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2008

Death Race

dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
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There are two Paul Andersons who work as directors in contemporary cinema. There’s probably more but there’s two main ones I’m concerned with. Paul Thomas Anderson is the guy who made Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. The other Paul Anderson, with the W.S. initials betwixt the Paul and the Anderson, is the British chap who made films such as Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien Versus Predator.

Guess which Paul Anderson made this flick.

Death Race is a remake of a flick that was called Death Race 2000, made in the seventies. I guess calling this version Death Race 2000 would have given people the impression it was a period piece, a Merchant Ivory bittersweet coming of age story with Model T Fords and horse drawn carriages fighting it out for the love of a good woman / boy / pony.

Death Race 3000 would have hurt people’s brains by being so clearly set in a far too distant future. Like Futurama.

Rating:

Day The Earth Stood Still, The

dir: Scott Derrickson
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The Earth Didn’t So Much Stand Still on This or Any Other Day, it More Kind of Farted, Rolled Over and Went Back to Sleep.

Perhaps a bit long for a title, but it’s certainly more accurate. Of course if they didn’t use the original title reminding people this is a remake of the Cold War era classic, then no-one would be any the wiser, and no-one would have bothered to go and see it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being pointless, and 10 being pointed, this remake of a beloved alleged sci fi classic sits somewhere between pointless and pointlessly enjoyable. Ascribing a numerical value to that itself is pointless, but that’s probably not going to stop me from assigning a numerical rating at the end of the review. The Day The Earth Stood Still is not as entertaining or scolding as its predecessor, but it certainly looks prettier.

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Taken

dir: Pierre Morel
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Taken is a glorious throwback to the 70s and 80s where revenge wasn’t a dirty word. Sure, revenge flicks are a dime a dozen, and one is released every week (to the cinemas, with about five per week going straight to DVD), and they travel very well overseas. I guess it’s because everyone can relate to revenge.

That being said, revenge is a fundamental cinematic genre in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean that most of these flicks are good. They’re not. They’re easy to fuck up.

I guess it’s the fact that they should be so easy that lulls people into a false sense of security, or a real sense of insecurity. They don’t take the time to craft them well, or to make the main protagonist worth following in their journey to blissful, blood-spattered Old Testament style vengeance.

Taken probably isn’t at all believable, plausible or remotely likely. Neither are the Bond films or the Bourne films or the Sisterhood of the Travelling Underpants films, masterpieces though they are. None of it matters, because Liam Neeson does so well in a role few men do credibly.

Rating:

Let the Right One In (Lat den Ratte Komma In)

Let the Right One In

Sometimes little girls aren't made of sugar and spice
and all things nice. And sometimes they're not little girls at all.

dir: Tomas Alfredson

You would think that the vampire genre has been pretty much tapped out by now. The well went dry right about the time someone decided vampires could be an excellent Mormon stand-in for preaching abstinence and that sunlight, instead of burning them, would make them go all shiny and mirror-ball. How pretty! All Twilight needed further was ponies, and it would have been complete!

The endless permutations, allegorical renderings, highbrow and low trash versions mean that almost each and every possibility has been explored and then some.

So if you’re one of the many who’s heard of this strange little Swedish film and you’re wondering why it made so many critics end-of-year lists last year, and why it’s gotten so much acclaim, you might think it’s because it takes the vampire genre and radically twists it around and makes it all new again, kinda like that surgery they claim can turn women back into virgins. Yeah, as if.

You would be, like I was, surprised to find that Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist isn’t really that different. Even in Swedish, even set in the 80s, it’s a recognisable part of the vampire canon of tales and stories. This vampire needs blood, has to avoid sunlight, has to be invited in to a house in order to enter it, and its bite alone can turn its victims vampiric if the vampire neglects to kill those it feeds on.

Rating:

W.

dir: Oliver Stone
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On some level I have to suspect Oliver Stone wants to think of himself as one of the premiere chroniclers of the American nation . Kind of like a Ken Burns or Sir David Attenborough of presidents, wars and otherwise momentous times. True, he did the dirty with Alexander the Great, which is an abomination wrapped in a travesty wrapped in a fiasco, but his focus has generally been on the American soul and body politic in all its glory.

After JFK, after Nixon, he’s taken the curious step of eulogising or biographising a president still in office at the time of the film’s release, which seems odd. There hasn’t been time for history to either elevate or diminish a statesman’s legacy to any appreciable degree yet, to warrant such a going over, you could say. There hasn’t been the time for the dirt to come out, for the squealers to squeal, for the many damning versions of the truth to accrete, accumulate and overflow. You question the purpose, the intent, the objective. The point.

Oliver Stone is not a subtle man, nor a humble one. Making a film about a sitting president is as much about trumpeting the director’s view of that president to the world as it is about the president himself. You’d think the intention, thus, is critical or at least condemnatory.

