Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2016.6
These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of over 900 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood. YMMV.
- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) — 6/10
- This is a documentary about Scientology, Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard, John Travolta, Tom Cruise and David Miscavitch. It was decent and I learned a bit more about the life and times of L. Ron and his most avid protegé Miscavitch. The details are pretty much well-known—that the Church of Scientology is a gigantic tax-dodge that got out of control when people started actually believing it. It was interesting enough, though documentarian Alex Gibney just cannot help putting so much of himself into it.
- The Expanse (2015) — 8/10
Tom Jane plays Miller, a cop/corporate enforcer on Ceres station, way out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This series is based on the books of the same name. I read an excerpt of the first volume and the show follows the plot quite closely. Humanity is split into three factions: Earthmen, Martians and Belters. The Belters are perennially used and abused by the more established and powerful Earthlings and Martians. The Martians, in particular, have a powerful space Navy that patrols all of known space and is well-feared by all. On Earth, the political machinations are at the forefront, with the long tendrils of control still very much in place, though not as stable as they once were. There are also factions among Earthlings, with the Mormons building a gigantic spaceship with which they plan to travel to Alpha Centauri in order to escape the birth-control restrictions imposed on Earth.
The show follows Jim Holden, Earthborn but long-time Belter, as he and several friends and companions become deeper and deeper embroiled in plots run by other unknown factions. Among the Belters are also rebel forces that are pushing for control, not always in the most judicial or fair manner. In another thread, we also follow Julie Mao, a rich, rich Earthgirl who’s also made herself a Belter as she stumbles upon some strange bio-robotic tech that seems like a bio–super-weapon. She apparently dies of its infection, but that feels like it won’t last. I smell a resurrection in the next season. Everyone is on the run in spaceships and on space station and asteroids, so that’s pretty cool and quite well-filmed. Each character has hidden facets to their backstory that are slowly revealed. Thomas Jane is particularly good as Miller.
- Spectre (2015) — 7/10
- I might actually like this movie the best of all of Daniel Craig’s outings as James Bond. The style of the film is calmer and harks back to the old days. Other than the high-tech information-gathering network at the heart of the plot, it’s often difficult to tell in which decade the film is taking place. The story isn’t particularly inspiring or different than the other half-dozen Bond films. This one tells of the beginnings of Spectre, the organization that will have haunted Bond in the other already-made films that are to come chronologically after this more modern one. Makes sense, right? Christoph Waltz is Blofeld, playing him pretty much like every other of his characters of late, from Landa (Inglourious Basterds) to Schultz (Django Unchained). Ralph Fiennes returns as M, Monica Bellucci is the hot one who’s too old and well-known to be a Bond girl so they got Léa Seydoux as well and Ben Whishaw returns as a very young Q. Blofeld is arrested rather than killed by Bond (how the helicopter crash didn’t affect him is a mystery), leaving everything open for a sequel. Hooray. An extra star for aesthetics and retro look.
- Spy (2015) — 8/10
- Melissa McCarthy plays a stay-at-the-HQ handler for super-spy Jude Law. When he’s killed in action, she’s put into the field to chase after his killer, played by Rose Byrne. Jason Statham plays another super-spy, who’s even more blundering than Law, but absolutely hilarious in his overarching confidence. McCarthy does very well in the field, kicking all kinds of ass and putting her wide field of knowledge to use. Byrne is delightfully bitchy and hilarious. McCarthy is proving to be a really good lead in comedies. Recommended.
- Mr. Nobody (2009) — 7/10
- Jared Leto is Nemo Nobody, a man whose life we follow from beginning to end, but not in that order and not really in the classic temporal direction. The film follows various temporal branches, playing with ideas of entropy, quantum wave forms and collapse and the power of choices, the Big Crunch, technology that eliminates mortality. Diana Kruger is quite good, the other players are OK. A bit long, but interesting at points, though a bit trite if you’re more familiar with the concepts. It was nicely filmed, reminding me a bit of Malick’s meandering style, but the amount of repetition needed to get across the significance of certain plot points and the branching/fanning out of possibility, became a bit, well, repetitive.
- The Monuments Men (2014) — 6/10
- A good cast tries to carry an essentially boring script filmed in an utterly pedestrian manner. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban all do adequate work, but I couldn’t really get into it. Blanchett made more out of the role than expected. The story follows a group of older men at the end of WWII, looking for stolen works of art and returning them to their original owners, where possible. They are also incredibly Russophobic, even though it’s hard to imagine why, at that time. Not recommended.
- Trevor Noah (2011) — 5/10
- This was a documentary about Trevor Noah’s career leading up to his first one-man show in South Africa, called Daywalker. At least 2/3 of it was interviews with him and his family members, a lot of the rest was him warming up various parts of his act for the big show. He has some good bits, but they were repeated too much to maintain interest.
