A roundup of movies watched last month.
Heavy viewing month with lots of notes on lots of action movies, silents, sci fi, and Hammer films. Here’s June with links to my review posts or quick thoughts.
Stolen Face (1952). Wrote an article on this Hammer movie for The Dark Pages’ Lizabeth Scott special issue, fun thriller wherein Paul Henreid meets concert pianist Scott and falls madly in love but she has a fiance waiting and leaves him. He’s a renowned plastic surgeon so he remakes an ex-con into Scott’s image and tries to love her, but her criminal nature comes out, and when the ‘real’ Scott returns to him, Henreid has a tough decision.
Bikini Beach (1964). Got warmed up for the Beach Party blogathon with Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Keenan Wynn and Don Rickles.
The Expendables 3 (2014). I’m the viewer these movies are made for, excited to see all these great action stars together, so long as the story is just good enough (and it’s fine) and so long as there are loads of fights, bullets and explosions (and there are). Fun jokes with the stars’ screen personas, and Mel Gibson does an awesome job as the big bad.
The Haunted Castle (1896). Youtube link. Random find that got me thinking I need to fit more silents into my movie diet. It’s amazing to see the stop motion and effects used by Georges Méliès in this early vampire-type horror that has a bat turning into Mephistopheles, conjuring up an assistant and more before being confronted with a crucifix.
Death’s Marathon (1913). Youtube link. D. W. Griffith short with Blanche Sweet sparking a romantic rivalry between Henry B. Walthall and his business partner Walter Miller. She marries Walthall but regrets it as he gets addicted to gambling. One day Walthall gambles away the company’s funds and phones Sweet to tell her he’s about to kill himself. Will Miller be able to stop him, and does he even want to? Original twist on the love triangle formula and mainly impressive for Walthall’s acting– his despair as he talks on the phone sticks with you. Graphic stuff, a car speeding to the scene, and look close to see Lionel Barrymore.
Now a Mosquito Operates (1912). Youtube link. Mosquito operates by sucking blood out of a sleeping man. Fascinating look at early animation, wonderfully odd, with the mosquito given full personality as it overloads, tips over and puzzles out how to get back to drinking more blood. Charming toon by Winsor McCay.
Laughing Gas (1914). Youtube link. Charlie Chaplin-directed short, has him playing a dentistry assistant who pretends to be the boss. Mediocre Chaplin effort with lots of gassing, hitting, pinching, brawling and using the dentist’s chair to get kisses from a female patient, funny gags the first time but get repetitive.
Making a Living (1914). Youtube link. Chaplin’s first movie, no Little Tramp character, just a jerky con man who keeps running into the same reporter. First Chaplin steals his girlfriend, tries to get a job at the paper where he works, steals his photos and takes credit for his scoops. Fun on its own merits with added draw of seeing Chaplin’s debut.
The Art of the Steal (2013). Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon and Terence Stamp in the story of former art thieves split by a crime gone wrong but reunited for a valuable book heist. Not a fan of desperately showy and try-hard moviemaking, the story was messy and most of the jokes weren’t funny, but the actors and the heist kept me interested and final twist was just enough to bump this to the mindless fun category.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014). Liam Neeson plays an alcoholic detective hired to look into a kidnapping which leads him to a series of unsolved women’s murders. A mix of noir, serial killer thriller, and cop/kid buddy movie, all set in 1999’s Y2K panic, and those parts didn’t fit together. Undeveloped characters, especially useless kid sidekick (Astro) who’s poorly written, used either for smartypants comic relief or for his illness (Neeson needs someone to care for and atone for a past mistake involving a child). Fine if you want an average detective mystery, or to spend time with Neeson, who manages to elevate it somewhat, but nothing memorable.
The Rover (2014). We’re in Australia a decade after the “Collapse” has wrecked civilization, and Guy Pearce is chasing thugs who stole his car. He uses the villain’s brother (Robert Pattinson, overdoing the simpleminded act) to find them. Why Pearce needs his car is a “rosebud” twist revealed in the final scene. Tough, bleak, repetitive and slow in parts, still interesting, a pre-Mad Max without the leather and chrome. Main draw is a man still human enough in this hopeless world to care about something. Relentless performance by Pearce, whose icy stare is enough to keep you glued.
