Category: United Kingdom


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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.

So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.

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One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.

What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first  real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.

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And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.

Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.

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I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.

Final Score: A

 

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Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

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Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

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Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

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And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
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This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

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Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

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This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

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The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

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Rarely do “horror” or “thriller” film seriously deal with complex and abstract emotional states of mind. Even most psychological thrillers tend to pay lip service only to the emotions of paranoia or fear. That’s about as emotionally deep a well as they are willing to dig. So, perhaps it’s the film’s devastating look into grief and a crumbling marriage, but 1973’s Don’t Look Now is a supernatural thriller unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen (even if Rosemary’s Baby is the immediate and obvious comparison). Director Nicolas Roeg’s manic film is a proto-Lynchean thriller as that serves as an exercise in impressionistic and surrealistic horror.

Though it’s a leisurely paced film (or so you might think at first glance), Don’t Look Now expertly wraps the viewer in an almost endless wave of dread and anxiety. With hyper-kinetic editing that owed a great deal to the French New Wave, the film jostles the audience along in a foreign land and with inexplicable phenomena so that one may never truly gain his bearing. And thanks to the film’s masterful pay-off, you don’t feel as if you’re just being jerked along. Don’t Look Now requires a sizable investment of patience and observation. One can not half-watch the film, but as this traumatic tale concludes, you realize you’ve been rewarded with a truly stellar ghost story.

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When a burgeois couple, American  John Baxter (The Hunger Games‘s Donald Sutherland) and his British wife Laura (Julie Christie), lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident, they move to Venice so they can escape any reminders of their horrific loss (and so that John can help renovate a Venetian church). However, at a restaurant, Laura meets two elderly British sisters, one of which is blind. The blind sister claims to be a psychic medium and that she can see the Baxters’ dead daughter. It isn’t a happy vision because the psychic gives an ominour warning that the Baxters must leave Venice because John’s life is now in danger.

It probably doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but it’s hard to reveal too much of the complex and tangled webs of the plot of Don’t Look Now without ruining the magic of discovering just what is happening beneath all of the premonitions and psychic claims. I spent the vast majority of the film (even up until its final moments) wondering just what in the hell was happening in this supernatural mystery, but when the light bulb finally clicked in my head, I was nearly bowled over by how well director Nicolas Roeg fused past, present, and future with fantasy, delusion, and just a hint of prophetic truth.

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I really can’t overstate how important the direction and editing of Don’t Look Now was on the overall quality of the film. This movie had to have been a considerable influence on the later works of David Lynch (particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.), and it’s embedded religious and sexual symbols and almost nausea-inducing flow dip the audience headfirst into a world where the difference between the sacred and the profane is almost non-existent. And, in the editing department, an excellent use of cross-cutting gives Don’t Look Now a very classy but also surprisingly explicit love scene that may very well be one of the sexiest love scenes in the history of cinema.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are both formidable in their roles. Though I haven’t found it hard to understand the dialogue of the film (the movie often felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation that I wasn’t allowed to hear every word of), when the camera was focused squarely on the suffering spouses, I couldn’t tear myself away. Sutherland and Christie both tap into the wrenching grief and anger that any parent would feel after losing a child, and in a locale where the city itself is slowly sinking (an important symbol of the film), Sutherland and Christie perfectly capture the last gasps of a marriage on the rocks.

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This may sound heretical, but I honestly think Don’t Look Now is a superior film to the more lauded and well-remembered Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, if there were a Polanski film that I could make the most positive comparisons to (even though they have little in common plot-wise), it’s Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion. I don’t think that Don’t Look Now will be for everyone. Some will likely find it unbearably dull (though if you do, you don’t have much of an imagination), but for those with the willingness to devote the mental energy to this film that it deserves, you will be rewarded with a truly unique horror experience that paved the way for some of the great modern thrillers of our age.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before this review begins. I watched this movie last night before I went to bed. I worked from 8:30-4:30 and took a 2 hour nap when I got home cause I have to work again from 10 PM to 2 AM. And there’s a reasonable chance that I won’t be able to finish this review before I have to go back to work in an hour and a half. We’ll see. Hopefully, that’s not the case.)

