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Come to Daddy (2019)
9/10
Incredibly Strange
10 August 2019
(The Wellington premiere with Ant Timpson and Emma Slade giving Q&A)

O.M.G. That was, as expected, an Incredibly Strange movie. (Ant Timpson is best known in New Zealand for the Incredibly Strange film festival, which began in 1994 with the likes of Plan Nine from Outer Space.)

Elijah Wood's character, Norval, is aptly named. He is an innocent nerd, called to visit his estranged-since-childhood father at a remote and beauiful house on the shore of Vancouver Island. The father (Stephen McHattie) is creepy from the get-go (think Jack Nicholson in The Shining). I'll say no more but nothing is as it seems and the movie is a roller coaster ride of extreme tension and release, extreme violence, and a generous slab of (black, of course) comedy. Just suspend your belief enough to erase the words "We've got to get you to hospital" from your memory.

I didn't stay for all the Q&A because they talked at length about technical details, but Timson based the movie on his own experience with the death of his father, which was Pretty Strange.

It'll never be a blockbuster, but it'll be a cult favourite for years to come.
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Aniara (2018)
6/10
What happens when a poem is filmed.
1 August 2019
This is based on a much-loved poem in Swedish written in 1956 (when my school debating club seriously considered "That man will never reach the moon"). Bear that in mind and much makes sense - more sense than the poem ever did to me when I first tried to read it. Much that purports to be science is just poetry. The film-makers have made some attempt to update the plot and the setting, bearing in mind that we have all seen 2001: a Space Odyssey..

The science is still cheesy. The ship has lost all its fuel, but power is uninterrupted and water is abundant (there is not only an extended lesbian shower scene, but a 20m swimming pool!). The architecture of the ship is absurdly angular, but nothing ever springs a leak. The ship's interior has been compared to a shopping mall and a cruise ship, but manufactured goods never show any sign of running out, and the whole thing seems absurdly understaffed.

It's basically an exploration of how an isolated group of people copes when it is cut off from Earth, its memories and hope. The main characters are sufficiently well drawn to explore these themes in, for me, a satisfying way. On those terms, it does well and is worth watching, though you must fill the hints in the chapter headings with your own deductions.
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Vivarium (2019)
9/10
A classic
1 August 2019
SF? Fantasy? A personable young househunting couple are abandoned by a creepy estate agent in one of a development of identically uninspiring empty houses. Though the sun shines and similar fluffy clouds dot the sky, it's strangely claustrophobic. Their basic needs are taken care of, but they are given an unexpected task that grows increasingly onerous. Their different reactions to this burden, and to each other's reactions, give the movie substance. The climax and resolution are splendid, but this is NOT a feel-good movie.

I think it's a classic (maybe not just a cult classic),. In his Q&A, writer/director Lorcan Finnegan referred to The Quiet Earth, Magritte, Escher and many more. Someone else has referred to The Truman Show, but to me the elephant in the room was Village of the Damned (based on, um, The Midwich Cuckoos). Yet its admixture of these themes keeps it from seeming derivative.
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9/10
Hard to fault
22 September 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I warmly recommend this movie, even for people who think the subject holds no interest, or for those whose minds are made up, one way or the other.

Its focus is firmly on the US custom that began in the late 19th century, peaked in the 1960s - so that the great majority of middle-aged US men have no foreskin (nor any knowledge of it except folklore, largely wrong) - and is declining much more slowly than it has in the rest of the English-speaking world.

I especially appreciate the way it made use of genital cutting advocates, by simply letting them say their piece and then presenting the facts that undermine their arguments. In this sense the film was "balanced" but the balance of the facts is firmly against the custom, as the rest of the developed world silently shows.

In the segment on Female Genital Cutting, the advocate Fuambai Sia Ahmadu could say how she thought it benefitted her, and spell out the similarities to Male Genital Cutting - contrary to popular opinion - herself. FGC was briefly sanctioned by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010, in the form of a token ritual nick, "much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting" in the AAP's own words. Only an outcry by Intactivists and then feminists caused the policy to be "retired" within a month.

The editing between speakers was excellent, some seeming almost to complete each other's sentences. We could have seen a bit less of the Capitol building as wallpaper: a Federal age-restriction on male genital cutting, like that on all female cutting including the most exact equivalent, is not likely any time soon. One striking omission was any actual photograph of a normal adult penis, or the unique rolling action of the foreskin, much easier to show than to describe. It's not just a "flap". It is a shame that the film seems to have succumbed to the same reluctance to be explicit that has so helped the custom to become the US norm.

