Iro's One Movie a Day Thread

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#583 - Bowfinger
Frank Oz, 1999

A wannabe film-maker plans to make a science-fiction film by any means necessary, including filming a famous movie star without his knowledge.

Though the ads I saw during Bowfinger's theatrical release did play up the silliness to a somewhat alienating degree, I've since come to realise that the premise held some potential. This potential was increased by the fact that the film reunited star/screenwriter Steve Martin with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels director Frank Oz. I did like that film's simple yet well-executed comedic tale of a pair of con artists frantically trying to one-up one another, so I figured that that same energy would at least partially translate to Bowfinger. Martin plays the titular producer/director who reads a script about an alien invasion and decides that he wants to make it despite only having about two thousand dollars in capital. He repeatedly ignores common sense as he not only puts together a ragtag cast and crew but also intends to bring in a major Hollywood star (Eddie Murphy) to play the lead role. Murphy, who is a highly strung action star whose angry awareness of the film industry's flaws borders on full-blown paranoia, predictably rejects the overly enthusiastic Martin. To this end, Martin decides to lie to the majority of his crew and have them film the movie around an unsuspecting Murphy under the pretense of him being extremely focused - and that's before they manage to find his exact double (Murphy again).

Bowfinger has a decent enough comedic high concept but it fails to flesh it out with any sufficiently amusing jokes. There is some cleverness scattered here and there, whether it's Murphy's eager devotion to a self-help program that in no way resembles Scientology (anchored by a po-faced Terence Stamp as Murphy's contact within the organisation) or some of his more potent comments about the film industry (such as rejecting a potential action movie catch-phrase for being too complex with the line "We're making a movie, not a film!" or remarking on the inherent racism of the Academy Awards). There's also the running plot about how Martin's attempts to film an alien-themed movie around Murphy lead to him becoming increasingly paranoid and vulnerable to a nervous breakdown, which does lend a blackly comic air to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the odd moment of cleverness isn't enough to make a significant difference as the film treads some fairly basic comedic ground. There's a scene in which Martin makes Murphy's gormless double run across a busy highway as part of an action sequence, which feels a little too broad for its own good. The same goes for Heather Graham as an extremely stereotypical ingenue who gets straight off a bus and straight into Martin's production, which adds little to the proceedings.

While Bowfinger doesn't do anything egregiously wrong in its satirical yet fundamentally earnest mockery of the film industry, I can't help but be disappointed by how incredibly unfunny it ends up being. The film does its best to infuse its cast of misfits with weight and significance; Martin's lifelong passion for filmmaking makes him a somewhat tragic figure even as he lies, cheats, and steals in order to see his vision come true, whereas his various compatriots believe in the work they're doing regardless of their awareness of the greater truth. This translates to the performances, with Martin channeling his typical comic energy into a character that is dedicated to a vision but not self-aware enough to give up on said vision, while Murphy pulls double-duty as both a belligerent yet insecure Hollywood A-lister and his sweetly oblivious doppelganger. Other performances put in the hard yards but yield little in the way of decent results. There's no ironic detachment on display here, but one wonders if sheer sincerity is truly enough to support the film, especially when the jokes invoke the mildest of amusement without actually arousing a single chuckle.

I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.

#1 - Dead Poets Society
Peter Weir, 1989

Dead Poets Society is about a 1950s boarding school where the new English teacher (Robin Williams) and his unorthodox approach to teaching poetry ends up inspiring a handful of students to form the titular society (technically, to reform it because Williams' character started it during his high school years, but whatever). The consequences are altenately uplifting and devastating.

I have somehow never managed to watch Dead Poets Society from start to finish. The last time I tried it, I watched it all the way up until the last 15-20 minutes when the DVD glitched so I gave up and never got back to finishing it until now. Even though I knew how it ended anyway, I never truly counted it as being 100% "watched". Obviously, I've gone and rectified that. Anyway, as for what I think...

I remember liking it quite a bit on my initial attempt years ago, but watching it now...not so much. Williams definitely gives a strong performance here, with his character getting just enough depth to not seem like some one-dimensional cool teacher archetype. The central cast of male students that make up the titular society - that's a bit more debatable. One character's subplot involves his romantic pursuit of a cheerleader, which does play out rather questionably to say the least (dude, she's passed out/asleep at some jock party and her football hero boyfriend is about ten feet away, do you really think your carpe diem attitude is going to justify stroking her hair and kissing her forehead?) The main subplot, revolving around another character being inspired to try acting despite a fear of disappointing his strict dad, is familiar enough that I have to wonder if knowing how it'd play out would either make it more tragic or just signal how lacking in originality the script felt. Ethan Hawke's turn as a quiet, nervous student (a far cry from the sort of roles he's best known for), does have its moments, especially the scene where Williams forces him to make up a poem in front of the whole classroom, which is honestly a great scene in spite of it being instantly recognisable as the typical "scene where the shy kid learns to express themselves".

By this point, Dead Poets Society has seeped into the cultural consciousness enough that it feels like a parody of itself at times. It's got a handful of choice moments (as trite as it may seem, that final scene really does leave an impression), is amply aided by Williams' remarkable rendition of a fairly basic character archetype and the acting by the main characters is decent enough to sell their admittedly all-too-familiar character arcs (except in the very shallow romantic subplot mentioned above, of course). Am I likely to invest another two hours in another viewing? Probably not. Do I reckon people should see it if they haven't already? Sure, why not.

I loved the Dead Poet's Society. It had my favourite actor in it.

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#584 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
George Roy Hill, 1969

Mostly based on the true story of the eponymous outlaws as their constant train-robbing leads to them being pursued by a team of mercenaries.

I saw this on a theatrical double-bill with another revisionist Western from 1969 (but I'll get to that soon enough); it had been at least a few years since my last (and also first) viewing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but my opinion of it was generally favourable. Even so, it took another viewing to appreciate it more fully, if only because there is a lot to appreciate. At the time, revisionist Westerns of the era were intent on deconstructing the genre by any means necessary, which often involved criticising the cheerful and largely bloodless mythology of earlier films by creating blood-soaked works filled with nihilism and complex morality. In that context, Butch... seems like a compromise between old and new styles as it promises a film exploring the death of the Wild West while also setting up its two leads as charming rogues. Paul Newman and Robert Redford play Butch and Sundance respectively; the former is getting on in years but still has the wits to make lots of cash and keep control of his unruly gang, while the latter is a moody gunslinger with exceptional shooting skills and a serious attitude problem. Along with the "Hole-in-the-Wall Gang", they pull off enough train robberies that they eventually earn some very unwanted attention from the railroad tycoon, who puts together an elite squad of bounty hunters in order to track and kill them. To this end, they decide to leave the country and head to Bolivia along with Sundance's schoolteacher mistress (Katharine Ross), but of course that presents its own set of problems...

