Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Review: Little Women

Little Women starts out feeling more than a little preachy in tone and archaic in language, but soon settles in to become a charming and occasionally deeply moving proto-feminist story of a family of girls growing up in  mid-19th century America.

One of the middle daughters,  Jo, is clearly the star of the book as she is given most depth and agency - but the other young women are also well-drawn.

This the second-time I've read Little Women, and I remember comparing the 1990s film starring Winona Ryder, unfavourably with the book at it appeared the film's makers had added a bunch of new storylines.  It turns out there are two distinct versions of the book; the earliest version is only about half the length of later one.

Verdict: Classic Old Americana.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review: You can't take it with you

It's fascinating to see how this Capra directed screwball comedy has evolved since his earlier, It Happened One Night. The use of sound feels mature rather than awkward  in this later film. It also feels tighter and is more ambitious with its cast.

But otherwise, the essential elements are all present and correct; love across the class divide, a sense that money can't buy love, oddball characters (in this case there's a whole family of them), and a goofy song interlude. 

Notably, a number of the cast would also go onto appear in It's a Wonderful Life later too - giving this a feel of, if not quite a prequel, an audition for that Christmas classic.  Barrymore's character is perhaps the most different. Here he plays a libertarian/anarchist Dad with a strong sense of Christian and American values.  It's an odd combination - especially as he is evidently asset rich given the size of the family house (making the class divide not quite as great as it might have been). 

Verdict: Proto-It's a Wonderful Life

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Review: A Hologram for the King

The role of a fish out of water is a familiar one for Hanks in this gentle drama.  I hesitate to append comedy to the drama, because I feel that would be misselling it although there are a few comic moments they are played near completely straight.

In lesser hands, it would have completely sank without trace as the story is a slight one. But it does have some compelling imagery as abandoned city projects and ultra-modern buildings surrounded by sand are conjured up and add to the feeling of culture shock.

Lastly, characteristic of Hanks' movies it becomes sweetly heartwarming towards the end - and this is perhaps the most interesting part of the film - dealing as it does with relationships across a cultural divide.

Verdict: Dreamlike imagery lifts Hanks' drama.

Review: The Lady

The Lady, a biopic about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, is a curious choice for director Besson to take on - but he does a competent job. The few action scenes that there are recognisably his - complete with silent slow motion and focus on character expressions.

Yeoh is great in the role of Suu Kyi. It's clearly a passion project and she does a lot to humanise her.  Thewlis as her husband (and also brother in law) works well as an overseas help by lobbying for greater international recognition of her plight.

Where the film fails is in providing a firm conclusion and that's partly a problem of timing, but also that it leans towards being impressionistic towards the end.

Verdict: Compelling biopic 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Review: Distorted

 One of the mixed blessings of Amazon Prime is that it does give a distribution channel for films which might otherwise not get an audience.  And so it is with Distorted - a horror set in the North Wales countryside.

It lacks polish and feels distinctly amateurish at times - but it passed the time  and kept me engaged. Especially as I indulged in calling out the recognisable locations from my mountain biking trips to Conwy. I immediately recognised Rowen for example!

The acting is a step up from local am-dram, but not always very consistent. The music is creepily effective and there are a few moments of turn-away-from-the-screen gruesomeness.

All in all, a debut which shows some promise.

Verdict: Horrid little Welsh indie shocker.

Review: Faster

The Dwaynenator stars as a one man revenge unit in this modern film noir-lite.

It's one of Johnson's better thrillers but less action packed than the title suggests.

Verdict: Straightforward action thriller

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Review: A Single Man

Melancholic meditation on mourning and loss. Firth is superb as a depressed English professor living in 1960's America dealing with the death of his long time partner. It's a performance where his portrayal of  numbness and profound isolation immediately hooks you in.

 I also enjoyed the subtle shifts in cinematography to convey the past, memories and mood changes.   Lastly, there is redemption of a kind, but it's a bitter sweet one.

 Verdict:  Firth's film.

Review: Twelve Monkeys

Twelve monkeys encourages you to see the world from prisoner's James Cole's (Willis) perspective - and what a confusing place it is. Initially, he's in some steam punk inspired future where no-one lives above ground due to some disaster, and spends much of movie flitting back and forth between this and the present day (or past) of variously 1990, the first World War and 1996.  No wonder, he and we don't know if he's mad or not - especially when he keeps babbling about the army of the twelve monkeys and slipping into dream states which may or not

It's close to a career best performance for Willis, but he's slightly outshone by Pitt. Pitt is utterly manic in this film, and brings some necessary light. His character parallels and reflects Willis' - as he may actually be suffering from a mental illness, or pretending, and comes from a wealthy background with enough agency to actually bring about change.  Lastly, Stowe provides some needed centredness and audience perspective.

