Old Film Reviews

This page is a repository for some old work I did for Critic Magazine at the University of Otago, 2013-16.

Just keep scrolling down to read through them all.

Directed by Frank Coraci
Rating: 0 stars

Movies, like any art, reflect the culture that created them. If any aliens were to pick up the tired romcom Blended, and draw conclusions about our planet’s cultural values, unfortunately they would be morally obliged to vaporise us all immediately.

Formula: Adam Sandler is too slobby, Drew Barrymore is too uptight, UNTIL ONE DAY THEY MEET, blah blah, misogyny, blah blah, viagra and tampon jokes. He can’t raise his daughters, and she can’t raise her sons, BUT TOGETHER, blah blah, date rape jokes, blah blah, plagiarising The Brady Bunch, something something, happy ending.

The first thing apparent is the crass sexism of the writers: males are loud; females are emotional; lesbians are gorillas. The only path in this film for boys to become men is to succeed at baseball and actively shun empathy. Equally, the character of Sandler’s daughter was revolting, giving up on her own potential, much like Grease’s Sandy, having learned by the end that getting a foxy makeover and winking at the rebellious kid in a leather jacket is the only path to success. Apparently the writers of Blended believe that boobs and promiscuity maketh the woman, and bats and balls (sorry) maketh the man.

My next gripe is that these first-class imperialist assholes travel on a luxury holiday to Africa (it’s all one country) and act like their petty bickering is important. Uh oh, disastrously embarrassing photo on someone’s smartphone while parasailing! Um, has anybody heard of conflict minerals? Child slavery? Land mines? Desertification? The IMF? And what’s this? Every white family gets a complimentary troupe of singing, dancing, African simpletons! And every non-white character is a servant for a white person! We are now back to a 19th century level of racism. Way to imagine people complexly, there.

Lastly, the animal cruelty. Riding ostriches, and driving quad-bikes directly into a herd of elephants, reminiscent of the horrifying ‘family classic’ Swiss Family Robinson (1960), all normalises the idea that animals only exist as entertainment for humans.

This is your culture. Shame on all of us.

52 Tuesdays

Directed by Sophie Hyde

Wow. Words almost fail me.

52 Tuesdays was filmed over the course of one year, entirely on Tuesdays, to follow the mother-daughter relationship evolving as Billie’s mother becomes James, her second father. Billie is fairly naive to begin with, but gets totally derailed from herself when her mother starts the one year process of transitioning from a female body to a male body. Naturally, when your mother wishes she was never a female, and thus could never have given birth to you, you start to get a teensy bit resentful. To be clear, this is a work of fiction, though James is played by Del Herbert-Jane, an actor who has chosen to be similarly non-gender-conforming, thus making them perfect in this role.

The story arc of the film is heart-breaking. When James needs time to adjust and decides to spend only 6 hours with Billie a week, on Tuesday nights, Billie begins to seek other thrills to make up for the unacknowledged painful separation she is feeling. She and her disenfranchised friends begin to experiment with sex, drugs, and other delinquent behaviour, like many teenagers, but they take it to dangerous, even criminal places that cause harm to many. Eventually she finds herself so desperately in need of being unique and noticed that she becomes the kind of bitch that punches their transitioning mother in their recent chest reconstruction surgery stitches. It’s tough to get a clearer symbolic act of emancipation from your mother’s nurturing than that.

The presentation format is extremely scattered, and it’s clear we are watching a teenager’s one year diary of moments of important meaning interspersed with a lot of unwanted inner misery, and yet we can barely identify which is which to her. We badly want Billie to realise the loving family she has around her, but she seems blind, and attached to all the wrong things.


A Promise

Directed by Patrice Leconte
Rating: 4 stars

Have you ever had one of those love affairs that was absolutely, spine-tinglingly perfect in every way – except, perhaps, for that tiny, insignificant detail, that one of you is not technically ‘available’? Maybe the other person’s married to your boss? Then has Patrice Leconte got a film for you!

A Promise is a romantic drama based on the novel ‘Journey into the Past’ by Stefan Zweig. Set in the 1910s, it features a wealthy German industrial tycoon (Alan Rickman, total man-crush, obviously) training his protégé, Friedrich (Richard Madden; you know him as Rob Stark), without realising that the young lad has been coveting his wife, Charlotte (Rebecca Hall; you don’t know her).

The film proceeds in the manner of the worst TV soap opera love triangles, with contrived situations partnered with banal dialogue, intended to throw the characters into as many precarious positions as possible in the running time. Frankly, I wished the characters would all, please, shut up. Just shut up. Shut. Up. Up Shut-shay. It was simply awful to listen to; a case of characters working in a book, but not translating well directly onto screen. The dialogue was also all in British English, which is strange as the story takes place entirely in Germany. You are supposed to use your imagination, so they can cast English-speaking actors.

With these two distracting dialogue frustrations gnawing at me, I almost missed the absolutely spectacular aspect of the film: the images on the screen. If they had made this differently, as some kind of opera-esque novelty that had no dialogue at all, just letting the evocative score, artistic characterisations, and exquisite cinematography carry each story point as slowly, delightfully, artfully, lustfully, and effectively as the gorgeous few times we explore Charlotte’s delicate neckline through Friedrich’s gaze, thus revealing the boundless inner world of his desire for her, it could have been something really special.

So, in the end, I can at least recommend you get the DVD to play on mute the next time you need to set the mood for your romantic Saturday night on the couch with that special someone.

Before I Go to Sleep
Directed by Rowan Joffé
Rating: 4.5 stars

Okay, so if you are anything like me, and you hear that this movie is about a woman with amnesia waking up every day with no memory of who she (or her husband) is, you immediately think it’s going to be a crappy re-hash of Memento or 50 First Dates, right?

