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Jersey Boys (2014)
If you loved the stage show, you might want to give this a miss. To put it mildly, it's a mess. The script is all over the place - starts off with a (too) long introductory section about Jersey, with all the stereotypes, the mob, cute Italian families etc. You just want it to get to the MUSIC!! Even when it does, there's not enough of it. (A couple of songs that should have been in full in the body of the film are tacked on at the end under the closing titles.) The subplots about Frankie's wife and daughter make little sense unless you've seen the stage version. We never find out that 'What a Night!' was Bob Gaudio's anthem to his loss of virginity; the songs rarely accord with the plot developments. On the plus side, the performances are all fine, but the actors are battling to inject some sense, and some real joyousness, into the ponderous screenplay. You certainly don't come out toe-tapping as you did with the stage show. I was so looking forward to this movie, but Clint Eastwood was the wrong person to direct it. You have to really love the music and he clearly didn't.
I have read the book and found it extremely bleak. I agree the film is (almost reverentially) faithful to the book, which is not necessarily a good thing. Many a good book has been the basis for a bad film (and vice versa). My main gripe concerns the casting of Malkovich, an actor I have admired - for example, he made a superb Ripley and was brilliant in Liaisons Dangereuses. However, in this film he was creepy, cold and unpleasant. Another actor would have given the character more emotional depth, but he failed to give the slightest indication that David cared about anyone but himself. I felt no involvement with the character and could not have cared less what ultimately became of him. Maybe it was a directing problem. But to me, Malkovich was wrong in every way, including being physically unattractive, for this role.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Delightful - but the table manners!
This is a totally delightful, charming film. Unlike some critics I did not find it too long - on the contrary, I would have been happy if it had run another 30 minutes. Meryl Streep is, as usual, sublime. My only niggling criticism is about the gross way Julie's husband, played by Chris Messina, eats, stuffing his face and talking with his mouth full. Perhaps the real husband is like this, but it's quite disgusting to watch- a bit of dramatic licence would have been in order. At the positive end, it was terrific to see Julia/Streep wearing the same jacket in different scenes, instead of the usual approach where upmarket female characters are shown with constant changes of costume. I love Amy Adams and think she will evolve into one of our very best screen actors, but this role does not demand much of her. Streep is the star.
Far-fetched, unbelievable plot
So much about this film just does not ring true, and there are big gaps in the plot so that you come out asking yourself: but why did he/she do that or why did such-and-such happen? The answers may be there but who's got the energy to tease them out? It's the filmmaker's job to keep the plot lines clean and clear. I agree with other comments about the love affair between the Jewish woman and Muntze. It's beyond credibility that a woman who has seen her family gunned down in cold blood by Nazis would fall for one of them. However attractive Sebastian Koch may be! And Muntze's change of heart is hard to take. When he's first introduced to the film someone says 'He's the head of the Gestapo - has had hundreds of people killed' or words to that effect. Yet we never see that side of him - only the gentle, stamp-collecting, protector of the beautiful girl, mourning his dead family. It's an old-fashioned film, in the sense that it seems to be aiming for a thrill a minute and lacks the subtleties of plot and dialogue of recent quality films: European films like The Lives of Others, Downfall, and Hidden; or US films like Goodnight and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. It feels like it could have been made in the 1950s.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
Violent and horrible
Have we become so inured to violence that film reviewers don't even bother to mention it any more? I found this film almost unwatchable in its graphic violence. The characters seemed to me to be just overdrawn stereotypes and the situations - such as the childbirth scene and its outcome - obvious and clichéd. The Captain was an appalling sadist without a redeeming feature; the housemaid was sweet and saintly. When it was over my companion turned to me and said: 'Well what was that all about?' 'A fairy tale for adults' is hardly an adequate answer. What was the point of the fantasy sequences? I could understand if they were the child's way of escaping the horrible reality around her; but the fantasies were equally frightening. What was the filmmaker trying say ? Why did he set it in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war - was it supposed to be some sort of allegory for Iraq? I was totally baffled, as well as being sickened by the violence. I detect a trend of thought among critics and the Academy that anything made by a Spanish or Mexican director must be great. That may be the case with Almodovar, but then he's a genius.
Chieko's relationship with her father
Did anyone else get the impression that Chieko had been sexually abused by her father? The clues include her saying to her team-mate that she would 'fuck her dad', her coming on to the much older policeman, and the circumstances of her mother's death, which could have been a reaction to finding out about the abuse; and finally, the rather equivocal last scene between Cheiko and her father. And what did she write in the note to the policeman? Her behaviour could be attributed simply to her feelings of isolation as a deaf-mute girl trying to deal with her sexuality and being depressed by the rebuffs she receives, but it could come from something more sinister. This film is very much about children and the terrible things that can happen to them (note that the director dedicates it to his own children) so this theory could be correct in the very bleak context of the film as a whole.