Particularly striking was the contribution of Shannondoah Dartsch, a mother who had only learnt the previous day that what had been bothering her about her son's operation was in fact a botch (buried penis). The lack of good data on the frequency of such negative outcomes was one focus.

The many people working on this multi-facetted issue, each speaking in their own specialties, were all very well captured in all their idiosyncracies. Marilyn Milos grew tearful describing how she can never apologise enough to her sons, but how her work against the custom offers some solace - cut to the rather strange Australian scientist Brian Morris, mocking her "emotionalism".

Male genital cutting advocate and former AAP Circumcision Task Force chair Edgar Schoen's heartlessness towards men who do complain spoke for itself. One of those was (was) the very personable Jonathon Conte who described how it contributed to his depression ... the film is dedicated to his memory.
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Liquid Sky (1982)
4/10
An amateurish Rocky Horror without the wit or the songs
3 August 2018
I saw this when it came out and was intrigued, and wondered if it would become a cult movie. Seeing it again, I see clearly why it never did.

The premise, that aliens might be tiny and feast on our endorphins, whether from drugs or sex, was novel then. The (16-colour?) computer graphics to illustrate it were all we knew, and androgyny and sexual freedom were just beginning to be overshadowed by the AIDS epidemic.

In hindsight, the film is amateurish: the characters and dialogue are as stilted as porn (or so I'm told). The music sounds like it is played on a Commodore 64, with an emphasis on square waves that hurt the ears, and Marin Marias' "Sonnerie" has never been so boring. The plot line makes little sense. The aliens leave glass daggers in the heads of two of the characters they kill, and the daggers vanish. The next two corpses themselves vanish, one in front of many onlookers who soon seem to forget the event. While the five deaths are all presented as if from the aliens' viewpoint (and all very similarly), we gain little insight into them or their modus operandi. Most of the human characters are unlikable and one of the two who is (albeit tedious), comes to an unjust and unhappy end.

Rocky Horror (1975) did androgyny, camp, face-painting, sex, drugs & alien invasion vastly better, and with wit and songs. It's sad to think of what this might have been.
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The Wound (2017)
8/10
Initiation, schnititation, real manhood lies elsewhere
7 August 2017
This film has caused controversy in South Africa because of the secrecy surrounding initiation, and it will be viewed by Xhosa very much as a hostile white man's view of the practice. There is little about the cutting (nothing is shown) but much about homophobia and bullying. It is clear that the filmmakers think (as I do) the idea that initiation makes boys into men is hollow.

It's a slow-burning drama with three central characters, Xolani ("X") a caregiver to a single initiate, Kwanda, among a group of about 10, three of whom are cared for by Vija. X has sex annually at the initiations with Vija, who is married (shades of Brokeback Mountain), but their relationship is ambiguous. Kwanda's sexuality is unclear, but coming from Johannesburg, he is more urbane than the others, and suspect for that reason. He is called a "faggot" but more as a general-purpose insult.

The initiates are all cut early on in the film; there is mention of painful herbs being applied, and infections, but not the significant risk of death. Near the end, Kwanda, who has said very little, dismisses the importance of the genital cutting (without actually denouncing it). The irony is that he _has_ matured from his experience on the mountain, but not in the way the traditionalists imagine. Another irony is that X seems to have learnt from his pupil.

What the film very much brings out is the urban-rural, traditional-modern tension in South Africa, though the setting is entirely traditional. I recommend it to urban people for a glimpse into a very different culture - that yet throws light on our own.
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Experimenter (2015)
7/10
An elephant?
1 August 2015
For some reason I expected more of a documentary, so this docudrama nearly had me out the door, but the authoritative man in the grey lab coat persuaded me to stay.

It clearly, and to my understanding, accurately, lays out the format of the notorious Milgram Experiment, which is necessary for all that follows; the public and academic backlash, our involvement as we question whether we would behave like Milgram's subjects, and his own soul-searching. To be sure, he comes across as quite cold-hearted, and more self-doubt would have made a more interesting story. Instead, all of the doubt is carried by his colleagues and Wynona Ryder as his patient wife.

The original experiment is well-enough represented that the re-creation of a TV series about it (with Kellan Lutz as a young William Shatner playing the Milgram character) has some amusingly obvious elements of parody, and hence self-parody of this film.

The film has some unsettling features over and above the experiments themselves - scenes carried out in colour in front of poorly placed monochrome back-projections, and an elephant, yes, a real, if slightly out of focus elephant behind Peter Sarsgaard as he talks to the camera walking towards us along a university corridor. Why? If it's The Elephant In The Room, what are we not seeing?