Wrong. While watching Before I Go to Sleep, there was only one name running through my mind: ALFRED HITCHCOCK! The suspense in this film is utterly exquisite, on par with the great master himself. Not since Psycho or Lifeboat have you been more engrossed in a story set in only a couple of places with only four characters.

Every day Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up confused, and her husband Ben (Colin Firth) patiently explains what has happened to her since her head injury decades ago. It seems some assailant walloped her after she accidentally witnessed something incriminating, after which her best friend Claire mysteriously decided to cut ties. On top of this, her neuroscientist consultant Mike seems to know more than he lets on. The memories she recovers through her journal seem to indicate she was attacked because she stumbled onto someone’s affair. It is clear that between these four earnest and helpful characters in the story, one person, somewhere in the chain of events, is telling gigantic lies to cover up their vile true identity – and it might be her. Extra-marital affairs, secret identities, dead bastard children, attempted murder, and the little matter of figuring out who the hell you are, and more, challenge Christine to relive the night she doesn’t want to remember, to set the story straight once and for all.

It is SO hard to tell you how great this movie is without spoiling it. There are a hundred and one shocking secrets to be uncovered, and one by one they all have a reasonable explanation, until the very last, which is too sickening to contemplate. But they went there. And when the answer finally comes, it’s at the shock level of “Luke, I am your father.” (don’t worry, that is not a spoiler).

Holy crap do I recommend this movie.

Directed by Todd Haynes
Rating: 3 stars

After viewing this film, one is left with bruises from being bashed over the head with the themes.

Carol is an adaptation of the novel The Price of Salt, which follows two women falling in love in 1950s USA. The social norms of that time and place, of course, do not permit homosexuality, and so the two leads Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) suffer a lot of stigma from their peers when they go against the grain.

The novel may have been groundbreaking when it first appeared in 1952, however it’s now 2016 and times have changed. If you have seen the films Thelma and Louise, The Imitation Game, Blue is the Warmest Color, A Single Man, or you are just a human being and you are a little bit queer or know somebody who is, you will probably not be too surprised or entranced by anything in Carol. Suffice it to say, their forbidden love makes things tough and tearful, and what they suffer from society, particularly men, is very unfair, gross, and controlling. But I wouldn’t really have thought the performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were worthy of Oscar nominations; more like par for the course.

Something I liked about the film was the way director Todd Haynes brings your attention to the artifice of the medium, as his Wikipedia bio suggests he is wont to do. A lot of the exposition comes in the form of lyrics from 1950s doo-wop love songs in the soundtrack, helping us remember that we are only watching a film with a perspective about these people and not the people themselves. It was clever and endearing film making, and a welcome alternative to being brow beaten with visual cues, such as being trapped in glass prisons, running through the rain when you are crying on the inside, and sadly watching model train sets circle endlessly on their predefined rails.

All in all, Carol is worth seeing. The tension of ‘will they or won’t they?’ is very good and keeps you involved in the film in spite of its tiresome unsubtlety, and the character of Therese in particular has a daring and fearless streak that inspires you to speculate on whether you yourself would have had the same balls to be more than simply one of the herd.


Independence Day: Resurgence
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Rating: 2 Stars

With deep sadness I report that the promise made to us by the trailer (that this sequel will be worthy of the first movie) was exploded into a million fragments like a landmark in a Roland Emmerich film. Granted, it was an ambitious and difficult task to ever try to match the supreme awesomeness of Independence Day, and I will give anything a two-star bump for featuring Jeff Goldblum in a speaking role, but it only ended up gilding the lily; the first one is just a perfect film, and cannot be outdone.

When the aliens return for another go at world domination, the gang reunites to tackle it all over again. It’s pretty much the exact same plot as the first film, with the exception that the characters have no development left to run, and it is set on Earth with an alternate sci-fi history, so we can no longer recognise or buy-into the world being attacked. Almost every character who survived the first film returns, but the problem was always going to be that WILL SMITH IS MISSING. His 100% pure awesome nineties’ sass was instead meted out in tiny parts to everybody else to try dismally to cover his absence. I scoff – and I won’t even dignify Liam Hemsworth taking up 50% of the screen time; I believe it was Alfred Hitchcock who declared “one Hemsworth is one too many.” Practical effects pioneer Patrick Tatopoulos is also sorely missed, as without him this film is a Transformers-level mess of CGI employing a planet of engineers.

Beyond the surface level, though, the film seems thematically bankrupt also. The greatness of the first film in this franchise was that it put us in our place, and showed us that all our military might could not defeat the aliens; it would take self-sacrifice, ingenuity, and borderless humanism. The gun was not power. In Resurgence, however, we just need to find bigger military options, so the bottom line is…’Murica?

Resurgence is not worthy of the first film. But with the bewildering addition of a gigantic, invincible alien Queen, however, it may just be that Godzilla reboot we all were hoping for in 2014.

Francisco: The Man Behind the Pope (also titled Francis: Pray for Me)
Directed by Beda Docampo Feijóo

Fresh from my Grandmother’s funeral mass and with great trepidation marched I into the theatre to watch a film about the head Catholic honcho, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or as you know him, the incumbent Pope Francis. Conclusion: Worst. Biopic. EVER! If only there were a rating I could give below zero. Basically, this film is just two hours of meandering propaganda, trying so very earnestly and limply to establish a cult of personality, and so unsubtle that I suspect Tommy Wiseau secretly directed it.

To summarise the plot, a young writer who doesn’t know the man behind the pope, befriends the man behind the pope, and eventually comes to know the man behind the pope. From his early days giving mass in the slums of Buenos Aires to the papal hotseat many decades later, the story is told mainly in flashbacks, which are unwieldy monstrosities of exposition about how he is always humble, generous, and one of the progressive ‘good-guys’ in the Catholic church.

