Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2016.7
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.
- The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) — 7/10
Oh my God. Every. Damned Chamber. They skipped a couple, but it still felt like a lot. Some of the training devices are pretty neat—primitive but effective. San Ta escapes from marauders plaguing his village to the Shaolin temple to learn Kung Fu, so that he can return to teach it to his fellow villagers, to defend themselves. He spends about an hour working his way through the 35 temples, then duels for the right to head his own chamber.
I understand that it’s 1978, so this movie established a lot of the tropes that now seem so cliche. The choreography is pretty advanced for its time. The dialogue is pretty stilted. The morality lessons are well-known. But it’s well-executed, if a bit closely filmed (i.e. lots of standard angles, mostly quite close and cutting off the rest of the scene).
Instead of taking over one of the existing chambers, San Ta proposed to create a 36th chamber—taking the martial lessons of the Shaolin to the outside world so that they can defend themselves from evil. The abbot has to pretend not to approve, but “banishes” him to the outside world, where he does exactly what he originally set out to do. As expected, the real world offers him an opportunity to use almost every single individual lesson that he learned in the various chambers. Plus, he’s better at everything than any other person he meets: he’s stronger than the smith, better than the miller at legwork, etc.
It will come as no surprise that there is a huge brawl and that everything works out exactly as expected: San Ta has a Shaolin school and the enemy is vanquished. There was a woman on-screen for a total of about ten seconds of this movie. I have no idea why this movie was rated R.
- Terminator Salvation (2009) — 6/10
- Even Christian Bale and Sam Worthington can’t save this relatively banal movie from itself. There are robots, there is Skynet, there is an amazing cyborg, but the whole plot is basically about trying to rescue a single teenager from Skynet. We learn a bit more about the mythology of the Terminator universe, but perhaps lose much more to confusion.
- Cloud Atlas (2012) — 9/10
This is my second viewing, the first after having read the book. It makes a lot more sense now. The sequences with Tom Hanks as Zachary are impressively true to the language spoken in the book. That patois was difficult enough to read, to say nothing of understanding it when spoken. They stuck to it, though, not caring a whit that no-one would be able to understand it in the movie.
This is a vanity movie with an unswerving dedication to the source material, but a good movie nonetheless. I understand now why I had no hope of understanding what was really going on without having read the book.
The cast is incredible: Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Tom Hanks both play multiple roles. Ben Wishaw plays my favorite from the book, Robert Frobisher, really well. The interleaved format is more pronounced in the movie than in the book, which comprised 11 parts instead of dozens and dozens. But cinematically, it probably worked better, showing the interleaving and extra-temporal connections between characters better than the book did. The plot is so convoluted as to be nearly impossible to describe quickly, but it was quite faithful to the book. See my notes on the book for more details.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) — 8/10
- Jack Nicholson plays the role he seems to have been born to play. The characters are quite true to the book. The plot diverges quite a bit, though the main elements are there. That cast is great, not just Nicholson, but Danny DeVito, Louise Fletcher (as the unblinking Nurse Ratched), Sydney Lassick (Cheswick) , Vincent Schiavelli (Fredrickson), Scatman Crothers and Christopher Lloyd. Will Sampson plays the Chief just as I’d pictured him. The original story is one by Ken Kesey, of the Beat Generation, who had a healthy suspicion of modern American culture and its strict definition of what is normal. When normal is supporting the slaughter of Vietnamese halfway around the world, then the world is crazy. Any slight form of rebellion is considered crazy and punishable. The Chief and Randall discuss escaping to Canada, escaping the asylum of America. Randall does get out, but not the way he’d imagined. The Chief, though, he doesn’t let Randall’s sacrifice go in vain and escapes in a more spectacular manner than he did in the book. Still, the film follows the book pretty closely. Nurse Ratched embodies the Combine (unmentioned in the movie…the Chief’s entire inner monologue is missing) and McMurphy takes out his rage on her. See my notes on the book for more details.
- Inherent Vice (2014) — 7/10
- Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a hippie druggie private detective, whose vaguely reminiscent of The Dude from the Big Lebowski or perhaps Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The dialogue is mostly cool (lifted largely from Pynchon’s prose from the book). Josh Brolin as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a police detective, is very good. This is not a very action-filled movie; instead it’s almost purely dialogue-driven, with a single face occupying the screen at any one time. It’s unclear which parts are real and which are imagined because of Doc’s nearly perpetually altered state. He’s a basically nice guy, with ugly urges that he’s long since tamped down, leading him to be a much nicer guy than you’d expect him to be. Nicer than anyone else in the movie, at least.
- The plot is a convoluted investigation into the seedy side of 1970s California land development, with shades of white-supremacist biker gangs, drug dealers, crooked lawyers, fake deaths, missing people and so on. Doc’s interest is to protect his former girlfriend—and the love of his life, Shasta Fay.
- The book was better, but I think that’s nearly unavoidable as Pynchon’s prose is nearly unassailable, but I’m a fan. It’s a bit of a long film to recommend, but has some interesting dialogue and some good performances.
