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25 December, 2006

Catching up with the flow, III

In March 2005, I joined Amazon DVD Rental.  At the end of July, I commented on those I'd seen in the first four months, and repeated the exercise in December 2005.  Since then, I've seen:

All The President's Men – I was hoping that its rating within the IMDb all-time top 250 meant this was an excellent film even for those without prior knowledge of and, frankly, interest in the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately not; it remains very specific throughout and in saying little about more general investigative journalism and government corruption felt rather dated.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – I've never been a fan of Westerns, perhaps as a result of being bored by seeing too many on TV when I was too young to appreciate them. However, having 'forced' myself to watch this, I rather enjoyed it.
It may be a sign of my age and cinema inexperience that, seeing the film was in black & white, I unquestioningly presumed it was made in the 1950s, rather than its actual 1962.

Firefly - The Complete Series – Four DVDs containing, as the title suggests, the entire TV series (13 episodes, I think, one of which was feature-length). Excellent. Initially, it was a total mystery why such a good sci-fi series was cancelled just as it was beginning to really get going, but a little research suggests it was because the episodes were first shown in the wrong order, thereby failing to capture enough of a fanbase to justify continued production of an expensive, CGI-intensive series. In short, it wasn't because it was bad, and I strongly recommend it.
I also recommend seeing the TV series before watching 'Serenity', the feature film which ties up some loose ends and requires knowledge of the characters' back stories for full effect. It really isn't a standalone film, nor a lead-in to the series.

Four Rooms – Very mixed, as one might expect from a portmanteau film with multiple stories and directors. The linking element was Tim Roth as a hotel bellboy/night manager, and much of my dissatisfaction was due to his overplayed, sub-Chaplin performance. Madonna in latex was some compensation. Ahem.

Notorious – My first ever Hitchcock film, I think, and also my first to feature Claude Rains. I think I've only seen one other featuring Ingrid Bergman, for that matter. Rather good; a thriller in which one identifies with the stereotype-defying characters, including the ostensible 'villain'.

Garden State – I'm not a fan of 'Scrubs', the 'zany' US TV comedy, so I was a little wary of a film by and starring Zach Braff. However, it had received favourable reviews from people whose opinions I respect, and I enjoyed it immensely. Ostensibly, it's a comedy, but of the bittersweet, rather dark type, and far more substantial than the trivial froth of 'Scrubs'. Good soundtrack, too.

Snatch – A 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' clone (not sequel) from the same people, but that's not entirely a criticism; there's still a lot of entertainment value and potential for novelty in the sub-genre. I only rented the film itself (the bonus disc would have been an additional choice counting against my monthly allocation), so can't comment on the extra features.

Equus – Rather good, if (needlessly?) surreal in places. I hadn't seen many films featuring the iconic Richard Burton, so it was good to encounter one centred on him (alongside a distractingly young Peter Firth). For some reason, one of the only things I 'knew' about 'Equus' beforehand was that it's supposedly erotic. That wasn't the reason I rented it, which is lucky, as the eroticism eluded me.

Heavy Metal – Reviewed here.

Mr and Mrs SmithWhy did I rent this insipid Hollywood trash? (Ah yes; Angelina Jolie as a dominatrix).

Stalingrad – I'd received the impression this was in the same vein as 'Das Boot', and there were similarities, but I'm afraid I was nowhere near as impressed. Large sections of 'Das Boot' were actually rather dull, but that came across as atmospheric and contributed to character development and audience immersion (no pun intended). In contrast, 'Staningrad' just felt under-edited. Good in parts.

Cecil B Demented – I've never really 'got' John Waters' films – the sheer density of references to American kitsch culture tends to alienate me. I'm afraid this was no different, with the added requirement that an audience would need to know more than me about US-style independent filmmaking.

Fear City – Strangely unsatisfying. Despite including a lot of nudity, violence and a serial killer plot, and being directed by the usually-acclaimed Abel Ferrara, this seemed, well, mundane; a standard thriller of almost 'made-for-TV' standard.

Before Sunrise – Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy walk through the streets of Vienna and talk. That's it. And that's all that's required – a wonderful film.

2046 – Reviewed here.

Cube 2 – The first was excellent, the third pretty good, but the second was a bit of a mess.

The Third Man – Not quite what I'd expected, but certainly an excellent film in terms of story, setting and suspense. The only slight weakness might be characterisation: the Austrians were rather two-dimensional, Joseph Cotten's lead character was annoyingly arrogant and despite the build-up, Orson Welles' Harry Lime was surprisingly petty.
Seeing this, especially seeing it soon after 'Before Sunrise', makes me want to visit Vienna.

Complicity – Oddly, an accurate adaptation of the excellent novel which somehow stripped out the excellence.... If I hadn't already been familiar with the book, suspense might have carried the film a bit better, but as it was, casting and direction which contradicted the way I'd imagined the characters and story simply jarred. I presume it was filmed in the actual locations in which Banks set the novel, which was a bonus, but not really enough for me.