Though the cinematography was wonderful and the actors fantastic, most of the directorial decisions were beyond fathoming. I was flabbergasted by the way E-V-E-R-Y S-C-E-N-E consists of some stranger or friend despairing to him about the state of the world, until he takes their arm, dispenses well-spoken-but-trite truisms disguised as holy wisdom, before he (more or less) whaps on his sunglasses and marches out of shot in a never-ending series of C.S.I. YEEEEEEAAAAAAHH-moments, leaving their worlds rocked by his compassion and unassailable upstanding character. Hmm, speaking always in parables so that everybody thinks he is just like Jesus, much?

The film is all in Italian and Spanish, which is aesthetically beautiful, but it makes it hard to assign blame for how weird this film turned out. I refuse to believe that Italians and Argentinians speak with such regal-sounding fatuousness in everyday life, so either the subtitles are translated very poorly, or the script really just sucks that much. Either way, I suggest that before you go making long-term relationship plans, you double- and triple-check with your intended squeeze that they aren’t going to be playing this film on a screen anywhere near your face any time for the rest of your life. This one’s pretty much a deal-breaker.

God Help the Girl

Directed by Stuart Murdoch
Rating: 4.5 stars.

God Help the Girl follows three youngsters around the streets and music halls of Glasgow, in one of those “perfect carefree summer” kind of romps. Eve is recovering from a self-harm episode and decides to chase her musical dreams, enlisting the help of mega-cutie James, one of those insufferable music snobs who believe they know best about what makes art pure. Together with their sheltered friend Cassie, they dance, skip, and sing their way through the film, forming a band, forming relationships, and writing music that expresses their desires and frustrations to us. The film has a Tom Sawyer-type of tra-la-la to it, and we as the viewer have perhaps a little more perspective on what issues, such as fear and self-loathing, are really in play here, than the characters themselves.

To say this is a vanity project might be understating it. Writer/director Stuart Murdoch of the indie favourite Belle and Sebastian crowd-funded this film musical on the basis of the songs his band had already written for the characters. Thus the script is clearly constructed around the music, and at times feels clunky and self-conscious. There is a slight sense that the dialogue is only here to fill in space between dance numbers, and frankly, until it dawned on me that the point of the story was that the characters were in their own Neverland, I was very confused about what was going on (nothing?). A mere 88 minutes into the running time, the film finally began to explore something meatier, and the characters began to have the unpleasant, necessary conversations that would mark the beginning of the end. She loves me, she loves me not. The record company will sign our band, they will sign us not. We will stay here forever, we will grow up.

This film beautifully captures that time when, to use James’ own words, “just for a moment, we were all in the right place, and the possibilities were infinite.” For this reason, and to see these two impossibly gorgeous, endearingly dorky kids figure out their first kiss, I can highly recommend you attend and enjoy.


Classic Film: Good Will Hunting
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Rating: 5 stars

“It’s not your fault.” Four little words that blow Will Hunting’s mind and frees him from past traumas inflicted upon him by cruel external forces. Four little words that delineate the boundary between what you are and are not responsible for. Four little words that define the concept of ‘You’. Good Will Hunting was neither the first nor last ‘mental health movie’, but it is definitely one of the most important.

The story follows Will Hunting, a Sheldon Cooper-level mathematical genius, but with Jake the Muss-level violent tendencies. His wicked foster parents beat him as a child, and as a result he lives eternally on the defensive, seeking to physically and emotionally ruin everybody he can before they have the chance to hurt him. Soon enough, this leads him into the justice system, which decrees he must attend therapy. The late great Robin Williams plays Sean the therapist, who is possibly the only person in Will’s world more damaged than himself, and can match his extreme self-denial with extreme self-acceptance.

Though young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck got a lot of the glory for their original screenplay, the real standout of course is Robin Williams. The ‘park bench scene’ is famous for the inspired four-minute monologue he delivers in one take on the subject of knowledge versus experience. Will might be a genius, with a mind capable of performing great feats, but he has none of the experience of real life that makes Sean (or any of us) real people, and the acceptance of the good and bad experiences of one’s life that is the true source of one’s human power.

The other important scene that makes the movie great for me is when Will tells his best friend he doesn’t want to succeed; he just wants to slum around in poverty with his drinking buddies his whole life. His best friend (Affleck) tells him that if he is still here next year instead of working in some genius mathematician job for a high salary, he is going to fucking kill him. That’s love right there. Use your gifts!

leweekendLe Weekend
Directed by Roger Michell
Rating: 5 stars

Le Weekend is about an aging couple, Nick and Meg, played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, taking a long-overdue second honeymoon to Paris, trying to recreate a time in their lives when they were happy, in love, and blissfully unconcerned with the future. The cast are absolutely superb, and I can’t recommend this film highly enough. The makeup, hair, and cinematography design, and even the very dull names Nick and Meg, all show us the plain-ness of both these characters. We see them with all their blemishes, and that makes them real, and goddamn beautiful, to the point that even the old-people-sex scenes were charming. Jeff Goldblum, too, apparently defying the tyranny of time, has never been more alluring.

The entire film, like life, is a contradiction. The opening scene, their train emerging from the dark channel tunnel from London to Paris, surely symbolises a rebirth? But by the end, very little at all has been said about rebirth. Instead, this film shows us that people can never really escape themselves. Nick and Meg take their entire past with them; happiness, grievances, and all, and spend their entire weekend in Paris first complaining about and then celebrating their plain life back at home in Birmingham. Meg makes a half-hearted attempt to spend a lot of money seeing the sights of Paris, because ‘when in Rome’, but ultimately can’t avoid herself or her husband. Both of these people have needs, but neither really wants to satisfy the other’s at the expense of their own. We see the real nitty gritty; the incredible contradiction of totally compassionate love, totally malicious hate, and totally self-devoid dependency all existing at the same time. This relationship was so real (and timely) to me that during certain scenes, I wanted to weep.