Friends with Money (2006)
Disappointing and tacky
Reviews suggested that this film was a sensitive, humorous, insightful take on women and their relationships with other women, and with men. Wrong on all three scores: it was crass, unfunny and lacked any real insights. If you can believe Jennifer Aniston as an impecunious house cleaner, you'll believe anything! It was hard to feel sympathy for or empathy with any of the characters, who are mostly rich, bored, unappealing members of the American middle class obsessed with their appearance, their weight, their status. One potentially interesting character turns out to be a liar and a mean exploiter of less fortunate people. What a waste of good female talent like Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand. As for the men, to this female at least they were all deeply unattractive!
Great performances, great script
From viewing the trailer, I felt some concern that Philip Seymour Hoffman might mimic Capote rather than produce a rounded character. I was wrong. This is a stunning performance, and despite very stiff competition should collect the Academy Award for best actor. Clifton Collins Jr - an actor I was not familiar with - is also extraordinary and very moving as the articulate killer Perry Smith with whom Capote forms an odd bond, a bond which ultimately goes beyond simply using him for what he can get out of him. The script is exemplary, and makes few concessions to the viewer: you're expected to know who William Shawn was and to follow some witty New York cocktail party literary gossip. Futterman makes no bones about the way Capote manipulated, and in some cases blatantly lied to, his subjects. All minor roles are well cast, notably Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee and Chris Cooper as the detective Alvin Dewey. I am inspired to re-read Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood and also re-view the interesting film of that book.
The Singing Detective (2003)
Comparisons with earlier version unfair
I saw this film as part of a process of educating myself about the career of Robert Downey Jr after seeing his remarkable performance in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and realising to my shame that I could recall seeing him in Chaplin but not much else. I have been working my way through his films and I am staggered at the range and depth of his talent, even in mediocre films (and he has made a few). But one can only agree with New Yorker critic Anthony Lane who wrote recently 'I'll watch him in anything'.
I disagree vehemently with those who've compared this Singing Detective unfavourably with the earlier version. I saw the original on television here in Australia when it was first screened, and it was indeed a great piece of television (though I preferred Pennies from Heaven which launched the international career of Bob Hoskins and was given a bad Hollywood remake). It's important to remember that Dennis Potter himself wrote this script, specifically for a shorter film version, and was keen to see it made. The dissenters should rent the DVD and listen to director Keith Gordon's commentary if they are in any doubt that it is faithful to the spirit of Potter's intentions and his written word.
The casting of Downey is a stroke of genius. Because he is a younger and very attractive man, the gross disfigurement of his character with psoriasis is infinitely more poignant than when the part was played by Michael Gambon - even when the Dan Dark character is behaving like a total bastard. His performance is extraordinary: the sublety of his mood changes and facial reactions, and the pathos he draws out of this trapped character (without a hint of schmaltz) just leap off the screen (even more remarkable given that for some of the time he was wearing makeup that took hours to apply and initially caused a bad skin reaction;and that he was under threat of returning to jail on drugs charges, which is why the film had to be shot in LA rather than Chicago - he was not allowed to leave LA).
I guess Downey's messy private life is one of the reasons he's such an interesting and complex actor. One can only hope that other brave producers will take a punt give him the big meaty parts that his talent deserves.
Don't let the nay sayers dissuade you from seeing this film; it's great. Mel Gibson is (thankfully, for me) unrecognisable and the scenes between him and Downey are terrific. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
Concerned about follow-up
I came away from this film with a feeling of unease. Sure, it works on one level as a well made thriller, well acted and beautifully shot. But at another level it - like the book on which it is based - is purportedly an exposé of the unethical operations of big pharmaceutical companies. At the session I attended, there was a promo shown before the film for the UN World Food Program, but there was nothing else to suggest that the film had more serious objectives or that something positive might flow from it to alleviate the appalling situation of the African people shown in the film. As one tends to when considering Africa and its problems, I was left with a feeling of hopelessness that probably things have not improved and indeed, given recent events in Darfur and the Sudan, for example, are probably worse.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Funny and delightful
This is a great spoof on the crime genre, in the tradition of Pulp Fiction. There is violence but it is so stylised as to be inoffensive, even funny. The dialogue is extremely witty and pitched to the viewer with a brain (though the less intellectually endowed will still enjoy the film). But the great revelation for me was the performance of Robert Downey Jnr. I can't recall having seen him in a film since his great turn as Chaplin, and I was aware that he has had drug problems. His Harry, the dumb, incompetent petty thief, is a creation of great depth and pathos and ultimately one of the most endearing characters you will ever see on screen. One can only hope that this performance will lead to a full revival of Downey's career and casting in more roles appropriate to his shining talent. He even wrote and sings the song over the closing titles. (The opening titles are brilliant too, by the way).