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#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.

I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.
Iro's Top 100 Movies v3.0

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#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?

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#594 - Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro González Iñárritu, 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.)

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#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.

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#596 - The Quiet Man
John Ford, 1952

An American boxer travels to his Irish hometown, where his attempts to reclaim his family homestead and romance a local woman are challenged by her boorish brother.

In my experience, the combination of actor John Wayne and director John Ford has tended to be a fairly safe guarantee that any film the two of them made was of good quality. Though those particular films tended to involve the genre most famously associated with both men, that of the Western, The Quiet Man takes a very different tack in that it sees the Johns travel away from Monument Valley and head for the Emerald Isle itself. Wayne (wisely choosing not to temper his trademark drawl with any kind of regional brogue) stars as an Irish-American boxer who, having lived most of his life in Pittsburgh, suddenly arrives back in the small Irish village where he was born. He seems intent on staying in town, even going so far as to buy up the land on which his family's old home is situated. This causes a bit of a stir with a local landowner (Victor McLaglen) who proceeds to antagonise Wayne over the situation. Things are only further complicated when Wayne also happens to fall for a red-haired local lass (Maureen O'Hara), who happens to be McLaglen's sister. Thus begins a drawn-out conflict between Wayne and McLaglen as they both struggle to achieve their desired goals - Wayne wants a quiet country life with O'Hara that is free of disturbances, while McLaglen wants nothing more than to "win" over Wayne by any means necessary.

With The Quiet Man, Ford works to mythologise his ancestral homeland in much the same way that he famously mythologised the Wild West with films like My Darling Clementine. This film doesn't feature too much in the way of his later cynicism on this front either, nor does it slide into unchecked misanthropy (especially late in the film, where one scene involving Wayne and O'Hara did make me think "Ah, this isn't going to play out like the ending of McClintock!, is it?" - spoiler alert, it didn't). It does go into exploring Wayne's troubled past and his real reason for returning to Ireland (which is captured in a manner that feels especially striking for 1952), plus the belligerent romantic tension that plays out between him and O'Hara feels believable and occasionally yields a stand-out moment (such as one scene where they are caught in the rain). The cast of characters are solid enough underneath some extremely thick accents - McLaglen certainly makes for a difficult enough antagonist without being too annoying, while O'Hara's turn as a fiercely independent woman is appropriately complicated by her feelings for Wayne and her deference to certain social customs. While it's naturally difficult to see Wayne as anyone other than Wayne, he manages to be rather convincing underneath his signature affectation and swaggering gait.

If you're going to make an idealised vision of a world that may never have existed, then you might as well go all the way and render it as vividly as you possibly can. Ford definitely does this as he collaborates with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch to capture the extremely verdant scenery as best they can. The same capacity for evoking the best of the landscape does translate to more grandiose or intimate settings; look no further than the film's iconic climax or the aforementioned rain scene. If nothing else, The Quiet Man is worth watching for that astonishingly lush imagery alone. Your appreciation for the music will definitely depend upon your tolerance of traditional-sounding Irish folk songs with bagpipes galore. Though I may not feel quite as impressed by the end result as I thought I'd be, I think The Quiet Man definitely has room to grow on me. The vision of 1920s Ireland depicted in the film is fanciful enough so as to border on fantasy, but that doesn't mean that the resulting film is any less enjoyable as a piece of nostalgic wonder.

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#597 - Wyrmwood
Kiah Roache-Turner, 2014

When a meteor shower causes a zombie apocalypse, an immune survivor into the outback to search for his missing sister.

Every time I watch a film like Wyrmwood (so named for a falling star from the Book of Revelations, which is explained in-story yet feels kind of pointless when the film's subtitle "Road of the Dead" would be a much more honest and comprehensible choice), I do find myself questioning exactly how sincere the film is in its homage to cult cinema. More importantly, I find myself wondering whether that has any bearing on my appreciation of the film anyway. Wyrmwood mashes together two distinct sub-genres for its plot; the main genre is zombie horror, with the film taking place the day after a meteor shower results in the majority of the population becoming infected with a zombie virus. There is a small collection of survivors who appear to be immune to the airborne version of the virus, though they are still susceptible to infection via zombie bite.

