Netflixed: Still better than Shakespeare in Love
The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crossland, 1927): Can you believe that there were four Hollywood biopics of Villon in the Twenties and Thirties? I’m using “biopic” loosely, since this one takes liberties with the historical poet, or at least I assume Villon never got catapulted into a fangirl’s bedroom, or rhymed “discussion” and “concussion”. Hard to think of any actor today who could pull off the sensitive clown (who’s surprisingly good at scaling vertical walls with an arrow sticking out of him) routine John Barrymore rolls out here. The Rock could match the funny faces, but not one of the great moments of hamming in silent cinema. When J-Baz is banished from Paris, he takes off his fake nose, smushes his face in snow, then puts on a wicked look of defiance with an eyebrow pointing in an unnatural direction, before hanging his head. Okay, maybe the Rock could do that, and write better poetry to boot.
Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928): Gloria Swanson, on the run from her past, arrives in Samoa with a toothy scowl-grin; soon, she’s crowd-controlling the American troops with her parasol. Lionel Barrymore, a sanctimonious (good casting) reformer, disapproves and tries to hound her back to San Francisco. Swanson’s development as an actress during the 1920s is evident. She was always spunky but now she can stare Barrymore in the eye while cussing a blue streak at him. If anything, she’s too heroic. Now more than a clothes-horse (though it’s still a tragedy when she starts dressing badly), she’s in total control of her sexuality, yet aware that its power exists at the discretion of the patriarchy — while it’s clear that Barrymore finds release in his exercise of that discretion. Well-directed by Walsh, who finds fine angles for his close-ups, managing to make Barrymore look threatening. Unfortunately, the final reel is lost, and the reconstruction doesn’t feel satisfying.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Shintaro Katsu, 1989): Kitano’s Zatoichi isn’t really much better than this belated swansong for Katsu, save that Kitano was in better shape in his fifties. Katsu gives us the blind guy, swords, a bit of sex, lots of blood, some kind of plot about yakuza or something.
You Kill Me (John Dahl, 2007): When Ben Kingsley, alcoholic hitman, started the movie in Buffalo, I thought it a witty setting. Soon, though, he’s a funeral home assistant and the handheld camera is busy making San Francisco as prosaic as possible (the Transamerica Pyramid shots help in this regard). Tea Leoni’s pet tortoise is kawaii though. Kingsley sticks to the budget-Wes-Anderson rhythm which so suits Luke Wilson without mastering it, but though his deadpan lacks surprise, it can still be funny. The conversation isn’t quite sharp enough for sustained lulz, but Kingsley gets a memorable AA confession.
The Conspirator (Robert Redford, 2010): Poor Abe. The vampires got him in the end.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011): Just when it looks like the best coming-of-age movie in years, a train explodes — hard. The plot then lurches into action, with missing dogs, shady military types, and more explosions. It’s not without its Abramic pleasures, plus it lets up enough to reveal it wouldn’t have been a great coming-of-age movie anyway. It’s not Joel Courtney’s fault that his everykid role leaves him little to do but make Frodo-faces. Elle Fanning is left to do most of the acting.
Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau, 2011): The title promises diverse violence, but the Western variety is overwhelmed by the post-Bay exploding-shit kind. Even when Favreau switches the CGI off, Daniel Craig’s physicality is lost when film and sound editing do the lifting. The only real exceptions are his unerotic but sometimes unhinged blue-eyed staredowns with Olivia Wilde. Better that than Harrison Ford’s meant-to-horrify war stories, which come out like Grandpa Simpson shaggy-dogs. Most entertaining performance: Paul Dano will try to drink your milkshake and spill it over himself.
 I just want to see Craig hit someone and hear a punching sound, and not suffer a quick cut and a generic slamming sound.
