Film Reviews by RJ

Welcome to RJ's film reviews page. RJ has written 56 reviews and rated 112 films.

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American Graffiti

A sign of what could have been for George Lucas

(Edit) 17/05/2021

Watching American Graffiti is always bittersweet for me. It is such a warm, nostalgic and beautiful film with a tangible sense of time and place. I love the feel of this film and the way that Wolfman Jack's ubiquitous radio show hangs in the air like a warm breeze, tying the events of the evening together and uniting the characters various emotional journeys. The characters feel real and their doubts and anxieties concerning impending adulthood, and freedom giving way to important life choices is very poignant, especially as the spectre of the Vietnam War hovers, unsuspected, over their heads.

What makes it bittersweet is that I always think it is such a shame that George Lucas never directed another 'non-Star Wars' film after this. It seems incredible to me that the airless, antiseptic second Star Wars trilogy could be the work of the same director who created a film as warm and human as American Graffiti. Star Wars made Lucas a multi-millionaire (billionaire?) of course, but he could have had a filmography as rich and varied as someone like Scorsese if he hadn't become so all-consumed with it.

Lucas' career choices aside - it's a beautiful, comforting film that I could happily watch every year without growing tired of it.

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120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Annoying subtitles

(Edit) 08/05/2021

The Blu Ray has only one option for English subtitles, which is audio described for hard of hearing - this made it too annoying to watch so I can't review the film itself - will have to wait for it to turn up on TV.

Given how much content you can fit on a Blu Ray I can't understand why they didn't include regular subtitles as well.

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Ash Is Purest White

Hard to engage with

(Edit) 06/02/2021

Trying to write a review of this film is a difficult task, because it not really have any strong effect on me one way or the other. I certainly didn't find it to be the masterpiece which, as far as I can see, all of the critics did. I didn't hate it either - it was just a moderately engaging, often slightly boring drama that I struggled to find any emotional or intellectual way into.

As with several other of Jia Zhangke's films, it spans a wide period of time (17 years in this case, from 2001 to 2018) and follows the lives of its characters as China changes in the background: towns become unrecognisable; cities are built; the Yangtze is dammed at the the Three Gorges. In the foreground, the narrative first skirts around the edges of becoming a gangster movie before gradually turning into a more intimate investigation of morality and destiny.

Bin is a gangster of sorts, involved in shady property development amongst other things, and is a powerful figure in the underground world that he inhabits. His girlfriend Qiao also occupies a position of power and respect, illustrated by the way she assertively enters the gambling den that the mobsters hang out in, casually thumping each of them on the back. Qiao, following a turf war encounter in which she fires an illegal firearm in order to save Bin from being beaten to death, ends up in jail for 5 years after taking all the blame and saving Bin from serious jail time himself.

So far, so familiar. When Qioa is finally released from jail only to find that Bin has not waited for her and does not wish to see her, the film again flirts with genre conventions and seems briefly as if it may become a simple revenge thriller but ultimately goes in a different direction. Instead of becoming an avenging angel, it seems that Qiao has adopted the righteous moral code of the underground life she knew before prison and this guides her to try and rehabilitate Bin, who has lost his status and later - having had a stroke - the use of the left side of his body. Occasionally, she has the opportunity to take her life in a different direction and leave Bin behind once and for all - in one instance she starts off on a journey with a man who claims to be starting a 'UFO tourism' business and wants her to join him. Shortly into the journey he admits that in fact he is doing no such thing and actually runs a small grocery store. Following this admission, Qiao disembarks the train whilst he is sleeping, but it feels like her decision is not a result of the truth she has just learned - rather, it is her destiny calling her back home and to Bin.

The idea that unearthly forces are guiding Qioa is emphasised when, after leaving the train, she apparently sees a UFO flying overhead. But Qiao's destiny is actually self-created. At some point she decided to adopt her particular moral code and thereafter her life is defined by it. She is seemingly magnetically drawn back to where the film started, in the underground gambling den where many of the old gang still remain. Bin, having been unable to accept his fall from grace, does not share this magnetic pull, and as soon as Qiao has rehabilited him to the point at which he can walk again, he leaves her.

The trouble for me was that I didn't find any of this terribly interesting. I enjoyed Pickpocket and Platform (two of Jia Zhangke's early films), but my recollection of those films is that they were quite rough around the edges - they felt very tactile and the characters in them seemed like real people living real lives. His later work (based on my viewings of this film and 2013's A Touch of Sin) seems too polished to me, as if he has become too comfortable with his working methods, critical status and established audience.