The plot focuses on Barry, a survivor who is still grieving over having been forced to kill his infected wife and daughter. Together with fellow survivors Benny and Frank, Barry sets off in search of his sister Brooke, whose own immunity has resulted in her being kidnapped by a crew of gasmask-wearing soldiers and being subjected to vicious experiments by a scientist who would probably have to work his way down to "mad". So far, so standard. As for the second genre, well, when the film even starts in medias res as its heroes attempt to hold off a swarm of zombies, it indulges said genre through their appearances and goal. Our heroes, decked out in hockey masks and motocross outfits, are busy trying to shoot their way out of a crowd of zombies; it's not long before they've created their own armoured vehicle and are tearing off down the road. That particular brand of vehicle-centric post-apocalyptic fiction informs the rest of Wyrmwood, especially when that series' main conceit about fuel becoming scarce feeds into the plot in a bizarre way.

Making a zombie film is always a bit of a gamble, especially in an era where they all need some sort of angle to justify their contribution to an over-saturated sub-genre. To its credit, Wyrmwood changes up its zombie mythology enough to be halfway-interesting - all conventional fuel sources stop working, which forces the heroes to improvise a system where their vehicle is powered by the noxious fumes that the zombies exhale. There's also the pay-off to the entire sub-plot where Brooke is experimented upon by the mad scientist, which doesn't really deserve to be spoiled even though it does make for a somewhat innovative twist for the film's third act. Of course, the film's twists to the zombie rules don't do much to compensate for the film choosing to force some more predictable tropes into the mix. Barry is an embittered protagonist mourning the loss of his family, while Benny is his comical sidekick who exists to spout funny one-liners and occasionally provide his own dramatic weight (such as his own back-story involving his own lost family members). Brooke may be a strong female character but that comes at the cost of Barry's other female family members being killed off for dramatic reasons. The mad scientist and his military accomplice also play into their villainous roles that make them out to be far worse than the mindless flesh-eaters, and though the former hams it up considerably by dancing to disco music and grinning maniacally throughout his scenes it can't help but feel forced.

The attempts to do appropriately gory and practical effects are a nice touch but there's not a whole lot of inventiveness to the film as it uses a lot of exploding heads and spraying squibs. Even the moments that are generated as a result of the film's more left-field elements (such as the zombie-fuelled cars or the fact that their blood is flammable) generally don't pay off - not even the twist that happens in the third act that at once promises something different yet also feels a bit too convenient for the heroes. Camerawork is somewhat competent given the limitations, though the film is frequently prone to moments of video blur, especially when it opts to go in for either slow-motion or too-quick camera movements. Scenes such as Frank giving a detailed monologue about the Biblical phenomenon that gives the film its name do little to intrigue; likewise, the various throwaway gags that play up Australian stereotypes for laughs (such as some survivors keeping an infected mate in an icebox full of beers, which they still have no problem grabbing and drinking, or the first-aid kit containing nothing but beer) fail to be particularly amusing. Given the material, the actors are tolerable enough and nobody is too wooden to be a major impediment, though not enough so for that to loop around to being entertaining either.

It becomes very easy to doubt the sincerity of movies such as Wyrmwood, especially when they wear their very obvious influences on their proverbial sleeves. It isn't totally unwatchable, but it does feel like yet another film that tries too hard to earn a cult following (and really, there's no better way to ensure you don't earn a cult following). Of course, here the angle seems to involve mashing up zombies with a Mad Max-style film about road warriors dressed in black and racing around in heavily modified vehicles. It's also interesting how, in addition to the Spierig brothers' debut Undead, this marks yet another Australian zombie film that's been created by a pair of brothers (written by both Roache-Turner brothers, with Tristan producing and Kiah directing). Wyrmwood's angle seems to be by filtering its zombie uprising through a mishmash of influences without doing anything significantly innovative in its own right. It's sort of the same problem I had with Kung Fury - though Wyrmwood doesn't slavishly try to replicate its influences like that particular viral sensation did, it doesn't bring enough new stuff or personality to the table to be significantly good in its own right. I can respect some of the effort involved and will admit that hearing there's a sequel in the works is not a total affront, but it's just such an underwhelming piece of work when all is said and done.

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#598 - The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones, 2014

When a trio of women go insane due to the harshness of frontier life, a woman recruits an old outlaw to help her escort them across the plains to a church that can take care of them.