Fury (2014). Brad Pitt as the weary but determined Sergeant heading a five-man tank crew in the last days of WW2. Outstanding series of tank battles, strung together with quieter scenes of male bonding, a shaky new recruit that gets good men killed, tense and tragic encounters with the good German locals. Good acting, good cast, excellent cinematography. Almost a Great movie but suffers from some shallow characterizations and uninspired, unoriginal ways to show us what we know and have seen done better: war is hell. Love Pitt in most anything and Shia LaBeouf does a good job here.
The Fall, season 1 ep 3,4,5. I started watching this Gillian Anderson 2013 TV series a few months back and just now caught up with the rest of this season. She’s fantastic as always, understated as this complicated woman and driven detective after a serial killer (Jamie Dornan). As the investigation unfolds, it’s less about clues or procedure and more about the similar personalities of Anderson and Dornan. Slow pace but still gripping. I was let down by the finale which left much unresolved and Anderson’s choices unexplained. Anyone who’s seen season 2 please tell me if it’s worth my time.
Sahara (2005). Mike (of Take on the Movies) recommended this one to me since I love adventure yarns, and it was so much fun. Charming, cocky hero in Matthew McConaughey, sidekick that’s just the right amount of comic relief and assistance and never gets annoying (Steve Zahn), good chemistry with a beautiful, smart doctor (Penelope Cruz), tons of action, outrageously entertaining and clever ways out of traps and sticky situations, amazing locations, good supporting cast (William Macy, Rainn Wilson), and a crazy but somehow coherent story that has them searching for a gold-laden and ironclad Civil War ship that may have made it all the way to Africa. Mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark and James Bond (even the score has those signature Bond horns). Adapted from the Clive Cussler book. Why did this bomb?
Hammer – The Studio That Dripped Blood, Part 1. Bookmarked the rest of this 1987 documentary on YouTube to view later, some nice history and interviews with Peter Cushing and Vincent Price among others.
John Wick (2014). Warning: cruelty against a cute animal, but that’s the whole motivation for Keanu Reeves’ righteous revenge spree. He was once the world’s most frightening hitman but gave it up for love. Now his wife (Bridget Moynahan) has died and her last gift to him was a puppy, which is taken from him by the most annoying character I’ve seen in ages, a bratty, bug eyed Russian mobster. Reeves tracks him and mows down all the lowlifes that stand in the way while dodging Willem Dafoe who’s after him for the reward. Curious that a Russian character would badly mispronounce ‘Baba Yaga’ and also use it to describe a male, but that tiny quibble aside, it’s a formulaic 70s revenge movie well done, with artfully choreographed and filmed violence. The role plays to Reeves’ strength (or weakness I guess) making him a single minded, calm, expressionless and mostly silent killer, and one so fast, deadly and creative that he’ll spook you too.
Super 8 (2011). From J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Bunch of kids are making a movie when they witness a train crash that sets an alien free in their small town. Soon the military is there in full force, setting curfews and hunting for evidence like the kids’ super 8 footage from that night. The alien is a MacGuffin since the focus is on the kids’ friendships, first loves and jealousy, their love of homemade props, effects and the magic of filmmaking, and the main character’s trouble communicating with his father, Sheriff and recent widower Kyle Chandler. Warm nostalgic parts worked but didn’t mesh well with the slick and polished alien spectacle, the “misunderstood” visitor from another world and the X-Files government cover up plot.
Hot Fuzz (2007). Brilliant. One of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long time. Simon Pegg is the overachieving policeman who’s a stickler for rules and paperwork and makes everyone on the force look bad, so he gets shipped off to a little country town. He finds himself stuck with a bunch of inept co-workers and a partner (Nick Frost) whose policing experience comes from his (very impressive) dvd collection. Frost regales Pegg with movie quotes and recreates scenes between licks of his ice cream cone, while Pegg despairs over his dull new life. Then a series of grisly murders leads to a complicated and thrilling investigation and an opportunity to pack in loads of sight gags both evergreen (being unable to jump a fence) and innovative, as well as clever tribute to and satire of everything from Miss Marple to buddy cop movies of all eras (two detectives rock some glorious 70s mustaches). Nicely drawn and very colourful group of town VIPs and possible suspects include Timothy Dalton, Billie Whitelaw, Jim Broadbent, Edward Woodward and David Threlfall. And a rogue SWAN!