In summary - not a great film but not terrible either. My response after two hours and fifteen minutes was a shrug, and I think I will have more or less forgotten it in a week.

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David Cronenberg's Early Works

Almost unwatchable - for Cronenberg die-hards only

(Edit) 31/01/2021

As a big fan of David Cronenberg, especially the earlier body horror films, I had long been interested in watching this compilation of his early works. I had considered buying it on several occasions - thank goodness I just chose to rent it, as it is hard to imagine anyone in the world, even the most ardent Cronenberg worshipper, wanting to watch any of these twice.

'Transfer' and 'From the Drain' are short films Cronenberg made as a student which possess no merit or interest whatsoever.

'Stereo' and 'Crimes of the Future' represent a bridge between the early short films and 'Shivers', which I would still consider to be Cronenberg's first true feature film. Both were shot silently due to the cameras being too noisy to record sound at the same time. Stereo has an added narration from multiple voices (to say multiple 'characters' would be putting it too strongly I think), whilst COTF has a narration from the main protagonist as well as occasional sound effects and odd bits of music. In each film, the narration hints at intriguing ideas, many of which would be explored in Cronenberg's later features. Unfortunately the visual elements of both films, whilst showing a sharp eye for striking compositions, are abstract and desperately dull. The running time of each of these films is only an hour but both feel much, much longer.

Film critic Kim Newman, writing about Crimes of the Future, couldn't have put it any better when he stated it was "more fun to read about in synopsis than to watch" and that it proved it was "possible to be boring and interesting at the same time".

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Parasite

Broad humour and silly farce

(Edit) 29/01/2021

I feel like I can't be too harsh on this film. It wasn't what I had expected or hoped for, but I am reasonably certain that my hopes and expectations were not Bong Joon-Ho's primary concerns when making it.

All I knew going into the film (aside from all the Oscar noise) was that it concerned a poor family inveigling its way into the life and home of a rich family. I was hoping that this intriguing subject matter was going to be dealt with in a subtle way, that the process of the 'parasitic invasion' would be slow, insidious and believable. Unfortunately I was wrong - the film actually deals with its subject matter in very broad black comedy and ultimately silly farce. Another reviewer, Alphaville, has absolutely nailed it in his description of the film as "over-ripe, long-winded and far too cumbersome" (I mention this partly because in another review I wrote a few minutes ago I took exception to the tone of Alphaville's negative review of Monos, so I'm evening the score).

Anyway, it's not a terrible film - some parts are quite funny and there are some surprising moments. I just can't help feeling that the director took the easy route by playing this for laughs - played straight, this really could have been the masterpiece that the Oscars hype-machine would have us believe it is.

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Monos

Brutal and atmospheric

(Edit) 29/01/2021

I thought I would briefly offer my positive opinion of this film to counterbalance some of the aggressively ignorant reviews that others have posted on here (you know the type, the people who pejoratively use the phrase 'art house' to sneer at any slightly non-mainstream film which has enraged them). HM states in his/her review that Mark Kermode is "known for his occasional duping of the public by recommending a film he thinks is 'interesting' and a bit different" - what HM means of course is that Mark Kermode sometimes given an opinion which differs from that of HM, which is not the same thing. Another reviewer, Alphaville, believes this film is "the kind praised by ridiculous arthouse critics before being rubbished by any discerning movie lover" - again, what he/she means to say is that some critics have offered an opinion different to his/her own.

Anyway, now that I have got that off my chest, I will state my opinion that this was a very engaging, atmospheric, immersive and brutal film.

TE states that "none of the characters are well enough depicted and developed" - this is a fair point but I believe it is a mistake to consider this a weakness of the film. I would argue that one of its fundamental themes is the state of arrested development which child soldiers have forced upon them. Every aspect of their lives is controlled by brutal authoritarians - they even have to request permission to enter into relationships with one another.

The film is brilliantly acted by a cast of mostly non-professional actors - with the incongruous exception of one of the stars of Disney's Hannah Montana show - and I found it gripping from start to finish.

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Dragon Inn

An asthmatic eunuch hopping about in trees

(Edit) Updated 14/01/2021

I wasn't thrilled when this one came through the letterbox. It was buried deep within one of my rental lists as a result of a long since aborted notion I had of trying to watch every single film mentioned in Mark Cousin's The Story of Film documentary, but I'm not ordinarily a fan of martial arts / wuxia films. Earlier in the year I had watched House of Flying Daggers (on my rental list for the same reason) which I had found to be one of the most genuinely tedious and po-faced films I have ever sat through, which put me off even more.