Tommy Lee Jones doesn't take the director's chair often, but when he does it's usually going to provide something interesting. The only other one of his admittedly few directorial efforts that I've seen is 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, in which he played a ranch-hand subjecting a cop to a long and miserable ordeal in revenge for the shooting death of the titular character. It was a rather challenging example of a neo-Western with its dubious morality, generally miserable atmosphere, and well-captured scenery, but that only made it stand out for all the right reasons. Jones' latest directorial effort is The Homesman, which also promises a fairly bleak tale unfolding in the West. Here, the film takes place in the Nebraska territories where a handful of families are trying to carve out new lives on the open range. The deconstruction of the existing Western mythology begins almost immediately by showing how the harsh living conditions are taking their tolls on the collective sanity on three of the women. After a montage of deaths, rapes, and at least one infanticide, it is decided that the sick women should be escorted from the frontier to a church in Iowa, but when none of the local men prove willing or able to take on the task, a local spinster (Hilary Swank) decides to take responsibility for transporting the women. On her travels, she encounters a man (Jones) left to hang by an angry mob, and agrees to free him if he is able to aid her in her mission.

As you may have garnered by the previous paragraph, The Homesman is not a pleasant watch by any means. Though the basic premise could easily have yielded a more digestible narrative, Jones' adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel translates the grimness without descending completely into banal nihilism. The combination of a world-weary old grouch and a fiercely independent young woman taking on a perilous journey through the old West is enough to remind one of True Grit, yet there's enough difference in the material here. Swank is good as a woman who seems like she's set up to be a kind of no-nonsense heroine who has nothing but good intentions in her heart, but of course it is that attitude that provides her character with serious flaws and the film is all the better for it. Jones is a far less pious individual whose first scenes involve him being run down and left for dead; though he is significantly more self-interested than Swank and comes into conflict with her as a result, his matter-of-fact pragmatism makes him a compelling character even before he starts to develop. Playing insane people convincingly is always a challenge, but the three women in question (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) take characters who could have turned into irritating millstones and give them enough depth to be more than just living MacGuffins. Other recognisable actors such as Meryl Streep, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader pop up in small roles throughout the film and make the most of their very limited screen-time.

The Homesman is technically competent with solid cinematography and does feature the odd well-executed sequence, adding in some genuinely shocking and unexpected twists to its generally straightforward yet tense road-movie narrative. It feels a bit long at times, especially during the drawn-out conclusion. The film does well at examining the dark underbelly of the frontier myth by showcasing the oft-unseen pain and misery of the women who helped build it, though some of the less compromising scenes may make it a rough watch and perhaps a bit too miserable for its own good. Still, that's enough to guarantee that the film is worth one's attention, but I concede that it's not for everyone. The contrast of Swank's dogged idealism and Jones' pragmatic cynicism makes for a generally interesting (if somewhat familiar) interpersonal conflict, while their encounters with other strangers upon the trail also prove to be decent ways to fill out the story. I recommend it for people with a prevailing interest in not just Westerns but also in reasonably challenging dramas.

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#599 - Mad Max 2
George Miller, 1981

In the fallout (heh) of society's breakdown following a nuclear war over dwindling resources, a lone driver ends up caught between a group of civilised survivors and the murderous gang that is terrorising them.

Original review found here.

(Additional notes: bumping up the rating a bit. I like it more and more with each viewing, but it's still full of holes and ridiculous developments e.g. the impracticality of the Gyro Captain's trap, the Toadie's constant short-sightedness, etc. Still good fun, though.)

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#600 - The Avenging Eagle
Sun Chung, 1978

A vagrant recounts the tale of his dark and violent past as a member of a villainous martial arts clan to a friendly stranger, prompting them to team up and fight the clan.

The Shaw Brothers studio produced a wide variety of films during the 1970s and definitely yielded its fair share of films that were good enough to earn favourable reputations outside of the martial arts genre's niche audience. Of course, as I'm starting to check out more of the more obscure entries in the studio's filmography, I find that not every film they make is an instant classic. The Avenging Eagle is one such film, which is a little disappointing because it happens to star Ti Lung, who I know best as one of the stars of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow trilogy. Here, Lung plays a vagrant who starts the film wounded and riding a horse to nowhere in particular. He is rescued and nursed back to health by a stranger (Alexander Fu) who has an ulterior motive for wanting to not just help Lung but also find out his back-story. Lung slowly parcels out information, revealing that he is a defector from a clan of vicious criminals who was originally one of their most barbarous members but has since chosen to abandon his clan and their sinister leader (Ku Feng) for reasons that soon become clear. Eventually, it becomes clear that he is being targeted for assassination by his former brothers-in-arms and so things become complicated...