I've noted in other reviews how William Goldman is one of the best examples of screenwriter-as-auteur (if not the best), and Butch... alternately proves and challenges that assertion. Structurally, Butch... follows a three-act structure pretty closely - the first act introduces our leads, the second act seems them pursued, and the third sees them go to Bolivia. The pacing does leave a fair bit to be desired as the film hits something of a wall once it reaches the Bolivian section of the film. Up until that point, the film has great momentum as it sets up its characters. The film's greatest strength is easily the relentless banter exchanged between Newman and Redford, often as a result of disagreements over how to solve whatever problem is facing them at that particular moment. This continues through the excellent second act, which sees the duo once again holding up a train only for a crew of mercenaries to burst out of one carriage and start chasing them. Between the tension generated by this barely-glimpsed band of killers and the duo's attempts to outmaneuver them (trading quips all the while), it's easy to see how the film loses its momentum in its third act, though it doesn't change things up too much aside from allowing its leads a breather and the chance to get back on top of things. It's just as well that Newman and Redford have such great chemistry, which is enough to carry the whole film just fine and make these outlaws of rather debatable sympathy at least amusing enough to watch. Given how the film's beginning states that "most of what follows is true", I guess I can't seriously fault the duo for pulling robberies without masks, if only because that is a practical concern as people will want to see the lead duo's handsome mugs and also points out the futility of their cavalier attitudes. At least sometimes the lack of character logic is played for laughs, such as the lead trio inferring that the hit squad sent after them by the railroad tycoon must have been more expensive to put together than the cost of the actual robberies, leading to Butch exclaiming that he should be getting paid not to rob the trains. Clever little bits and pieces of dialogue and physical humour accumulate quick and fast in this film.

While its strength is most definitely built on handsome stars swapping cleverly-crafted one-liners, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid doesn't exactly skimp when it comes to technical excellence either. Legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall provides crystal-clear shots that are infused with some serious vibrancy both in terms of colour and flexibility. The entire opening sequence that introduces Butch and Sundance is shot entirely in sepia tones; though the film is in full colour for most of its running time, I would not have minded if the whole film had actually been captured in sepia. "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" is tolerable, but it's definitely worth noting just how much the film works without using music; the only times I recall music being used are during montages, and I honestly prefer the music staying within those boundaries. The period details are well-realised (especially the costume design by the legendary Edith Head) and the instances in which the film does opt to get somewhat serious with a scene involving action or drama are still executed reasonably well, whether it's the extensive chase sequence or the notorious finale. When it comes to being a Western, the film dances a furious jig on the line between being a serious deconstruction and a sincere celebration, but that doesn't stop it being an extremely enjoyable film either way.

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#585 - The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969

After their attempt to pull one last heist goes horribly wrong, a gang of aging outlaws offer their services to a Mexican general looking to consolidate his power.

With this latest viewing being the back half of a double bill with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is easy to pick apart how many similarities The Wild Bunch shares with that particular film beyond simply being a revisionist Western from 1969, if only to point out how much they compliment and contrast against one another. Both films centre around outlaw gangs who are targeted by squads of mercenaries working on behalf of railroad tycoons; consequently, both gangs abandon the United States and attempt to forge new lives for themselves in foreign countries by plying their criminal trades. While Butch... had a romantic streak that made any deconstruction fundamentally lightweight, Bunch throws any such sentiment to the wind and then shoots it for good measure. It is a decidedly unsentimental Western, with the only concession to any sort of positivity being towards codes of honour and loyalty, and even then the film goes out of its way time and time again to expose the folly in these particular themes. The "bunch" of the title are a motley collection of outlaws that are mostly past their prime and looking to pull one last job, which unfortunately for them takes place at the very beginning of the film. When that goes sour thanks to the whole thing being a set-up by the aforementioned railroad hit squad, they head into Mexico to regroup and circumstances lead to them working for a corrupt Mexican general. While most of the group are more or less fine with supporting his despotic regime for the sake of some cash, the sole Mexican member of their ranks naturally takes issue and intends to fight back...

The Wild Bunch wouldn't be what it is without a strong ensemble around which to build, and it most definitely gets that. William Holden is perfect as Pike Bishop, the grouchy yet affable ringleader who can convey a wide range of emotions, especially as he gets to dwelling on the more miserable aspects of his incredibly troubled past. Ernest Borgnine plays Dutch Engstrom, Pike's fiercely loyal partner-in-crime who gets some impressive chemistry with Holden. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson make for a good double-act as the slightly younger yet incredibly immature Gorch brothers, while Jaime Sánchez gets a surprisingly solid character as Angel, the "kid" of the group who arguably undergoes the most difficult character journey in the film (especially since his conflicting loyalties drive much of the plot). Edmond O'Brien rounds out the numbers as oldest member Freddy Sykes, with his performance reminding one of every "old prospector" stereotype yet he manages to make it work. Of special note is Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, a former associate of Pike's who has been forced to head up the squad tasked with tracking down and killing the Bunch or else be made to go back to prison. While he's essentially the same as Pike, his squad is completely different as they are a group of vile scavengers kept together less by mutual camararderie than by the promise of their being killed if they bail on the mission. That's without mentioning Emilio Fernández as the appropriately loathsome General Mapache, playing the villainous role with toothy grins galore.

In addition to having a strong enough cast of characters to build the movie around, The Wild Bunch does well at creating enough of a movie for them to build around. The dialogue is frequently blunt and harsh in ways that lack the obvious lyricism and wit of William Goldman but still make up for it in being memorably to-the-point. Even so, there's still enough complexity to things that needs to be inferred, especially in how the film treats its incredibly skewed sense of morality. The Bunch are the type of protagonists that only seem heroic by default due to how horrible everyone else is (with the possible exception of Deke); Angel is the closest the film gets to having a wholly sympathetic character due to his wishing to save the people of his village from Mapache but that doesn't stop him from doing something like murdering the woman he loves because she's gone over to Mapache (though exactly how willingly she made that choice is up to interpretation, and the incident is framed as a crime of passion on Angel's part - yeah, you're not exactly going to get a kind treatment of female characters in this film). Given the age of many characters, there's an obvious "death of the West" theme running through the whole thing as the older characters basically have to admit that there isn't really a place for outlaws like them anymore (which is driven home by the presence of various technological advances such as automobiles and machine-guns). The Bunch may be capable crooks when it comes down to it, but many of the quieter non-action scenes establish just how worn-out and done a lot of them actually are. As a result, their motivations for selling out to a despotic general and his German supporters are much more complex that mere greed; though they ostensibly work towards not having to work again, it's pretty obvious that work is all they know. This feeds into the group's sense of loyalty to one another, which is paradoxically vital yet self-destructive as they stick by one another even when it's impractical and dangerous (especially when it comes to Angel, who is a major spanner in the works).