As Milgram points out, he and his experiment are treated with opprobrium, but the results are accepted, and serve their purpose. While the Holocaust is repeatedly invoked (including footage of the Eichmann trial), and Milgram twice mentions that his name is Hebrew for pomegranate (in fact it's not but milgrom is the Yiddish), an obvious ethical parallel is not mentioned: the Nazi experiments of killing prisoners with X-rays, which are still shown (usually on an opt-in basis) to medical students.
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4/10
Belies its title
16 January 2015
"Love is Strange" seems intended as a slice-of-life, but it's more frustrating than intriguing, inspiring or uplifting.

While there's nothing to complain of about the mise en scène or the acting, it doesn't add up to anything. Most of the main events happen offstage, so it neither shows nor tells, just implies.

Many loose ends are never tied up. What happens to Vlad? What happens to Elliot and Kate's marriage? The pace is slow enough that the alternative movies running in your head are more interesting that what's on screen. There's sexual tension between George and Ian: what if they had a fling? How would Ben react? What if Joey WAS gay? What if Ben tried to help him come to terms with that but was misunderstood, with catastrophic consequences? What if Vlad was and Joey was just going along with him? Or if they really were doing drugs - and Ben found evidence?

What happens about the letter George is composing or rehearsing while Dovie Currin is playing the "Raindrops" prelude (and much better than he gives her credit for)? Does he send it to the parents of his former pupils? Do they petition the school, or demonstrate? We never know.

But my biggest disappointment was that the film completely belied its title: None of the love in the film is strange in any way. Love often IS strange, and some very good movies have illustrated that.

I'd call this a broken movie. I suggest you watch until they say goodbye outside the Waverley Diner and Ben goes down to the subway. What follows adds nothing.
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8/10
A fascinating look at the quirks of US law and politics
8 June 2014
As a non-American, I found this a compelling look at one of the quirkier aspects of US law and politics - how states may hold local referenda (at least California seems to do it a lot) that may then be challenged in the Supreme Court.

An intriguing aspect was the employment in support of the case of Ted Olsen, the Republican lawyer who got George W Bush elected by making Florida stop its decisive recount. The LGBT community was initially suspicious of him, but he won them over by his principled stand.

Reviewers who want to re-litigate the case itself seem to have missed the point. The populace and local legislatures may not pass local laws that violate the US Constitution. Proposition 8 was ruled to breach the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equality to all citizens. Its supporters did not have standing to appeal against the Supreme Court's ruling, because their rights were not harmed by striking down Prop 8.

This was not intended to be "balanced", as its title implies. As a real documentary it followed real people through an unpredictable course of events. It might have all ended in tears. It would have then been useful as a fundraiser to continue the fight.
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2/10
A boring in-house promo, with a touch of doco
8 June 2014
Warning: Spoilers
An exposé of the gay porn industry this is not. Keywords n o t needed include: Mafia, organised crime, drugs, Viagra, exploitation, huge endowment, fluffer.

It begins with a short history of gay porn, done entirely in voice-over, with many familiar images from Bob Mizer's Athletics Models Guild, Tom of Finland, etc. all better covered in earlier documentaries, such as Beefcake (1998). The growing role of the Internet is touched on. Then follow a series of soft interviews with some quite ordinary people, illustrated with cutting-room-floor clippings, and a great deal of underwear product-placement. Two of the subjects are of some interest but the others are given far too much time to say too little. All seem to work for the one studio, and the whole film seems little more than an extended promo.

The shooting of some sex scenes is shown, but all from a distance; there are only glimpses of organs, and none of orifices. Most of the film would be PGA-rated.

One fact of interest is touched on, that performers in gay porn are paid more than in het. porn, but just how much we are not told. The figure of $2000 was mentioned but whether for one act or a feature-length film was not stated. This means that men with female partners may work on camera at sex with men ("gay for pay" as they say), and the fluidity of sexuality was touched on. Where the multi-billion-dollar profits go is not answered, because it is not asked.

A California ordinance, Proposition B, requiring porn actors to be tested regularly and to use condoms in sex scenes, was discussed mainly in negative terms (the costs have driven some of the industry out of the state). An overview of the troubling issues around "barebacking" porn would have been welcome.

This will be of little interest either to the friends of porn or to its enemies.
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I am fishead (2011)
2/10
Just a waste of time.
21 May 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I fall between the other two reviews (so far). It's neither dangerous nor interesting, but rather, just a waste of time. There's a great deal of documentary footage of dubious relevance, with a fish logo added digitally or actually.

I guess the high point is the interview with Václav Havel, imprisoned by the Soviets and later first president of the Czech Republic, about what motivated him. Basically, he felt bad when he failed to do good, so he did good in order to feel good. And results might not come immediately, but we act in the hope that they will eventually.

