December and January are traditionally when I rack up the biggest numbers for this feature as I madly catch up on films for consideration in my best and worst of the year lists. Exactly the case here too. A very busy viewing month, even with a couple of weeks where I did not watch a whole lot, particularly over the festive season.
As always, keen to hear your thoughts on any of these, whether you agreed or disagreed with me.
- The Turning (2013), 18 different directors – This Aussie film had a really innovative cinema release. Based on a collection of Tim Winton stories, the three hour film had an intermission in the middle and you got a glossy program before going in. Props to those involved for doing something different. Producer Robert Connelly has done well to marshal all of this. Like all anthology films, the quality varies. But there are none that stand out as particularly bad. The connective tissue between the shorts is often oblique and a little forced. But this does actually succeed as an experience. And it is great to see so many big name Aussie actors doing their bit to help out.
- Carrie (2013), Kimberly Peirce – I actually really quite liked this. Especially effective is the last half hour, by far the most difficult part of this adaptation to nail. Peirce actually improves on the most problematic aspect of King’s Carrie, making her more empathetic in the final bloodbath she brings about. She does so with a couple of very deft touches – the screening of the period video and relationship with Tommy Ross. Chloe Moretz and Julianne Moore are very good as is Ansel Elgort as Tommy.
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Gavin Hood – Like the one above this film is pretty maligned, and at least in my opinion a touch unfairly so. This is pretty silly and mindless, but mindless enough to be enjoyable. Some of the CGI seems unnecessary, and annoyingly this approach is both distracting and repeated. Wolverine’s claws look like a cartoon. It is quite a slow burn narrative, as I guess most origin stories are. I can see people’s issues – it is more of decent action film rather than a mythology laden comic book origin story. Plus having characters that are more or less immortal does hurt the tension. But for me, more than enjoyable enough.
- The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), Niels Mueller – Cool to see our Jack Thompson (who I met not so long ago and is a lovely guy) in something like this. He is very good too. Sean Penn as well is really good once he gets into his character. His character is a very sad dude and this is a really sad film. The title hints at sprawling political conspiracy. But in fact, this is simply a great portrait of a tortured man.
- The Way Way Back (2013), Nat Faxon & Jim Rash – The main character Duncan is a perfectly written example of teen awkwardness and isolation. This is a coming of age tale where he finds himself, without the usual tweeness that goes along with that. Liam James is good as Duncan whilst Sam Rockwell is like a delightful, laidback water park buddha in a role he seems to relish. The cast is really great with even the minor names putting in some really good performances. Good to see Steve Carrel breaking his recent typecasting when he plays a bullying jerk in this. It is hard to do touching without a hint of sentimentality but this script manages it. Probably hasn’t been a more delightfully joyous film this year.
- A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Sergio Leone – A nameless Clint rides into a town where the men are so busy killing each other they no longer work. He masterfully plays the warring factions off against each other. Can see how influential this became, especially in the music, shooting and editing. This is Eastwood’s bread and butter, a cold as ice renegade. Brutal, technically a masterpiece and driven by an excellent script, it is understandable why this neo-Western has become so revered.
- The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (2013), Peter Jackson – Now this is more like it! One hell of an adventure film, which despite being the middle film of a trilogy has a satisfying narrative arc. Probably darker that any of the LOTR films in my opinion. Good to see Jackson stretching himself and whilst it is imperfect, he got so much right here. Helps that I chose not to watch it in his infernal, beloved HFR. The dwarves still don’t function as individual characters and it is 20 minutes too long. But the last act of this is up there with the most exhilarating sequences of the year.
- Elysium (2013), Neil Blomkamp – This film seemed to piss a lot of people off when it came out. Not sure how much of that is because it was not District 9 (2009). My blu-ray version looked phenomenal. One of the few films that make me feel like I need a bigger TV. There is no doubting the allegories are not at all subtle. But it really didn’t bother me very much. I actually think some of the unsubtly around immigration and workers rights & exploitation is actually quite spot on. I found it pretty affecting at times too. However not sure what accent Jodie Foster was going for here. Her whole performance is a weird one.