Fantastic Four – Some adaptations of classic Marvel superhero comics work; the first 'Spiderman' and 'X-Men' films spring to mind. Others are by-the-numbers cash-ins, and utterly forgettable. This was the latter.

Chungking Express – Again, not what I was expecting, and the first of the two stories seemed unrelated to the second (in terms of narrative, anyway), but the strongly character-led approach was very compelling, even charming.

The Draughtsman's Contract – I associate early Peter Greenaway feature films with arty visuals at the expense of coherent storytelling, but this, his first, evades that accusation rather well. Recommended.

Dancing At The Blue Iguana – Reviewed here.

Stalker – Reviewed here.

Raging Bull – I'm afraid I found this rather boring. I suppose that's the risk of renting a biopic merely to watch the technical or more abstract storytelling aspects, without having an interest in the central character himself. Perhaps it'd mean more to someone with greater awareness of the history of boxing, and Jake LaMotta's significance within it. Again, I only rented the film itself, omitting the bonus disc – maybe the accompanying documentaries could have added something.

The Black Hole – Reviewed here.

Time Regained – Maybe it was just my mood, but I found this utterly stultifying, and gave up within the first hour.

Dune – Perhaps I've been spoiled by high-budget series made for US TV, featuring excellent CGI, but this mini-series looked cheap, especially the awful matte painting backgrounds. The 'arty' block-colour lighting certainly didn't help. The extended running time (288 minutes split into three episodes) should have produced something closer to the book than David Lynch's 130-min feature film, but somehow the latter seemed closer to the spirit of the novel, with a visual design I drastically preferred. Disappointing as this was, I'd still recommend the sequel.

Domino – Another case of wondering why I chose to rent this. It didn't seem like the sort of film I'd like, and I didn't. Perhaps I added it to my rental queue thinking it was something else, or after reading an article about some technical innovation which I subsequently forgot and hence failed to notice.

War of the Worlds – Reviewed here.

Stage Beauty – Rather good, and not remotely as superficial as it first appeared. Billy Crudup was also startlingly compelling as a female impersonator – good casting.

Audition – Don't believe the hype. Takashi Miike's psychological (and gory in places) horror film isn't quite so extreme as its reputation suggests. It's also either too specifically Japanese for me to fully understand or merely slightly incoherent.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – Knowing almost nothing about the series of computer games, the backstory of this film was a total mystery, so I'm pretty sure I missed a lot. However, I was primarily watching for the technical aspects, particularly progress made towards photorealistic CGI of humans. They're getting closer – very impressive. Once into the story, and back-references diminished, the film itself was pretty good, particularly the 'big reveal' (which I won't, though it was hardly a surprise).

Vampire Hunter D - Bloodlust – Apparently a remake of an anime classic, this was an odd mix of gothic vampire fantasy and techy, almost post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The cel-animation and English dubbing (for some reason, the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles were unavailable – I suspect this was a 'made for USA' edition) rendered this a poor contrast to 'FFVII', but if I hadn't seen them in close succession, 'Vampire Hunter D' would have been respectable, if not exactly an all-time great.

Cinema Paradiso – Strangely, writing this several months later, my primary memory is of an over-long, over-sentimental film, yet I know I enjoyed it, at least enough to buy my own copy. I think I'll have to watch it again.

Rear Window – Excellent. I rarely use the cliched word 'masterpiece', but this deserves it.
Incidentally, how did I reach my current age without realising Grace Kelly was gorgeous?

Me Without You – I'm afraid this film, following the lives of two girls/women through the 1970s and 80s, failed to engage me. After pausing the DVD to take a phone call about halfway through, I didn't return to it.

Goodbye Lenin! – A major reason for renting this was that I'd visited Berlin recently, and I was curious whether it'd show locations I'd visited. It didn't, really, but I still enjoyed the film enough to watch it twice (I'm not sure why....).

A Zed And Two Noughts – Very visual, very precise, very... odd. I'm not entirely certain what Greenaway meant to say, nor whether he managed to do so.

Nathalie – A fascinating, fairly intense film with an excellent cast: Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart looking at least a decade younger than her actual age. It's lazy to criticise Hollywood superficiality, but the US studio system really couldn't match this sort of film.

Memoirs Of A Geisha – Interesting enough, but not remotely as good as the novel, and it was somehow distracting to hear Zhang Zihi performing in English.

Underworld: Evolution – Not remotely as good as the original, its confused story adding very little to what had been a compelling (if not exactly novel) concept in the first film. However, it features Kate Beckinsale in a latex catsuit. 'Nuff said. [Digression: do reviewers really not know the difference between latex and PVC?]

Malena – An interesting idea explored by the director of 'Nuevo Cinema Paradiso': that a woman (Monica Bellucci) can be too attractive to live in a close-knit small town. Like pretty much every Italian film I've seen, this starts as somewhat comedic yet becomes much darker.