Netflixed: The work of art in the age of mechanical characterisation
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010): After prologues starring some awkward author-talk humour and an all-time annoying kid, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell go on a voyage in Italy. Their central conversational topic is the value of copies; that they have nothing original to say proves a point. Dodgily-motivated Binoche turns aggressive at the smallest perceived slight. She puts the fear of Virginia Woolf into Shimell, reducing him from arthouse-Hugh Grant hackademic obliviousness to appropriately badly-acted petulance. Kiarostamiest image: a tense bride, her husband’s face out of shot, waiting to be photographed.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010): Watched in 2-D because I’m a cyclops. Here’s art most will only ever see in reproduction, yet if anything, the doc increases the value of the original. It’s very clear that the history of the work adds to its meaning, both in the original and as ingeniously lit and filmed by Herzog and crew. Our Werner delivers his narration existentially, occluding his humanism: “But do they dream? Do they cry at night?… You will never know from the phone directory.”
Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011): Marti Nixon’s script crams in half a Buffy-season of teen metaphors, the best being that Ensign Chekov can’t save his girlfriend because he doesn’t have a fake ID. He’s a recovering nerd more plausibly girlfriended than that Transformers kid, hyper-aware of how easily his status could lapse. McLovin is his genre-savvy former cosplay partner who thinks Colin Farrell is a vampire. Chekov is at first mostly concerned about being cool, then about being believed; being alive is not unimportant but secondary.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011): I’m sure others have noted the 2-D flashbacks are livelier and more stylish than the CGI. Software allows those with low RAM in their imaginations to create sustained action scenes. The character animation can signal emotions, but by itself it won’t make you feel. Neither will Jack Black, who can sell the good-natured fat jokes but not the despair of surviving a genocide attempt. When the plot focuses instead on technology destroying centuries of culture, it’s much breezier.
The Devil’s Double (Lee Tamahori, 2011): The ending is too appalling in terms of screenwriting competence, as opposed to all the other kinds of appalling the movie is throughout, to bear on any level. Until then, you might let Dominic Cooper’s double-act as Uday Hussein and his lookalike keep you smirking through the torture porn. As the body-double, Cooper parodies his own falsetto-heavy performance as the psychopath who literally whips himself into a sado-masochistic auto-erotic tension. Nearly as ripe, Ludivine Sagnier, as the bizarre love triangle’s second-most libidinous corner, gives some alternative to the auto until the script beaches her.
The Change-Up (David Dobkin, 2011): Three minutes in and Jason Bateman’s mouth is being projectile-pooped into, in case you got the impression the movie was decent, but it turns out to be only mildly dreadful. Playing Ryan Reynolds, Bateman has the better role but Reynolds is more artful playing Bateman. Neither of the two deserves better, though Leslie Mann does.
Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960): Opens with Elizabeth Taylor waking up, brushing her teeth with a glass of scotch, and being awesome; then the dialogue starts. For every performer to be off-rhythm (Liz: “I’ve heard a lot about ecstasy,” Laurence Harvey: “It’s everything they say,” pause, “and more”) takes a special combination of script and directorial badness. Taylor does make the movie worth looking at, though if that deserved an Oscar, Angelina Jolie should have six by now.
Nobel Son (Randall Miller, 2007): The opening credits feature a thumb-severing and a narrator saying “there are times I’d give a thumb”. This is as close as the movie gets to successful wit. When it tries to be more clever than this — especially when it inserts indieriffic simmering family tension, and, F. Miller help us, media satire — it falls so short that you long for honest idiocy. R. Miller shoots like a Fincher clone who thought it would be edge to gouge his own eyes out. In one of the worst sequences ever put on film, there’s a cut from a (different) scene of threatened thumb-violence to a fucking aria that’s parlayed into a fart joke. It’s the equivalent to the bad poetry Miller also subjects us to, except the poetry is as bad as possible intentionally. Alan Rickman plays the attitude rather than the lines, which is the right move given the dialogue seems to have been written by a Turing test failure, but there’s no way he or anyone involved in this can come out looking good.