- True Blood Season 1 (2008), Alan Ball – Can tell from the credits that this is going to be something different. Takes place in a cool Southern setting which is really emphasised. It is sort of trashy, but the best made trash ever. Touches on some pretty adult stuff in addition to aspects of the South such as race and history. The writing is very good at creating very flawed and ambiguous characters. There is a sense of the biblical to many of the happenings as well which kind of adds to the thick Southern feel of the whole thing.
- Weeds Season 7 (2011), Jenji Kohan – There is no doubting this series has lost a lot of its snap. Part of that is down to the main character of Nancy. They have created something quite complex but unfortunately she is now perhaps a little too unsympathetic. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that the series has shelved so many of the supporting characters that brought the earlier seasons so much edge and humour. But despite all that I still can’t completely dismiss this season. It is still really watchable. You still care what happens to these characters and no-one ends a season as good as these guys.
- Alien 3 (1992), David Fincher – I really liked this film. So much so, it is possibly my favourite of the series. Design and visuals is the strength of all the films and that continues here as well. A space jail with an industrial foundry gives scope to ramp up the design elements. Has a really snappy narrative as well that had some unpredictable moments. Sigourney Weaver is utterly badass. The film does feature perhaps the most heinous underuse of Pete Postlethwaite in cinema history though.
- About Time (2013), Richard Curtis – Like basically every time travel film ever made this does lose its way a touch. But bloody hell it does a lot of things right. It’s predominately charming, managing to avoid OTT schmaltz and also avoiding the need to manufacture conflict unnecessarily. Great performances, interesting supporting characters and a really fine closing quarter which introduces some tough themes very well. Not perfect, but worthwhile and pretty original.
- Cool Runnings (1993), John Turteltaub – Such a massive childhood classic for me. Great script and brilliant performances go a long way to making this so awesome. Doug E. Doug is delightfully unhinged as Sanka. Not to mention John Candy who is just absurdly charismatic. Not only one of the best comedy scripts of all time, tis also a very good underdog sports story. And like all the best comedies there are some great heartfelt moments here too.
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Francis Lawrence – Possibly the best blockbuster, big ticket film of the year. Jennifer Lawrence is so good and her Katniss is one hell of a character. That arc and that of heaps of supporting characters really sets this film apart. Josh Hutcherson, who was so average in the first, holds his own here with a Lawrence in top form. His improvement matches that of the series, because this is much better than the first film. The shooting and design is so rich. It is really great to see that the filmmakers had the freedom to not just make everything super glossy.
- The Naked City (1948), Jules Dassin – An incredible portrait of New York, from the very start with some great aerial shots of the city. Quite brutal, with two murders in the first five minutes. Very modern as well though, almost like ‘a day in the life’ of the city. Genre-wise it is a somewhat old fashioned straight up crime flick which manages to capture nicely the daily grind of being a cop.
Not Worth Watching:
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Alfonso Cuaron – Definitely not without its positives, this was just a bit of a letdown after how much I enjoyed the first two. You have to love the sense of the fantastical and these films have the budget to well and truly deliver on it. This one struggles to find its tone early on and is overcome at times by the silliness that just adds a little charm to the first couple. In comparison to what has come before, it is just a little flat, cumbersome and predictable. Plus the whole third act is really anti-climactic aside from one interesting character reveal.
- The Purge (2013), James DeMonaco – Disappointingly does next to nothing with an intriguing premise. In the future, the populace is controlled by crime being legal for 12 hours per year. This ‘purge’ has become a holiday event in the States with all the trimmings. Most of the social commentary is around class. The haves afford protection whilst the 99% can’t. The whole film is far more bland and uneventful than it should be though. Doesn’t just turn an exceptional premise into a home invasion film, it turns it into a not very good home invasion film.
- In the House (2012), Francois Ozon – Very highbrow, obscure literature references and all. Sort of a thriller but forgot to include any thrills. Follows a disillusioned literature teacher trying to help a talented yet troubled pupil. Some of the actions of the characters are just totally unbelievable. Should be intriguing but mainly it is just a little silly and flat with none of the impact it should have. Everything that should work, misses.