- The Dark Crystal (1982) — 5/10
- This is a movie by Jim Henson featuring only muppets and puppets. It tells of two dwindling clans of ancient creatures (the good ones, the Mystics, and the bad ones, Skeksis) and a world filled with terrified younger creatures, Gelflings. Why are they terrified? Because the Skeksis use them for energy in a rejuvenation process. The ancient ones are evenly divided and the various members seem linked. When one dies, another on the other side winks out of existence as well. The story follows the young hero through a magical, very Navi-like world as he journeys to the dark crystal, which will totally fix everything. The Mystics accompany him and there is a huge ritual during which all of the Skeksis and the Mystics are subsumed and the world is left to the Gelflings. The end.
- The Warriors (1979) — 5/10
This is a movie about gangs in New York, all hunting for the Warriors, who are fleeing back to Coney Island from the Bronx. For a movie about New York, filmed in New York, they have an absolutely cavalier attitude to geography. The Warriors get on the D train, which changes into the B train in the next scene. They apparently ride this all the way to the Bronx, where they attend the big gang meeting. A rival gang shoots Cyrus, the messiah who wanted to get all the gangs together, then blames it on the Warriors, which starts the manhunt. The main gang running the manhunts is the Gramercy Reefers, apparently located in the Bronx. The Warriors catch the J train from the Bronx, which magically turns into the M train and then breaks down somewhere above 96th street. At the 96th-street station, they try to catch the L on the way to Union Square Station. Was it really that hard to get the trains right? Later, we see two of them walking in a subway tunnel, and they’re passed by a train with a white airplane on a blue field. No idea where that train would be going.
The radio DJ announces their progress through the city. The portrayal of the city and the gangs is as a bunch of violent animals, misogynistic and brutal. Is that more or less accurate than the geography?
- Waltz with Bashir (2008) — 9/10
- This is an Israeli animated film about the massacres at Shatila and Sabra in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. It is told through the eyes of a narrator who was there, but after more than two decades, can no longer remember anything about the events. He looks up old friends and comrades and slowly starts to remember, to piece together his own memories of the day of the massacre. He eloquently tells and shows how callous soldiers are—of any country—mostly concerned with their own boredom, their own entertainment and, more than anything else, their own survival. There are several scenes where the soldiers spray bullets everywhere because they have no idea where the next attack will come from, so they preemptively make sure that their own bullets strike first.
- Jonah Hex (2010) — 6/10
- A really good cast in a small movie with more potential than execution. Based on the comic books, Jonah Hex follows the eponymous character on his vengeance/redemption ride in the American West after the end of the Civil War. We see his origin story—his CSA general slaughters his family before his very eyes as revenge for having shot his son. For a 70-minute movie based on a Western-style comic book, the cast is strictly A-list: John Malkovich, Josh Brolin, Will Arnett, Michael Fassbender and Megan Fox all do their part. You might also recognize Tom Wopat (Luke Duke from Dukes of Hazzard) and Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane from The Hunger Games).
- Choke (2008) — 7/10
Sam Rockwell is Victor Mancini, a clever, smart-mouthed nymphomaniac and part-time con man. He works at colonial village with his best friend, who is also a sex addict. The main story arc is that Victor wants to find out where he comes from, and the only potential source is his mother, played by Anjelica Huston, who is descending into an ever-deepening drug-addled dementia and has been committed. He talks to her nearly every day, but she recognizes him not as her son, but as various other acquaintances. Finally, he takes in his friend Denny and introduces him as Victor and his mother seems to buy it, but won’t talk to “Victor” in front of the real Victor.
Meanwhile, Victor starts an initially non-sexual relationship with his Mom’s doctor—surprisingly, because he’s banged nearly everyone else at the hospital already—but she turns it sexual, in the hospital chapel, but ostensibly only to get his genetic material for a potentially life-saving treatment that she wants to try out on his mother with genetically compatible stem cells. Not kidding.
Some of the scenes at the colonial village are quite funny, such as when Victor’s friend hands him a newspaper and he hurries to hide it, as if it were samizdat.
Denny falls in love with Cherry Daiquiri, a stripper played by Gillian Jacobs. Did I mention that the film is named Choke because Victor places food down his throat in restaurants in order to get someone to save him and feel obligated to send him money—in order to relive the experience of being a hero?
Anyway, Denny finds out about Victor’s Mom’s diary, which Victor has had all along, but which is in Italian. Luckily Doctor Marshall (Kelly McDonald) can translate it—she’s amazing!—and she discovers that Victor’s Mom is either more delusional than she thought—or much less. It turns out that Ida Mancini, along with four other women, stole Jesus’s foreskin from the Vatican. They used the genetic material to impregnate themselves, but Victor was the only result. So now the doctor is convinced that Victor is a half-clone of Jesus.