Thankfully this was at least a much more entertaining watch, being essentially a mash up of a wuxia film with a spaghetti western - and I do love spaghetti westerns. It's all extremely silly (as noted by the previous reviewer, there are echoes of Monty Python at times) but quite good fun. In fact, I would suggest that viewing this as a surreal comedy is probably the best approach to getting some enjoyment out of it. The soundtrack is absurd, heavy-handed and derivative - but if I'm honest, I quite enjoyed that! It fits perfectly with the sense of silliness that pervades the whole film. I particularly liked the weird, woozy music that accompanied the seemingly interminable final showdown with the villain, an asthmatic eunuch who occasionally teleports himself from tree to tree.

I have no idea if this film was intended to be viewed seriously, but I would suggest that as long as you abandon any such notion, you might find this to be an acceptably diverting bit of fun.

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Ivan's Childhood

Tarkovsky getting started / Getting started on Tarkovsky

(Edit) 05/05/2020

The previous reviewer on here (Oli) has summed this one up quite well I think. I am not convinced it is a great film in itself but there is plenty here to suggest the direction that Tarkovsky would subsequently take. I must say that on a second viewing I enjoyed it a lot more - like Oli, I did get a bit bored first time through. On second viewing, when I was able to concentrate more on the filmmaking than on the plot, I saw a lot more to like and fewer flaws. There are still some significant flaws though, I think. In particular I find the subplot/love-triangle between Masha, Kholin and Galtsev rather tiresome and it keeps Ivan (the soul of the film) off screen for too long. I really dislike the highly choreographed scene in the woods with Kholin and Masha. To me it felt like a purely technical exercise, rather than being in the service of either the story or the ideas in the film. I also have some reservations about the dream sequences which are maybe just a touch heavy-handed (understandably for a first time director). If my memory of the other Tarkovsky films I have seen is not deceiving me, I think that they managed the blurring of time/space/dreams/reality etc much more subtly than this.

All of that said, there are many good things about this film: Nikolay Burlyaev is brilliant as Ivan, equally adept in the scenes depicting an idyllic childhood as in those showing him as a vengeful boy soldier; almost every single shot is composed in an interesting way and there is some beautiful imagery, particularly in the mist-covered swamplands and in the desolate remains of destroyed buildings.

I am hoping to work my way through Tarkovsky's films in the next month or so (although the 178 minute long Andrei Rublev is slightly intimidating) so I am interested to see which parts of this film are developed and which parts are left behind.

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Metropolis

The 'Titanic' of the silent era

(Edit) 20/04/2020

It took me a long time to get around to Metropolis. I ordered it online several years ago, but apparently my enthusiasm must have cooled by the time it actually arrived, as it spent these intervening years sitting patiently on the shelf, waiting for me to decide upon the 'right' time to watch it. That time came fairly recently and overall, I have to say that it was not quite worth the wait.

Remarkably, I knew very little about it before I watched it - only that it was a dystopian science fiction film that had something to do with the fate of workers in a mechanised society, and also - thanks to the familiar images shown in every history of the cinema - that it involved a robot being given the form and appearance of a human woman. I also knew that it was regarded as being highly influential on the visuals of many later sci-fi films, with Blade Runner being the one I had seen most frequently cited.

Therefore, I had no idea that the things I most disliked about the film (the silly plot, the ineffectual hero and the absurdly naive political message) have all been widely acknowledged before. From what I have seen, most reviews take the view that these flaws are easily overlooked because of the ambition and, above all, the production design of the film. The trouble I have with this is that I am trying to convey what the actual experience of watching this film was like for me, not to write an essay arguing for its importance or its influence. Put simply, incredible production design (and it truly is incredible) and some beautiful imagery are not enough to sustain interest in a silent film (or any film) that is 150 minutes long.

The narrative, particularly in the first 90 minutes, is punishingly slow, with every single element of the not-at-all-complicated plot horribly laboured. Then, there is the heroically bad performance by Gustav Fröhlich as the lead. I want to say that I lay the blame for this performance at Fritz Lang's door - from what I have seen from on set photographs, I am convinced he directed his actors in a very hands-on way and that this performance must have been what he wanted. Furthermore, I recently watched the 1929 film 'Asphalt' in which Fröhlich gives an excellent lead performance free of all the histrionics on show here. Then there is the silly, sentimental ending.

For me, I cannot - as Jean Cocteau advises in a short essay in the accompanying booklet - ignore all of these flaws and focus only on the imagery (I think he called it 'plastic beauty' but I can't be bothered to go downstairs and check) - at least not for two-and-a-half hours. The film I was constantly reminded of whilst watching this was Titanic. I have seen a few things on TV recently about the production of Titanic which showed what an astonishing achievement it was in terms of its production design - but that alone doesn't make Titanic a great film. Similarly to Metropolis, it has a tediously long build up full of unengaging characters and ham-fisted storytelling, followed by some genuinely exciting aquatic action sequences, topped off with a silly, saccharine ending.