Add in a jaunty nerve jangling theme and director's Gilliam's usual attention to detail to production design and the result is a sci-fi classic.

The picture quality on the blu-ray is only so so, particularly in some early scenes.

Verdict: One of Gilliam's best

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what happens when strong AI is developed. It's unusual to see a sci-fi blockbuster make a decent attempt to reference current scientific thinking and explore relevant themes with some depth.

That's not to say it doesn't drift into the fantastical towards the end.

The direction is workmanlike - and the cast of characters realistically flat rather than sympathetic which is probably why this film didn't get much love despite the A list cast.

Overall, I can see the potential for this 50s inspired B movie to be a minor classic in years to come.

The special features on the blu-ray are really no more than extended trailers with small sound bites from the cast, crew and friendly scientist.

Verdict: An AI much ordinary.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Review: Public Enemies

This Depp gangster vehicle is on the face of it an unusual choice for director Mann. For example, it swaps his distinctive city based cinematography of metallic blues and greys in favour of sepia and harsh lighting.

Depp is on form here as gangster Dillinger, alternatively arrogant and naive, and the story of  this 1930s criminal celebrity is a good one although lacking back story.

Ultimately though, it does suffer in comparison to Heat. The  lawman's and the criminal's stories and characters simply aren't as engaging as Pacino's and De Niro's. Similarly, it also lacks the punch of the set pieces in the earlier film. Perhaps less would have been more.

Verdict:  Good, but oddly unengaging.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review: Sucker Punch

Inception-like dark fantasy within a darker fantasy that is partly an excuse for highly kinetic hyperviolence against dragons, clockwork nazis and samurai led by scantily clad and heavily armed young women.  Innovative covers of 80s and 90s classics simply add to the steam punk induced pop video vibe.

It does become a little repetitive, but the ending when it comes, truly is a sucker punch.

Verdict: Dream-like fantasy with bite.

Review: Giving Notice: Why the Best and Brightest are Leaving the Workplace and How You Can Help them Stay

Giving notice is a classic text on why diversity and inclusion matters in the workplace.

Essentially, the premise is that micro- and macro-insults contribute to women, ethnic minorities and gays leaving some workplaces - and that ends up costing companies, not just in lawsuits in the worst case, but also other losses through opportunity cost, turnover, less engaged employees, less innovation etc.

Further, it challenges us to try and tackle our own unconscious bias. I found it a useful reminder that perfectly competent (potential) role holders may not get a chance because they lack the right network.

Verdict: Eye opening and clearing

Friday, 10 November 2017

Review: X-men: First Class

This back to the past origins story was a genius idea to revive a flagging franchise as it allowed us to see a much younger Magneto and Professor X on-screen as well as tap into a wonderful 1960s Man from Uncle vibe.

The result is definitely one of the more stylish and interesting X-men movies although not quite as genre-busting as Logan.  The story is one of a loss of innocence making characters like Magneto and Mystique's future and shifting motivations much more understandable.

Verdict: One of the stronger X-outings.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Quote: Why a good conversation is like a mini-skirt

This week, I thought I'd try a new habit - watch a Ted talk everyday for inspiration. I particularly enjoyed this one by Celeste Headlee:

Which ends on this excellent summary of what a good conversation is like:

A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Review: Einstein's God Model

Intriguing and chilling independent science-fiction film which asks what happens if you try to reconcile the afterlife with theoretical physics.  The result is something like a blend of Contact and the 1980s low budget sci-fi film, Hardware with perhaps a dash of Sapphire and Steel.

The production is often a bit amateurish and even gimmicky in places - but in a way, that somehow makes it feel more credible as many scientific academic productions (or at least the ones I worked on) have a few basic film making fails.

But it is never boring to watch, and the special effects budget is well used.

Verdict: Thought provoking view.

Review: An American Werewolf in London

It's been several decades since I watched An American Werewolf in London on an ancient black and white portable television perched on fold up chair late one night.  I was too young at the time to appreciate the jokes or the erotica - but I do remember it being a scary suspenseful watch with plenty of jumpy moments. I'd also clearly misremembered a line I could have sworn had been said, "There's nowt here for likes of you".

This time around, Agutter's performance as Jenny stand out. She brings a lot of subtlety and helps ground the film in reality - especially in some of her street based exchanges with Naughton's David.

In amongst the catalogue of moon based songs, there's the occasional moment of comedy to lighten things. But it's blooming weird at times, particularly the dreams and visitations, David starts having afterwards.  Whoever came up with those was a genius as they give credibility to his character's concern that he's going insane.

