Annie Hall (1977)


Link: Annie Hall

Summary: A man spends time with a woman.

Thoughts: I enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and some of the filmmaking gags (subtitles to show what characters are really thinking, stepping aside to talk directly to the audience, going into flashbacks and trying to interact with flashback characters).  It made an otherwise bland and empty story rather engaging.  That said, I don’t find Woody Allen’s character to be all that very clever or witty.  I’m surprised that Annie Hall enjoyed his company; he does nothing but make wisecracks all the time.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)


Link: Silver Linings Playbook

Summary: After being released from a mental health facility, a man tries to get his life back in order.  And what better way to do it than to promise to join a dance competition with a woman who has a lot of her own issues?

Thoughts: I didn’t think this film made any sense.  The characters are supposed to have mental health issues, but they’re all really fine, they just get way too angry over little things and then fight about it.  As if that’s all that mental health comes down to, control of temper.  Very poorly written film.  The “let’s join a dance competition!” plot made no sense, as it has nothing to do with anything; it doesn’t challenge the characters in any dramatically interesting way.  Also, it bugged me that the main character is married, yet basically spends the entire film falling in love with another woman.  This would be dramatically fine if a love triangle was one of the film conflicts.  Instead, this film seems to support the idea that marriage is overall meaningless, just an occasional promise to only sleep with one person at a time for monetary benefits, not a lifelong commitment to someone else no matter what.  Did not much care for this film.

The Verdict (1982)


Link: The Verdict

Summary: After losing a bunch of cases and on the verge of calling it quits, an tired alcoholic lawyer accepts one more case, a simple malpractice case that seems easy enough to settle out of court for some good money.  But when he comes to empathize with the case’s victim, he refuses to settle out of court, seeking true justice rather than easy money.  With the deep pockets and legal resources of his opponents, this won’t be an easy case to win.

Thoughts: Court case movies always seem to be difficult things to dramatize because you have to get the pacing right.  Unfortunately I think this film put too much backstory into the setup so that the court scenes themselves were rather dull.  (For good examples of dramatic balance between in-court and out-of-court scenes, I suggest A Few Good Men or My Cousin Vinny.)

Interestingly, according to the blu-ray’s bonus features, screenwriter David Mamet’s originally screenplay didn’t include the verdict.  While the producer interviewed on the bonus feature (the late Richard Zanuck) thought this was horrible, I think it might’ve been interesting.  A bit like the ending of Inception.  It might’ve worked because the final answer isn’t really important (especially when we know what it should be in the dramatic sense).  What matters is what’s important to the main character.  Win or lose, the character did the right thing here, and fought as hard as he could.  The verdict doesn’t matter.

Anyway, it was an OK movie, but I don’t think the tension was ever pushed as high as it could’ve been due to the pacing.  It was interesting to see such an anti-hero in such a role, an almost sleazy alcoholic who’s using this court case as a sort of . . . what’s the word? . . . redemption?  I also enjoyed the unconventional twists of the relationship B-story (that is, the sub-story that supports the main story; usually a friendship or a man-woman relationship).

Taxi Driver (1976)


Link: Taxi Driver

Summary: After a crazy man is rejected by the woman he admires, he goes even more crazy in a self-created loneliness.

Thoughts: This film was a bit too meandering for me.  Although the character is fictional, this movie has the pacing and tone of director Scorsese’s biopics Raging Bull and The Aviator.  Although Goodfellas was also a biopic, it seemed more plot-driven, where as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Aviator seem much more “exploratory” to me.  I suppose the pacing is just too slow, or the character goals remain ambiguous for too long.  Or maybe I just can’t empathize with the main characters enough in general.

Upstream Color (2013)


Link: Upstream Color

Summary: After a mysterious drug is used to make people highly suggestible in a scheme to wipe out their bank accounts, two recovering victims realize the drug also gave them strange psychic powers.  Together they try to cope with their strange new powers.

Thoughts: I highly enjoyed writer/director Shane Carruth’s previous film, Primer, which is what led me to check this film out.  I enjoyed the first half.  Though it’s rather mysterious what’s going on, it begins to make sense when the woman we’ve been watching realizes she’s a victim of a money-stealing scheme.  The rest of the film was boring.  Things about a sound man making recordings, psychic pigs, and passages of Walden (which I loathe).  There are people who may say, “You have to be smart and figure it out!” or “You don’t have to understand it all; it’s all about the feelings!  Art!”  I have no doubt Carruth had something specific in mind that he was trying to convey without condescending to the audience, but this isn’t the way to do it.  This is not being clever or artistic or coy; this is just storytelling laziness.  Could you at least try to help me understand?  Or do you think I’m too stupid?

Jack Reacher (2012)


Link: Jack Reacher

Summary: After an ex-military sniper is framed for shooting five victims, the mysterious crime-fighting Jack Reacher sets out to uncover the truth of who really shot the victims and why.