Metropolis is interesting and important in many ways, but it is also a deeply flawed and unsatisfying cinematic experience.

One final note of caution - if you feel inclined to try a second viewing with the commentary on, you need to be prepared to be very interested in post-Freudian interpretations of the film (whatever that means) and the metaphysics of the film (whatever that means). Fifteen years ago, when I was earnestly writing essays for my Film Studies degree, I may have found it helpful - but nowadays that kind of thing is far too heavy for me.

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The Big Sleep

Is it a classic? I'm not sure....

(Edit) 20/04/2020

Try as I might, I can't quite bring myself to love this film. I like it - a lot. It is very entertaining, but something is holding me back from really falling for it. I rented this having just watched The Maltese Falcon which put me in the mood for more Bogart, but in my personal opinion The Big Sleep is not quite as good.

In trying to put my finger on why I have come up with the following.

Firstly, the plot of The Big Sleep (both novel and film) is famously convoluted. Numerous reviews go along the lines of: "don't worry about making sense of the plot, just enjoy the film noir atmosphere, the iconic performance and the wisecracks" etc. I'm fine with this up to a point, and indeed I did enjoy all of those elements, but I found that after about an hour I was so uninvested in what was going on that the combination of atmosphere, performances and sharp dialogue was struggling to keep me fully engaged.

Secondly, aside from Bogart, I found the supporting characters in The Big Sleep less memorable than in The Maltese Falcon. TMF's combination of Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre is pretty unbeatable in my opinion (both films benefit from the presence of Elisha Cook Jr.). In The Big Sleep, the only supporting player (aside from the aforementioned Elisha Cook Jr) that made much of an impression on me was Dorothy Malone, who pretty much steals the one scene she has in the film. Martha Vickers may have had more of a chance if her role had not been reduced due to concerns that she was overshadowing Bacall.

I know that this is bordering on sacrilege, but I am not totally sold on the 'crackling chemistry' between Bogart and Bacall. No doubt they were good together, but actually I think the relationship between Bogart and Mary Astor in TMF is more interesting and ambiguous than that of Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep. It may have been daring in its time, but the scene in which Bogart and Bacall discuss horse-racing, using it as a risqué euphemism for sex, was a bit laboured for my tastes. This was one of a number of scenes shot after the original filming had wrapped in order to capitalise on the public fascination with the Bogey/Bacall relationship and, whilst I realise of course that golden era Hollywood films were all about public fascination with its stars, I just wonder whether the obsession with B&B slightly knocked this film off balance. Alternatively, maybe I am just a contrary pain in the neck seeking problems where others find only pleasure.

Finally, I much preferred the pleasingly bitter ending to The Maltese Falcon than the more overtly romantic ending of The Big Sleep.

So there it is - I seem to have written a very negative review of a film that I actually enjoyed a lot. It's good, you'll enjoy it - but The Maltese Falcon is better.

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The Maltese Falcon

Comforting and nostalgic entertainment

(Edit) 30/03/2020

I find it difficult to adopt much of a critical/intellectual approach to films like this. I've never quite got my head around viewing directors like John Huston as 'auteurs', at least not in the way that I understand, for example, Kubrick, Lynch, Weerasethakul, Chaplin, Tarkovsky etc etc to be auteurs. My tendency is to view directors like Huston, Hawks and so on as being efficient, reliable and skilful directors who knew how to tell stories in an entertaining way. This tendency is, I am sure, a reflection of my ignorance and no doubt does these directors a huge disservice.

All of which is just a roundabout way of getting to my point, which is that I do not come to films like The Maltese Falcon with the same kind of critical approach that I do for many of the other films that I watch. I view them as pure entertainment, and on this level The Maltese Falcon delivers the goods. It's an involving story about the various shady characters trying to lay their hands on the titular Falcon (a classic MacGuffin), a statuette believed to be hundreds of years old and worth millions of dollars. Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, the private detective who gets caught up in the middle of it all. It's the kind of tough, cynical, wisecracking performance so well associated with Bogart. Add in the brilliant Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr and it all adds up to a highly entertaining couple of hours - what more could you ask for?

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I Am Belfast

Heavy handed

(Edit) 30/03/2020

I like Mark Cousins a lot as a film journalist but I don't really get him as a filmmaker in his own right. I like his documentary The Story of Film, but primarily because it is such a treasure trove of film clips - the bits in between, filmed by Cousins himself, always looked cheap and artless to me.