Netflixed: Culture is what’s lost in translation
Astro Boy (David Bowers, 2009): In the opening minutes, Nicolas Cage does a fantastic job bringing gravitas to the premise, which allows this to grow into a Genuinely Good Movie. The character designs make you wonder why 3D-animation never cribbed from manga before (the box office gives your answer). The political overtones are heavy-handed, though the comic relief Marxist cell programmed to obey the laws of robotics is devilish. The scenes of kids teaching Astro freedom culminate in the only mis-step, the Robot Games sequence, which however allows a final half-hour filled with pathos worthy of the Babe movies; Bill Nighy provides the gravitas at the business end.
For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965): Lacks the shotwise perfection of the subsequent The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Unlike in that one, the excesses here — specifically the sound: not just Morricone, but also the gunshots soundtracking the fast cutting between Lee Van Cleef and a wanted poster — feel excessive, and the two-dimensional idea of masculinity grates (don’t ask about the dimensionality of the women). Still ridiculously entertaining: extras die expressionistically, Van Cleef does all the acting that’s necessary, Eastwood grins only in the dark.
Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010): That the subtitles are skeletal is a plus: their lack of completeness forced me to focus on the image, and I didn’t fall asleep once. I watch late Godard like Kent Jones watches Michael Bay: in a dreamstate. Michael Bay uses American consumer culture to signify, Godard uses European literary culture, and looks worse for it: Bay has a more comprehensive understanding of Transformers’ universe than Godard does of Balzac’s. What makes Godard even now the better director is that his great eye for film has become the greatest eye for video. Compare the cruise-ship shots in the smarter Wah Do Dem to those in Film Socialisme: Godard is so much more evocative, in part because European radical culture allows the unneurotic appreciation of beauty.
Everything Must Go (Dan Rush, 2010): Amazingly, that this Carver adaptation is hollow isn’t Will Ferrell’s fault. Constrained by his character’s defeatedness, for once he does more with less, managing to make his irresponsibility as warm as it is in his comedies. Rush, though, has that way-behind-the-beat comic pacing that never works for anyone less aggressively quirky than Miranda July, and no freshness to his eye: there’s a shot of Ferrell holding a snowglobe in the glare of the evening sun. Redeeming feature: a remarkable Laura Dern cameo.
Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011): Sub-Skyrim special effects asides, Green has less difficulty with the fantasy setting than with the dick jokes. Danny McBride, who wrote the inadequate script with Eastbound & Down collaborator Ben Best, has his delivery thrown off by the English accents. The now habitually-awesome James Franco killing and/or making out with humans and others mitigates. Though Zooey Deschanel’s good singing is less bearable than Franco’s bad singing, what physical comedy she gets is joyfully awkward. Natalie Portman is never better than in Manic Pixie Dream Warrior Seeking Vengeance for the Murder of Her Clan roles.
Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence, 2011): Poor old nonagenarian is standing the rain, having missed the circus. The funny thing is he used to be
Robert Pattinson in the circus, decades ago. Conversation turns, as it does, to the Great Circus Disaster of 1931. Before we get anywhere near that, we have to flash back far enough to see Pattinson’s parents’ corpses. Worse, Reese Witherspoon’s horse is sick and Christoph Waltz, who has pretty much the same attitude to the pathos enveloping him as I do, is being a real little Hitler about it. Then the elephant shows up and the heartwarming begins. This lasts about two minutes before they start beating the animal.
Bloodworth (Shane Dax Taylor, 2010): Kris Kristofferson headlines this story of how life really truly is in Tennessee, which ten minutes in is already scoring brotherly bonding with tinkly piano. Even Kristofferson would be less aurally grating. The truly insufferable character is Kris’ grandson, a writer, portrayed as too good for his family, who are literature-averse yet still end up pontificating on “what blood is worth”. If he is too good, then what’s the point of the movie? Some weaksauce gothic shit, it seems. Too good for this movie: Hilary Duff.