The beauty of this film is its grounded performances and its intelligent script. The trailer suggests it is a mere rom-com for oldies, but to me, Le Weekend is more akin to and rates much higher than the Before Sunrise trilogy.

Directed by Steven Knight
Rating: 5 stars

I know what you are thinking. If the film is just Tom Hardy’s face as he drives and talks on hands-free, how interesting could it be? The answer: RIVETING.

We follow Ivan Locke on a literal journey to a hospital one night, but more importantly on a figurative journey from his old life towards an uncertain promise of a new one. On the eve of the biggest contract of his professional engineering career, a woman he can’t stand (but slept with) calls to tell him she is having his baby, it’s so premature it may die, and she needs him to be there, right now.

So, Locke goes, but not alone. His wife is on the end of his phone, falling apart as he is forced to confess his adulterous crime, and his children beg him to come home while he is shamefully compelled to drive in the opposite direction. His boss is breathing fire down the wire at losing tomorrow’s $100,000,000 contract, and Locke must explain over the phone to the drunken Irish primate he left in charge how to finish the job. To cap it all, the ghost of his dead-beat father is in the back seat, taunting and defying Locke at every mile to be a better parent for this unwanted impending infant than he was. Brother, you got problems!

I loved the allegory of Locke’s journey. Like him, we are all barrelling down a one-way highway, compelled forwards by the march of time, and unable to undo the things behind us. We can only apologise. Tom Hardy’s performance astounds, and we wait anxiously for him to deliver every line. The director knows exactly how to make one character in a car into a captivating spectacle from start to finish. I highly recommend this film journey!

Money Monster
Directed by Jodie Foster
Rating: 4 stars

A 90-minute thrill-ride through a real-time hostage crisis, Money Monster delivers a vigorous story and dazzling performances.

George Clooney is a washed-up financial news TV host, who is taken hostage live on air when an out-of-pocket investor (Jack O’Connell) breaks into his studio with a gun and a bomb demanding answers. George is scraping rock bottom, but fortunately is assisted by the supportive and inventive Julia Roberts behind the director’s desk in the studio, producing, directing, and scripting what could very well be the end of their lives. A wonderful supporting cast give us the B-plot of trying to bring the Wall Street bankers responsible for the $800,000,000 crash in question to account before the show is over.

The tension is real and the core trio of characters are potent. George and Julia have been together on screen many times before, of course, and their chemistry is what carries this film, despite being in different rooms and communicating only electronically. The deranged occupying ‘terrorist’ played by O’Connell would seem to represent the entire Occupy Wall Street movement and much more, so you can’t help but root for him to win. Foster’s direction is majestic and punchy while still leaving breathing room for the principal cast to exude their magnificence.

To put Money Monster in it’s filmic context, the premise, along with some self-flagellating zaniness from the host, naturally draws a comparison with Network (1976). But with social media embedded throughout the story (as in our lives) and hackers (representing the real life group Anonymous?) called upon to save the day, it places it firmly in our present world with all its values and lack thereof. So while it’s getting a decided “meh” from critics, I believe Money Monster to be this generation’s Wall Street, and much more compelling than attention-grabber The Big Short.

Do yourself a favour and forget real life’s awfulness, and enjoy the two most beautiful people in Hollywood doing what they do best with a great script and a great director. It’s 90 well-invested minutes those fat-cats on Wall Street can’t steal from you.

Notes to Eternity
Directed by Sarah Cordery
Rating: 3.5 stars

An intensely moving doco about the Palestinian struggle, but also much more than that.

When the film begins by interviewing the most vocal members of a pro-Israel protest, you know it isn’t going to pull any punches. It tackles all the difficult issues head-first, with the thesis that the Jewish holocaust is now being repeated by the state of Israel against Palestinian civilians. The archival footage of both make for very raw viewing.

The format and genre of the film are difficult to pin down. Four main interviewees, or characters, Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Norman Finkelstein, and Sara Roy, talk about their upbringings (some within a Zionist community), and how they were disenfranchised and came to share the Palestinian cause. This provides a narrative of sorts, but then there are interludes of lasting landscape shots showing bombed-out chaos, close-ups of the dissident art that sprawls over Israel’s gigantic concrete walls, and animated vignettes which director Sarah Cordery uses creatively to give us more perspective on these four than mere faces and words can provide. Together with a timeline that jumps back and forth throughout the last hundred years, it resembles more a notebook (hence the title) than a cohesive beginning-middle-end story, and all of this moves the film from the documentary genre into something else entirely; something sort of bent-sideways, twisted, clutching and probing into your soul.

The film was made over ten years, which one can definitely feel in the two and a half hour cut (an alternate cut was shown at the NZ International Film Festival in 2014), which takes its time to linger on the human aspects of the story, sacrificing breadth for a narrower depth. As such, Cordery appropriately claims that it is “a film” about Palestine, rather than “the film”. No doubt some will accuse her of making “a propaganda film”, but I suspect she will not mind.

If you are one of those undergrads who hears about Israel and Palestine in the news and ignores it because you don’t know anything about it and it’s not relevant to the Kardashians or Call of Duty, it would definitely behoove you to watch this one. It’s not exactly a cheery Saturday night flick, but it’s important, and it won’t be easily forgotten.

Paper Planes
Directed by Robert Connolly
Rating: 1 star

This film is a piece of shit. A piece of folded, flying Australian shit, in slow-motion, with more uplifting background music than you can shake a proverbial ‘steeek’ at.

