Pick 'n' Mix 2012

Since setting up this blog, I've tried to review every film I see individually, but sometimes things just get in the way, like family commitments, my tireless charity work and my bounty hunter contracts. So it's inevitable that a few films get left sobbing on the sidelines because I haven't taken the time to review them in full. But between bedtime stories, visiting orphanages and tracking down fugitives, I do keep a few mental notes on those films, which I now dust off and throw together in a pick 'n' mix selection of reviews from the past year or so. Let's kick off with...

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) was the film that reinvented Liam Neeson as an action star, much to everyone's surprise, not least Neeson himself. Here, he takes increasingly far-fetched revenge on the filthy Johnny Foreigner fools who have kidnapped his daughter. I think the bit that made me laugh most was when he ambled into an Albanian criminal lair and convinced them he was a senior French gendarme, despite speaking English with a broad Northern Irish accent. Then again, Neeson does have considerable presence, so he might just be able to pull that off. Just as well for the film he has presence, because he manages to make a rather ordinary and silly thriller just about watchable. That said, the 'phone scene' has now passed into cinema legend and will probably haunt Neeson to his dying day. Here's the clip, featuring a guest appearance by the Cookie Monster.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang, 1956) was Lang's last American film and is a disappointingly clunky and implausible thriller. The plot sees journalist Dana Andrews frame himself for a murder in an attempt to discredit the law by revealing the scam at his own trial. It's an okay idea and has lofty aspirations for a commentary on capital punishment, but on-set fighting between director, producer Bert Friedlob and an increasingly drink-dependent Andrews dragged it beyond a reasonable film. Watch these instead.

The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007) is not as good as McCarthy's debut film, The Station Agent, but it's a similarly gentle celebration of human decency and relationships, and there's nothing wrong with that. Plus it features a lovely Oscar-nominated performance by Richard Jenkins as a repressed academic who finds a new lease of life when he gets involved with a couple of young immigrants. Worth a look if you're looking for something quiet and contemplative. Since this, McCarthy has gone on to be annoyingly talented, helping to write Up for Pixar, and playing the slimy reporter Scott Templeton in series 5 of The Wire on TV. Ah, but is he happy?

The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956) is a renowned short film about a lonely boy who is befriended by a bright red, mischievious balloon. Barely a word is spoken as the simple story unfolds to its uplifting climax, which is a wonderful moment of cinema. Film scholar Mark Cousins shows this to children in different parts of the world as part of his 8½ Foundation project. With no language barrier to overcome, the kids watch entranced by the magical tale, and it's easy to see why. A funny, sad, lovely film.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I watched Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007) back on Valentine's Day, so my critical faculties may have been dulled by the romance in the air and the alcohol in my veins, but I liked it. It sees a Disney princess (Amy Adams) magically transported to Manhattan, only to find real-life is not like fairy-tales. It's a sweet little film with some good supporting performances - a genuine Fairytale of New York.

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949) is one of the few Kurosawa films that I don't care much for. Took me 3 attempts to get through it as I didn't really find the story of a cop tracking down his lost gun that interesting or compelling, and I kept getting distracted by other things like sleeping. Still, it's a cleanly executed film and too well made to be actually bad. You'd be better of with these Kurosawa films, though.

Funny. I'll fight anyone says different.
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Box & Park, 2005) sees the plasticine duo pay homage to those old-fashioned horror movies as they try to protect their village's vegetables from the titular monster. It has brilliant animation, great voice-work, terrific comedy, exciting action and a bit where a man puts a rabbit on his head thinking its a wig. And if that's not funny, I don't know what is.

I Love You Man (John Hamburg, 2009) is the best bro-mance film I've seen, if that doesn't sound like damning with faint praise. Paul Rudd plays a sensitive guy trying to find a best man for his upcoming nuptials, with Jason Segel an unlikely candidate for the role. Things that I liked about it were (1) Rudd, who joins Andreas Iniesta on my man-crush list. (2) The Incredible Hulk is in it (3) How it resisted the obvious temptation to do a Sean Connery Bond impression in favour of a Timothy Dalton one. (4) Despite the cast, it doesn't have the mucky, unfunny fingerprints of Judd Apatow all over it.

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, 2010) was advertised as a post-apocalyptic, vampire horror film, so it came as some surprise to find that this takes a surprisingly thoughtful and melancholy approach to familiar material. Orphaned teenager Martin (Connor Paolo - excellent) and vamp hunter Mister (the also excellent Nick Damici, who co-wrote) traverse the barren wastelands of America, passing through isolated communities of survivors, picking up a few lost souls, and tangling with vampire-zombies and religious fundamentalists along the way. It occasionally lapses into routine horror beats, but for the most part it's a commendably understated film, with some neat ideas (vampires as bioweapons), striking scenery and a suitably mournful soundtrack. If you liked The Road, but felt what it really needed was a plague of zombie-vampires, then look no further.

A Man For All Seasons (Fred Zinneman, 1966) is a very fine historical drama, particularly enjoyable for the eloquent, intelligent script and a really terrific central performance from Paul Scofield, which bagged him an Oscar. Good support from the rest of the cast, especially Leo McKern, although Robert Shaw's hammy Henry VIII seems rather out of place, plus I kept expecting John Hurt's character of Richard Rich to say 'May I say that's a charming, smashing blouse you have on'. #bottomrocks.

James Dean.
Good-looking, apparently.
John Steinbeck's sprawling source novel is so brilliant, the film adaptation of East Of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955) only dares to tackle a part of the family saga, but does a pretty good job. Naturally, it is most famous for the star-making central performance from James Dean, who is so compelling as the rebellious Cal that he threatens to unbalance the entire story, with only Richard Davalos’ astonishing hairstyle able to hold it’s own against him. It's not as good as the book, but it's still a stirring and superior melodrama.

Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982) is a sensitively observed coming-of-age film with naturalistic performances, a fabulous soundtrack and featuring a great use for a box of popcorn. Plus, it's a sobering reminder of when Mickey Rourke really was a fine looking fella, and when Steve Guttenberg still had the chance to be a good actor. How the mighty have fallen.

Okay, that's my conscience clear now. I'm off on a Midnight Run. It's tough being me.

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