Netflixed: Dimension reduction
The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985): They’re not just stereotypes, they’re stereotypes with problems! Yet this doesn’t matter much, because, as Hollywood has known since 1915, stereotypes are enough to build a compelling feature around. Less forgivable is the neat tying-up of loose ends in the final quarter, especially when Ally Sheedy turns into just another hottie.
Runaway Jury (Gary Fleder, 2003): How does this one rate on the Gene Hackman Index of Evil? Ooh, he’s a Republican. Let’s not even estimate the Dustin Hoffman Scale of Hammy Ingratiation. Fortunately John Cusack gets to play — not exactly against type, but in a way that suggests that “John Cusack” is an act disguising a total asshole. Of course you can approximate what the True Asshole Metric will turn out to be.
The Warrior’s Way (Sngmoo Lee, 2010): It’s no Tears of the Black Tiger. The telling anachronism is a gramophone playing Maria Callas. Upwardly-mobile Korea has the same kind of insecurity about culture that America had back when it was upwardly mobile. So you get a moment of pretense next to a baby giggling at Tony Cox squeezing some dudes’ balls. America is the wrong export market to target, economically and aesthetically: pan-Asian audiences don’t force you to twist genre conventions you don’t understand. Still, Jang Dong-gun looks like a superstar by not being actively terrible. Geoffrey Rush chivalrously acts worse than Kate Bosworth.
TV supplement: Community: Oh, now I get it. It’s basically not-quite-as-good season 7 or 8 Simpsons in that they can do character stuff, but are best when they’re parodying something specific and they keeping trying to top themselves by piling on more and more references and layers of irony.
Netflixed: I get wet
Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952): On third viewing, I thought I appreciated the jokes more because now I know more about early sound film. Then I remembered I’ve never seen a 1927 sound film — not even The Jazz Singer. So my understanding of early sound film mostly comes Singin’ in the Rain. Some jokes improve with repetition.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961): “‘And as I recall I think it was really quite racist’/And I said ‘Well, it’s still a good flick. Far from a great one: Hepburn’s character goes soggy as soon as Buddy Ebsen shows up, but Edwards does a good job of navigating to the ending before it all falls apart. Plus “Moon River” is a better song than this one.’”
Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan, 2011): Cameron Diaz is the funniest profitable actress of her generation, but since Being John Malkovich she’s spent most of her career enlivening bad movies. So I appreciated this for nearly being very good — despite its conventional ideas of bad — that I’ve seen it twice.
The Playhouse (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline short, 1921): Not Keaton’s greatest short — the twin-romance plot isn’t useful — but the bit where nine Busters are simultaneously minstrelling on-screen is classic. Later, he plays a chimp.
The Sicilian Girl (Marco Amenta, 2008): Should have watched the documentary: Amenta isn’t a natural director of fiction, and doesn’t get inside the society at all. Veronica D’Agostino inserts some energy.
Death of a Salesman (Volker Schloendorff, 1985): Fails as a movie and as filmed theatre. The use of sets blurs the distinction between reality and Willy’s psychological space, eventually showing up Miller’s situations as artificial.
Netflixed: Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow
Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010): Christopher Plummer just got his Oscar for revealing that Captain Von Trapp was gay all along, which retrospectively provides the depth The Sound of Music previously lacked. Moreover, for a dying gay-dad movie Beginners is shockingly good, thanks to Mills making like his wife Miranda July covering Chris Marker, and Ewan McGregor giving the man-child protagonist enough fragility to make disliking him seem cruel.
One Week (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline, 1920): The first Buster Keaton Comedies release. Keaton is still working out his character in the absence of Arbuckle — here, he’s married, and builds a crooked house straight out of Heinlein. It doesn’t survive the short. Interesting as an anticipation of the Things-Fall-Apart gags he’d perfect in Steamboat Bill Jr.
The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924): This takes an age to get going: the first half is a lot of Douglas Fairbanks mugging and not enough of Anna May Wong glowering, wondering why she isn’t the star instead of the princess, who is nondescript except in her xenophobia. Eventually swashes get buckled, Walsh pulls off some neat trick shots, and Fairbanks does what he was born to do — stab things.