Of course, what really makes The Wild Bunch and its grim deconstruction really work is the gritty, explosive violence that is wrought throughout the film. Being shot in this film makes a bloody spurt and leaves a ragged wound, and it happens a lot. It is a nasty business as the guilty and innocent alike are subjected to excessive brutality. That doesn't mean that the film is a thoroughly dour affair full of suffering and misery; its tragedy is supplanted by a number of stylishly depicted action sequences that involve the Bunch fighting it out with their adversaries. Peckinpah does use a number of techniques to amplify the violence, but only when it is deliberately trying to evoke tension and excitement during one of the film's many shoot-outs. The cinematography is crisp, the editing is tight without being disorienting, slow-motion is applied effectively, and the scenes are generally free of music (though the music is appropriately sinister; one piece even sounds like a deliberate subversion of the triumphant theme music from The Magnificent Seven). The opening heist sequence sets quite the standard for what's to come, while the train heist is a masterful sequence in suspense and the finale has quite rightly become the stuff of legend. I recognise that The Wild Bunch has its problems, but it certainly doesn't lack for substance. It is anchored by excellent actors bringing serious depth to extremely flawed characters and is still buoyed by the action sequences being some of the most well-executed ones in the entire genre. It's not exactly as accessible as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it doesn't need to be.

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#586 - Stardust
Matthew Vaughn, 2007

A young man ventures to a magical kingdom in search of a shooting star to prove his love for a beautiful woman, but his quest is complicated by the star taking the form of a living woman and also being sought by evil-doers.

Stardust is something of an oddity in the context of Matthew Vaughn's filmography. Sandwiched between British gangster debut Layer Cake and violent superhero parody Kick-Ass, Vaughn's sophomore feature takes a completely different tack to his other films as it adapts a fairytale novel written by Neil Gaiman. It is built on the fantastic concept of there being an entire realm known as Stormhold that is only accessible through a gap in a stone wall located in a small English village. After a prologue that establishes the origin of its hero (whose father is from the village and whose mother is from Stormhold), it cuts to him as a young man (played by Charlie Cox), a hopeless romantic who is looking to win the affection of a local girl (Sienna Miller). As they witness a shooting star one night, Cox promises to retrieve it for Miller in order to prove his love for her, which means that he must cross the wall into Stormhold. Of course, his seemingly simple quest is complicated by a number of factors. First, there's the fact that in Stormhold the shooting star takes the form of a human woman (Claire Danes), who does not take kindly to Cox's initial plan to use her as a trophy. Second, there's the evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wants to cut out the star's heart in order to provide her with the magic she needs to remain beautiful and powerful. Third, there's the power struggle that forms in the wake of the king's death as his three remaining sons must try to acquire the star's necklace in order to claim the throne, with one (Mark Strong) willing to go further than the others in order to get it.

There's nothing egregiously wrong with Stardust, but there's not much that can be considered especially great. Gaiman has proven to be a solid writer in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, but that doesn't fully translate to the story in this film as it crafts a somewhat generic high-fantasy world. At least it is somewhat distinguished by the odd piece of interesting world-building, such as an airship full of sky pirates led by Robert de Niro or the bloodthirsty mechanics of the local regency. The various plot elements are also pretty standard for a film of this nature, especially the romantic ones that are pretty predictable but not enough so to be truly annoying. I do appreciate how the film was willing to set up a number of conflicts, especially by having multiple potential antagonists as both Pfeiffer and Strong stop at nothing in order to track down Danes. The assembly of veteran performers and relative newcomers are generally decent with no real misfires as they all embody a number of familiar fantasy archetypes. Cox and Danes have believable enough chemistry to compensate for the more hackneyed developments of the narrative, while Strong and de Niro do well in supporting roles (especially the latter as a seemingly merciless pirate with some interesting depth of character). The effects work is pretty erratic in terms of quality with plenty of obvious uses of CGI, but it is generally tolerable and occasionally genuinely impressive (as is the case surrounding one character's magic-related death late in the film). Stardust is a tolerable example of high fantasy that has some good moments but lacks just enough cleverness and invention to be a great film; it is also a little too long, predictable, and poorly paced as well. Even so, I'd still rank it alongside Kingsman as one of Vaughn's best films, although considering the company that's not saying much.

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#587 - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston, 1948

In 1920s Mexico, a trio of unemployed Americans head into the mountains in search of gold.

With his weather-beaten features and his rough yet nasal voice, Humphrey Bogart still makes for an unlikely example of a classic A-list movie star. Several of his most famous roles tend to bypass his gravelly countenance and sell him as a damaged anti-hero with a slightly romantic edge, for good (Casablanca) or not-so-good (Sabrina). The Treasure of the Sierra Madre might just be my favourite film to feature the man and it doesn't feature him playing one of his usual anti-heroic types or even a straight-up villain like in The Petrified Forest. Here, Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, an American who is down and out in a Mexican town in 1925. After trying to beg money off rich folks and getting cheated out of being paid for fair work, he and his equally impoverished buddy Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) decide to take up prospecting, hoping to find gold in the unexplored wilderness. To help them out on this venture, they bring in an older and more experienced prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), who agrees to guide them on their journey to riches. Of course, once the trio actually find a suitable vein of gold to mine, they must contend with various threats such as murderous bandits, opportunistic explorers, dangerous animals and, last but definitely not least, the greed and paranoia that affects all three of them (especially Dobbs).

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a pretty masterful example of classic cinema thanks to its tautly paced plot that doesn't drag over the course of two hours, generating as much drama from the growing friction between its three leads as it does from having their operation be endangered by external conflicts. Each of the three leads is definitely good enough to carry their own weight and prop one another up; as Dobbs, Bogart gives us a desperate man whose desire to simply make enough money to survive quickly escalates into an extremely obsessive mindset that puts him at odds with his companions, leading to a performance that drops his trademark sense of hard-boiled charisma in favour of an increasingly manic and deranged performance. His tendency to lapse into motor-mouthed diatribes is matched by the senior Huston, whose advanced age does not prevent him from being able to keep up with (and even surpass) Bogart in terms of being able to rattle off lines of dialogue like machine-gun fire. Though his old-prospector mannerisms are likely to prompt laughter in a few instances, they only make him an even more charming and layered character rather than render his dramatics ridiculous. Between these two, Holt's more restrained turn as an earnest young man simply looking to make a small fortune instead of a large one is an appropriately understated one; as a result, he doesn't need to go overboard with it. Outside of the core ensemble, other memorable performances include the smooth-talking explorer (Bruce Bennett) and the Mexican bandit leader (Alfonso Bedoya) who put in good turns that don't break the film's rhythms with their appearances.