One of the things that's a staple of werewolf films is the transformation process. At the time, it felt revolutionary - and it still feels like the benchmark against which other films are measured. The actual werewolf is a lumpen looking creature, but obviously actually there in a way that few CGI beasts manage.

Lastly, for a film of this age An American Werewolf in London looks stunning on blu-ray. It's rich in detail and naturalistic looking which, period detail aside, helps contribute to the ageless quality of this film.

Verdict: 80's horror classic.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Review: Yes Man

Carrey is a loans clerk stuck in a self-isolating rut when he's persuaded to attend a motivation conference where the participants have to agree to say Yes to everything.   This results in mostly slightly muted mayhem - with some memorable comic moments e.g. Carrey's serenading of a potential suicide.

It's a good vehicle for Carrey's particular type of physical comedy and personally, I've warmed to him considerably as I've revisited a few of his films over this last year.

The film is notable for one character's prescient obsession with taking selfies using a Polaroid before they became a ubiquitous feature of smartphones.

Add in a gently uplifting life message - good things happen when you say Yes - and a bit of light romance - and I came away from this feeling my 30 pence had been well spent on this DVD.

Verdict: Enjoyable and undemanding rom-com.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The third in the modern Mummy series starring Fraser with Weisz conspicuous in her absence  That's a shame as this entry brings back some originality with the location moving to the Far East to breeze through a bundle of myths and reality include the terracotta army, Shangri-La, and the Yeti.

Weisz aside, this entry is more likeable than the second's near retread of the first. The CGI is a considerable step up from earlier entries. There's some great casting in the form of Calder, Yeoh and Li - who are all a bit underused. Some humour is retained, but not quite enough.  But the motivations of those seeking to raise the main villain are never completely credible.

Verdict: Better than expected.

Review: Mel's Story: Surviving Military Sexual Assault

Doonesbury's trademark style suits this tale of the after effects of coercion and assault in the US military. It's by turns poignant and upsetting as Mel progresses through near complete emotional detachment to redeployment as she is encouraged to reframe her situation.  It is deeply moving when a breakthrough comes as a therapist describes her a wounded soldier.

Moments of dark humour and light wit round out the book's story of recovery. A sprinkling of military jargon and lack of justice adds to the credibility and realism.

I learned a lot of about how shockingly pervasive this experience is in the military as well one or two useful reframing techniques.

Verdict: Deftly-told powerful story

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review: One Day

This light through-the-ages romcom comes with a surprisingly bitter note.

The leads - Hathaway and Sturgess - have good chemistry and produce charismatic performances, but its fair to say that Hathaway's British accent was somewhat...erm...well travelled in its variability. Still good on her for trying.  Sturgess' character made me wonder whatever did happen to Terry Christian?

The script is often lightly witty and occasionally insightful - but particular nods to the makeup team who managed to make Sturgess convincingly age with the times and the production designers for evoking the spirit of each age so succinctly.

Verdict: Imperfect, but engaging enough.

Review: Godzilla

Darkness and largely grey colour palette frustratingly obscures the monsters in this 2014 creature feature - and hard to say whether that was a deliberate design choice or reflects budgetary restrictions. That's a shame because it makes it difficult to fully appreciate the scale of them and the destruction they cause. And it doesn't really feel like the deal with this movies is being honoured - the original wasn't afraid to show off the monsters - even if the reveal looked a bit cheap.

The exposition when it comes is very welcome as for much of the movie I was left as baffled as some of the characters as to what was going on. I'd paid to see Godzilla (admittedly not very much) and he or she takes their sweet time to make their appearance.

The story and acting is about as bland and predictable as can be. It's not really the fault of the cast, as they are only there to react against largely unseen monsters.  The two hour running time doesn't help its case either.

There are nice little musical steals/riffs from other movies e.g. the use of something like 2001's choral score during a parachute scene is inventive but one monster's roar feels like Jurassic Park's T-Rex uttered it first.

Verdict: Mediocre monster movie.

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The first of the prequel trilogy for Planet of the Apes this is very much a genesis tale which starts out intimate and small scale before becoming an epic action thriller.

Unlike much of the superhero fare though, this is an origin story which we haven't seen before (Spider-man, I'm particularly looking at you) and which is genuinely involving and even poignant as it deals with the loss of innocence, freedom and ape-human connection.

The cast are all good, but Lithgow's sadly credible performance as someone suffering from Alzheimer's stands out.

The CGI is already well refined although as noted in my review for War for the Planet of the Apes - it's a pity the chimpanzees are not as realistic as others such as the mountain gorilla and the orang-utan.

The second and third films in the prequel series are noticeably weaker in comparison as they neither quite manage to achieve the intimacy or scale of set pieces towards the end of this one.

Verdict: Best of the bunch.