Shaw Brothers movies always maintain the same distinct quality when it comes to background details such as art direction and production design, which is enough to guarantee that even the weakest films to come out of their studios always look like at least some kind of treat. It supports a fairly standard story of revenge and redemption that's told largely in flashbacks. The fighting and stuntwork is the same kind of elaborately choreographed yet ultimately dated-looking combat that involves a variety of weapons and movements, each fight paced out by the careful development of a story that involves Lung and Fu working towards similarly vengeful goals for very different reasons. The wuxia elements admittedly don't always yield the best results, but as with any martial arts film worth its salt the action-packed finale is worth the price of admission. However, The Avenging Eagle is only really worth checking out on an intermediate level - I'd still recommend people watching more widely-recognised Shaw Brothers films like Five Deadly Venoms or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in order to gauge how much they'd enjoy this particular film. I liked those films quite a bit, yet I found The Avenging Eagle to ultimately be a bit middling. Take that as you will.

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#601 - The Searchers
John Ford, 1956

After most of his extended family is murdered by a group of Native Americans, an ex-Confederate soldier joins forces with the family's adopted son in order to find the family's kidnapped daughters.

John Wayne is a difficult person to like both as a public figure and as an actor. Though he naturally tends to be the most prominent factor of every film he appears in, I paradoxically think that the quality of any one of his films is dictated by virtually every other factor instead of his presence. This might just be because his iconic countenance and mannerisms makes it feel like you're never just watching him play different characters; rather, he is pretty much a universal constant that everything else in the film revolves around. As such, having The Searchers become recognised as not just one of his greatest films he's ever been involved in but also one of the greatest American films ever made means that Wayne neophytes are liable to start with it and thus earn a very negative first impression of the man. That's one of many reasons why The Searchers casts a very long shadow over most of the man's extremely prolific career. Another prominent one is that, despite the overt problems with it that seem really clear with it in retrospect, The Searchers actually is a really good film.

Of course, Wayne's character in The Searchers is a very difficult one to sympathise with in general, but at least it's done with some intent. The film takes place in Texas a few years after the conclusion of the Civil War, with Wayne's character being a former Confederate soldier returning home for the first time since war first broke out. Right from the outset he sets himself up as a more complex protagonist than one might expect judging by the lingering looks he gives his sister-in-law and the racial epithets he spits at the family's part-Cherokee adopted son (Jeffrey Hunter). His reticence towards talking about what he's done in his absence even to his closest loved ones also speaks volumes without the use of words, providing the same impressive economy of storytelling that I've come to expect from Wayne films (especially those directed by John Ford). Eventually, a story emerges as what appears to be a simple matter of joining a posse to round up a neighbouring rancher's missing cattle ends up being a diversion for a group of Comanche natives to launch a raid on the Edwards residence. After it's revealed that the parents and eldest son are dead while the daughters have been kidnapped, the posse turns its attention towards tracking down the natives. Soon enough, most of them are willing to abandon the search because it makes more sense for only a couple of them to go (apparently), and so it falls to Wayne and Hunter to continue the search. Years pass, but the duo don't give up searching even after setback after setback while the home front starts to move on without them (especially in the case of Vera Miles as Hunter's childhood sweetheart, who is understandably growing tired of the headstrong young man's diligent attempts to salvage what's left of his host family despite the odds growing smaller and smaller every day).

The core narrative is simple enough, but the film more than adds in enough character to justify its two-hour length. As if his introductory segments don't provide a complicated enough excuse for a hero, various other actions that Wayne takes throughout the film do. Whether it's deliberately desecrating a native's corpse because he knows it clashes with their religious beliefs or even using Hunter as bait in order to kill off some treacherous white men, Wayne repeatedly pushes the boundaries as to how much of an anti-hero he can be. Though his goal of recovering his missing nieces is an ostensibly noble one, it's tempered not just by constant external setbacks but also by his all-encompassing racism that isn't an overt part of his personality (at one point he's willing to trade with a tribe of friendly natives) but still influences enough of his actions to the point where he practically becomes an antagonist by the time the film's third act rolls around. The clean-cut and blue-eyed Hunter isn't that much better as he also gets caught up in Wayne's obsessive quest out of not only a strong sense of personal honour but also out of a desperate need to have family to connect to; ironically, this only leads to him distancing himself from the extremely forward Miles and also involves him accidentally marrying a native woman during a bartering session. A regular cast of character actors peppers the rest of the movie; Western stalwart Ward Bond makes yet another good impression as the reverend/captain who forms the original posse, while Henry Brandon lends steely-eyed menace to what could have been an extremely thankless role as the film's main villain. Miles makes for a good romantic lead who can sell her character's brash nature, never becoming irritating because of how relatable she makes her frustration with Hunter. Some dopey comic-relief characters such as Hank Worden's "doddering old fool" and Ken Curtis's guitar-strumming young postman may come across as extremely dated examples of humour and threaten to grind the film to a halt with their slow-witted nonsense, but after a few viewings I actually do find their presence rather amusing (if not vital to the film as a whole).