Though I naturally need to revisit a few of the other contenders to make sure, I would probably still cite The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as my favourite Bogart film, my favourite Huston film, and basically a second-tier favourite. The film is paced incredibly well with each external development spread far enough apart so that the film can addresses each new twist without losing focus or an audience's interest. In addition to forming a satisfactory whole, the film is peppered with great individual moments, whether it's the famous exchange about stinking badges or a certain scene involving a gila monster. The focus on exploring the ramifications of greed does so by giving its leads great character development, with each one embodying a very different reaction to the promise of striking it rich. On a technical level, the film is extremely well-made with sharp black-and-white cinematography doing well at capturing the sun-soaked hillsides and being even better at covering the trio's nights spent by the fireside. The music is naturally old-timey yet the frequent repetitions and variations of the film's main theme never grow tiresome. All things considered, this is quite the old-school masterpiece and is definitely recommended.

I saw Treasure a long time ago, when I was just starting to get into film, therefore I feel like this one desperately needs a revisit...

I liked it, but not much more. It's been so long though, so I doubt my thoughts still stands the same. Good review though and I'm definitely wanting to see it again even more now.

#15 - A Beautiful Mind
Ron Howard, 2001

Based on the true story of Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash, whose attempts at working on maths start getting derailed by a number of growing problems.

I knew next to nothing about A Beautiful Mind other than that it was a renowned Oscar winner that - surprise, surprise - was based on a true story about a troubled genius. Fortunately, I think the lowered expectations worked in the film's favour. After a fairly average first act that makes it seem like a fairly pedestrian period drama, the second act gets interesting when Nash (Russell Crowe, here playing up the nervy eccentricity that goes with being a socially awkward maths genius) is recruited by Ed Harris's shadowy G-man as part of a top-secret government project, and then

WARNING: "A Beautiful Mind" spoilers below
it turns out that Ed Harris - in addition to Nash's lifelong friend (Paul Bettany) - is a hallucination and that Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic who needs medication and electroshock.

That revelation, and the fallout that ensues, make for a film that's interesting but doesn't always stick the execution. There's the expected tension between Nash and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, quite reasonably earning an Oscar for her work here) and various ensuing struggles that do come across as legitimately disturbing at times. There's an intriguing premise at work here, but it gets dragged down by Howard's extremely conventional Oscar-bait approach to the subject matter. I don't hate it, but I do feel that the material doesn't quite reach its full potential.

I haven't seen it start to finish, but I think Crowe gave a great performance, as did Connelly. Never been a fan of Howard, except Da Vinci code, so I absolutelly agree with everything you said.

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#588 - Taken 2
Olivier Megaton, 2012

After killing a gang of human traffickers in order to rescue his daughter, a security consultant and his family are targeted by the father of one of the men he killed.

I was not too kind to the original Taken when I reviewed it. As charming as I generally find Liam Neeson, he was far and away the best part of a rather clunky excuse for a modern action film. That being said, I wonder if I might have been a bit harsh on it, though that reaction was prompted less by re-thinking my feelings towards the film itself and more in relation to the incredible shortcomings of its follow-up, Taken 2. The original film had a serviceable if none-too-original high concept in its tale of a highly-skilled security consultant tracking down the men who kidnapped his daughter, but a sequel involving the exact same circumstances seemed a little too improbable even for an action movie as uncomplicated as this one. So they went with the next best thing - a revenge plot. This time, as Neeson works towards rebuilding his relationships with his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace) while the trio are on holiday in Istanbul, they are targeted by an Albanian gangster (Rade Šerbedžija) and his organisation. It turns out that Šerbedžija is the father of one of the traffickers that Neeson murdered in the first film, so naturally he wants revenge.

While a revenge plot is arguably more plausible than having Grace's character get kidnapped again, there's no denying that it feels incredibly flimsy. The gimmick of having Neeson and Janssen be the ones who get kidnapped for a change seems promising (especially when it means that Grace is forced to bail out Neeson for a change), but it barely goes anywhere. The original film never really made any promise of being particularly deep in terms of writing or thematic content, but it seems considerably more complex in comparison to this awfully lightweight sequel. There were issues with Taken that I had hoped might have been addressed in this film, but no such luck. Some lip service is paid to the futility of the cycle of revenge unfolding between Neeson and Šerbedžija but it's never adequately developed or expanded upon, thus all the villains in this film end up being one-dimensional crooks. The heroic characters don't fare much better. Neeson is still the same character that see-saws between gruff killing machine and awkward yet caring family man as the plot demands, while Janssen essentially becomes the film's latest damsel in distress after sharing a couple of warm reconciliatory scenes with Neeson. Grace is still supposed to be a pretty ordinary young woman, though to the film's credit she does actually get to do something in this movie as the sole non-captured member of the family, even if it does amount to following Neeson's instructions.

Unfortunately, Taken 2 doesn't even deliver on the action front either. In the original film, Neeson's character quite famously stated that he has a very particular set of skills, but between that film and this one it's clear that this does not translate to varied action. The scale may be increased, but the thrills are even more rare. This can easily be credited to the direction, where every modern action/thriller flaw is featured (especially those that were already found in Taken, yet are exacerbated here). The combination of jittery cinematography and rapid cross-cutting not only fails to add any excitement, it is actively disorienting and alienating. One barely gets a sense of place or direction at times, which is probably just as well as the film speeds along before you have time to question certain plot contrivances; of course, that's probably because you're busy questioning the more obvious contrivances that exist to extend the film's running time. Neeson ends up being as competent or incompetent as the story needs him to be in this context and even glosses over some of his more ridiculous acts (such as needlessly sending a speeding car flying into an embassy filled with soldiers). Between the incredibly weak plotting and the poorly-captured action, Taken 2 is a mess of a film that threatens to tarnish what little goodwill the original film earned and wastes what little potential it might have had to stand out on its own terms.

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#589 - Moon
Duncan Jones, 2009

A lone astronaut tasked with overseeing an extensive resource-mining operation on the moon discovers that he is not alone.

Warning: contains unmarked first-act spoilers.

When I first saw Moon on the festival circuit, I was quite simply blown away. Duncan Jones' low-budget debut takes place in the not-too-distant future where scientists have combated a shortage of energy resources by discovering a potent new fuel source known as "helium-3" on the far side of the moon. To this end, an energy corporation has established a small mining facility there that is populated mainly by automated machines save for a single human overseer named Sam (Sam Rockwell). Sam is only a matter of days away from concluding his three-year contract and returning to Earth to see his family, who can only contact him through a series of pre-recorded video messages (and vice versa). After crashing one of the harvesting machines, Sam wakes up in the infirmary with no recollection of what has happened. He then proceeds to venture outside and discovers a wrecked harvester and inside is...himself. What follows is a slow-burning thriller as the two Sams must try to deal with this bizarre situation and the horrifying implications thereof.

I seem to recall that the first-act reveal was deliberately hidden from reviews I read in the lead-up to watching Moon for the first time, so of course I feel reluctant to spoil it, but hey, you saw the disclaimer up there. Anyway, it's important to mention it because it's an interesting feat to see Rockwell play the same character twice. Though it's an initially disorienting move, the intent is strong enough to make it work and there are plenty of features that distinguish the Sams. A capable actor like Rockwell gets to perform a great one-man show, alternately playing the naive Sam 1 and the skeptical Sam 2. While Rockwell is pretty good at carrying the movie (and he'd have to be), credit also has to go to Kevin Spacey as GERTY, the facility's resident AI whose HAL-like monotone is accentuated by a screen dedicated to showcasing the context-appropriate emoticons. The interplay between Sam and GERTY is great as they cover a considerable range of interactions ranging from casual banter through to suspiciously guarded exchanges and beyond. There are a few other minor characters scattered throughout the film (I still can't help but be distracted by Matt Berry of Darkplace and IT Crowd fame appearing in a small role as one of Sam's bosses) but it is mostly a story that depends on the conflict between Sam 1, Sam 2, GERTY, and even the facility itself as its pristine hallways make it as much of a character (and a threat) as any actual personality.

A second viewing does expose Moon's fundamentally lean nature. Though the premise does naturally invoke some commentary on corporate corruption and the moral quandaries associated with acquiring energy sources, it seems more concerned with toying with questions of identity. The two Sams are made to confront a mutual identity crisis, though Sam 2 is far quicker to accept the obvious situation than Sam 1 is - this does mean that Sam 1's arc forms the central narrative as he learns the truth about what's really going on inside the facility. As such, it becomes much easier to focus on Sam 2 a second time around, though that does mean realising that he doesn't have as much of a journey as Sam 1 - he is also dedicated to finding out the truth, but he has such a head-start that his character's journey is much shorter and ultimately makes him seem flatter. Thankfully, GERTY and the complicated allegiances built into its core programming make for an adequately supportive third party as one is never quite sure how much its actions are working in either Sam 1's interest or Sam 2's or even those of the facility's supposedly-benevolent bosses. Other deep-space tropes are thrown in for good measure such as the existence of delayed communications with Earth and the occasional technical malfunction to keep the story interesting, and the technological side of things definitely results in quite a few poignant moments.

Despite the relatively small budget, Jones and co. make a film that's visually competent enough to not distract from the film's actual storyline. The production design is notable with the sterile facility being decorated with neat little details as evidence of Sam's time there, while the attempts to shoot two separate Rockwells are handled competently enough that even when the film resorts to shots involving Rockwell interacting with body doubles you barely notice because of the way the scenes are paced. Beyond that, the effects work is also extremely solid as it uses some serviceable CGI to render decent-looking exterior shots. The music is largely subdued with a lot of moody piano pieces that appropriately accentuate each of the Sams' loneliness and despair. A second viewing has revealed that Moon isn't quite the mind-blowing masterpiece that I remember it being, but it is still a solid example of low-budget sci-fi that comes up with great writing and performances to compensate for its extremely small scale. It's also a great acting showcase for Rockwell and gives Spacey a role that makes excellent use of his trademark nasal delivery. If you're looking for some sufficiently cerebral sci-fi that doesn't descend into a convoluted mess of illogical developments and has a warm human centre to its coldly mechanical world, then look no further.

Welcome to the human race...
#590 - The Tracker
Rolf de Heer, 2002

In 1922 Australia, three white men and an indigenous tracker set off on the trail of an indigenous fugitive who has been accused of murdering a white woman.

Iconoclastic Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer goes bush for a film that's light on characters and long on just about everything else. There are only a handful of central characters in the story, all of whom are introduced at the beginning yet are never referred to by name. Renowned Native Australian actor David Gulpilil stars as the eponymous Tracker, who has been tasked with tracking down the Fugitive (Noel Wilton), who has been accused of murdering a white woman. Following him are three white men working on behalf of the law. First and foremost is the Fanatic (Gary Sweet), a hardened enforcer who is unsurprisingly quite racist in his views towards the indigenous population; this feeds into him being extremely determined to track down the Fugitive no matter what. Second is the Follower (Damon Gameau), a fresh-faced and simple-minded recruit who is new to the field of law enforcement and is thus extremely worried about the mission but nonetheless tries to measure up to the Fanatic's expectations. Finally, there is the Veteran (Grant Page), a world-weary soldier who lacks the Fanatic's bloody-mindedness and the Follower's eagerness to please, simply wanting nothing more than for the job to be done. This motley collection of individuals set off in pursuit of the Fugitive, but it's not long before conflicts arise not just as the group encounter numerous setbacks and situations but as the Fanatic loses his trust in the Tracker and ensures that a thick tension fills the air between the members of the squad.

Though it's a pretty lean film that only just crosses the ninety-minute mark, The Tracker is still a consistently engaging piece of work thanks to its core ensemble and their interplay. Gulpilil makes for a good protagonist who is naturally conflicted about his role but is still willing to get along with his companions up to and past when things get extremely complicated. Sweet gets a solid role as a man who's arguably the closest the film gets to having a serious villain; while the Fugitive's actual guilt is left ambiguous for most of the film, the Fanatic establishes himself as an extremely vicious individual early on when the squad interrogates a group of indigenous people. There's enough weight to his performance and character motivation that he doesn't come across as underdeveloped. Gameau may get a somewhat thankless role as the gormless new meat who is torn between his loyalty to the domineering Fanatic and his basic sense of morality making him question the Fanatic's brutal methods, but his nervous nature sells certain moments such as a rather tense scene where he's on sentry duty. Page rounds out the main quartet as the least developed character, who is also the oldest yet lacks the Fanatic's dangerous sense of conviction. What few other characters populate the film don't get much in the way of definition (not even Wilton, who is only sporadically glimpsed throughout the film); they tend to spend much of the film existing as either hapless victims or unseen adversaries.

The film's visual style is pretty standard for the most part, letting the vast and colourful outback scenery provide much of the spectacle in a variety of landscape shots. These make for a great contrast against tight close-ups as the leads are in conflict as well as tense night-time moments. The film only allows itself into a plodding rhythm inasmuch as it allows its carefully-paced shocks to have the most effect. The most shocking and violent moments get an interesting treatment in that, rather than be depicted as they happen, the film instead opts to cut away to paintings of the instant shock itself, only switching back in order to examine the often-tragic aftermath. The soundtrack consists mainly of modern-sounding indigenous songs, which range from anachronistically funky jams to melancholy guitar ballads. These factors all combine to add some extra character to a film that's already swimming in it. The Tracker may not be an overly complex film, but that's because it doesn't need to be. It takes a less-is-more approach that does threaten to drag at times but is anchored by some solid performances, especially the cheerful yet antagonistic chemistry between Gulpilil and Sweet. Humour and suspense mesh surprisingly well under these circumstances and make for an interesting example of a "meat pie Western".