- Harry Brown (2009) — 6/10
This is a movie about Harry Brown, played by Michael Caine, an older man living in modern-day England, spending his days visiting his comatose wife in the hospital while surrounded on all sides by the criminal youthful society that’s grown up around his neighborhood. Brown witnesses crimes everywhere. Life goes on. Until his wife dies. And then his friend is killed by local punks. Harry ends up in his bar, getting righteously pissed. The bartender is played by Liam Cunningham, the same actor who plays Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones so he’s immediately trustworthy. A little while later, Iain Glen shows up as superintendent Childs (he also plays Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones).
Harry’s pretty drunk, so he flashes a bit too much cash when paying his monstrous tab. A local addict notes the indiscretion and follows him home, jumping him by the river. Harry’s utterly shithoused and old but he still flips the dude’s knife around in a microsecond and takes. him. down. At home, he sleeps it off, then seems to ponder what he’s done, considering resurrecting his shadowy past as a Marine.
“Stretch” is the first dealer he goes to once he’s decided to clean up his neighborhood. He’s played by an utterly transformed Sean Harris, who’s skinny, covered in scars and tattoos and clearly strung out—but not nearly as strung out as the girls he has lying around his den, and who feature prominently in homemade sex tapes. Nearly everyone but Harry is an over-the-top degenerate, crude, stupid, guttural and driven only by the basest desires. I suppose that will make it easier to just start cutting a wide swath through them all. Which Harry summarily does, taking revenge on the boys who killed his best friend, because the police can’t. Total vigilante movie. Except in this one, the guy is so old that he has an emphysema attack while chasing one of the youths who gets away. While he’s laid up in the hospital, his neighborhood erupts in extreme violence between the police and the local gangs.
He check himself out of the hospital and heads back to his gang-ridden office block. The two police officers who suspect that he’s behind the recent rash of killings discuss what to do.
Alice Frampton: I think he’s going to kill Noel Winters.
Terry Hicock: Who gives a fuck if he is? Noel Winters is a cunt. His Dad was a cunt. One day he’s going to have a load of cunty kids. As far as I’m concerned, Harry Brown is doing us a favor.
Alice Frampton: Look of disapproval.
Alice is right, though, cops should generally frown on vigilante behavior. But it’s so tempting when the target is such an absolute scumbag. It turns out that good ol’ trustworthy Seaworth is actually the gang leader and Winters’s uncle, to boot. They manage to kill Hicock, who’s unconscious, but Frampton and Harry survive and take them out instead. The end.
- Don Jon (2013) — 8/10
This is a movie about a New Jersey goombah, Jon, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His life is defined by watching pornography, going to the gym, hitting the clubs, smashing chicks, rating chicks, going to church to absolve his sins and eating dinner with his family. That’s it. I think he’s a bartender. He meets Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johannson, and he falls in love. Unlike every other girl he meets, she will not put out. So he falls in love. You’d immediately think why would anyone want to be with an idiot like him—and then you realize that, while she’s a bit better, she’s basically an idiot too.
The cast is great: Tony Danza as his father, Brie Larson as his sister—so far without a single line—and Glenne Headly as his mother. His friends are goombahs too, with Rob Brown (Delmond Lambreaux from Treme) showing up as his only real friend.
Barbara Sugarman sets out to change him. So, before sleeping with him, she makes him go to night school. After his first class, he gets his present…and it’s disappointing compared to porn. So he sneaks out of bed to watch porn after she falls asleep—as he does after pretty much every one of his conquests—but she wakes up and catches him. He lies and pretends that it was a joke sent by a friend. She believes him.
Why does his Lenovo laptop make an OS X boot-up sound? Because everything else is fake, right? He’s fake, porn is fake, the night-clubs culture is fake.
Julianne Moore shows up as a colleague from his night-school class (they haven’t even said what he’s taking because it doesn’t matter) and she catches him watching porn on his phone. The next class, she brings him a DVD of Brigitte, a Danish movie from the 70s which she says has got to be “better than that fake shit you’re watching on your phone”. He says it’s not fake. She says, of course it is.
Next, we see him with his friends and he describes his relationship with Barbara in a completely over-the-top manner. He can’t stop thinking about porn when he’s with her. Man, is he one angry driver. Barbara does exactly what’s expected of her, trying to domesticate him. Turns out he’s more of a domestic than she is: he’s a bit of a neat freak, while she has a housekeeper. His eye starts to wander to the cool, older lady who gave him a porno. Not the young “tenner” who doesn’t know how to clean and forbade him from watching porn.
And it turns out that he’s actually a better person than she. But that’s a not a high bar in New Jersey, ammirite? And then she snooped on his computer—doesn’t anyone use a password? And, just like that, she’s gone. But at least he has one good friend (Rob), who makes him keep going to school, where he takes up with Esther (Julianne Moore), who is way cooler and way smarter than Barbara.
And then, out of nowhere, Brie Larson wakes up and nails Barbara’s coffin shut by pointing out that she was never interested in Jon, that she just wanted a man she could control. Johnny starts changing his life, bit by bit. No more porn, playing basketball instead of lifting weights, no more grease in his hair, finishing school, ending up with the hot older lady.
