re expecting one thing, and then Eastwood and Morgan cruelly pull the rug right out under you, and it really hurts, just as it must hurt Damon.

Special mention must be made of the film’s opening scenes which depict the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in such a convincing and vivid way that it is much more effective and affecting than your typical Hollywood natural disaster scene (Maybe because it’s based on something that really happened, or maybe it’s just bloody well done).

The film definitely has its flaws, I cannot deny that. One relatively minor, but still shocking complaint is when De France goes to a Swiss hospital, and for a brief time, looks into a room and watches as a family are surrounding their ill-stricken loved one in their dying moments. This scene, whilst extremely brief, angered me. I have no idea why Eastwood included this scene, but I find it an abhorrent invasion of privacy for De France to sit there and view such a private moment of loss, something that momentarily took me out of the film, because I didn’t believe anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. I’m shocked that none of the reviews I’ve read of this film, nor the IMDb message boards have taken notice of this. It doesn’t negatively impact on the entire filmic experience, but I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes for a moment there.

I also found the cameo by Derek Jacobi as himself to be...hell, I don’t know what that was meant to be about. Maybe he and Clint are old pals? Either way, it was a very clunky and awkward cameo that stood out like a sore thumb. It just didn’t seem necessary or organic to the story.

The way the film is structured is an issue. It at first appears to be so leisurely paced that by the time Morgan and Eastwood try to connect the three story strands, there’s not enough running time left to come to a satisfying conclusion for all three parties and the audience. However, at a moment’s thought, I think it’s really the audience’s satisfaction (or lack thereof) which is the problem. Everything leading up to the climax is definitely satisfying, which is why I’m willing to give it a good score for having worked for ¾ of its length. But we’ve come to like and care about the main characters in each of the three story strands, to the point where the resolution for all three just doesn’t satisfy the audience. One of the three main characters is left without any real closure, whilst the other two end up in something more befitting a romantic comedy. For a heavy drama about the afterlife, grief, and loss, it’s not nearly enough. Not only that, but because those two characters only come into contact right at the end, the supposedly satisfying (and presumably soon-to-be romantic) payoff isn’t warranted, plausible, nor satisfying at all.

So I’m left unsure whether to read the film as having a structural flaw that renders the entire film unsuccessful, or simply that Eastwood and Morgan don’t follow through all the engaging build up with a satisfying denouement, and thus it’s merely a good film with a dud ending. I’ll go with the latter, because I enjoyed the film more than not, so it seems kinda wrong to look at it from a ‘glass half empty’ stance.

If there’s anything that really does disappoint, it’s that after getting to the end of the film that one has thus far enjoyed, I was left not really knowing what the point was or what was really being said. It’s as if Eastwood and Morgan had this great idea and lots of interesting themes, but never quite got around to finding an ultimate raison d’ĂȘtre, but decided to go ahead and make the film anyway. Maybe it was the right decision, as the journey for me was enjoyable enough to ultimately forgive the unsatisfying destination, but I can’t imagine this film having much replay value. I’m not sure I could go through the journey time after time, only to be continually disappointed and unsatisfied by how it ends. Still, it’s an interesting film, especially given its usually macho source. Eastwood, in his 80s now, is turning into a much more interesting, and varied filmmaker than actor, if you ask me.

Rating: B-