Big Business (James W. Horne & Leo McCarey, 1929): Tit-for-tat is an extremely successful strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, leading some scientists to posit at least an analogy to the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Laurel and Hardy took a more cynical view, leading to the destruction seen in this short. The problem: tat inflation. Discount your tats, kids, it’s the only way the world will ever improve.
Insidious (James Wan, 2011): This is pretty funny when it wants to be, like when the ghost-expert nerd pulls out a Viewmaster, but that’s not often. It lacks the heart to risk kitschiness, which you might as well do if you’re going to employ “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the soundtrack. Rose Byrne tries hard.
Netflixed: Same as the old gaze
The Saga of Gosta Berling (Mauritz Stiller, 1924): This adaptation of a Romantic-throwback novel of love-polygons is thematically regressive (like just about every other movie ever made), but it’s notable as Garbo’s first major vehicle. In her first scene, she eats salumi, advancing the radical notion that women can feel, like, pleasure. Garbo would become the champ of using naturalism to inject meaning into slushiness, but she doesn’t have much of a chance until 2.5 hours into the movie. The best performance is by the woman she would soon succeed as Sweden’s greatest actress, Gerda Lundequist, in the non-naturalist role of the woman who’s scorned and suffers and finally says fuck it, burn it down.
Entr’acte (Rene Clair, 1924): Despite the cameos by veteran Dadaists and budding Surrealists like Duchamp and Ray, there are mere traces of their movements until the zombie-conductor ending. Clair is more interested in using trick photography for lyricism. The slo-mo scenes and the rollercoaster montage make motion itself interesting like it hadn’t been since before Griffith. The upskirt shots foreshadow anime.
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011): Cap has this reactionary image when he’s been a bleeding-heart since Kirby and Simon created him. Part of this is his role as a propaganda tool, which this movie cleverly addresses. This stumbles in its second half as it races through canon to set up The Avengers, but the ending has the weight you’d hope for.
Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011): This is a movie about how we should feel guilty if we laugh at Larry the Cable Guy, and even more guilty if we don’t. Because he’s being himself, you see; I can’t wait to play this excuse next time I pull a Kanye. Pixar make the action scenes professional, but this is the final blow against claims they bat a thousand.
Netflixed: Just like it was on Talok
Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996): Don’t know whether it’s better or worse than the Olivier or Almereyda adaptations. It’s less efficient, but it wasn’t my millions Branagh was burning through. Half the play is shouted, which reflects the tone of the filmmaking. This is occasionally hilarious, as when Branagh and the score turn the “my thoughts be bloody” soliloquy into the sunscreen song. But it shines on enough facets of the characters to keep me engaged for four hours.
The Search for John Gissing (Mike Binder, 2001): Better than most second-hand Allen or third-hand Fellini because there’s no tortured-artist schtick. Binder finds all kinds of artless ways to torture himself, like a nun who gets to be slatternly for only a few minutes, but whom the characters bring up repeatedly, expecting a fresh laugh every time and succeeding occasionally.
Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011): When it opens with an echoing Geoffrey Rush intoning “Blllions of years ago…”, you hope it’ll be an all-time bad movie. Sadly it turns out competent, for which we can mostly blame Ryan Reynolds. In mass culture, Aquaman is widely considered the joke JLA member for his power set, but DC readers know the laugh is really on Hal Jordan. His powers are virtually unbounded, yet he’s KOed by everything from a falling branch to a model plane. Reynolds knows that being a putz is the only thing that makes Hal vulnerable. It might be the only thing stopping him from destroying the multiverse.
TV supplement: Parks and Recreation, a bunch of episodes from seasons 2 and 3: When Adam Scott and Rob Lowe show up, does that make for the best U.S. sitcom cast ever? Okay, The Honeymooners, though they had an easier job, what with only three-and-a-half performers. Between then and 30 Rock, the American sitcom defined characters primarily through writing rather than acting — the exception being special guest stars. I loved special guest stars and always wished they’d stick around. That’s what Parks & Rec feels like.
