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Hell Below Zero (1954)
Historical view of whaling
As others have said, with its nonchalant acceptance (and even promotion) of the normality and worth of whaling - the main characters cheering at every one harpooned - this film is jaw-droppingly rooted in its era. And yet it is very watchable, for the remarkable authenticity of setting (this is an industry that should be remembered, the better to inform opinion of why consensus is now against it) and some good characters (Jill Bennett's female whaling captain is wonderful, far more interesting than the wooden heroine). The plot, unfortunately, is formulaic, with "plot coupons" abounding. We're told that a harpoon gun a) has an explosive warhead; b) has a dangerous recoil; c) has a coiled cable that might catch your foot if you're not careful. And, darn me, various characters fall foul of all three.
Hokum: entertaining if viewed with no more expectations
This is a grab bag of elements of the Verne story filled out with various Rice Burroughs staples: fights, captures and escapes surrounding a patriarchal tribe whose men dress caveman-style and whose flawlessly-complexioned women wear little leather skirts and bikini tops; Amazon warriors; humanoid lizards; and a seasoning of dinosaurs. The whole thing is given a weird gloss by filtering out greens - presumably a cheap way to get the blue-foliage jungles - so the whole thing is in a blue/brown/red palette. I sort of enjoyed it; but being in hospital the day after an appendix operation, I guess I wasn't in a critically demanding mood.
Bob's Weekend (1996)
Darker than it appears?
A man in a dead-end uniformed job, haunted by flashbacks to an incident in which he was shot, finds his life is unravelling and goes on a surreal journey, meeting dangers and helpers as he moves toward a threshold of understanding. Is this an understated British equivalent to Jacob's Ladder? I've watched this several times and find it makes increasing sense to interpret the story as Bob being dead: that he was killed during the armed robbery, doesn't yet realise it, and is being guided toward the afterlife. As with Jacob's Ladder, there are characters - the old lady and the fairground attendants - who explicitly tell him he is already dead. Far from being a slight comedy, I think the film has hidden depths, and I find it gripping every time I watch it.
Excellent adaptation full of cinematic allusion
Others have already commented on the beautiful atmospheric quality of this adaptation of what could have been a very naff movie. However, it has added depth through its subtle cinematic allusions. Bram Stoker's "Dracula" has already been mentioned, but the movie also has other strong parallels. We have a scruffy ship carrying a creature in a tank, its owners hoping to profit from it on arrival. It gets loose, turns into a monster. Everyone runs around gloomy corridors, shooting at it without effect as the crew are picked off one by one. It turns out to be the queen of its kind. It arrives at a face-to-face confrontation with a female passenger, but doesn't kill her because she's pregnant. Translate that into SF and we're talking the Alien mythos. I feel this must have been in the adapters' minds.
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING
I can't add much to Bob's earlier comment: this is a little gem of film: plus points are the strong atmosphere (helped along by classical mood music) and comic characterisation (Bill Paterson's mad scientist and Charles Dance's pompous publicity-seeking scientist). There are nice pastiches of silent movie footage and high-class costume drama (the latter reminiscent of the archaeological dig in A Month in the Country). However, fans of time travel stories may feel cheated by the plot. Three men get into the time machine to go back to the Stone Age investigate the finding of three skeletons in and around an anomalous metal structure. See what's coming? The supposed twist, then, is so blindingly obvious that the film's characters would have to be stupid not to anticipate it - maybe the excruciating inevitability is the point?
The Pallbearer (1996)
Light comedy with darker undertones
SPOILER AHEAD! I never watched Friends, and I appreciate that the film's flavour will for many viewers will be overlaid with Schwimmer's earlier persona. Viewing it in isolation as I did, I found it a staple comedy scenario: the excruciating complications that arise from a character's lack of assertiveness in failing to admit a situation of mistaken identity. However, the joke grows increasingly uncomfortable: for Tom, this unassertiveness is pathological, related to his failure to grow up. His friends have careers and relationships, but he still lives with his mother, jobless and fixated on a woman he liked at school. In real life, it would be inconceivable for such a person to end up with Gwyneth Paltrow, and the film doesn't strain our disbelief in this respect. This is less a romantic comedy than a rite-of-passage story, Tom beginning (we hope) a belated journey to adulthood.