Okay, average 12-year old Australian white boy Dylan, so your dead mother imparted you the gift of folding perfect paper airplanes, and you miss her and want to win the world paper plane championship finals, while simultaneously winning the love of the intriguing dark-skinned 12-year old girl of your dreams… don’t you see that it’s your mother you love, not the planes or the girl? I mean, are you the sad drummer kid from Love, Actually now?

Okay, Dylan, so your dad is a deadbeat and the only person who truly believes in your life-changing, golden-ticket dream is your spritely old grandfather… I mean, are you Charlie in some sort of chocolate factory getting everything you always dreamed of now?

Okay, Dylan, so you can only make friends with animals, and your rival who is more popular and better looking mocks you at every step while surging ahead in the paper plane competition… I mean, are you Ash Ketchum facing Gary in some Pokémon battle now?

Okay, Dylan, so your 12-year old’s life is sooo complex, but “for those few seconds while the plane is in flight, [you’re] free”… I mean, are you Dominic Toretto from The Fast and the Furious now?

Okay, Dylan, so you are the underdog and your Japanese mentor taught you to model your plane designs after beautiful everyday natural objects rather than more scientifically perfect western designs that represent arrogance … I mean, are you the Karate Kid now?

Just who the hell are you Dylan – and why do I care about your paper plane quest? After 96 minutes the movie hasn’t answered this question at all, though of course the intended young audience won’t care. As an adult viewer, I can only report that this film had absolutely nothing interesting or original to say about the human condition that could draw my attention away from, y’know, grown up, real life issues, like the fact that my tiny bag of M&Ms cost $7.70, and noted UK fascist in sheep’s clothing David Cameron seems to have been re-elected, all-in-all making for a fairly dismal outing for this film critic.

Good fiction can change lives; good fiction this is not.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Rating 3 stars

I’ll be up front, I loathed the character that is the subject of this documentary. However, it was slim pickings at the movies this week, and this is what I was sent to review. And it must be said that the film itself is very, very well made.

If like me you had never heard of Peggy Guggenheim, the short version is that she was the real-deal rock’n’roll playgirl of the 1920s Parisian modern art scene. She inherited a lot of money from her family and set out on a mission of collecting avant-garde work that at the time was viewed as not worth preserving. She saved a bunch of it from the Second World War by shipping it to America; fast forward to the present and her collection is held to be the greatest collection of modern art in existence.

The film recounts her journey in a very concise and interesting way, giving you all the saucy details about various love affairs and insane rich uncles that you want, while also maintaining a pace that helps you take the journey to Paris, London, New York, and Venice with her. Along the way we meet all the capital-B Big names in modern art that she befriended over the years, the only two with which I was familiar were Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. I gather she was married to many of them at various times too, and something about an illegitmate son? Oh, and there’s a section on those four days she spent in bed with Samuel Beckett, and something or other about finding James Joyce to be a dullard.

So suffice it to say she was a stupefyingly rich Manhattan socialite with a bourgeois Gatsby accent and a lot of opportunity to hob-nob. She’s the very embodiment of the capitalistic mantra that accumulating wealth leads to artistic patronage and the betterment of all humanity. The interview tapes dug up and featured in this doco reveal that she openly admits to loving her art collection more than anything else, and that she’s pleased it will help her become immortalised. Super materialistic, not very Zen.

If you are into art I think you will probably get a lot out of this film, for one thing because you might know which artists are Big Deals, in the Ron Burgundy sense. Without that info, I just found her quite gross, and sad.

Saving Mr. Banks
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rating: 4 stars

Exquisite performances and a powerful story make this film a success. You may be familiar with the classic 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. The 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks invites you to become familiar with the tormented artists responsible for producing such an uplifting and memorable childrens’ tale. Emma Thompson is superb as the austere P.L. Travers, who wrote the original book. When Walt Disney, captured predictably magnificently by Tom Hanks, finally convinces her to come to Los Angeles to co-write a film screenplay, she finds that making his alterations conflicts with her values and her dark past.

By showing us the struggle between Travers’ rigid artistic integrity and Disney’s mass consumerism, the film causes us to question why people ever choose to create artworks at all. Is it to exorcise the demons they carry? To create a bridge to another? To preserve a perfectly-imagined dream against a cruel reality? Or simply to make money? A similar fantastically provocative theme was the question of whether or not Walt Disney is evil. He wants to ‘dumb down’ the Mary Poppins story as it was written, and we are set up to hate him and the way he sold out his own treasured creation, the Mickey Mouse character, in the form of gaudy merchandise everywhere that Travers looks, (also, y’know, Disney LAND). But it is no spoiler to reveal that in the end Disney has his way and the Mary Poppins film (surprise, surprise) is made. Can he be evil for trying to sprinkle a little pixie-dust on every child, for profit? Or is Travers the evil one, for refusing to take joy in her own life initially; or for eventually getting a taste of Disney’s whimsy and money, and caving in? You’d best see the film and decide these questions for yourself.

This film’s climax was so inspiring it even made me forget how deeply I detest Colin Farrell in everything, and the Disney corporation as a whole.

The Expendables 3
Directed by Patrick Hughes
Rating: 1 star

In the long tradition of The Expendables series repackaging the exact same action-hero products you have seen before in 80s’ movies, comes The Expendables 3, a film with no original dialogue. Some people argue that the way they rework each action actor’s iconic catchphrases (such as “I’ll be back!”) into their new films ad naseum is a bold and wholly new genre of self-referential parody genius. Not me, however.