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Slumdog Millionaire

dir: Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan
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The question shouldn’t be whether Slumdog Millionaire really was the best or one of the best movies of 2008, or whether it was worthy of the top honours at the Academy Awards most recently. Such a pointless question can’t be answered objectively, because everyone knows, deep down in their heart of hearts, that the Oscars are no measure of worth, artistic or otherwise.

They are a measure of Hollywood’s self-regard, on the other hand, where it likes to reward itself for being so goddamn wonderful and deeply humanist, despite being an industry based on its brutal treatment of people. Every now and then (as in, pretty much every year), films that no-one could actually like are rewarded because of how wonderfully the voters make themselves feel for being so incredibly open-minded and cosmopolitan.

The real question is how the Academy can live with itself for giving an Oscar to the same man who directed A Life Less Ordinary, which is one of the most downright fucking awful movies ever made.

Sure, Danny Boyle and his highly talented crew have made a bunch of tremendous films that I have loved to bits, but Life Less Ordinary is one of those mistakes so total and so absolute that no redemptions are possible, no forgivenesses should ever be forthcoming.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

dir: Ari Folman
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Animated movies don’t usually tackle genocide, massacres and the delayed effects of traumatic memories on people as their main themes. They’re usually about the virtues of being yourself, or about believing in yourself, or about what it would be like if dogs, cats and robots were lucky enough to have the voices of celebrities.

Israeli director Ari Folman has made something quite unique here, in that it is a documentary about his lack of memory about something he was involved in, and it is an animated documentary, at that. How many animated documentaries can you think of, off the top of your heads?

None, because there aren’t any. It really is quite remarkable. The animation itself is straightforward and comparatively simplistic, in that this isn’t something you’re watching because it’s a technical marvel. But it serves the story perfectly, because it doesn’t distract from the telling of the story; it facilitates it. For a completely rendered version of what happened, it approaches a kind of truth many if not most documentaries lack.

Rating:

Gran Torino

dir: Clint Eastwood
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What a sweet, crusty, curmudgeonly old man Clint is. And boy, is he old. He has officially reached Methuselah age, but it’s not slowing him down, not a bit. Gran Torino was one of two films Clint put out in 2008, following closely on the heels of his other massive two-film endeavour, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. So age has clearly not wearied him. He’s making more films than ever, and his films are more loved than ever. The man’s certainly not in decline.

All the same, as a director Clint happily works far harder than as an actor, since he’s earned the right to just coast along by now. And coast he does, playing the same Clint he’s been playing for forty years, just older and crustier.

And we love him for it, and are more than happy to let it slide. Even when the melodrama is as cheesy as it is here, even when the acting (admittedly by non-professional actors) is atrocious, and when the script is so appalling. We don’t care because it’s Clint.

Rating:

Frost/Nixon

dir: Ron Howard
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I’m not old enough to have really cared about the horrors of life under Nixon, or about Nam, Agent Orange or the Bee Gees when they were all at their peak evilness. So I’m not old enough to have watched or known about the ‘famous’ interviews that served as the basis of the ‘famous’ play that this ‘famous’ film is based on. I am old enough, on the other hand, to know who Nixon was, and to marvel at the way the old rascal still permeates the Western pop cultural consciousness, even in death, even to this day.

In fact you could argue that he’s even more prominent now than prior to his death. You have to wonder why. No president of the last hundred years has been as endlessly quoted, maligned, parodied, written about or portrayed in films and tv shows as Richard Milhous Nixon. Well, Kennedy, maybe, but he’s the other side of the coin.

And next to no-one should know who David Frost is/was. If this film is to be believed, ably directed by the guy who played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, then their interview together wasn’t solely the single most important interview in the history of interviews, it was the only trial and conviction Nixon was ever going to receive for his crimes against the world in general and the American people specifically.

Changeling

dir: Clint Eastwood
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Before Gran Torino, the highest grossing and 437th film directed by Eastwood, stunk up the multiplexes and delighted American crowds with its rascally racist protagonist bellowing at Hmong immigrants to get off his lawn whilst aiming a shotgun at them, Clint unleashed this curious little true crime / period piece movie to less fanfare but more critical acclaim.

At least initially. Before it premiered at Cannes, and was still known as The Exchange, the buzz was that it was one of Clint’s best films. Of course, after actual humans and not PR cyborgs saw the film, a resounding ‘meh’ was heard to echo around the cinemas of the world. Angelina Jolie receiving a nomination for playing the main character here is very strange, unless, there’s a new Biggest Lips – Anglo Category I haven’t heard of to be honoured at the next Academy Awards, but otherwise most of the world tried to pretend the film never existed.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I found the film quite enjoyable and interesting despite Jolie’s presence, since she has the thankless role of playing a mother whose most compelling dialogue is “I want my son back” and “this boy is not my son, I want my son back.”

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