I have a soft spot for classic romances. It’s a theme that’s been explored on here from films as diverse as Giant to Penny Serenade to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Despite my jaded, world-weary cynicism, I’m a romantic at heart, and I like watching a well-crafted romance. Merchant Ivory films (the movies of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) have a reputation as being lavish, meticulously constructed period romances, and while 1986’s A Room with a View is a beautifully acted and gorgeously shot film, I can’t ignore the fact that it was unequivocally one of the most boring films I’ve watched in ages.

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In the Edwardian era, young Lucy Honeychurch (Conversations With Other Women‘s Helena Bonham Carter) visits Florence with her aunt, Charlotte Bartlett (Gosford Park‘s Maggie Smith), in tow as her chaperone. A slightly rebellious girl, Lucy wanders Florence on her own and plays Beethoven passionately as the curious Vicar Beebe (Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Simon Callow). Among the fellow Brits in the hotel Lucy and her aunt are staying at are the Emersons. Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) is a loud but well-meaning journalist while his son George (Julian Sands) is moody and brooding, a perfect match for the stormy Lucy.

It isn’t long before Lucy begins to fall for the handsome but aloof George, but when her aunt discovers the two kissing in the Italian countryside, Charlotte ends their Italian sojourn early and they return to England. Not long after, Lucy finds herself engaged to the foppish but well-moneyed Cecil Vyse (Gangs of New York‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). She cares for him although, it’s not the passionate, all-consuming romance she felt towards George. Lucy begins to resign herself towards her life with Cecil though when out of the blue, the Emersons move into a villa in her town and throw her entire life out of whack.

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Despite the nearly constant soporific effect that I felt during the entirety of this film, one would have to be insane to say that A Room with a View isn’t a gorgeously constructed film. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy back in the summer of 2009 and it was a life-changing experience. I could see Il Duomo from my apartment and every day on my way to class I walked by more history and art and culture than I saw in my entire life in the United States. Much like how David Lean’s Summertime captured Venice or Woody Allen’s Manhattan captured…. you know, every single frame set in Florence is a glorious ode to one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, and the scenes in England aren’t too shabby either.

And, A Room with a View is flush with brilliant performances from a truly deep well of great British actors. Denholm Elliott and Maggie Smith received Oscar nods for their turns in the film, and though they were great, they weren’t even the most impressive members of the cast to me. Dame Judi Dench (Skyfall) shines as an almost masculine and vivacious author looking for inspiration in Florence. Helena Bonham Carter shows why she would go on to be one of England’s most consistently under-appreciated stars with this early and mature performance. And Daniel Day-Lewis loses himself (as usual) in the role of the oblivious and possibly homosexual Cecil.

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But despite how well-crafted the film is from a technical perspective and an acting perspective, nothing it did could make me care about the dated comedy of manners on display and the tired/stale romance that sat at the film’s core. Longtime readers know that I have a fairly deep well of patience for deliberate pacing and slower storytelling. But, A Room with a View‘s pacing is absolutely turgid and the characters never seem to go anywhere. I can only recommend this film to the most die-hard fans of period drama and costume fanciness. Everybody else can stay at home and understand that this score is based almost entirely on the technical merits of this snooze of a film.

Final Score: B-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)

Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot.  The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.

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Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.

After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.

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And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.

While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.

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Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.

I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”

Final Score: B

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I once had a professor in college that I love and respect very much who once presented the argument (I’m unsure if she actually believed it or was just simply stating it out loud) that because cinema was such an originally proletarian form of artistic expression, it was pretentious to assume that cinema should aspire to be a higher art. Because it was originally created for mass consumption, the argument goes that the greatest films are those which can be enjoyed by the most people. True “art” was left for literature and the classical visual arts. Clearly, if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know I disagree (in fact, my review of The Master makes the exact opposite point), and films like 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday are the perfect example of why. A film that was light years ahead of its time in terms of LGBT content, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a slow-moving character study whose grasp of loneliness and desperation is nearly unparalleled.