The other inmates start to believe it, and the evidence for it mounts. Victor fights against it. He remembers back when he discovered that his mother had kidnapped him—he saw his own face on the side of a milk carton—and we see him choke himself in a restaurant for the first time. He remembers more about his life, trying to find parallels to Jesus’s life. He’s trying to figure out why anyone would love an asshole like him and wonders why he seems to be becoming a nicer person.
And then it all comes tumbling down as, just before his mother dies (by choking on pudding he was feeding her, ironically enough), she tells him that she stole him from a stroller (although how would a picture of his 12-year–old self have gotten on a milk carton?), and that the story of Jesus is incoherent. Her doctor shows up and tries to save her, but then he discovers that she’s a patient in the mental ward as well. Still and all, she helps him get through his issues. They meet again, on a plane.
- Vertigo (1958) — 7/10
This is the original Hitchcock masterpiece, starring Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Bel Geddes and Kim Novak. Stewart is a police detective on medical leave to deal with his late-onset acrophobia, developed as a result of almost falling off of a roof and then watching as a fellow officer plummets to his death six stories below when he tries to help Stewart.
The sets are lavish—Geddes’s design studio is rich with detail, Stewart’s friend’s office is crammed with gorgeous wooden furniture. The shots are classic Hitchcock, selected to show distance and coolness on Stewart’s part. The shots stay long as Stewart embarks on the assignment given to him by his client: follow the client’s wife to find out if she’s truly been possessed by another spirit. Here we’re treated to a bunch of cool, 50's-style fake-driving scenes, along with a lot of lush footage of 1950s LA. They end up at a lovely, large museum building, where Novak is rapt, staring at a painting of “Carlotta”, the same name as was on the tombstone in front of which she stood earlier that afternoon. Creepy, right? Well, the music helps. So far, it’s a bit of an architectural tour of LA,
Stewart continues what appears to be a long tradition of cops—or former cops—in movies lying their faces off in order to get innocent citizens to divulge information or to allow unwarranted searches.
Stewart’s initial investigation leads him to the conclusion that his colleague’s wife is indeed at least partially possessed by the spirit of a long-dead woman. But there has to be another explanation. The film is truly lovely, with perfect California weather highlighting brand-new, large, classic-style buildings. Novak’s Madeleine tries to kill herself—as her predecessor did—but Stewart saves her from drowning. She wakes up naked in his bed, looking ridiculously young compared to his middling years. Not that this sort of age difference is limited to the 50s, ammirite? It’s a very pretty film, but the dialogue is quite stilted and the story is quite odd, or at least oddly told. Stewart evinces absolutely zero compunction about macking on his friend’s wife, who’s almost certainly mad. He’s also completely oblivious to Midge’s interest, preferring instead to busy himself with the nutty Novak. This despite her penchant to muttering vaguely and then disappearing.
They continue their dalliance, professing their love for each other. Stewart tries to help Madeleine stop being so crazy, but to no avail. She throws herself off the steeple of a church, killing herself instantly. Stewart’s not done yet, though. After he’s cleared of all charges of any wrongdoing—it is the second time he’s been around when someone fell off a roof—he spends a little time at a mental institution, with faithful Midge having her every advance rebuffed. When he gets out, he gets right back on the trail of Carlotta, the lady who possessed Madeleine. Novak is back, this time as a redhead, making Stewart wonder just what the hell is going on.
It turns out that there’s a prosaic explanation for everything: the husband who hired Stewart to follow his wife was planning to fake a suicide for her, to get her out of the way. Novak was a lookalike for her who made the mistake of falling in love with Stewart while she was supposed to be acting crazy enough to kill herself.
- Richard Pryor: Live In Concert (1979) — 8/10
- This is Pryor’s second one-hour show and he was incredible. The material was really good, his delivery so good. He really was a genius. The voices, the stories, the mugging, the acting, the rawness, the incredible unashamed personal-ness all of it, incredible. Saw it on YouTube.
- Time Bandits (1981) — 7/10
- This is a zany comedy about a troupe of diminutive, insolent time-traveling bandits. It was written and directed by Terry Gilliam, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious. The film starts with a bored young boy living with boring parents in boring England. The bandits break into his room late at night and abscond with him, closely pursued by the Supreme Being, who’s hot on their trail because they’ve stolen a map of time holes. The cast is surprisingly good and consists of Gilliam regulars: John Cleese (here as Robin Hood), Michael Palin, Ian Holm (of Bilbo fame, here as Napoleon), Katherine Helmond (also in Brazil but also Who’s the Boss?), Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent and Shelley Duvall (Popeye and The Shining). It’s typically Gilliam fare, lush and richly detailed. The story requires that the bandits hop from era to era, so Gilliam doesn’t need to commit to any one place for very long. The young Kevin is a typically bad child actor. My judgment is supported by the fact that he (almost) never worked as an actor again.