The film itself is a bit of a drug: there's always something going on to keep your attention, but when all is said and done, what is the take-home message? Businesses are psychopathic. Avoid chemical "happiness". Be nice to people (it'll affect not only those people but others they interact with). That's just about it. It's a bit like Occupy, some good intentions, feel-good slogans, token activism, and then...?
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8/10
Important and frightening
4 August 2013
This is an important and frightening film, about how Google, Amzaon, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Linkdin - and IMDb? - harvest our personal information and onsell it to the highest bidder, or to the government. How we don't read that wodge of text in capitals comprising "Terms and conditions" before we click "Accept" - nobody could, it would take a month per year for everything we sign. But even when that text is brief and written in plain English, it gives those corporations unprecedented power over our personal information - including the right to change the rules without telling us, to increase their power without limit and without asking again, and to keep it forever, even after we have "deleted" it.

The film is entertaining, including how a seven year old boy was interrogated about something he had texted; how an Irishman on holiday in the US never got into the country but spent days in confinement instead, because he had used "destroy America" as a figure of speech in a tweet; how people planning a zombie parade during the Royal Wedding were arrested based on the social media planning; and how a TV crime writer was raided based on his Google searches.

I saw this a few days after "We Steal Secrets: the story of Wikileaks". It is the better film, letting the facts speak for themselves more.

And now I'm getting paranoid about what will happen to me for writing this....
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Call Me Kuchu (2012)
10/10
Brave people, brave story! (Hitchens and Weinberg were right!)
7 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I had vaguely remembered that a gay activist had been killed in Uganda, but didn't realise until the event in the movie that this man, David Kato, who I had been getting to know and empathising with, was the same one.

But the movie does not dwell on his death, more on his life and struggle and that of those around him. His mother is a beautiful character.

I don't know which was worse, the smug, jokey newspaper editor (it's cheekily called the "Rolling Stone") who took no responsibility for any of the hatred he was stirring up or its consequences, or the smug local church people, or the smug, arrogant American evangelist, bringing American-style bigotry to Uganda.

The Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is a lovable respite from all this hatred, a Ugandan Desmond Tutu. The scenes at David's funeral, where he rescues the body from a local pastor who wanted to straighten out the LGBTI congregation, are very touching.

And yet, it's the same religion both he and the bigots are in the thrall of, and equally drives them both to do good or evil, almost at random, underlining Christopher Hitchen's catchphrase that religion poisons everything, and Steven Weinberg's, that for good people to do evil, that takes religion.

The courage of the local LGBTI people is amazing. We went through just a tiny fraction of that ordeal 26 years ago, and it seemed bad enough at the time. This movie and the dauntless people in it, packing up and moving on when their lives are endangered, and yet fronting up to courts, hostile crowds, policemen, clergy and thugs (sometimes the same people), will give heart to those who are still struggling.
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Melancholia (2011)
3/10
Could have been worse...
31 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I sat grimly through this because it was said to be beautiful to see and I hoped it might get better. I've given it a day to see if it looked better in retrospect. If I could have warned myself, I'd have said, spend those two hours doing anything or nothing rather than watch this film.

Any beautiful scenes were marred by the hand-held camera-work that was just dizzying.

I think it's the most miserable movie I've ever seen. For pity's sake, if you have the slightest tendency to depression, don't see it. Maybe send your friends - or your enemies - so they can know what depression feels like.

There isn't a single character you can empathise with. Justine (Dunst), presumably the most sympathetic character, having kept her wedding guests waiting two hours, keeps them waiting even longer to go and say hello to - a horse! Almost everyone at the wedding behaves appallingly. Justine's brother-in-law John even commits suicide selfishly, eating everyone else's pills. (Though there is little point in suicide: the planet will do it all quickly enough.) The husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and the little boy are harmless, but ciphers.

They don't live in a world, with media, governments, people. It's all about them.

The other story, just the end of the Earth, is hackwork. Trier has sacrificed all astronomical and anthropological sense for empty symbolism. John is an astronomer who works out the orbits of planets on paper with a pen. (There is an internet and Google, but "Melancholia" gets only 3 million hits, many about the condition, not the planet that's going to kill everybody.) They are reduced to looking through a handmade loop of wire to figure out if the planet is coming or going. The proposed "Dance of Death" orbit of Melancholia looks as if it is affected by air-resistance. The electrical discharge from Justine's fingertips and the power poles was caused by what? Or if it was symbolic, symbolic of what? Even the last moments were hackwork. The shockwaves I could buy, but fire? What was burning?

What finally killed it for me was the abuse of Wagner (who is hard to abuse). The prelude to Tristan und Isolde was written for a particular, quite well-known context. Trier has ripped it out and pasted it over a completely different one. I don't know how many times it got played right through, but at least three, and much of it was used on several more occasions.