From the moment I saw the first Expendables film, I knew that every bad-but-great old action movie I ever loved from late night TV was going to be ruined by the same actors trying to do their thing all over again in a series of much more modern, and much less interesting or authentic sequels in the coming years. And Ex-3 did not fail to deliver on that score. As if seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a pathetic parody of his flying-kicking younger self in The Expendables 2 wasn’t bad enough, now we have “Crazy Mel Gibson” doing that whole suicidal Lethal Weapon thing again. It sucks. None of the evil they create for his on-screen character is as disturbing as the YouTube videos out there of his real life drunken, misogynistic, anti-Semitic rants at his wife. Wesley Snipes comes back as a poor, poor reprise of his role in Stallone’s Demolition Man… and, fuck me!, was that Harrison Ford doing a Han Solo cameo!? Awesome… I guess.

Oh, I tried so hard to like it. But there comes a time in every young boy’s life when he watches a shoot-em-up film, and instead of being excited by the bloodlust, he breathes in deep, accepts his new place in the world, and says out loud: “Oh come on, there’s no way they could have survived that 8-story freefall and then killed those sixty guys who were waiting for him right there with tanks. This is bullshit.” Son, today you are a man.

The one and only good part of this film was Antonio Banderas’ cameo reminiscient of PUSS…in boots!

The Face of Love
Directed by Arie Posen
Rating: 3 stars

This movie is like combining American Beauty with Misery, and the plot from The Great Gatsby. With Robin Williams, too, as the same creep-next-door from One Hour Photo.

Nikki (Annette Bening) is traumatically widowed when her husband of 30 happy years drowns beside her, but years later she sees his exact double, Tom (Ed Harris). She is unable to stop herself from pursuing him for all the wrong reasons, and becomes a pro-stalker, finding out that he is a painting tutor and enrolling in private tuition with him. Eventually, a relationship develops, and Nikki thinks that her years of repressing the happy memories of her husband are over, and they can be together again.

The film starts with a sympathetic story, but quickly gets very, very creepy. Like Jay Gatsby, Nikki finds herself trying to recreate the glorious past, by dressing Tom in the same clothes as her late husband and taking him to the same places. Our sorrow and sympathy for her quickly turns to frustration and wonder at her intransigence. When her shameful ploy is about to be exposed, the question is, will Nikki willingly throw away her family, friends, sanity, self-respect, and ultimately, her life, in order to continue this grief-fuelled fantastical pursuit of her dead love, or will she re-join the world of the living and dive back into the water again?

The film is beautifully composed, with hints of people as they are imagined by others tucked into the corners via photographs, artworks, mirrors, and flashbacks. Annette Bening, as with Carolyn in American Beauty (1999), does an incredible job of acting like somebody totally over the edge and yet still projecting an image of success, which is not easy to do. With all the photographs, chance-meetings, and confusing-the-pronouns blunders threatening to expose her mad charade at any moment, the audience is exsquisitely on-edge, and anticipating the inevitable collapse of it all. And of course, Tom might have a few bombshells of his own to drop on Nikki.

Worth watching, worth remembering.

The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by Josh Boone
Rating: 4.5 stars

Of the big movies released over the holiday break, perhaps the dark horse of these was The Fault in Our Stars. It’s an absolutely spot-on film adaptation of the New York Times #1 best-selling young adult novel by vlogbrother John Green, and it’s exciting that two more of his novels will be adapted in the coming years, riding this film’s tear-jerking success.

TFIOS is a cancer story that deliberately defies the typical cancer story. Instead of featuring healthy people learning about the fragility of life from stoic sick people, this is a story about two extremely self-aware and empowered teenagers making whatever remains of their lives meaningful. Every member of the cast is perfect for their role, and indeed Shailene Woodley was actually hand-picked for the lead part by the book’s author.

16- and 17-year old cancer patients Hazel Grace and Augustus stake their hopes of a happy ending on their favourite author, an irritable recluse living in Amsterdam, and in the process have to face the cruelty of a universe that is totally indifferent to the plight of humanity, let alone individual ‘cancer kids’. But of course, what the film really embeds in you is the idea that we are all dying of something; to be alive is to be dying slowly. Hopefully we can all be as lucky as these two, who find each other and make the most of their time with loved ones before the end, at which point literally every person in the movie theatre audience was bawling and sniffling. Ahem.

If I have one teensy niggle about the film it’s that the characters are actually too good. The charming, witty, hyper-concious Augustus with no pimples, in particular, seems totally unlike any troubled 17-year old boy I have ever met, and resembles more the selflessly empathetic thirty-something John Green who wrote him. He seems impossibly wizened, and as such, I’m predicting, will replace even Edward Cullen as the new gold standard against which 17-year old boys everywhere will now be measured by 16-year old girls.

DFTBA, everybody.

The Monuments Men
Directed by George Clooney
Rating: 1.5 stars

This story about the preservation of precious art during the Second World War is fascinating as a page in history, but as an all-star Hollywood war epic, appalling. Ironically, it is very preachy about the innate sanctity of cultural products (such as Hollywood films. Yes, George Clooney, we got it).

I had extremely high expectations for this filmic experience. All-American leading men George Clooney and Matt Damon, enigmatic Cate Blancett, old-timers Bill Murray and John Goodman, and a ‘caper’ plot about thumbing noses at the Nazis? Surely my prayers have been answered, and this is an intelligent third Ocean’s Eleven sequel, at least in spirit?! Unfortunately Clooney doesn’t know what genre his film is. For five minutes it is a whimsical caper, then moves to characters on/off crying as a token acknowledgement of the Holocaust occuring, and dying in the manner of an unnamed ‘Redshirt’. For the storyteller’s clincher, it throws the only woman head-over-heels in love with apparently the first and only man who ever talks to her. The dialogue during all this was as to ‘snappy’ as Kentucky Fried Chicken is to ‘cuisine’.