- Face to Face (2011), Michael Rymer – Adapted from a play and it feels like it too. The performances are all heightened like in the theatre. No-one talks like this is in real life. Tonally it is a mixture of realism and failed attempts at realism. It also gets a little absurd at times which works much better on stage. Some of the performances are decent, Luke Ford especially. But the film can’t overcome its play roots as much as it may try.
- Kill Your Darlings (2013), John Krokidas – This film just really doesn’t work. It is constantly reaching, but falling short. Reaching to inhabit the period trappings. Reaching to inhabit the Beat spirit. Reaching for dialogue that doesn’t sound like the worst Beat poetry ever written. And reaching for a narrative to anchor the film on. Which is disappointing because there is a great story here. Jack Huston as Kerouac adds some precious life and there is a refreshing (which it shouldn’t be) frankness to the depictions of male homosexuality. But the rest is not there.
If you only have time to watch one Cool Runnings
Avoid at all costs The Purge
Ok, so after a rather too long hiatus (my fault), the ‘My Favourite’ series of posts is back. Up first is the cracking topic of favourite childhood films. This is an interesting one, because often the films you love as a child turn out to be… well ill-advised choices attributable to our youth.
James from Film Blerg writes:
Back in the day, not too long ago, video cassette tapes were all the rage. Frequently, I wore tapes out til the colour had faded and constant static fuzz pervaded the television screen. One film that I repetitively hired from the video shop (until I bought it as an ex-rental) was Problem Child 2. I spent years rewatching this film religiously. It even took a while until I saw the first Problem Child (a much inferior film).
Picking up from the troublesome adoption that surrounded the first film, Ben Healy (John Ritter) and his son Junior (Michael Oliver) have left their home town of Cold Rock and moved into the leafy green suburban paradise of Mortville. Newly divorced, Ben finds no trouble attracting attention from the ladies, as the town has a 50:1 ratio of women to men. Junior is not pleased with this development, wanting the sole attention of his devoted dad.
Junior subterfuges Ben’s multiple dates with much success until the richest woman in town appears. Lawanda Dumore (Laraine Newman) is a Southern Belle with an overly anxious libido, and once Ben appears in her radar, she literally moves in and takes over. Meanwhile, Junior makes an enemy in local school girl Trixie (Ivyann Schwan). As marketed in the film’s tagline, he’s bad but she’s worse. The two battle it out until we meet her mother Annie; the school nurse (Amy Yasbeck). Ben and Annie hit it off immediately, as the score tells us with the sweet sentimental music. But their relationship is fraught from further potential due to Trixie’s rebellious, all-consuming ways, and Ben’s impending marriage to Lawanda. Of course, Junior and Trixie step in and make the necessary changes.
Problem Child 2 is not the greatest film in the world by far, but its energy is playful and wicked. Capitalising on the title, Junior and Trixie are given ammunition to swear, use dynamite and constantly raise their middle ringer. Born wild, Junior manages to not only fuel a propane explosion in a neighbour’s BBQ, but induce mass vomiting on a fairground attraction ride.
The late, great John Ritter is warm and funny as Ben Healy. Ritter has clear chemistry with his off-screen wife Yasbeck, as well as with Oliver. Joyfully, Jack Warden and Gilbert Gottfried return as the obnoxious Big Ben Healy and Principle Peabody, and Laraine Newman is hysterically demented as Lawanda. Like Looney Tunes cartoons, characters are blown up, fall out of windows high above the ground and survive to tell the tale. Simply put, Problem Child 2 is a whole lot of fun and still hilariously enjoyable over twenty years after it was first released.
James Madden is the Editor of Film Blerg. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne and is a Screen Editor of Farrago Magazine. James has contributed to countless student and online publications including Portable, T-Squat and Upstart.
Jon from The Film Brief writes:
By most accounts, Cool Runnings is no classic. It’s a pretty straight-forward sports movie, done in an almost deliberately cheesy fashion, following unsurprising twists and turns that one would expect from any sports film. The revered Roger Ebert said about it, “If you like underdog movies, you might like this one. Especially if you haven’t seen very many.”