How could it have been worse? Well, I guess the whole UNIVERSE could have ended.
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8/10
The elephant in the room...
14 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The enigmatic title hides a thoughtful talking-heads documentary about the Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. Roman interviews schoolmates of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (who together killed Parker's mother), a son of one of the counsel and others with a close interest in the case.

Others, such as women who have portrayed the girls in two plays, and especially a minister from the Los Angeles Church of Truth (does any church claim to be any other kind?), have less to contribute.

This is enlivened by re-enactments (of dubious value, some Los Angeles folly standing in for Borovnia), the few contemporary newspaper pictures of the girls, diary entries and newspaper footage eked out with special effects, and recent footage of Christchurch, made poignantly historic on February 22, 2011.

The elephant in the room is of course, Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures". At a Q&A, Roman admitted that this was his point of entry to the case, and a hand-held scene near the beginning, running from the murder scene through Victoria Park, echoes that film. It would have been useful to have included some comparison between history and Jackson's embellishments, such as Alison Laurie and Julie Glamuzina provide in the second edition of their book, "Parker & Hulme, a Lesbian View".

Since Jackson's film leads up to the murder, the most interesting material this one adds is about the trial. The law of the day presented a stark dichotomy. Since their guilt was patent and confessed, the only question the jury had to answer was whether they were "bad" or "mad", and the film explores that in detail. It hinges on the nature of their relationship, and how much they were driven by a shared fantasy. This was imposed by the prosecutorial decision to try them together. Much was made of Pauline's diary at the trial (and in "Heavenly Creatures"), but Juliet also kept one, burnt by her mother, and it has become the elephant NOT in the room.

It suits fiction and symmetry that the two girls were equally involved in each other and planned and committed the murder together, but the truth may be more interesting. (Juliet - as Anne Perry - has given at least one interview about the case, but Pauline remains reclusive.) The suggestion arises that, after a lifetime of abuse, Pauline would have killed her mother Juliet or no Juliet, and that Juliet was a (relatively) innocent bystander. Some people are murderers, but some people are murderees.

The film is marred by a dog-wagging tailpiece about whether they were homosexual. For 15-year-old girls with "crushes" on each other, the question is hardly meaningful. That would be better consigned to outtakes, and more use made of some fantastic murals shown briefly near the end, that we are not told was the work of Pauline after her release.
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5/10
A butterfly in a pitcher-plant
17 May 2010
I read the play when I was Tom Lee's age and deeply closetted, and it had a devastating effect: "At last someone understands: just because I'm not like the others doesn't mean I'm - heaven forbid - gay." I thought the play was great - liberating, even.

I saw the film (on TV, with distractions) some 25 years after it was made, myself on the brink of coming out, and noted that it was much less clear that it was about homosexuality than the play had been. Tom's sexual orientation had been blurred down to the question of whether he was "a regular guy" or not. Key speeches like Laura's challenge to Bill's sexuality were missing. And Laura's letter at the end seemed just moralistic, and an obvious sop to the censors.

To see the film today, out and proud, and with the benefit of nearly 50 years of hindsight, I find myself agreeing with many of the comments above, both positive and negative. The film is hard to watch because it is so overwrought. That is easier to understand when you know that all three leads are reprising their stage roles. Even so, there is a desperate tension running right through it. With the possible exception of the faculty wives, not a single person in it is comfortable with their sexuality. The guys are, without exception, over-anxious to prove something, and Laura is frustrated. (Ellie Martin at least knows what she wants - a radio that works - and what she wants to pay to get it.) Overlaid on this, nothing can be explicit, everyone talks all the time in circumlocutions. Of course, that was the rule in films of those days, and possibly real life as well. Therein lies a contradiction that can only be resolved from outside the film and in its future, now. The film was trying to liberate people like me (and heterosexual non-conformists) while staying within the confines of a deeply closetted and homophobic film industry.

Should you see this film? As a piece of gay history, perhaps. As a commentary on a homophobic time, it is instructive, both for what it says and doesn't say. As a worthwhile drama that will involve you in its issues, no. Has it anything worthwhile to say, as someone says above, about the importance of love? If you concentrate on Deborah Kerr's performance and her predicament, perhaps, but it's like watching a beautiful butterfly struggling in a pitcher-plant.
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Teorema (1968)
2/10
I hated it but don't despise it
14 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Someone said you should look at your mood before rating this film. I had to walk an unnecessary kilometre to buy my ticket, someone was using a cellphone during the credits, and the WHOLE film was shown in a too-wide aspect ratio - after I had alerted the organisers, having seen the problem while watching the splash-page, over and over. (It was shown rather dimly off a DVD.) So I have to give the film a huge discount for my grumpiness.