I bring this all up not to sound pretentious or like the snobby cinephile all my readers know I am, but because Sunday Bloody Sunday (abbreviated to SBS from this point forward in review) is a film that is as far away from mass appeal as humanly possible, but it has the quiet power and raw emotional energy of the great pieces of American literature of the 20th century. The film, directed by John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame, has such a clarity of vision and honest understanding of its characters that the film doesn’t have to rely on emotional fireworks and explosive confrontations to achieve a near total devastation. In the same vein of A Single ManSBS takes a subtle and sexy approach (40 years before that would enter the mainstream of LGBT cinematic storytelling) to exploring love, bisexuality, polyamory, and the overwhelming hopelessness of loneliness.

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The film is often referred to as a romantic drama involving a “love triangle” although I think that’s ultimately inaccurate (for reasons I’ll expound on later). Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is an exiting middle-age homosexual Jewish doctor with a successful private practice. Alexandra Greville (Glenda Jackson) is a middle-aged woman with an unfulfilling career at an employment referral agency. The only thing the two have in common (besides a sense of emptiness in their lives) is that they both love the young, bisexual artist Robert Elkin (Murray Head). Taking place more or less over the course of one week, Sunday Bloody Sunday sketches an intimate portrait of the affection and meaning Alex and Daniel both seek from Robert while the always restless Robert hops from partner to partner always in search of the next new and exciting experience in his own life.

If the film sounds dull by that synopsis, it is surely not the most exciting film ever made, and SBS moves at its own consistently deliberate pace. And while the film does find itself at somewhat of a resolution by the movie’s end, it is not a “happy ending” that will leave many satisfied, and, in fact, I would argue that Sunday Bloody Sunday sets up this type of dissatisfaction intentionally because it’s an honest portrayal of the complex romantic entanglements that have formed in these people’s lives as well as a commentary on the way that we look for meaning in romance at the cost of actual self-improvement (more on that shortly). SBS is barely a story in the traditional sense of the word and it lacks any singular scene begging for the audience’s attention. However, the sheer strength of the film’s writing, characters, and performances kept me entranced until the end credits rolled.

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Sunday Bloody Sunday won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the two leads won Best Actor and Actress. I’m not intimately familiar with all of the other nominees that year but Glenda Jackson’s win was well-deserved and Peter Finch was no slouch himself. It would not be an understatement to say that Glenda Jackson gives one of the most powerfully subtle and restrained performances that I’ve seen for this blog (it’s really a shame she’s up against the firebrand, crazy turn from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for this 50 film block). Alex’s loneliness and sense that her life is going nowhere and doesn’t have much of a chance of changing is soul-crushing, and in every line of Alex’s aging face (just realized Glenn Close was an Alex as well), you see how she feels the world and fate closing in around her. It’s the type of emotionally naked (and physically naked occasionally) performance that you rarely saw from female actresses at the time. Apparently, Glenda Jackson also went on to be a member of Parliament after she retired from acting if you’re interested in random trivia.

And Peter Finch’s Dan has to be one of the most compelling LGBT characters to appear in a mainstream film (in so far as John Schlesinger has now entered the cinematic mainstream thanks to Midnight Cowboy). Anyone who’s seen The Celluloid Closet (a documentary chronicling the portrayal of LGBT characters in mainstream cinema) knows that well into the 1990s, it was an unwritten rule (except when it was written thanks to the Hays Code) that gay characters had to be in some type of psychic turmoil and they all suffered throughout the film. Certainly Dan has problems, but they are tame compared to Alex, and he’s an otherwise well-adjusted man. The simple fact that Peter Finch played against period homosexual stereotypes at every turn (he wasn’t foppish in the slightest) would be enough to cement this character’s legacy, but Finch also shows the quiet loneliness and repression that eat away at Dan’s soul. Murray head also makes an impact as the sensitive and androgynous beatnik that captures both Alex’s and Dan’s passions.