Great reviews on Butch Cassidy and Wild Bunch; two of my favorite westerns!

Welcome to the human race...
#591 - The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan, 2008

When people start committing mass suicide for no discernible reason, a science teacher and his wife try to escape before the phenomenon gets them.

Until this year, I was pretty much able to avoid M. Night Shyamalan's very prolonged and very public fall from grace. Before, I had only seen The Sixth Sense a couple of times and my general impression was that I sort of liked it (and I still wanted to see Unbreakable). Even so, it was pretty easy to avoid watching any of his films even before his notorious dependence on twist endings led to his cultural stock dwindling away. This year saw me decide to play a bit of catch-up. I saw Signs, which wasn't altogether bad but ultimately felt too off-kilter and flawed to seriously appreciate. More recently, I saw The Last Airbender, his big-budget adaptation of the popular Avatar cartoon that managed to become his most reviled film yet (though I couldn't bring myself to muster any serious rage over its massive shortcomings - say what you will, at least he's not as overly obnoxious as Michael Bay). Now I've checked out The Happening, a film that has also suffered a severe haranguing due to its botched execution of what admittedly starts off as an intriguing premise. It begins when people suddenly stop moving in their tracks and then, after brief periods of apparent disorientation, proceed to commit suicide without any signs of distress. The phenomenon, initially thought to be the result of a terrorist attack, gradually spreads further and further from its epicentre in Central Park and soon begins affecting nearby towns and eventually other states. So far, so creepy...

Unfortunately, what happens next is that Shyamalan fails to flesh out this premise in a strong manner. The most immediate problem is probably the casting of Mark Wahlberg as a high-school science teacher who is caught up in the middle of the Happening. He is also having some relationship troubles with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), which are exacerbated when they have to leave the city with Wahlberg's colleague (John Leguizamo), who acts extremely bitter towards Deschanel as a result of said troubles. When the film's not taking time to showcase the various ways in which people are killing themselves, ranging from jumping off buildings to shooting themselves to allowing themselves to be mauled by tigers (yes, really), it's following Wahlberg and Deschanel as they try to escape to wherever might be safe. This is where The Happening falls apart as it struggles to come up with enough events to fill out its brief running time. It's a real shame that the film ends up wasting Leguizamo as he proves to be a more capable performer than Wahlberg, whose attempts to balance emotional strain with his more natural charisma end up making him look comically quizzical. This is counterbalanced by Deschanel, whose blank stare and frequently monotonous delivery are supposedly justified by her character being an emotionally distant person, though that ultimately feels like a cop-out more so than a legitimate character development.

As for the rest of the film, it starts off with an intriguing atmosphere reminiscent of creepy B-movies of old, but that is soon squandered as the depiction of people's deaths grows increasingly absurd and as the threat is depicted as little more than rustling foliage and light breezes. While there is something to be said for the less-is-more approach when it comes to making an audience feel horror, here the result is compromised not just by the fact that it's visually uninteresting, but also by how arbitrary a threat the Happening ends up being towards the different characters. The writing in other areas tends to be extremely wanting as the film not only struggles to keep the film going but also fills out its scenes with some rather shoddy writing (especially in the film's third act where the small group of survivors that we're following stumbles upon not one but two violently paranoid hermits within quick succession of one another). While there is some amusement to be had at some of the more poorly-handled moments, such as actors delivering bad dialogue with worse inflections, even that is too sporadic to seriously redeem The Happening. It still ends up being far more boring than even an unintentional comedy should be, let alone as a genuinely unsettling thriller. The fact that it does occasionally seem to get close to having a good idea only makes its general failure sting even more.

Not a fan of revisionist I see. Are you more spaghetti?
Probably. Most of the westerns I have seen years ago, a majority of them being traditional American ones like John Ford's. I like the Western genre but few I would consider masterpieces like Good Bad Ugly, High Noon and Stagecoach.

Welcome to the human race...
#592 - Superbad
Greg Mottola, 2007

A trio of high-school seniors get into a series of misadventures after they try to acquire alcohol for a house party.

In theory, I should like Superbad. My last Top 100 featured Clerks and Dazed and Confused; the former's crude, dialogue-heavy buddy comedy and the latter's loosely-structured 24-hour tale of partying high-schoolers seem like obvious influences on this film. It also came out during my final year of high school and the lead characters were supposed to be socially awkward misfits, so that should have resulted in peak relatability. However, as I've noted in other reviews, it was very easy to grow fatigued with anything that had any relation to Judd Apatow and featured any of his regular collaborators; Superbad was a major contributor to said fatigue since Apatow regular Seth Rogen co-wrote and co-starred in the film. That aside, the film is perhaps too immature for its own good, which comes as no surprise considering how Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg apparently started writing the screenplay when they were thirteen years old. It's obviously been through some revisions since then, but the core narrative is still pretty simple. Superbad takes place on a Friday a couple of weeks before graduation and centres on two lifelong friends named Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera). They are fairly average (if uncool) teenage boys whose original plans for the night involve their usual hanging out with their dweeby friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). These plans are shaken up when the boys get word of a house party being held by popular girl Jules (Emma Stone), who incidentally asks Seth to acquire some alcohol for said party. Seth, being infatuated with Jules, readily agrees to carry this out, while Evan is willing to go along with it because it means he'll get a chance to impress his own crush, Becca (Martha MacIsaac). Of course, this means getting Fogell's help as he's the only one with a fake ID.

This is a solid enough set-up for a movie's worth of shenanigans, especially when an unexpected twist results in the trio being split up, forcing Seth and Evan to improvise a new plan to acquire alcohol while Fogell gets into a series of misadventures with a pair of wacky police officers (Bill Hader and Rogen), thus allowing for a wider range of gags to be deployed. Unfortunately, despite some of the film's more interesting touches (such as a retro vibe enhanced by a soundtrack filled with various classic funk and soul numbers), the humour is extremely patchy. While some of the absurdity is tolerable (the infamous joke involving Fogell's fake ID featuring the ridiculous fake-sounding mononym "McLovin" still holds up despite it being run into the ground on a "Vote For Pedro"-like scale), some of it just lands with a dull thud, such as Seth's revelation that he used to be obsessed with drawing cartoon penises (which the film goes on to show in detail). This does not prompt personal offence so much as a nonplussed "Really?", which is a reaction that I still have even as I re-watch this for what is at least a third full time (no idea about partial viewings). One can also interpret a subtle darkness to this seemingly lightweight plot in that Seth really does seem to think that the way to win over the girl he likes is to get both of them drunk enough for her to "make a mistake", to say nothing of the many irresponsible ways in which Hader and Rogen abuse their authority. Hell, I liked Super Troopers just fine and that managed to wring a whole movie out of irresponsible goofballs working in law enforcement, yet these cops' infrequent appearances feel pretty sub-par for the most part with only the occasional funny line to sustain them. They also feel like a conscious attempt to pad out a film with broadly comical wish fulfilment that is naturally used on the incredibly dorky Fogell. This intention is made even clearer by the fact that sequences involving Seth and Evan by themselves tend to be a bit more grounded in reality, whether it's their attempts to fit in at a party full of dangerous adults or their confrontation over the tension that's been growing between over the fact that they have vastly different post-graduation plans.