I didn't like it. I don't despise it, because I think Pasolini was sincere in making it, not trying to put one over us with pretentious piffle (cf Fellini). It's certainly not the worst film ever made, not dishonest, condescending or manipulative, just slow, opaque and uninvolving (but maybe the last is just me; see above).

My (and most people's?) disconnect from Teorema is that we can no longer identify with the Italian Catholic guilt that overcame most of the family after succumbing to Terence Stamp's undoubted charms. He had sex with them (usually at their instigation - to say "he seduced them" is to exaggerate wildly) and a reaction is to be expected, but catatonia? Levitation and autointerment? Bad art? (OK, bad art.)

And is there really a volcanic desert handy to the Milan (?) railway station that anyone can walk to naked without being intercepted?

So when it (finally!) said "FINE" I said "Fine by me."
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3/10
Boring film about a boring man
12 January 2010
This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but the room with the wall and the fly on it isn't very interesting. I hoped to learn something about why Hockney paints what he does and as he does, and/or about who he is. If this film is to be believed, he is a boring, self-obsessed man.

Much of the footage adds nothing to our knowledge of him or his work. Even when he talked about other painters' work it was not informative, since the camera was on him, not on what he was talking about. Only once did the film give an insight into Hockney's painting, cutting from his representation of the refractions of waves on the bottom of a swimming pool as serpentine lines, to the refractions themselves in unpaintable motion.

Far too much (street scenes, people coming, going and standing about, a fashion show, idle chat) seems to have been included for no particular reason at all.

I suspect that the nudity and the gay ambiance, novelties in 1974, have given this film a cachet it never deserved.
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Everyone (2004)
7/10
Better than that
4 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I wasn't going to review this but there were so many negatives, I feel compelled to add a positive.

This is a sweet little movie, that goes from downbeat to downbeat but ends on an upbeat. The delivery is occasionally a bit clunky (some of the cast still in film school?), but on the whole the notes it strikes are true. Everyone in "Everyone"'s a bit dysfunctional, but everyone has their moments - just like real life.

It is, basically, a comedy. Sometimes the comedy of cringe, and you're saying "Don't go there" or "Don't go in there!" or "Oh no!' but nothing is so stoopid as to suspend your belief. ("Meet the Fockers" this is not.) It takes a little unfunny while to set the scene. Dead babies and children figure rather too prominently for a comedy.

None of the characters is clear-cut; all have light and shade, as in real life, from the mother who seems at first to be a street person herself, to the punk she picks up on the way, to the celebrant whose priestly smoothness is ruffled by a guest who assumes she's lesbian.

Perhaps the funniest moment is the one we don't see. The whole movie looks forward to a big event. Suddenly we're past it and we know exactly what happened, what didn't happen, and why.

Above all this is a Canadian comedy, which is a euphemism for "not a US comedy". As a New Zealander I can relate to its understatement: don't expect too much and you'll love it.

(Chromatic abberation - colour-casting at edges - is sometimes visible near the sides of the screen. Cheap lenses?)
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Paper Soldier (2008)
3/10
Best of 2008? I don't get it
27 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I'll probably be shot down in flames for this but I was tired and glad when this movie ended. It's been called "the Russian Right Stuff" and "the best movie of 2008" but I just can't see it.

It's a sad, soulful Russian movie about a handsome doctor stuck out in a wilderness that's hardly distinguishable from a gulag, with a few others, including his faithful mistress, working on a project that is almost entirely offscreen. The unconvincing tailcone of a rocket slowly wheels past, and near the end two of the cast (one called "Yuri" - Gagarin?) pose in spacesuits that are a couple of notches better than the one in "Robot Monster", but hardly look waterproof, let alone airtight. Otherwise, there's nothing to tell you it's anything to do with space travel. He gets very depressed and sick, goes back briefly to his wife in Moscow, she follows him back to the gulag, and everyone is embarrassed when she meets the mistress, but his ill-health makes them sink their differences.

There are one or two shots that are stunning for their sheer improbability, like a distant lift-off behind a stoical camel against a vast plain of slush. I'm not asking for SF bells and whistles or bleeps and roars and distorted cheeks, but if they wanted a movie about character, they could have set this one all on a collective farm. Space travel is too big a subject to push (literally) into the distant background like this.