When I first saw Cool Runnings at age 7, I hadn’t seen many movies at all, let alone underdog movies. Cool Runnings captured my heart and imagination in the dramatic way that only a child can experience. I often wonder if, had I seen this movie at, say, age 24, if I would feel the same way about it. Probably not. It’s light-hearted and affable, but completely formulaic, the sort of movie that you sit through, laugh once or twice at, and then forget about it. I didn’t see this movie as a 24-year-old though – I saw it as an eager and impressionable 7-year-old, and I remember being completely inspired by the idea that Jamaica could field a respectable bobsled team.
It helped that Cool Runnings is filled with characters that my seven-year-old self could really relate to (or at least, thought I could). I related to the pain that Derice felt when he didn’t qualify for the 100-metre dash and I related to Derice’s rebellion against his controlling father. The characters were brought to life by genuinely impressive performances by the principal cast: Leon as Derice Bannock, Doug E. Doug as Sanka, Rawle Lewis as Junior, Malik Yoba as Yul Brenner and, of course, the avuncular John Candy as Irv, the forlorn former bobsled champion, sodden with drink and cramped by regret. Cool Runnings was John Candy’s last really noteworthy film – he completed Wagons East and Canadian Bacon before his passing in 1994, but public opinion condemned those in a way diametrically opposed to the esteem that Cool Runnings is held in.
Cool Runnings demonstrates for me the veracity of the aphorism originally uttered by Martin Scorsese – “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame, and what’s out.” There are some niceties in the frames of Cool Runnings – the disbelief displayed by all when Derice suggests a Jamaican bobsled team, the hilarious orientation seminar Irv MCs, demonstrating the dangers of bobsledding, and of course the recurring joke: “Sanka, ya dead?”
But, as with all of these “Favourites”, this choice is an intensely personal one. This movie is important to me because I remember practising the Cool Runnings song with my brothers, hoping that I’d never get as fat and sad as Irv did, dreaming that maybe one day I could grow up to be a Jamaican bobsledder, too.
Jon Fisher is the creator and editor of The Film Brief and host of The Film Brief podcast which you can find on iTunes.
Tim from Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie writes:
Settling on my favourite childhood film necessitated a bit of an in-depth thought process. Immediately films like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and the James Bond films sprang to mind. But pondering this more, I realised that these were films I loved from my childhood, that still held up as classics now I am an adult. They were not my absolute favourites at the time though.
Childhood films for me were all about school holidays and the local video shop. When Mum would let you go down to the store and hook up the 5 weeklies for 10 buck deal, or whatever they had going on. And in my mind there were two films that I raced for more school holidays than not – Home Alone and The Sandlot Kids. I think the latter just shaved the former though in terms of favouritism.
My adoration of The Sandlot Kids is somewhat inexplicable. It’s not necessarily considered a classic, though I am sure many of my vintage have fond memories of it. Also, it’s a story of a distinctly American childhood, one dominated by baseball. I really enjoy watching baseball now, but as a kid when I was loving on this movie, I had zero knowledge of it, and zero interest in learning more about it.
The first thing that stood out for me, on a recent adult viewing of the film, is the passion the film evokes for baseball, making
it the centre of the universe for a group of young boys. The narrative is stock standard kids film fare. The new kid in town, summer vacation, cool kid taking the nerd under his wing etc. But these familiar tropes, delivered through a witty script, are put to good use in showing the value of friendship and the joy of childhood.
Performance-wise, the film excels, and I think that this explains a lot of why the film still holds up for me when watching today. Dennis Leary and Karen Allen of Indiana Jones are wonderful choices for the parents of the main character Scotty Smalls. And the performances by a number of the kids are really great actually. Chief amongst them are the charismatic leader of the pack Benny played by Mike Vitar, and the wonderful Patrick Renna (who is somewhat ubiquitous in family films of this vintage) as the hilarious Ham.
Re-watching this recently, I can see why I was such a fan of it as a kid. Everything is done with so much charm and I still absolutely love the film.
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