Veteran director Ford reunites with The Quiet Man's Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C. Hoch to capture Monument Valley in all its Technicolor glory, depicting a variety of settings from cozy homesteads to rocky red deserts to snowy forests with vibrant and colourful images (and, of course, that final image, which incidentally serves as a great bookend). The music is serviceable enough for a classic Western, with the more intense pieces being far more effective than the more peaceful fragments or the country-sounding theme song. Despite being almost 60 years old by this point, it has aged remarkably well even when one takes into account some of its cornier or unintentionally questionable moments (such as Hunter's less-than-gentle reaction to his new wife trying to sleep next to him on one cold night). It deals in some dark subject matter that, being made in 1956, it still has to allude to with deflecting dialogue and actions from Wayne, but the film is honestly all the better for it. This much is emphasised when his reaction to a companion questioning him about a traumatising discovery is to scream, "Whaddaya want me to do, draw you a picture?" No, we definitely don't need that picture even in an age where subsequent Westerns have gone on to depict the sorts of horrors that are obscured by this film's shadowy corners. I think I'm still due to re-watch Rio Bravo to see if it holds up (and I'll probably do that before too long), but in any case I would be okay with holding up The Searchers as my favourite Wayne film despite my rather complicated attitude towards the man. This might have something to do with the film leaning into Wayne's real-life image and daring to paint the most iconic all-American hero of the era as a horribly bigoted anti-hero who doesn't seem to be all that far removed from the murderous natives he claims to hate so much. Essential viewing no matter what.

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#602 - The Decline of Western Civilisation
Penelope Spheeris, 1981

A documentary about the Los Angeles hardcore punk scene.

I had managed to watch and review 1988's The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years several years ago and I found it an amusing portrayal of the vapidity of L.A.'s nascent glam metal scene complete that also interviewed various rock stars. WIth the recent re-release of all three Decline... films, I obviously had to check out the other two, especially the much more beloved first film in the series. Filmed in and around the L.A. punk scene during 1979 and 1980, it covers a number of bands from the scene. Unlike the up-and-coming glam bands featured in Part II, most (if not all) of the bands featured here still maintain some degree of notoriety today. I admittedly hadn't heard of either Catholic Discipline or Alice Bag Band, two very short-lived outfits whose limited output didn't make enough waves to be remembered decades later. Otherwise, the bands are infamous ones whose music I have far more familiarity with - these include Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and X. The film takes a segmented approach that examines each of its selected bands one at a time, chronicling both their live shows and their relation to the local scene (e.g. members of Catholic Discipline are shown working on their own fanzine).

Though I haven't seen Part II in a few years and am probably due to re-watch it, I could easily pick apart some cinematic parallels in how Spheeris and co. choose to examine the scene in each film. There's a montage of interviews with regular fans explaining why being in the scene appeals to them personally, interviews with bands will play up some of the absurdly fascinating aspects of their fringe lifestyles. The most memorable instance includes the segment about X beginning with a montage of people receiving stick-and-poke tattoos before having the main interview with the band take place while guitarist Billy Zoom gets one of his own done. There's also the camaraderie between the then-current incarnation of Black Flag living in the disused church they call home. Other bands memorably don't get the up-close-and-personal treatment - the main example is Fear, who not only don't merit an interview but their extremely antagonistic attitude towards a hostile audience forms the film's finale. Though I admit to being a little underwhelmed considering the film's cult reputation and how some of the bands don't feel all that interesting in and of themselves, I definitely liked it and will more than likely watch it again. It's an appropriately rough and gritty look at a sub-culture that makes you feel the rawness of the music and the people who make it.