Battle Royale – An excellent concept, explored fairly well by a teenage cast and Takeshi Kitano. It's a pick-and-mix of several other 'deadly gameshow' films crossed with 'Lord Of The Flies', and necessarily violent, but I recommend it.
Incidentally, I also watched the sequel (on TV) a couple of weeks later, so you don't have to. Don't bother with it. Just don't.

Appleseed – Released in 2004, this is a much better adaptation of the Masamune Shirow manga than the 1988 attempt. It's still no 'Ghost In The Shell', but worth watching. Unlike the former, the latter will make some sense to those unfamiliar with the manga, though those who have read it will appreciate it too.

Groundhog Day – The concept has become something of a reference point in several aspects of popular culture, so I thought I'd better see the film itself. Somehow I was expecting the infuriating community-orientated schmaltz of 'It's a Wonderful Life', and I'm not an especial fan of Bill Murray's pre-2000 films, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Heaven – A Krzysztof Kieślowski screenplay adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer should be good, and indeed it was. After returning the rental copy, I bought my own and have already watched it twice more within the last three months.

Before Sunset – Jesse & Celine from 'Before Sunrise' meet again nine years later, in Paris, and talk again. Again, it's 'just' a conversation on a pretty walk, but again, no more is required.

House Of Cards Trilogy: House Of Cards – I enjoyed this mini-series immensely when it was first shown in the 1980s, not least because it was timely – it's about a fictional Government Chief Whip scheming to become Prime Minister, and was broadcast at about the time of the real-world 'coup' against Thatcher. Either that, or I'm just drawn to Machiavellian plotting.

House Of Cards Trilogy: To Play The King – The excellent sequel to the above, and also somehow timely, with clear real-world references (the fictional king is transparently Charles Windsor).
Whatever happened to Kitty Aldridge?

House Of Cards Trilogy: The Final Cut – Somehow, the real-world references went sour in this final mini-series, bordering on mere parody, and a possibly deliberate sense of the squalor and decadence in parliamentary politics rendered it less enjoyable. However, I think the twist at the end saved the series.

Azumi 2 - Death Or Love – I saw and enjoyed the first film on TV a few weeks ago, so added the sequel to my rental list. It featured the same manga* samurai (more ninja, actually) stylised characters and action, but somehow lost the plot – literally.
*: Yes, manga, not anime – it's specifically analogous to the comic strip genre rather than animated films.

Rebecca – Hitchcock again. Pretty good, not least for Joan Fontaine's performance. Strangely, the characters seemed to have greater depth in the film than in the novel, though I'm bound to have been drawing on supplementary knowledge from the latter when watching the former.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico – The third 'El Mariachi' film was excellent (though I still prefer 'Desperado') and unexpectedly funny.

Hidden Fortress – If I hadn't already known that this inspired 'Star Wars', I doubt I'd have made the comparison. There are similarities, but the latter (as filmed, anyway) isn't merely a sci-fi adaptation of the former which, considering Western adaptations of other Kurosawa films, I'd expected. It was okay, but not one of my favourites by Kurosawa.

Sunset Boulevard – the 1950 film which inspired the 1993 stage musical, but not itself a musical (as my mother had thought). Excellent, with the added frisson that the real lives of Gloria Swanson (still striking 30 years after the peak of her career) and Erich von Stroheim were mirrored by those of their characters.

Gwendoline – This could have been a genre classic: a John Willie strip cartoon adapted into a feature film by the director of 'The Story Of O'. Instead, it was deliberately made as an 'Indiana Jones crossed with Barbarella' lightweight farce. Very disappointing.

The Maltese Falcon – An undeniable classic, not only for the iconic Hollywood noir cast.

V for Vendetta – I haven't seen a big-budget modern Hollywood 'blockbuster' for a while. This was a pleasant surprise; perhaps I'd have been less surprised if I'd known beforehand that it was made by much the same team as 'The Matrix'. I suppose it helped that the setting coincided with the way I believe the UK really is heading.

Lucky Number Slevin – Excellent. I started to write a full 'standalone' review, but realised that I couldn't say anything worthwhile without revealing too much. Highly recommended – it's a deeply satisfying film which holds the attention. It seems to be one thing at the start then totally changes, and there are a number of 'WTF?' moments, but everything is resolved and ultimately makes perfect sense.

Razor Blade Smile – Poor. Low-budget is one thing, but the acting, direction and, most of all, script were just plain substandard. In hindsight, the vaguely compelling ideas (and, er, latex catsuits) that had drawn me to the film in the first place were insubstantial and underexplored.

Children Of Dune – Actually covering both 'Dune Messiah' and 'Children of Dune', this is much better than the first 'Dune' miniseries, partly because of the considerable increase in the use of CGI (itself looking a little dated already), partly because the producers seem to have responded to specific criticisms of the 2000 series, and partly because there's no direct comparison to the Lynch film.

Note to self: don't repeat this exercise annually. It's not easy to make meaningful comments about films seen 10-11 months ago.

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