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It’s a gorgeously shot film although Schlesinger’s famous tendency towards slipping in fantasies and flashbacks without any of the traditional visual transitions confused me slightly at first (although I immediately remembered my high school experience with Midnight Cowboy). Although once again, the film is gorgeous in a different way than, say, an Andrew Dominik film or Terrence Malick film. It doesn’t forcibly grab your attention. Instead, quiet lighting or a lingering shot on a sculpture of Bob’s (a strange but enchanting contraption involving what appears to be mercury and a reaction to music), Sunday Bloody Sunday underscores the need Alex and Dan need for beauty and pleasure in their desperate lives. Dan’s home is gorgeous and full of art, but the film never fails to hint at the emptiness seeping inside as well.

Sunday Bloody Sunday jumped to the top of my Netflix queue (The Crying Game was supposed to be the next film for me to watch according to my “master list” for this blog [which I’m also in the process of re-writing but that takes forever]) because it’s leaving Netflix Instant shortly. There are also like 9 other films in my instant queue that are leaving and I have to find time to watch as many of them as possible before they leave. One of these films is six hours long… and it’s the next one up. So, I’ll draw this review to a close although I hope you can tell that I have a lot more that I’d like to say about this movie. If you have any interest in quiet and powerful character studies as well as a film that is a hallmark of classic LGBT cinema, Sunday Bloody Sunday deserves your time and may very well be a true masterpiece of 1970s cinema period.

Final Score: A

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Political satire/topical humor is tricky to pull off. It’s a topic I’ve discussed on this blog in the past (my review of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is what springs to mind), but it bears repeating again here. Thankfully, 1963’s The Mouse on the Moon is a fairly intentionally light-hearted affair although that doesn’t make it especially funny. The Mouse on the Moon deals with the insanity surrounding the space race in the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the nuclear arms race), and while it managed to make me chuckle on several occasions, mostly the film left me bored and perusing Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, my inability to connect with the film is related to the fact that it’s a sequel to Peter Seller’s The Mouse That Roared which I’ve never seen, and since that film isn’t on my list on this blog, I didn’t really feel the urge to put the effort into watching it since, as I understood it, the film’s were mostly separate (which was thankfully true). I don’t think it impacted my review but my integrity as a critic means I should probably make that point clear. This film could have definitely used the talents of Peter Sellers because if any man is a one-person comic powerhouse, it’s him.

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The Mouse on the Moon centers around the tiny, fictional European nation of Grand Fenwick. They are, to quote the film, Europe’s smallest and least progressive nation, and though the film takes place in the present, Grand Fenwick does not even have indoor plumbing (though it has beatniks…). Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Ron Moody) comes up with a brilliant scheme to bring money to Fenwick’s coffers. He will ask the U.S. for funds to put a man on the moon but instead use it for Fenwick’s own needs. What Mountjoy doesn’t expect is when Fenwick finds itself at the very center of the space race as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hope to use Fenwick to outmaneuver the other.

Conceptually, it’s actually kind of a funny idea. The idea that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both so sure of Fenwick’s incompetency (and yeah, the nation was not actually capable of making a rocket [though the film comes up with a funny deus ex machina there]) that they gave the nation money just to increase their standing in the international community actually seems kind of possible back in Cold War hysteria. And when the British too try to uncover what’s happening and send the bumbling Maurice Spender (How to Murder Your Wife‘s Terry-Thomas) to investigate, the international incident that begins to spiral out of control had potential.

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Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its potential and mostly the film is yawn-inducing. Terry-Thomas’s presence in the film was far too brief because he was clearly the best comic actor in the film. Bernard Cribbins got some laughs as the Prime Minister’s son who dreams of actually being an astronaut, but he has to make do with material that’s sadly hit or miss. It wasn’t that the film is bad (and you may get that impression from the score I’ll be giving it); it was just entirely forgettable. I watched the film yesterday and though the plot and stray observations have stuck, nothing substantive from the film remains.

Final Score: C+