- Hot Girls Wanted (2015) — 6/10
- This is a documentary about the cam-girl/pornography industry, focuses on Miami. It follows the lives of a few girls who started, following their careers through their 2-3–year arc. It’s pretty tragic all around, the desperation, the ignorance, the mean-ness.
- 25th Hour (2002) — 7/10
- Spike Lee directed this adaptation of David Benioff’s book.
- Monty (Ed Norton) gets busted for dealing drugs and he’s on his way to prison in the morning. The movie is told in flashbacks, mostly from Monty’s point of view. It’s a bit slow, with long soliloquies by the prime characters, including Monty yelling the most horrible stereotypes about New York and its inhabitants into a mirror. Barry Pepper plays one of his best friends, Frank; Philip Seymour Hoffman the other, Jacob. Frank’s a Wall Street trader; Jacob’s a teacher. Brian Cox is Monty’s father, a former drunk and firefighter. Rosario Dawson plays Naturelle Riviera, his live-in girlfriend and possible turncoat. It’s got Clay Davis as a DEA agent, doing his “Sheeee—iitttt” line from The Wire.
- They all meet at a club for one last night before he goes up the river, and it seems like Monty’s working an angle. He asks Frank for a favor, but we don’t know what it is. Frank accosts Naturelle, acting drunk, but it seems like he’s only been nursing one drink all night. He starts the evening with Caol 18-year, which he has to get from upstairs. It’s unclear what he does upstairs when he accompanies the waitress to get it. He ends the evening drinking Dewar’s—and offering Jacob a Jack Daniels. Then Monty has a meeting with his boss and seems to discover that his long-time partner has betrayed him, not Naturelle. This plot feels like Mamet—I don’t feel like I can take anything I’m watching at face value.
- In the next scene, Monty says he can’t go to jail pretty, and goads Frank into beating the ever-lovin’ crap out of him. He ain’t pretty no more. Jacob gets him up, Doyle the pit bull barks, Frank sobs on the ground after what he’s done, knowing it was for Monty’s absolution, Monty staggers away with a face like I haven’t seen since Fight Club. He goes back to his apartment, shocking Naturelle and then his father with his fucked-up face. His Dad drives him to prison. He tells of how a man has to see the whole country and offers to take him away, away from everything—Monty dreams it as he dozes in the car. This sequence goes on for a long time, which is kinda cool. Until you almost start to believe it, but you know you can’t.
- Instead the car drives on, to Monty’s future, pulling his weight.
- Good soundtrack. Pretty good performances. A touch on the long side, although it ended up feeling shorter than expected because you kept waiting for a shoe to drop. Recommended.
- Lord Jim (1965) — 6/10
Peter O’Toole is the eponymous sailor. He’s the king of the world on the boat on which he’s stationed, but he breaks his leg and has to go ashore for an extended period. Bored, he takes the first boat he can out of there, the Patna, but it founders and the entire crew abandons the boat—partially out of fear and partially because they’ve convinced him it’s sinking, he abandons the boat, with passengers still aboard. The cowardly crew makes it back to port, only to see the Patna already there. Only Jim sticks around for the trial—and he is stripped of his sailing papers.
He drifts around, doing all sorts of odd jobs, just not on water. He finally takes a job on a small boat and partially redeems himself by not abandoning the boat when everyone else does and instead putting the fire out and saving it. The grateful owner takes him on his next adventure.
This next adventure is delivering weapons to a remote tribe, in order to help them get out from under the local strongman. There is a lot of attacking and defending. Lord Jim does well, but he ends up promising that he will allow himself to be judged if just one man dies in a last-ditch defense he wants to try. His plan works, but the chief’s son—and Jim’s best and most loyal comrade—dies. The chief banishes Jim from the village, telling him may live, but he has to leave all that he has grown to love, including a lovely girl from the village. Jim elects to stay and takes his punishment. The film closes on his funeral bier.
- Strange Days (1995) — 9/10
This is a very well-made movie about New Year’s Eve 2000 in an alternate future where full-sensory recording and playback are already available, on the black market at least. The technology was invented to replace surveillance wires, but people got hold of it and there’s a thriving market for “clips” of different people, of different lives—and deaths.
The story was about 20 years too early. It’s about video evidence, about corrupt cops, about the execution of prominent black leaders, about highly militarized police. They envisioned the start of the new millennium as much more metal than it really was. Vincent D’onofrio and William Fichtner are a couple of asshole LAPD. Angela Basset becomes the new Rodney King, as the compadrés show up to start clubbing her gorgeous self in the middle of the New Year’s crowd. Bad idea.
Tom Sizemore stars as the ball of chaos pounding through the middle of the movie. Juliette Lewis is fantastic as a bit of a lost soul singer and the target of Ralph Fiennes’s obsession. Ralph Fiennes is the ex-cop/clip-dealer who is the center of the story. Michael Wincott is the rockstar/dirtbag boyfriend of Juliette Lewis.
I don’t want to ruin the story, but the world was well-represented, a bit Blade Runner-like. Recommended.