Thoughts: I enjoyed this film; better than the standard crime thriller.  Firstly, no shaky cam!!  We get nice stable shots here!  Who’d a thought it was possible?  Finally!  Secondly, I enjoyed the use of brief flashbacks and flash-whatevers to show what characters are thinking.  I loved the opening, how there’s no dialog for the first several minutes, telling the story completely through visuals.  Werner Herzog makes a great mysterious James Bond-worthy villain; I wish he’d gotten more screen time.  The fight scenes were good, and the conspiracy uncovered, though realistically farfetched, was engaging enough for me to remaining interested until the end.  I would definitely watch more Jack Reacher films (there are plenty of novels, aren’t there?), though I doubt they’ll make any more.  Fun film for a crime thriller.

Battle Royale (2000)


Link: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

Summary: Students are forced onto a deserted island where they are given weapons and forced to kill each other in a sadistic game of survival.  The last student alive wins and gets to go home.

Thoughts: Yes, it’s like Hunger Games, though there are enough differences to prevent me from thinking that one is ripping off the other.  They each take a similar premise, school-age children forced to kill each other, but do very different things with it.  Of course, Battle Royale from Japan never became as popular here in the US.  I only heard of it when fans of this film protested against the Hunger Games franchise.  Anyway, though I think both stories have flaws, I enjoyed Battle Royale more than I enjoyed reading The Hunger Games.  Granted, The Hunger Games is more girl-oriented with its cheesy romantic sub-plot, while Battle Royale, though it had its hints of romance, stayed more focused on the action, the manipulation and deception between the characters, and the interplay between trust and suspicion.  There’s really too much that can be done with this kill-each-other premise; it’d be awesome to see a TV show based on Battle Royale.  I also enjoyed this film’s villain, who managed to be wickedly hate-able at times, yet rather pity-able as the story went on.  Though he’s still a creepy evil psychopath, he was a far more interesting character than the villains of The Hunger Games.

Overall, this was quite a fun film, but it felt rushed; there were so many subplots that could’ve been more developed had this been a TV show instead of a film.  Maybe I’ll read the book someday; I saw it at Barnes and Noble last week.

Also, I’m not sure why, but some of the English subtitles were awfully translated, full of improper grammar.  Almost as bad as “someone set up us the bomb”, at least near the end.  Fortunately it wasn’t so bad that I could figure out what they were going for, but it was still annoying.  I’m used the Criterion Collection’s nice subtitle work.

Lockout (2012)


Link: Lockout

Summary: A wrongly accused convict is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president’s daughter from an outer space prison where she’s being hostage by psychopath inmates.

Thoughts: I wasn’t expecting much with this one due to its low ratings, but I actually enjoyed it very much.  I loved the look and feel of the film, from the cinematography to the set design.  I loved the look of the prison space ship, gritty and rugged and machine-ish, “sci-fi noir” as someone called it in the bonus features.  I love these sorts of space ships, not the overly-clean and overly-plain white and silver vast palace-like space ships that one often sees.  I love this dark saturated grayish-bluish-greenish industrial feel, with pipes and wires everywhere, ships that say “this machine is more complicated than you have the wits to understand.”

Some of the special effects were pretty bad; I would’ve gone for something more subtle than a futuristic road race when there’s no budget.  But I can forgive the bad CGI when I know the film makers didn’t have much money to play with.

The overall story was rather standard; I thought it would’ve worked better had more been at stake for the main characters, and/or if there were some more dilemma he had to deal with in terms of relating to the murderous inmates who’ve taken over the ship.  They hinted at moral dilemmas; it’s revealed that the prison had a dark side, that its staff members were doing some shady things.  It would’ve been interesting if that had been explored a bit deeper thematically.  But overall, it wasn’t bad.

What I especially enjoyed was the main character’s personality.  His dry sarcastic humor just worked perfectly for me.  Very Dr. House-like.  And, like House, he might’ve come across as an arrogant jerk to some, but I loved it.  A lesser writer might’ve tried to make the hero say noble serious things, which would’ve fallen flat.  I enjoy when the hero cracks jokes even when the tension is high.  It keeps the film from taking itself too seriously (which makes it more serious, in a sense, because audiences disengage when it feels too serious), and it gives the character personality.

Overall, surprisingly fun movie.  I quite enjoyed it.

For a Few Dollars More (1967)


Link: For a Few Dollars More

Summary: Two bounty hunters team up to take down a murderous convict.  One bounty hunter, played by Clint Eastwood, plans to sabotage him by joining his crew of thugs.  But the bounty hunter secretly knows exactly who he is and uses the knowledge to his advantage, working to frame the new recruit for his own crimes.

Thoughts: I enjoyed this one more than Leone’s Yojimbo rip-off, A Fistful of Dollars.  The story was more intricate, full of some great twists and turns.  I love Leone’s use of close-ups, though his editing here was still rather bizarre at times with the quick cutting, and the *boing!* sound effect was just stupid.  What is this, some preschooler’s cartoon?  But you gotta love Leone’s stand-off climax scenes, especially with Morricone’s iconic scoring.