The Mother (2003)
Jaundiced view of suburban family life
(minor spoiler included)
I found this a fairly irritating film. Treating it as positive for portraying May as a sexual being is missing the point; it's more a treatise on destructive relationships. Everyone - May included - acts for the same, predominantly selfish, motives of money and gratification, with the same inability to discuss matters and accept blame for their own actions. Her positive act isn't having the affair, but ultimately opting out of the whole system. My irritation is that Kureishi sets up jaundiced options to make this point. Coke-sniffing macho joiners and elderly slobbering art geeks aren't the sole choices available for someone in May's situation, and London suburbia isn't a monoculture of shallow people obsessed with house renovation.
The Cell (2000)
Flawed but impressive
The basics, I'll skip quickly. 1) Don't see this unless you're already a fan of strange and horrific movies. 2) The police-procedural and rather misogynist aspects are routine for the serial killer genre, and the outcome never in doubt. 3) J-Lo is there for appearance rather than acting ability. Where this film deserves credit, outweighing all these problems, is in its scenes of spine-tingling power and strangeness such as the sliced horse, Stargher descending from his throne trailing vast purple wings of cloth, and the decadent smile on Catherine's face in the 'naughty worm' scene. It's an awesome and believable portrayal of the internal landscape of a disturbed person's mind. Memories of childhood trauma, sexual fantasies, power fantasies, images from the real world (such as the Poussin's 'Martyrdom of St Erasmus') incorporated into fantasy, the sense of vast importance combined with vast vulnerability; the director has done his research.
All the Little Animals (1998)
Flawed but memorable
I think "All the little animals" is meant to be a moral parable, but its moral stance is fairly paranoid. Good = the confused Bobby, a few dreadlocked travellers, and the usual John Hurt misanthropist who befriends him. Bad = just about everyone else (stepfather, crooked doctor, unsympathetic male nurse, trucker who runs down foxes, Yuppie lepidopterist, car drivers, etc). Is no-one normal in this world? That said, it's a satisfying revenge story; De Winter (aka "The Fat"), played by Daniel Benzali rather in the style of Richard Burton, is a wonderfully memorable villain who terrifies Bobby not by violence or anger but by ultra-controlled mindgames. The film is based on the first novel by the late Walker Hamilton, and I suspect that it's based in a personal mythology - family issues, perhaps - that we'll never know.
The Quiet Man (1952)
Enjoyable - yet questionable subtext
It is time that this film attracted a spot of revisionist criticism. I enjoy it every time .. and yet there's much to object to, beyond the stereotypical portrayal of the Irish. Sean Thornton is only a hero in our own terms. He wades into a community, conveniently getting to buy his childhood home, then flouts every cultural rule of the place: behaving improperly outside church, running away from the chaperone during courtship, tricking his fiance's brother in order to marry her, misunderstanding the importance to his wife of her dowry, and grossly mistreating her in public. Yet it all ends happily. It would be nice to conclude that this film is an ironic comment on stereotypes and the behaviour of a brutal, culturally insensitive man in the grip of a fantasy about his Irish roots Unfortunately, I'm sure Ford meant it straight. The vigour and the scenery add a gloss that makes a very questionable story highly watchable.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Vastly over-rated horror farce
SPOILERS GALORE AHEAD
The emperor has no clothes! I have never 'got' this film, and I'm English, not American. There's a tongue-in-cheek flavour to it, rather like an Avengers episode or those 1960s Hammer/Amicus comic horror compilations. There are so many cliches. For instance, the village conspiracy (compare Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"); finding the book in the library that explains everything; or the shaky old plot gimmick of tricking the hero then claiming he "came of his own accord" to be sacrificed (no, he didn't; coming of your own accord is turning up and saying, "Hey, sacrifice me"). Anyway, how do they *know* he's a virgin, apart from his being religious and not wanting to be seduced by a crazy wall-slapping barmaid.