As easy as it would be to completely hate Superbad, I think there is just enough of worth here to stop it being a completely reprehensible mess of a film. Despite the aforementioned dark subtext behind these fairly ordinary teenagers' incredibly short-sighted plans to hook up, it helps that there actually is a bit of heart and self-awareness to the plot that saves it as it reaches its inevitably awkward conclusion. This even extends to the wacky sub-plot involving Fogell and the cops, though it's not given nearly enough focus in favour of playing up the anything-goes mischief of those scenes (which can be entertaining but is fundamentally flat and doesn't really hold up). The film does struggle to pepper its considerable running time with amusing jokes, but I guess if I wasn't liable to laugh at them when I was the same age as the main characters then being almost a decade older was not probably not going to make a significant difference. The technical quality of this film is only in service to the comedy and the acting tends to be pretty average as the performers play to their persona's most widely-accepted stereotypes; Hill is an obnoxious smartass, Cera is a neurotic mumbler, Rogen is an easy-going goofball with rapid-fire delivery, etc. The lack of a distinct high concept beyond high-school tomfoolery certainly makes it a surprisingly tolerable film in relation to other Apatow-like films and there's enough quality that tells me this might not be the last time I end up seeing this. Ultimately, however, to me Superbad feels like the cinematic equivalent of spending two hours hanging around a pair of best friends having a conversation consisting entirely of their own personal in-jokes. I might be able to understand the jokes, but that doesn't guarantee that I'll laugh at them myself.

Welcome to the human race...
#593 - Taken 3
Olivier Megaton, 2014

When a highly-skilled security consultant is framed for murder, he must evade the authorities as he tries to find the criminals responsible.

Warning: contains unmarked spoilers for the first two Taken films.

Every once in a while, I'll watch an obviously bad movie and, upon learning that I have done such a thing, other people will ask me, "Why? Why would you do it?" and my answer will consist of four simple words: "I had to know." After giving an extremely unfavourable review to Taken 2 the other day, I still felt compelled to watch Taken 3, the supposed final chapter in the unlikely franchise that had spawned from the left-field Liam Neeson action thriller Taken. That film saw his character cut a bloody swath through an army of human traffickers in order to rescue his teenage daughter - all things considered, it didn't completely suck (having Neeson in a movie tends to do that - or tended to, anyway). After that proved a surprisingly popular hit at the box office and Neeson's career took a turn for the lucrative with his appearances in middlebrow thrillers like Unknown and The Grey, the powers that be decided to produce Taken 2, which attempted to extend the original's mythology by having Neeson's character and his family be explicitly targeted by a mobster seeking vengeance following the events of the original film. Taken 3 touted the tagline "It ends here" as if to suggest that the storyline involving Neeson's war on Albanian traffickers would finally reach its violent yet dramatically satisfying conclusion...

...except that it doesn't. Instead, Taken 3 concocts an entirely unrelated plot that once again sees Neeson attempting to maintain ties with his daughter (Maggie Grace) and ex-wife (Famke Janssen); the latter conection in particular is emphasised as their re-ignited romantic tension is thwarted by Janssen's jealous current husband (Dougray Scott, who I think is supposed to be playing the character portrayed by Xander Berkeley in the first film but surely they'd have picked a more similar-looking actor if that was the case, right?). Things escalate when Neeson is unexpectedly framed for murder; when he naturally escapes the law using his particular set of skills, a federal agent (Forest Whitaker) is assigned to go after him. As a result, Neeson must do whatever it takes to clear his name and wreak furious vengeance on those who have wronged him. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious Russian gangster (Sam Spruell) who is leaving a trail of corpses in search of some money that is owed to him, and it's not long before his army of goons cross paths with Neeson...yeah, you sort of see where this going even as I try to be vague about it. Taken 2 already took an extremely easy approach to making a sequel by having the plot be driven by a villain seeking revenge, but that just made the film film feel like an especially flimsy attempt to continue the story of an extremely one-note thriller. Though that film set up its own premise for a sequel by referencing other mobsters who might seek their own revenge for Neeson's actions, the people responsible for Taken 3 apparently decided that a blatant knock-off of the plot of The Fugitive was a preferable alternative than developing the established cycle-of-vengeance narrative. Why? Hell if I know. This did come out in the same year as Lucy so there's no telling what the hell Luc Besson is thinking these days.

Even with this derivative and nonsensical approach to the material in mind, Taken 3 could have been a tolerable affair if not for the fact that it fails to provide a decent film to go along with it. Other Taken films have set up Neeson's capable protagonist as an unstoppable killing machine when pushed to extremes, though not without shortcomings that make one question their sympathy for his cause; one scene in the original film showed him being willing to electrically torture one of his enemies to death for information on his missing daughter's whereabouts. Taken 3 not only has him willing to torture enemies for information (by waterboarding them, no less) but even attempts to build exciting action showcases out of sequences that show him committing all manner of severe crimes in order to prove his innocence of being a murderer (look no further than the car chase where his attempts to elude police custody result in a container truck's cargo going flying down a busy highway and crushing civilian vehicles in the process). This only goes towards exposing the holes in the film's sense of morality, where literally everything Neeson does is justified in the name of clearing his name and going after the real bad guys. Even Whitaker's top government agent is inclined to understand and even forgive Neeson's actions if they mean that he is going after more obvious villains like Spruell and his cronies. In addition to all this, the film tries to add in a sub-plot regarding Grace undergoing an unexpected pregnancy and Neeson's inevitable reaction to it; this is after his first scene in the film showcases yet another out-of-touch attempt to relate to his daughter. This one reaches parody-like levels with his decision to buy her a gigantic panda bear for her birthday despite her apparently being old enough to be attending college and living in an apartment with her boyfriend. Don't worry, this ends up being plot-relevant...or does it? Ah, what difference does it make.