Netflixed: Funny ha ha
The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924): Murnau makes this about the sets and the lighting, to the point that the best actor in this is Emil Jannings’s shadow, which stays a step ahead. But the uneven social critique is vital; the gynophobic gossip sequence shows something is rotten in the state of Weimar even if Murnau and scenarist Carl Mayer don’t know what it is. And the coda, dissed or reduced to sarcasm by pathos fiends since its release, might be the loudest ending in movies. Fuck Sunrise, this is tougher.
The Navigator (Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp, 1924): James Agee wrote about the shipboard stalking scene in his seminal essay on the silent clowns “Comedy’s Greatest Era”, though he omitted the punchline, which, being on an intertitle, undermined his point — but it’s the words that put you over the boffo line. The movie eventually loses itself in cannibal panic, but most of it is great, thanks in no small part to Kathryn McGuire, the rare heroine capable of matching Buster’s slapstick. Top five Keaton.
Das Boot: 3.5 hour cut (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981): An achievement limited by the absence of analysis. It’s plausible that the crew of a U-boat might be more anti- than pro-Nazi, but how this could come about isn’t explained, and it doesn’t affect their actions. What we have is a bunch of exciting shit happening to guys on a submarine, which is more than 90% of movies give us.
Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011): You spend a eternity waiting for the confrontation between the two failed next action stars. Vin Diesel knows he ain’t worth shit outside this franchise, which is suffused with his anachronistic sense of honour. The Rock, a more versatile performer who knows he can always get work, acts like he’s above the role, which, given that it requires him to say “You know I like my dessert first”, is true. Their face-offs are for the soul of bad movies: integrity versus camp. Battles are won, but the war goes on.
Soul Surfer (Sean McNamara, 2011): The target audience for this movie is people who aren’t horrible, which excludes me. It shouldn’t matter that the build-up is a worthless mix of proselytising and product placement. It might even be okay to want the horrible real-life accident to happen already; such is the pull of narrative. Anyway, it happens soon enough, and the bulk of the flick is tolerable sports movie schtick. But it is definitely not right to complain about bemoan the lack of blood in an inspirational Christian movie. Even blaming Mel Gibson seems hollow.
Netflixed: Learning to love the dichotomy paradox
Scream 4 (Wes Craven, 2011): It’s not clear if the characters discussing what “meta” means has any value beyond fueling TV Tropers’ arguments. The movie within the movie within the zzzzzz is admittedly shocking, but desensitises us to surprises in the main story. Still, the movie is enjoyable because Neve Campbell and David Arquette know this is exactly what they should be doing with their careers. May they continue to reprise their roles long after the franchise has settled into straight-to-video stasis.
Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011): Things you shouldn’t put in a movie about a genius, even a pharmaceutically-created one: CGI letters falling from the ceiling as he types. Retroactive photographic memory. An algorithm to get 400% a day from the stockmarket. Sped-up film to show he thinks fast. Geniusness switching on and off for dramatic purposes. A fucking lightbulb to signal the onset of hyper-awareness. Bradley Cooper doing voiceover narration. Actually Hollywood, just stop making movies about geniuses.
Take Me Home Tonight (Michael Dowse, 2011): This 1988-set comedy is funnier than four average episodes of its writers’ best-known project That ’70s Show, though more painful — a wacky car theft is followed by the leads lip-synching “Straight Outta Compton”. Topher Grace plays a moderately smart-assed asshole; Dan Fogler plays an asshole. Why are we supposed to root for them and not meathead Chris Pratt? Because they’re aware that they’re assholes? Doesn’t that make them worse? Anna Faris does a great job of showing up everyone else except when she’s forced to pay attention to her terribly-written character. Demetri Martin saves a couple of scenes.