I was already lagging behind. I have one day away and there's a load more. Hopefully I'll be able to get some done over the next couple of days.
5-time MoFo Award winner.

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#603 - Sicario
Denis Villeneuve, 2015

An upstanding SWAT team member is asked to join a shadowy black ops team that intends to take down the bosses of a Mexican drug cartel.

As of writing, the only other Villeneuve film I've seen is Prisoners, which delivered a morally grey and miserable story about a child abduction and the physical and psychological toll it takes on various characters. Sicario is also a darkly amoral crime drama, with Villeneuve shifting his attentions to the incredibly dangerous and destructive actions of a Mexican drug cartel. After a brief intertitle explaining the meaning of the title, the film begins with a failed drug bust on a nondescript house in Arizona that turns up nothing but walls filled with vacuum-packed corpses and a shed rigged with explosives. During debriefing, one of the team's members (Emily Blunt) encounters a laid-back specialist (Josh Brolin), who asks her if she'd be interested in joining in on an operation dedicated to taking down the cartel responsible for the corpse-filled house. Blunt idealistically jumps at the opportunity, though her co-worker and close friend (Daniel Kaluuya) is naturally suspicious of the whole affair. Blunt finds herself sharing the same suspicions as she winds up on a private jet headed to Juárez accompanied by Brolin and a mysterious "adviser" (Benicio del Toro). Blunt is quickly caught up in elements way out of her control and simply struggles to keep her head above water as she must face not only the dangers inherent in opposing the cartel but also her incredibly untrustworthy "allies".

Sicario takes a massive international conflict between lawmakers and criminals and becomes more interested in the conflict it raises between the lawmakers themselves. Out of the main players, Blunt and Kaluuya are the closest the film gets to genuinely good characters but even they find themselves increasingly compromised by the entire situation. Blunt definitely proved her capability to pull off a convincing action-heavy role in Edge of Tomorrow, and she makes for a believably competent agent whose skills are tested again and again as the severity of the operation escalates. Of course, it's never truly her ability as an officer that is in question; rather, it is her moral fortitude contrasted against her dedication to the mission. To this end, Kaluuya delivers good support as her sharp-tongued confidant and voice of reason, while Brolin gets in a solid turn as the ethically flexible agent with a smarmy, cavalier attitude towards his mission and the people involved. Del Toro, on the other hand, arguably makes for the film's most striking performance as the mystery man whose laconic nature masks a very complicated individual where the less said about his character, the better. Other supporting characters are solid, especially Victor Garber as Blunt's weary superior and Jeffrey Donovan as an operative who seems to be the polar opposite of the principled, charming ex-spy he played on Burn Notice (to the point where realising it was him was definitely a big surprise).

Big surprises are all over the place as Sicario works through a narrative that covers a war of attrition. There is the occasional sequence of high-stakes suspense (such as one scene taking place at a border-control checkpoint) but scenes like this are not played for genuine thrills. The film paces out its twists reasonably well, but never feels like it's overly dependent on their capacity to shock. If anything, the film is more concerned with anything but the potentially exciting action sequences. The interplay between characters is definitely fascinating, with the film's most intense moments coming about less through scenes involving gunfights and explosions and more through wondering how interactions between different characters will play out. To this end, the film does a good job balancing ethics against pragmatism for the most part; of course, it still makes Blunt and Kaluuya the most sympathetic characters in the midst of all this, though it has to in order to make the film's events have a significant resonance. To this end, it even goes to the trouble of developing one seemingly minor character apropos of nothing, which is a rather effective technique in the long run. The skill on display extends to the techniques, with Villeneuve once again collaborating with Prisoners cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins' instantly-recognisable high-contrast approach works wonders, especially in one sequence that takes place during a sequence where the American operatives must wear night-vision goggles. The music is infrequent and minimalist, with the most notable instances involving steadily crescendoing drones that play out in the lead-up to violence but not during it. Though these sounds are simple, they get the job done.

Sicario does a solid job of exploring the War on Drugs less as a black-and-white conflict so much as a black-and-grey one. It provides solid characterisation to the unlikeliest of individuals and makes sure to anchor its story to an appropriately sympathetic protagonist whose seemingly bland heroism is challenged time and time again. Almost every other character dances on the fine line between villain and anti-hero and manages to make the film quite unpredictable as a result. Of course, this is the good kind of unpredictability where it becomes less about anticipating sudden jumps and more about wondering exactly where the story is going to go next, especially when it comes to wondering if the story will go exactly where it seems to be going. The techniques involved are good ones, whether it's Deakins' impressively formal aesthetics or the groaning music that works wonders when it comes to heightening the film's already-considerable levels of intensity. This is easily one of the best films of 2015 so far and deserves recognition as such.