And there's the dreadful music: men in bars striking up choreographed songs, and the naff hippie adaptations of trad folk tunes. Is that ludicrous wall-thumping scene supposed to be erotic?
Biggest problem of all: the main character behaves unbelievably at every turn. The script requires that he be sacrificed, so he has to act stupidly: again, all the old movie cliches crop up, such as telling the villain what his plans are, investigating alone, the one-size-fits-all clothes change, the sabotaged aeroplane, etc.
An earlier reviewer is nearest to the mark in suggesting it's some sort of horror farce. "The Wicker Man" is very hard to take seriously, and I think it only keeps its reputation as a classic movie through the relentless hype by its originators, such as Christopher Lee, who keep assuring us how good it is.
La pianiste (2001)
Compelling film, but with contrived development
***SPOILER AHEAD*** I can't add much to the basic comments others have made, except to say that it's overall a compelling film, and that Eva is a beautifully portrayed character, a tormented monster who is nevertheless sympathetic. While much critique has concentrated on Eva's controlling style of masochism (i.e. "topping from below"), Walter is just as extreme. He is obsessively uptight about what is a "normal" relationship; seems primarily interested in his own gratification during sex; and ultimately turns into a violent rapist. A rational outcome would have been for both characters to treat Eva's letter as the fantasy it turns out to be, a basis for negotiation of a realistic relationship; but instead, the director seems to be determined that the encounter should turn into a train wreck between inflexible personalities.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Good adaptation, but slow
There's a lot I like about this production. The beautiful 1900ish Italian settings work, Theseus as an aristocrat (perhaps with Mafia connections that explain his power over his colleagues), and the depiction of the fairies drawing on pagan Roman/Italian images of satyrs and fauns. As others have said, the Mechanicals have been reinvented, not as buffoons but as competent and resourceful working men; Nick Bottom is charming but ineffectual, a would-be dandy stuck in an unhappy marriage. The difficulty was that despite all this, and being visually perfect, for me it lacked 'magic', and only picked up in mid-film from the point when Bottom was transformed; the highlight was the Mechanicals staging their play-within-a-play. The ending was very downbeat; there was an ideal point for closure when Bottom returned home triumphant, with a medal and pension, but we never saw how his wife reacted. One would like to think the fairies had visited and sprinkled the love potion in her eyes too. Overall, it is very worth seeing, but I still prefer the 1996 RSC film version, which doesn't cut the text, is more clever theatrically (doubling up roles in human and fairy realms), and has a wistful Englishness that I always associate with this play.
Above Suspicion (1995)
Good thriller with major weakness *** SPOILER WARNING ***
*** MAJOR SPOILER WARNING ***
It's difficult to criticise this movie as it's iconic (and grimly ironic) as Reeve's last film before his accident. As a thriller, it is generally very clever and well done, and it was good to see Reeve showing his adaptability as an actor by playing against his usual nice guy persona. However, once it was revealed that Sffwf't dibsbdufs jt gbljoh qbsbmztjt (move characters one backward in the alphabet to read it) I sat grousing for the rest of the film; I simply don't believe this could go undiscovered by his doctor.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Exciting film badly structured
Spoiler here (not that many readers won't have see the film). I don't have any complaints about the acting or FX, but I thought the structure stank. This perhaps stems from the underlying true story; life doesn't always provide good 'closure' to stories, but movies need it. As it stood, there was no coherent interaction between the three survival subplots (helicopter, yacht and fishing boat) and it was stupid and unsatisfying plotting to kill off all the fishermen. This is not because I wanted a happy ending, but because I think that if Mark Wahlberg had been made the viewpoint character and he alone had been rescued, The Perfect Storm would have been a great rite-of-passage story with a powerful bittersweet ending and strong resonances with Moby Dick. Instead, we got a syrupy and depressing anticlimax.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1996)
Creative and very English adaptation
I just love this film. I didn't see the stage version, but this is an extremely clever adaptation of the play: a nice parallel construction where the human court is pointed up by using the same actors as the fairy court, and Bottom's friends reappearing as his fairy attendants. Desmond Barrit is brilliantly characterised, and the Mechanicals very creatively presented as English working-class (for instance, Bottom on a motor-bike combination). And we're left with no doubts that he does have sex with Titania, and donkey's ears are not all he gets from the transformation! I think it's one of the hallmarks of good Shakespearian productions that it manages to make the humour genuinely funny, and the play-within-the-play combines slapstick with genuine pathos. Ultimately, it was a very moving production, whose end (despite my being fairly hard-bitten) brought tears to my eyes with its deep nostalgia and Englishness. You are sorry to leave the world of these characters.
Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)
Above-average historical treatment
As others have said, this is an excellent example of a revisionist Western, successful both as a 'quest' film and as history. Despite minor examples of the invariable desire of film-makers to embellish events (Al Sieber in fact died years later when a rock rolled on him while he was clearing a road) this is as close as you'll get to a historically and visually accurate movie account of the pursuit of Geronimo.
Light comedy with depth
I'm not a sentimental person, but I find this film makes me swing between delighted chuckling and being on the edge of tears. It's vastly underrated, an extremely pleasant and heartwarming light comedy - but with a core of powerful emotion. On the surface, the story is about a Welsh community scheming to delay two English cartographers in their work, with a romance between Anson (High Grant) and Betty (Tara Fitzgerald), and various cunning plans choreographed by the wily Morgan, excellently payed by Colm Meaney. But beneath this is the background: a darker story about a village damaged to the heart by World War I, and the Reverend Jones (Kenneth Griffiths) who grasps the scheme for its symbolic purpose in restoring the community's self-worth and, we suspect from one poignant sermon, in defeating his own emotional demons. This is a wonderful life-affirming film.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Misguided celebration of self-destructive charity
There is a folktale concerning St Martin, who as a soldier on a mission of importance, gave half of his cloak to a naked beggar he met in a snowstorm... the moral being that there are circumstances where it isn't worthy (or rational) to be charitable to the point where you can't survive yourself. It's a A Wonderful Life, however, is the story of someone who - in effect - gives all his cloak, then complains about the consequences.
There's been a deal of revisionist criticism focusing on the political subtext, but I'm more interested in the personal angle. In my view, George's suicidal state of mind is not caused by the greedy Potter or by family mishaps, but by his invariable decision to respond to such situations by throwing away all of his own wellbeing and hopes in favour of others.
His actions are not even necessarily 'good'. At every turn, George lets sentiment completely swamp reason. What if covering up for an incompetent pharmacist led to further deaths? Perhaps Uncle Billy *ought* to be in an institution? Perhaps George should have recognised a no-win situation, made a settlement with Potter and moved on, instead of selfishly saddling his family with a company he deliberately runs so unprofitably that it hasn't the capital to ride a financial setback.
Furthermore, the alternative timeline presented by Clarence is clearly fake, concocted to justify George's failure to break out of this self-created rut. There is no reason to asssume, other than because Capra wants it so, that if George hadn't existed his wife would have remained unmarried, his brother fallen through the ice, or the town's social change necessarily proved negative in the long run (Potter after all, won't live for ever).
Sorry, but I find this film deeply exasperating. This is not, as some have commented, a modern-day Book of Job, since George's problems are not inevitable fate, but so much down to his own choice to be a doormat.
Less bleak than original
*** MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD ***
This is a reasonably atmospheric film, but it suffers the common fault of Hollywood remakes: remoulding an original into a more conventional form, with the inevitable urge to fill in 'back story' and add lengthy expositions to explain character motivation.