This film starts promisingly enough, with some beautifully shot landscapes (I presume it is cinematographer Christopher Doyle who is primarily responsible for these parts, but I do not know exactly how the collaboration between him and Cousins, who are co-credited for the cinematography, worked) and suitably atmospheric music from David Holmes. The middle section of the film, dealing largely with The Troubles, is also moderately interesting, albeit rather inconsistent in terms of style and tone.

Unfortunately, around the 60 minute mark, this film absolutely dives off a cliff and the final twenty minutes of the film consist of two heavy handed, badly shot sequences which strive for profundity but fall well short. The first involves a dreary 'fantasy' sequence showing the funeral of the imagined figure of the last bigot in Northern Ireland. The second uses the banal story of a bus driver turning his bus around so that one of his passengers can retrieve the shopping bags she left at the bus stop, in an attempt to illustrate the basic goodness of people. It felt so amateurish and sentimental, which confuses me because Cousins can be such an astute commentator on cinema as an art form, so it's something of a mystery to me how he can produce something so saccharine and crude.

Not for me - nonetheless I am still eagerly awaiting Cousins' next epic documentary 'Women Make Film'.

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Angel

A melancholic, neon-soaked nightmare

(Edit) 09/03/2020

The basic plot of this film (man witnesses brutal killing, seeks revenge on the perpetrators) might lead you to expect something in the vein of Death Wish, an exploitative film glorifying the vigilante. Alternatively, the setting of the film (Belfast, 1982, in the midst of the Troubles) might lead you to expect gritty realism.

In fact, it is neither of these things. I can't describe it any better than Mark Cousins did when he said that director Neil Jordan had "created a hazy world of neon pink, woozy and muffled". Danny's journey of revenge hardly seems premeditated, nor does he revel in his role as avenging angel. Instead he seems almost compelled by unknown forces; violence hangs heavy in the air that he breathes and he becomes intoxicated by it. His mission is not redemptive or cathartic, it is sad and suffocating and the cycle of violence just continues. Dismal, grey streets are escaped from in unreal, neon-lit spaces. Danny drifts through the film like a dead man walking, just as James Mason does in Odd Man Out, which is a spiritual companion to this film.

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The Company of Wolves

Beautiful nightmares

(Edit) 03/03/2020

This is one of those occasions where I don't have to go to the trouble of writing a review, because two other Paradiso members (NP and Count Otto Black) have already written helpful, insightful reviews to which I would add nothing.

I will say that it took me two viewings to appreciate this film, having gone in knowing almost nothing about it and expecting a more conventional narrative. After the first viewing I did a bit of reading about the film (including the two reviews I mentioned above) and on second viewing it was like I was watching a completely different film.

A delightful, imaginative meditation on fairy tales - I loved it.

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Time After Time

All the ingredients of a cult classic but fails to deliver

(Edit) 03/03/2020

The high-concept premise of this film sounds irresistible - H.G. Wells uses his time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper from Victorian London to 1970s San Francisco - but it turns out to be less fun than you might imagine.

It starts promisingly enough, with a satisfyingly unconvincing evocation of the streets of Victorian London, during a prologue in which the Ripper is unmasked before making his escape via Wells' homemade time machine. Luckily, as he does not have the "non-return key" (yes, really), the machine automatically returns to its starting point and Wells considers himself duty bound to pursue the escaped murderer.

Sadly this early promise is not sustained for long. Once the characters have arrived in the contemporary setting, the filmmakers seem unsure what kind of tone to adopt and how seriously they intend the material to be taken. There are a few half-hearted bits of fish-out-of-water comedy, one or two desultory attempts at social commentary, and also what seems to be a genuine attempt to make a tense, exciting thriller. Overall, it isn't directed with the zest and energy required for such a self-evidently bonkers plot.

This lethargy is largely reflected in the acting as well. David Warner and Malcolm McDowell are both good actors, but they seem oddly subdued here. Warner's Ripper is tame and bloodless so there is no real sense of menace, whilst McDowell's Wells is a dull hero. Mary Steenburgen is better as Wells' love interest, but unfortunately her character, initially quite interesting, gradually diminishes to that of damsel in distress.

The final nail in the coffin - the curse of most, if not all, time travel narratives - is that it keeps tripping up on its own logic. To accept the sense of jeopardy that the narrative attempts to create, you have to ignore the fact that Wells could just use his machine to go back in time over and over again, in the manner of Groundhog Day or Source Code, until he achieved the required outcome.

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