I've not seen the other two The Decline of Western Civilisation films, but unlike you, I really like Part II. It's funny, it's ridiculous, it's 80's, it's heartbreaking and more. Also like you, I've not seen in for a long time (probably much longer than you) but I have nothing but warm thoughts about it.

Sorry, Iro. I somehow got the impression that while you liked it, you felt this would be better and, from your rating for this, I thought that the rating would've been lower. I woke up with a headache today and I've not really recovered.

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Sorry, Iro. I somehow got the impression that while you liked it, you felt this would be better and, from your rating for this, I thought that the rating would've been lower. I woke up with a headache today and I've not really recovered.
No harm done. I did like Part II just fine but I knew that the original would likely be a very different beast. Unfortunately, the problem with the sincerity is that, while Part II makes for great unintentional comedy, the earnest nature of the original works against it and so sometimes you just end up being a little bored by what's going on here.

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#604 - Garden State
Zach Braff, 2004

A depressed small-time actor returns to his small hometown for his mother's funeral and proceeds to connect with the locals.

There are certain words that I have to make a conscious effort not to use when it comes to summarising my views on a film because they feel like dismissive cop-outs (though that doesn't always stop me). I bring this up because Garden State almost seems like a film that is explicitly designed to court such shallow criticisms. The film is the passion project of Zach Braff, the man best-known for starring in the long-running hospital sitcom Scrubs (which I have no great affinity for, though I ultimately don't hate it). In addition to starring in this film, he also wrote and directed it; to this end, it seems like a deliberate attempt to write what he knows and build an entire movie out of it. Braff plays a small-time actor living in Los Angeles who has had some success in TV yet still works as a waiter. The plot begins when he is called back to his New Jersey hometown in order to attend his mother's funeral. While there, he proceeds to connect and re-connect with the locals. While several of them tend to be members of his high-school cohort (the most prominent of which ends up being Peter Sarsgaard as a professional grave-digger), the one he ends up being drawn to is a stranger (Natalie Portman) that he meets while waiting to receive a neurological exam. The two form a somewhat unlikely bond over their shared neuroses and odd-couple dynamic, with Portman proving a much more animated counterpart to Braff's incredibly distant protagonist.

Garden State manages the somewhat impressive feat of simultaneously feeling relatable and alienating, which is enough to mean that I can't honestly bring myself to hate it, but I struggle to actually, you know, like any of it. A lot of that has to do with Braff himself, whose heavily medicated character feels like a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the outward wackiness of his most well-known screen persona, and he manages to deliver a fairly decent performance as a result. Unfortunately, that doesn't extend to the rest of the cast. We're supposed to find Portman's bubbly personality as endearing as Braff's character does, but not even the scenes that expose the neurotic vulnerabilities underneath her chipper exterior are enough to distinguish the character for the better. Sarsgaard gives off such a bad first impression that his character's barely-there redemption arc never gains enough traction to feel significant, while Braff's other former classmates aren't even afforded that much definition. Ian Holm is brought in to play Braff's domineering psychiatrist father, but he seems especially wasted on such a minor role.

The film as a whole does tread into somewhat interesting territory as Braff's trip home forces him to confront a variety of problems both dormant and active, such as deep-seated psychological issues related to his mother, especially in regard to her life and death. This only works to add a through-line to a film that is otherwise built out of some extremely patchy vignettes as Braff encounters a variety of eccentric characters living in bizarre domiciles. The slightly exaggerated small-town nuttiness and the ways in which it ties into the film's plot isn't exactly implausible but none of it ever feeds into the main narrative in an organic way. It's not amusing in either a broad or subtle manner; without the balance, the dramatic side of things feels hollow. The unimpressive nature of the film's plot is reflected by the extremely standard film-making style where any flourish serves to detract from rather than enhance the finished product. I get that it's cool to hate Garden State because of its approach to the material that is idiosyncratic without feeling innovative or even charming in its own weird way, but it's not as if the criticisms are without merit as the film fails to leave much (if any) positive impressions.