The strength of the original Insomnia was its unrelenting bleakness and moral greyness: Stellan Skaarsgard's detective attempted to molest a teenage witness and a female colleague, shot a live dog, and thought a litter of cute kittens "disgusting"; and ultimately got away with covering up his mistake with the help of the female detective.
In contrast, I was never in any doubt about the moral angst of the standard weary and cynical Al Pacino cop, and his death, while encouraging Hilary Swank's character to do the decent thing, was a standard deathbed redemption. The 2002 ending was an extremely cliched shootout and rescue, again losing the irony of the original, where the villain's accidental death proves a fitting end to a man whose arrogance is in thinking he has every eventuality covered.
Enjoyable, but by no means as complex as some reviewers claim: 6/10
North West Frontier (1959)
Good yarn with Imperialist subtext
This is a slightly odd film. On the one hand, it's a thoroughly enjoyable adventure about an escape by train from a besieged city in turn-of-the-century India. On the other, the political background is interesting. The heroes, with the help of obedient Indian soldiers and a comic subservient Indian train driver, are rescuing a young prince to maintain a political alliance with the British Raj. The villains support independence for India (which had already been achieved ten years before the film was made). Is it belated propaganda? A subversive dig at the values of the British Empire? I don't know. It's a good yarn, but one whose subtext always puzzles me.
Miss Firecracker (1989)
Under-rated romantic satire
A much under-rated movie: both a satire on the sheer awfulness of small-town pageants, and a poignant yet ultimately hopeful romance about talented misfits coming to terms with their nature. A minor criticism is that it suffers from the usual movie cliche: characters who are supposed to be plain - in this case, Holly Hunter and Alfre Woodard - who are the most charismatic people in the movie. Highlight: the amazing dance routine by Hunter. I'm an old cynic, but the ending was both iconoclastic and beautifully feelgood.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Moody epic, more intelligent than it seems
Don't view it as musclebound and unintelligent; this is a mythological epic, played straight. Schwarzenegger is physically perfect as Conan, and the limited dialogue is no problem when the Basil Poledouris score conveys the emotion from moment to moment as effectively as a Wagner opera. The outward action has a deeper subtext as events and experience make Conan, brought up as an unthinking killing machine, a thinking and feeling human over the course of the film. The casting is inspired, with James Earl Jones as a charismatic villain, a sympathetic cameo from Max von Sydow, and others who bring their physical confidence as surfer, wrestler and dancer, to their roles. Marvellous film.
Visually stylish, but with plot holes
I'm sorry to say that this movie didn't hang together. It was visually and musically perfect, and the central relationship between the Hawke and Law characters was excellent, but the technical side was very faulty. A society that's paranoid about identity testing by DNA, yet always uses the same fingertip for blood samples and takes minimal precautions for urine sampling, so that the hero can easily trick the tests? An exercise tolerance test beatable by faking the heart rate recording (like you could also hide breathing rate and sweating)? A serious congenital heart defect that allows vigorous exercise because the plot requires it? Space missions with astronauts wearing business suits? This is a common problem with SF films: a good idea distorted into some kind of arty allegory because its makers weren't prepared to think through and portray realistically the technical practicalities of its hard-science premise.
The Small Back Room (1949)
Dark and modern view of wartime UK
This is a wonderful movie, ahead of its time. The filming has the intense chiaroscuro of monochrome at its best, Kathleen Byron is astonishingly beautiful (even more so than in Black Narcissus), and the undertones are dark and very modern. Susan and Sam (the pain-ridden hero) have no idealised relationship; the film is uncompromising about Sam's alcoholism and, remarkably for its time, clear in its implication that Sue and Sam live together despite being unmarried. There are also many nice well-observed details, such as the scientist who embarrasses a visiting minister by knowing the answer to a sum faster than the calculator they are supposed to be demonstrating, the snoozing officer in the War Room, and the laid-back Strang who clearly is intensely attracted to Sam. I just keep watching this and finding more to see.