The Judge (2014). Solid combination of courtroom and family drama. Hotshot attorney Robert Downey Jr.returns to his small hometown after almost 20 years away to attend his mother’s funeral. There’s tension between him and his tough judge father Robert Duvall, because of a rebellious youth and a tragic incident involving Downey’s brother Vincent D’Onofrio. Duvall shows signs of dementia and when he’s charged for killing someone in a hit and run, Downey stays to defend him and has to be a caregiver. It’s not terribly original, feels more like a polished TV movie, but the performances are good, with Duvall’s crustiness and Downey’s cynicism and dark humour (mostly from confusion about old girlfriend Vera Farmiga and whether her daughter is his) keeping it from being sappily sentimental.
Safe House (2012). Could have used much more Denzel Washington. Ryan Reynolds plays a CIA safe house keeper in Africa who has to deal with rogue spy and wanted man Washington coming in and then breaking free. Reynolds wants to be the hero who brings Washington in, but gets to respect him and share his distrust of his superiors Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga, and might just help Washington conceal and release all that wikileak-type info he’s stolen.
Skyline (2010). Terrible. Aliens descend on Los Angeles with massive ships that shoot beams down to vacuum everyone up. Unless you avoid their bright blue gaze, or something. Hiding behind things like shutters, columns and kitchen counters seems to work, so that’s all the cast does for the whole movie. The huge scale of the effects impress for about a millisecond, and the ending is laugh out loud ridiculous.
Dom Hemingway (2013). Oddball, dark gangster comedy that has its moments and could have been great. Jude Law plays a top safecracker out of prison after 12 years. He has a tough time getting used to changes in crime, the death of his wife and a daughter who wants nothing to do with him. He gets a handsome payoff for not squealing while in prison, then has it all stolen by a gangster’s moll. Meaty, bombastic role for Law who’s over the top but riveting as he fights to regain his former glory, is shocked at the lack of morals in the young thug who double crosses him, talks to his wife at her grave and issues a torrent of creative and comical cursing. His scenes with Richard Grant are the best parts of the movie.
Kill Charlie Countryman/ The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (2013). Very weird and half-baked, densely plotted but trying to convince you it’s all a string of random nothings that happen naturally. Shia LaBeouf just lost his mother and in a vision she tells him to go to Bucharest. We later learn she meant Budapest but off he goes and his life is changed when he falls in love with a mobster’s ex-wife (Evan Rachel Wood, good accent, and Mads Mikkelsen, complete psycho). The excellent Vincent D’Onofrio appears here too, wasted in a tiny role.
Contagion (2011). Gwyneth Paltrow destroys the world and has a conscious uncoupling from her brain. I love horror and few things make me squeamish but this stuff creeps me out. Within weeks we jump from one unfortunate handshake to Paltrow flying home and dropping dead from a highly contagious virus, to one in twelve of the world’s population dying off. Steven Soderbergh brings you an Oscar-bait version of a 70s all-star disaster movie, a good look at the individual, personal ways people will suffer when society falls apart because of something random like a wayward bat.
total 36 movies
I make these notes as I watch each one, and just now editing this post I noticed a weird trend: many of the newer movies on this list had a dead wife or mother as a plot point. What a way to deprive actresses of some potentially good roles. For example, wouldn’t The Judge have been even more fascinating if it was the mother who was the tough crusty judge dealing with illness and resenting her son? Makes Gillian’s rich part in The Fall all the more impressive.
Also re: John Wick and Expendables 3, it crossed my mind how movies are hurt by using contemporary pop or rock music. To me it always badly dates films and I like an original score much better. The Rover had a great one with harrowing industrial sounds.
Previous months are at the Film Diary tag. Thoughts and suggestions on what to watch next are always welcome.