The pacing of the movie is badly skewed. We meet all our main characters literally in the first two minutes but get nothing on their stories; with huge, capable names in the cast like this, it’s a crime to deprive them of roles with gravitas. Then, following the ’80/20 rule’, the vast majority of the story is fast-forwarded over the next half-hour, and by the time we get to see something in-depth near the end, our ability to care has been utterly squandered. Oh, boo-hoo, Bill Murray, you got a letter from home. You’ve had forty seconds of screen time – please tell me more about how long and difficult it’s been for you on the Front.

This film has all the ingredients of a charming, resonating epic about Western civilisation, but dismally fails to put them together according to a recipe. Likely all you will take away is the gross and inevitable: ‘God bless America!’

The Railway Man
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
Rating: 3 stars

The Railway Man is a film adaptation of Eric Lomax’s autobiography, about that time he was in the British Army in Singapore when it was invaded in 1942. His company surrendered as prisoners of war, only to be tortured and dehumanised on the Burma railway construction effort. I was prepared for what was to come perhaps more than others, after having read a similar book that claimed one man died for every sleeper laid on over two hundred miles of railway. Those of you interested in watching accurate depictions of war will be super-glad to know there are beatings and prolonged water-boardings, squarely in centre-frame. There was a distinct squirming of movie-goers in their seats. The film makes you confront your feelings about water-boarding incredibly effectively, and obviously wants you to think about modern usages, like the War on Terror.

The film features big-names Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, and of course Colin ‘Aging-Handsomely’ Firth in leading roles. I never thought I would say this about Firth, but his performance didn’t pull me in. I gazed at him in total awe in The King’s Speech; my heart broke with his in A Single Man; and he will always be the Mr. Darcy of my imagination. But as Eric Lomax he was underwhelming, even at both the tragic and cathartic climaxes for his character. The real stand-out of the cast was Jeremy Irvine as the younger Lomax in the considerable flashbacks, who is our main character in place of Firth.

It was an intense story, yes, but here’s why the film earns only a C+ rating. First, it was terribly paced, and much more screen-time developing Firth and his trauma as older Lomax was needed for our empathy. Second, the cinematography and sound design was totally derivative, and under-capitalised on the opportunity to represent post-traumatic stress ‘haunting’ Lomax. And finally, while I’m sure his wife (does she have a name?) is a nuanced human being in real life, the film fails the Bechdel test hopelessly as Nicole Kidman is given no role beyond being merely the Sexy-Yet-Anxious-And-Helpless Woman, and that bothered me.

The Selfish Giant
Directed by Clio Barnard
Rating: 4 stars

The Selfish Giant is bleak. No, proper bleak. For you to understand the sheer intensity of bleak, not only is it about two brats, Arbor and Swifty, being expelled from school and scratching a living pilfering scrap metal for a crooked bookie in an impoverished town in Northern England; but also a beautiful horse is electrocuted and melted alive to make ends meet. As my esteemed cinema-going colleague Alex put it, it’s like ‘bleakness porn’.

There was very little story happening, and I was impatient for events to unfold, a call to adventure, etcetera. Instead I watched a long exposition about an area of England with socio-economic woes, comparable to Billy Elliot, only without anything uplifting. This was achieved by presenting dark, claustrophobic environments devoid of life or stimulus, with little sound or music other than the barking of angry, neglected dogs, and the shouting of angry, abusive families.

What I found deeply unsettling was that the characters were not on any journey. They were merely existing; as impoverished (emotionally) as the very community (economically) that had forgotten them. Even though they try to make money from scrap, they can’t achieve anything, because the ‘Selfish Giants’ (from their limited perspective this is every adult in the film, but from our omniscient perspective, CAPITALISM!) are constantly trying to use and abuse them. There was no hope, joy, or love to be found anywhere; except, of course, in the eye of an innocent horse, which the director couldn’t resist reinforcing with gratuitous horse-eye close-ups amidst the human chaos. Yeah..I got it.

Though I can’t claim to fully comprehend this movie, when the kids had a tiny bit of fun playing on a trampoline, and then shit got so desperate that they contemplated selling the very trampoline springs that symbolised their own youths for two quid in scrap metal, I noticed my conscience was indicating that this experience was so bleak and possibly emotionally damaging I ought to walk out. So I must concede that whatever the hell this film was, it was effective.

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Rating: 5 stars

Harvesting human flesh for your alien homeworld’s meat industry is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Scarlett Johansson (or Scarjo, as she likes to be called) plays an enigmatic seductress that has a disgusting job to do here on Earth: luring local Glasgow men into her van with flirtatious chit chat, and driving them to her scary meat grinder house, where she proceeds to get naked with them until they die. Naturally, not one of these men ever protests, because, come on! Scarjo beeeuuubs!

When you know ahead of time that this movie was filmed using hidden camera footage of real people from the street, it makes it shocking to watch. One assumes the CGI and full frontal male nudity scenes were filmed after informing the men they were in a movie, but other than that, it’s terrifying to see her killing and messing with real people’s heads. Let’s just say this project probably wouldn’t get the approval of the research ethics committee.

The amazing thing about this movie is that it works despite only a tiny amount of dialogue and absolutely zero exposition. To find meaning (and plot!) in this film, we have to think literally, laterally, and deeply about what we see. We follow the alien carrying out her *ahem* meat grinding function, until soon she catches a glimpse of herself (itself?) in a mirror, and is suddenly confronted with that ultimate existential question: who is looking back? Thus begins the incredible journey of this film; the opportunity for an alien to explore the concept of the self in our contemporary world, and choose not to do what it is told. This theme of disobedience, to me, immediately red flags The Matrix trilogy, a thematic reference perhaps reinforced when the alien tries to experience chocolate cake and orgasms. This alien has the appearance of a human, and may even be able to converse and feel sensations, but through its behaviour it reveals itself to us to be horrifyingly lacking in the most essential human trait: empathy.