And all the doctors smoke like chimneys.
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Humpday (2009)
6/10
Starts well, goes downhill, ends prematurely.
23 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This film promises a lot, delivers some, but then tails away. At the end I wondered if they had run out of money. The two main characters are likable and different, and you can see why they would get on, if not get it on. The setup is gentle and convincing. The tension between Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore) is beautifully built up, so the moment she learns what Ben and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) have planned is the high spot of the film. From there it's a slow slide downhill. What happens is probably what would happen, but it's strangely unsatisfying. One reason is that the last half hour or more is stuck in a hotel room, "very beige" as Andrew says, more or less. Five minutes more could have wrapped it up so much better: * if we had seen Anna's reaction to Ben's version of events. * if we had seen the Dionysiacs' reaction to Andrew's version of events (in fact those two could have made a nice point-counterpoint) * if they had gone to Humpday and seen what they were up against. If they had persuaded Anna to go, her reaction would have been really interesting.

One problem for a gay viewer (and this film is likely to be touted to a gay audience) is that the central issue - sex between men - carries so much more tension than it need. And sex between straight men? The vids are full of it.

(I learnt something useful near the beginning. If someone is texting during a movie, a good way to make them stop is to shine a torch in their face and tell them to stop or leave. A little LED torch on a keyring works well.)
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Brüno (2009)
1/10
Avoid!
14 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Confession: I walked out of this after less than half an hour. I'm told it has a good joke near the end, but I wasn't prepared to put up with another half hour like that one to see it. My apologies if it picked up after that, but it was too late for me, and by all accounts, it didn't.

The umlaut should be a warning sign before you even buy your ticket. It was added to "Üniversal" too, but why? Saying "Brueno", and correcting others' pronunciation could have been a running gag, but Cohen just says "Bruno". This is about as funny as the backwards Rs in "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966)

It's not that I hate the genre: I enjoyed "Borat". Borat had a kind of innocence, so you could laugh at the ignorance of his anti-Semitism and the like (and Cohen, being Jewish, knew what he was doing). An out gay man can not claim that kind of innocence, and Sasha Baron Cohen is not even a real gay man. (Gay groups have compared him to a white man in blackface.) Real gay men like Julian Clary and Graham Norton can send up the downsides of gayness from the inside. Cohen just reinforces homophobia by portraying gay attitudes and gay sex as homophobes imagine it. (And what's with filming sex acts then covering them with your own black blobs? Why film yourself in order to censor yourself? How daring is that?)

If this film had been staged farce from beginning to end, like Austin Powers (so the writers had complete control of content) it would have been good enough at its own low level. Or if it had been "reality", improvised from beginning to end, it would have had consistency of another kind. But "Brüno" doesn't know what it is, and nor do we know from moment to moment whether we are looking at poor scripting or mediocre improvisation. (Did Cohen imagine Harrison Ford would say anything but "Fuck off!" - I didn't - so why didn't he have a comeback ready?)

Ricky Gervais (The Office {UK version}) is the master of the comedy of cringe, and he succeeds because we see our own vanity and self-delusion reflected in him. Brüno is an alien, even if you're Austrian and/or gay, and we can see nothing of ourselves there.

As others have said, "Brüno" has a meanness about it. What's funny about ambushing a conservative politician and crudely trying to seduce him? It would be funny if he was a homophobe (outside the US, we have no idea) and funnier if Brüno had got even part way, but he behaved exactly as you'd expect, fleeing as soon as he knew what was up. The charity celebrity invited to sit on immigrants as "furniture" did so for a minute out of politeness to her host but got out not a minute later than anyone else would have. If Brüno had had a trace of subtlety, he might have led them further down the garden path. This could have been very funny indeed. Instead he was whipping them with rosebushes before they got in the gate.

Sasha Baron Cohen has forgotten a word his Ali G. made so famous the Queen Mother was using it - Respec'.
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9/10
Worth another look
9 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I HATED this movie for years after I first saw it (when it was new). All I could remember was the bitter bitchiness and self-hatred. I did think a contemporary review was unjust to review the whole gay world as if the movie was it and "it is a world entirely devoted to sex". Sex goes remarkably unmentioned, by today's standards, but for me BITB was a dreadful warning about what I might become if I came out to myself.

Now, more than half a lifetime later, out and proud, I realise it was actually a GREAT movie, made with a lot of love by a playwright who knew exactly what he was doing and knew the gay world (indeed, the world) much better than I did.

The different characters are beautifully drawn, and given entirely fitting interactions with each other. Only Harold and Michael are really damaged (by their religions' view of their sexuality, one supposes); the others are coping as well as could be expected with a hostile world. As minorities in minorities, Emory and Bernard understand each other perfectly and can play with prejudice. The push-pull between Hank and Larry (especially Larry reacting to Hank and Alan) is perfect. A lot goes unsaid, leaving room for thought afterward. We never learn exactly what Harold and Michael's history (the message on the present) is, nor whether Alan is really straight or still deeply closetted. Don offers (relative) normality for the others to reflect in.