Leaving aside the extremely questionable approach to morality and character development that these films take, there's also the fact that it's quite simply a bad film in general. As with Taken 2, the film is rendered a nigh-unwatchable mess by various attempts to artificially generate tension and excitement through combinations of quick cuts and shaky camerawork. Stuff like this makes me retroactively respect difficult-to-like films like the various installments in the Death Wish franchise because they at least managed to depict their heavily-aged hero dispensing justice without chopping the film to bits (no matter how ludicrous it may have gotten). As a result, any actual action becomes difficult to appreciate; as if having to buy into a hero of questionable morality wasn't enough, I can't even do it without having to tolerate incoherent action scenes as well. At this point, the less said about acting and writing, the better - if you've seen either of the previous Taken films, then you know what to expect from this particular film. The film is significantly longer than either predecessor because it dares to pad itself out by not only providing background information on Neeson and that trio of colleagues he's always hanging around but by also trying to provide a twisty narrative. Rather than enhance a tired and overly long third installment in the franchise, they only serve to demonstrate how much this film is out of ideas. Despite its many, many flaws, Lucy at least demonstrated some minimal degree of creative effort on Besson's part; Taken 3, on the other hand, is Besson at his most boring as he struggles to co-write a half-decent action movie for this unlikely hit series and has his weak efforts exacerbated by Megaton's messy direction. If you are unfamiliar with either of the previous Taken films, this is a serious cinematic misfire that you are probably better off not watching at all. If you are remotely invested in the Taken films, then this will still be an underwhelming excuse for a "final chapter" least until a fourth Taken film gets produced. Hey, Liam Neeson needs to eat too, you know?

Welcome to the human race...
#594 - Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro González Ińárritu, 2014

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor that's best known for playing the titular superhero but he intends to turn things around by mounting a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Naturally, the production is complicated by unruly actors, unfortunate malfunctions and, oh yeah, the voice inside his head and his growing telekinetic powers.

Original review found here.

(Additional notes: okay, so a second time around the holes really started to show. The ambitious nature of the cinematography is still impressive and most of the cast put in good performances even in rather simple roles e.g. Naomi Watts' character. I still think Keaton was robbed this year. The plot and writing doesn't really hold up all that well either, though, and while that's not enough to sink the film it does lower my opinion of it a bit.)

Welcome to the human race...
#595 - The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie, 2015

During the Cold War, a CIA agent must team up with a KGB agent in order to locate a scientist whose knowledge must not fall into the wrong hands.

Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn both got their starts in filmmaking by creating British gangster films (with the former's first two films being produced by the latter). Coincidentally, their most recent films both happen to be spy films that forgo the genre's current trend towards moodiness and pessimism in favour of reviving the heady mix of high adventure and debonair sophistication that characterised a lot of the most popular espionage films and shows of bygone eras. Vaughn's own film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, was a loose comic-book adaptation that intended to revive the implausibly goofy but undeniably cool atmosphere of old-school James Bond films in a much more edgy modern-day context. Ritchie, on the other hand, goes full retro with his cinematic adaptation of the 1960s television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Made in the midst of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the show had an interesting high concept in that it involved two elite secret agents, one from each side of the Iron Curtain, being made to team up in order to tackle a major threat to the state of global affairs. This exact premise is preserved in Ritchie's version, which promises a watchable enough combination of two vastly different personalities bouncing between amusing odd-couple conflicts and highly-skilled teamwork as they work to accomplish their mission in appropriately awesome fashions. Of course, just because something is promised does not automatically mean that it is delivered, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a little inconsistent in terms of delivery.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play the American and Russian agents respectively, with the former playing the standard suave '60s spy full of charming cockiness while the latter plays a stereotypically stoic Soviet. The film starts with them getting into an extended chase sequence over the acquisition of an East German mechanic (Alicia Vikander), whose father is a scientist suspected of being involved in a terrorist plot. To this end, Cavill and Hammer are made to work together by their respective superiors and, together with Vikander, travel to Rome in order to uncover and foil said plot before it is too late. Not the most complicated plot, but it doesn't have to be in order to provide a sufficiently compelling film. There are plenty of aspects to the film that make it somewhat worthwhile. Considering how over-saturated the spy genre tends to be with dashing yet capable protagonists, Cavill may not stand out too much but his smooth-talking performance is a consistent highlight for the film. Hammer similarly plays into audience expectations as he speaks in a stilted baritone, embodying a pragmatism in terms of presence and tactics that makes him a sufficiently interesting foil to Cavill. Vikander rounds out the heroic leads; though she had given an impressive performance as an artificially intelligent gynoid in this year's Ex Machina, her turn in this film as a far more impassioned human lacks that same dynamic quality. Her character's establishment as a mechanic who can handle herself in a car chase or even while fighting the much larger and stronger Hammer is essentially forgotten as she ends up being little more than a pawn to get shifted around in the narrative as necessary. This much is especially true considering the incredibly teasing romantic sub-plot that plays out between her and Hammer. Other characters in the film tend to be little more than serviceable; Elizabeth Debicki does alright as the film's ice-queen antagonist, while Sylvester Groth has some surprising depth to a one-note role as Vikander's estranged uncle. More recognisable faces like Hugh Grant and Jared Harris (playing a British naval commander and Cavill's CIA handler respectively) amount to little more than glorified cameos, but that doesn't stop them putting in the effort.

Another thing that I appreciate about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is its commitment to replicating the atmosphere of the 1960s spy entertainment from which it takes inspiration. The production design is particularly noteworthy as everything from racecars to fashion to locations work to truly evoke the film's era, while the soundtrack to the film compliments its Rome backdrop nicely by utilising an elaborate Ennio Morricone pastiche. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite translate to the film's action sequences - though there is the occasional amusing touch (such as an entire speedboat chase that plays out while one character looks on from within one very comfortable truck), there's not a lot here that does much to genuinely excite. I guess I should be thankful that the action generally isn't cut to shreds or packed out with excessive usage of slow-motion, though one can pick apart some more artificial scene transitions, especially during one of the climatic chase sequences. Another sequence attempts to replicate ambitious 1960s experimentation with editing by featuring multiple simultaneous split-screens, though that comes across as annoying rather than stylish. Such choices do tend to come across as very weak attempts to enhance the action on display, which is clearly not the film's strong suit. Instead, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. earns a surprising amount of goodwill on the basis of the chemistry between the leads and a rather engaging retro aesthetic, but as an action blockbuster built around a twisty plot it leaves a fair bit to be desired. Ritchie does seem to be working off the same playbook he used on his Sherlock Holmes films as he attempts to blend witty characterisation with fanciful thrills and a plot that is complex without being convoluted. In that regard, he succeeds; unfortunately, that just means that this film ends up being like both Holmes films in that it's decent enough for a single viewing but will most likely struggle to hold up in the years to come.