This is an astounding film, for philosophers and Scarjo-anatomy enthusiasts alike.

Winter’s Tale
Directed by Akiva Goldsman
Rating: 1 star

I have limited space for this review, so I’ll just go ahead and start my list of ‘A Thousand Things Wrong with Winter’s Tale’, and we’ll see how far we get.

Big number one: cast. Colin Farrell couldn’t sell the main character, a thief named Peter Lake, for a moment. With only his two trademarked facial expressions to peddle in every scene he appears (the ‘Puckered-Brows’ and then the ‘Getting Teary’), he is less the masterful Zoolander and more the proverbial plank. Russell Crowe, too, transparently did not believe he was a demon of the underworld and/or an Irish gangster, and neither did I. The females in the cast were utterly forgettable as they had meagre relevance to what passed for plot. Oh yeah, the plot was that Peter Lake is pursued by a demon while trying to pursue true love.

The story arc was trivial to the point of absurdity, and told clumsily. Every time things look dire for Peter Lake.. SUDDENLY A GIANT GUARDIAN ANGEL FLYING HORSE APPEARS AND SAVES EVERYBODY, and thus the emotional stakes were zero. The director also relied on the dialogue to do all of the work, and to make it clear why the heck the story had taken the latest contrived turn, frequently characters would walk into shot, go on a giant one-sided spiel about their entire life story, and then finish by saying exactly what they were doing there today at that moment in the film. Wow, that’s bold. Like, Tommy Wiseau bold.

The love story betwixt Peter Lake and ‘The Red-Headed Girl’ is barely paid off. Because of her weakness from tuberculosis, she could die if they ever hooked up, and it was plainly moralising at us (read: YOUR WICKED LUST WILL BRING RUIN). This love story makes Twilight look like fucking Titanic. So in summary, Winter’s Tale was the most pointless two hours I ever spent staring at a screen, and that’s including the time my friends and I stayed up until 3am watching a fake-fireplace video on YouTube.

Also, terrible wigs.

Words and Pictures
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Rating: 3.5 stars

Like a lot of bad rom-coms, they really should have ditched the rom-com angle altogether and focused on the much more interesting subplots.

Handsome English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is having a pretty crummy time, having not been able to write anything worth publishing in many years, and turning to vodka for solace at inappropriate moments, and is about to lose his job. When a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (the gorgeous and mystical Juliette Binoche), irks him at work by suggesting that words fail to capture the important things in life, he starts pushing his students into grand literary learning to prove her wrong, and vice-versa. This is, of course, a tired and banal rom-com plot that contrives to throw two superficially-different people together with the least possible imagination. However, I did like that their back-and-forth war to prove the value of words or pictures was positively Socratic in tearing each other’s arguments to pieces.

By the end of the film, everybody duly and inevitably became better people and decided that words and pictures are both important, and that they weren’t so different and loved each other after all. Yawn.

No, what was great about Words and Pictures were the subplots of personal struggle. While Clive Owen was not believable as a funny-man, he definitely has that twisted, demented vibe about him that made his descent into alcoholism and loss of his son’s respect very moving. I wish they had focused on this more, as it had potential to be up there with addict movie Flight (2012). Juliette Binoche, too, is great as a tormented artist, who has all the vision she needs to create masterpieces, but is losing control of her body due to rheumatoid arthritis. As someone who lives with chronic pain, I know all too well her insensible roars of frustration at simple tasks, such as holding a paintbrush, and the pointless heartbreak that occurs for months and months on that journey to eventually realising that your gifts don’t merely come from your hands. Good on them for doing that well, at least.

Directed by Tarsem Singh
Rating: 1 star

Disappointingly, it turns out that everything good in this movie was already packed into the trailer. The film itself fails on three counts: it fails to tackle the central premise convincingly; it is very unoriginal; and the actors were misused.

Firstly, the main sci-fi premise, or gimmick, of a dying wealthy businessman stealing the body of a younger healthier family man and transplanting his brain into it, had SO much potential to be great. In philosophical debate, one often comes across those prickly thought experiments consisting of hideously ambiguous questions like “if there was a baby on the train tracks, is it wrong to divert the train into a group of Nazis and kill them all instead?” Or perhaps more pertinently, “is it okay to save your own life if you take someone else’s?” That’s the kind of stuff great character-driven stories are made of, right? And that indeed is what the trailer tells you the film is going to be all about. But instead of tackling this problem in any kind of depth, though, most of the film’s run time focuses exclusively on the gimmick of the mind transplanting machine, and on trying to out-fox the evil black-suited men running it. Instead of making the story about complex characters facing heartbreaking decisions, the screenwriters rather made the story about the MacGuffin itself. If there is no human cost, who cares?

Secondly, the premise of Self/less is not very original. Both The Island (2005) and Never Let Me Go (2010), along with countless other great works, feature more compelling retellings of the organ-harvesting sci-fi trope. There is also a sense we are watching the gross eyeball-transplant sequence in Minority Report writ large. Additionally, the inclusion of supporting actor Victor Garber also made the film yawningly reminiscent of any number of excellent Alias episodes where brain-washing is the weekly norm.

Thirdly, a scant fifteen minutes of the mega-foxxy Ben Kingsley at the beginning of the film is just not enough. Ryan Reynolds, who plays the younger version of the same man for the rest of the film, in no way attempts to act like Ben Kingsley’s character as previously established, and as a result they seem unrelated to each other, and thoroughly uncompelling to the audience.