If I have a caveat, it's that I can't believe all the others would put up with Michael's games. Not one says "I've had enough of this, I'm going." But I guess you could say the same about "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".
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2/10
Hated it, but not for the reasons I expected
17 December 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I knew I was going to hate this movie, but I felt duty-bound to see it so that I could criticise it from a position of knowledge.

I knew I was going to hate it because I love the 1951 version as an important part of my childhood, and any imitation other than the kind of loving, insightful job Peter Jackson did on "King Kong" was bound to fail, and there was plenty of advance warning (beginning with the casting of Keanu Reeves) it was not going to be that.

What I didn't expect was that it would be so bad in so many new ways.

To start with, changing humankind's risk to the universe from nuclear destruction to environmental destruction doesn't make a lot of sense, nor does the idea that the earth is a valuable resource because it has multicellular organisms. (They started to develop the idea that the alien spheres were sampling terrestrial life - the spheres as "arks" - but didn't take it anywhere.) Homo sapiens, with all our faults, has to be the most interesting species on this planet, and while I sympathise with the idea of wiping us out and letting the earth take its chances of evolving an(other) intelligent species, that is hardly a likely alien policy.

The idea of using a swarm of metal-eating nanobots to wipe humans out makes even less sense. The nanobots themselves, and whatever they use for power, are a blot on the environment that makes anything we do look relatively trivial. And when they could eat an articulated truck in seconds, why did it take them so long to make holes in a jacket? Klaatu's stopping of electricity in TDTESS 1951 was a warning, and a fine theatrical moment whose essence was that nothing moved, all at the same time. In 2008, by switching lights off block by block, much of the dramatic impetus was lost.

Gort (1951)'s height of 8 feet was quite enough for him to be fearsome - especially when he opened his eyelid and fired his death-ray. The threat when it began to open again on Patricia Neal and her delay in saying the magic words is one of the great moments of movie history. Why the makers of Gort (2008) thought so much bigger was any better is baffling. The creasing at Gort (1951)'s knees was preferable to Gort (2008)'s jointlessness. CGI? - he might as well have been inflatable.

Rather strikingly, Gort and Klaatu had no discernible relationship, Gort having nanobotificated by the time Klaatu needed help. The relationship between the two was at the heart of TDTESS 1951 (and in the short story, the punchline was that their relationship was the reverse of what we imagined). With Gort 2008 not going anywhere, there was no particular point to him being humanoid - and indeed with Klaatu not being human, that was quite anomalous.

And I haven't even started on the sentient beings. Jacob Benson (Jaden Smith) has to be the most irritating character since Jar Jar Binks. If Klaatu took him as a model, he'd wipe out humankind without thinking twice. At the heart of TDTESS 1951 was the bonding between Bobby and "Mr Carpenter" (even though his mother would never have risked it today).

Of Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, enough has been said already (I think I was one of the first, but I'm certainly not the last, to say he would have been better cast as Gort). At least we were spared any attempt at the Christ-like characteristics that so much better suited Michael Rennie's Klaatu. (While Rennie's final message was just as fascistic as Reeves', his portrayal had a warmth that animated the whole movie - you *cared* whether he lived or died.)

Jennifer Connelly at least didn't screw up the Patricia Neal part; concerned mother, skilled scientist, human being, she did her best to hold the film together. It's just a pity that she didn't get a single strong speech to defend the human race. "We can change" doesn't quite cut it.

I give it two points for the agreeably marbled spaceship, quietly mocking the beauty of the earth, and for Kathy Bates as Marion Allbright, sorry, Regina Jackson, who could neatly stand in for a mercifully invisible president.
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8/10
Almost nothing happens
20 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I was reminded of this film last night when I saw the Ewan McGregor action-adventure SF movie of the same English title (The Island, 2005). In that, everything happens at breakneck speed, and shot is piled on shot, giving you very little sense of place or indeed of what is happening. And it "borrows" from about seven other SF movies.

This could hardly be more different. It's like no other movie. Almost nothing happens. There are basically only two incidents. The first is quite shocking, and sets you up for the second to be much more so. But instead, life goes on. And that is the point of this little gem. See this film when you really have nothing else to do. Maybe take it on holiday and nothing else. For the first 3/4 hr you may find yourself asking "Why am I watching this?" Don't give up. Once it's over, you'll have a little experience of a very different way of life from your own that you can look back on for the rest of your life.

Edit: This film was called "Island" when I saw it. IMDb has changed its name automatically and I had to read the review to find out what film it was. "The Naked Island" is a terrible title for this film.
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