Broken City (2013)

Link: Broken City

Summary: A retired cop is hired by a powerful city mayor to spy on his wife.  But what begins as standard catch-my-wife-cheating-on-me job turns into the uncovering of a much larger and darker political scandal.

Thoughts: I thought this was pretty standard fare for the crime thriller genre; nothing special.  I didn’t quite understand the weird dirty undertones though.  The ending was awful.  Spoiler ahead.  The hero martyring himself by “taking the fall” for a crime doesn’t quite work when he’s actually guilty of the crime he’s taking the fall for.  So basically the ending reveals that this whole time, the hero was just as guilty of cold-blooded murder as the film’s villains.  And we’re supposed to feel that him finally going to jail for it many years later is somehow honorable and courageous?  No.  Basic story principles.  You cannot have a hero be clearly guilty of cold-blooded murder, escape justice for it, and expect us to root for him when we all know perfectly well that escaping justice for it is morally wrong.  That’s not some artistic “moral ambiguity”.  That’s just stupid.  And don’t know, maybe I missed something?

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Link: The Wages Of Fear

Summary: Four men accept the deadly job of driving two trucks of explosive nitroglycerin over dangerous roads.

Thoughts: While the first half of this film was a bit slow, when they actually start driving the trucks, things get as tense as things can get in a film.  It was surprisingly suspenseful for a movie about driving trucks, and I was on the edge of my seat as they worked through some very close calls.  And, oh yes, not all of them make it, so the threat of death is real.  It was like watching those TV shows about truckers driving up dangerous mountainsides.  This sort of stuff terrifies me.  The editing and use of sound during the suspense scenes was masterful, better than Hitchcock (though Hitchcock’s brand of suspense was more character-driven, whereas this suspense is more situation-driven).  Great film.  My biggest critique would be that the end was ridiculous.  I’m not sure what they were going for with that ending, but after being on edge throughout much of the film, that sort of ending comes off as a ridiculous joke.  Maybe that’s what they were going for.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Link: The Night of the Hunter

Summary: A serial killer pretends to fall in love with a woman in an effort to get her children to tell him where their late father hid a large stash of stolen money.

Thoughts: This was supposed to be a classic crime thriller.  Unfortunately, it does not stand the test of time, if it was ever thrilling at all.  The serial killer, rather than being creepy and manipulative, is far too unsubtle; he basically confronts the kids directly, “Where’s the money?” and then plays nice when other adults around.  That’s neither thrilling nor realistic.  The acting was terrible with everyone over-exaggerating their expressions, and the writing comes off as very scripted, complete with people looking off into the distance and talking to themselves.  I hate when people talk to themselves.  Overall, not impressed with this one.  Not sure why it became a classic.  One thing did work for me, though: the use of character singing as background music, especially when the youngest child sings as she and her brother float down the river, was very creepy.  It didn’t really go with the atmosphere of the rest of the film, and it was obvious her voice was dubbed, but there was something very creepy about it.

The Impossible (2012)

Link: The Impossible

Summary: After being torn apart by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a family struggles to survive and find each other.  Based on a true story.

Thoughts: I thought this film did a very graceful and touching job with some very difficult and sensitive material.  The tragedy of the real-life tsunami provides a heavy foundation for much of the film’s emotional weight, allowing the story of the film to be approached in a very natural manner, without trying to force exaggerated conflict or cheesy dialog into it.  Great acting from all the actors with some tough material.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez also worked on the 2007 thriller The Orphanage, which I also very much enjoyed.  I will definitely be on the look out for their future work.  Good film.

The Brothers Bloom (2008)


Link: Brothers Bloom

Summary: Two con-artist brothers hatch a scheme to swindle a wealthy heiress.  But their plans get a bit out of hand when one of the brothers finds himself falling in love with the mark.

Thoughts: While a con-artist falling in love with his mark sets the stage for a classic sort of male-protagonist romantic comedy that any Hollywood hack could put together, writer/director Rian Johnson brings a very unique and welcoming voice and spirit to the story.  The first half of this film was great.  I was fascinated by the various larger-than-life characters, the hilarious gags, and the engaging dialog.  And then came along the second half, when the story tries to do way too much.  It’s as if Johnson couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted this to be a romantic comedy, a buddy movie, a heist movie, or a comedic thriller, and tried to make it all of them at once.  It just didn’t work; too many conflicts were begging for attention to the point where none of the resolutions felt very strong.  There’s the con-man’s love story, the con-man’s relationship with his brother, the heist itself, plus some convoluted plot involving a villain from the past who shows up half-way through to complicate things.  It was just a mess.  By the time the film ended, I had disengaged with most of the story.  If he had stuck with the light-hearted simplicity of the first half, keeping the story focused on just one over-arching conflict, this would’ve been a fantastic film.  But it didn’t.

Ender’s Game trailer


The official trailer for Ender’s Game has finally arrived.  The film is set to be released November 1st, 2013.  I think the special effects look nice, but the overall tone and spirit of it look too, dare I say, cheesy and YA-ish.  We’ll see.  Can’t judge a film until you’ve actually seen the whole thing.  Check it out: