w Snubble

   This is an ongoing log of films I've seen.

Some off-the-cuff movie reviews

Note: I began writing this page in 2006, thinking I would keep up with it and eventually log hundreds of personal movie reviews. Then life happened, I forgot this page was here, and nearly a decade later, it's a strange snapshot of a couple weeks of my life in 2006, back when I was just starting to make the most of a Netflix subscription.

The reviews hold up reasonably well (though I had forgotten that I even saw many of these movies!), so I am leaving this page online. One adjustment, however: I seem to have been allergic to paragraphs, writing the reviews in large walls of text. I will be adding some line breaks to de-monolith the verbiage.

"Match Point": Worth seeing
Just caught up with this Woody Allen movie. More on it later, but I liked it, to a (match) point. It's more a food-for-thought type of film than something you actually enjoy as you're watching it (though aesthetically it's above average). It's a drama that plays everything straight, with not a single hint of humor. Even the dramatic scenes are completely dry, the camera hanging back from the action and the editing kept simple, matter-of-fact. These qualities make "Match Point" unlike most Woody Allen films, and if it weren't for the incessant use of opera music in the background (the kind where you can hear the scratces of the original vinyl record), or for the occasional scene where people talk over each other, you'd hardly know Allen was the writer/director.

The only other connection is that "Match Point" continues with a theme Allen started in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" -- the fact that in real life, sometimes people do horrible things and get away with it. This could be Allen's way of supplying an antidote to the infantilizing moral conventions of standard Hollywood movies, or maybe Allen just wants to confront the sinful side of humanity, man's dual nature, etc. But after watching "Match Point," I'm almost inclined to wonder if Allen himself committed murder at some time in his life and got away scot-free (or knows somebody who has, or who was the victim of such a scenario).

Whatever Allen's inspiration, in "Match Point" he very singlemindedly lays the groundwork for his main character (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to commit murder. What's interesting is that we are led to relate to him and understand his motivation. He's an impoverished tennis instructor who ingratiates himself with a wealthy British family and ends up marrying the daughter and being groomed for a position in the father's company. In this realm he's smooth, careful and passionless, but when he meets Scarlett Johanssen (who's dating his girlfriend's brother), he can't help but start an affair with her. The affair gets more and more serious until it's on the verge of imploding his carefully constructed life, a life dependent upon the good will and trust of others. His only solution, he decides after wimping out on doing the right thing by coming clean and sacrificing everything, is murder.

Throughout all this we are led to sympathize with him and only him -- largely because everybody else in the film is kept at arm's length (almost every character is shot from a distance; only Meyers gets close-ups). I can think of a number of other films that lead you to follow a hero who turns out to be an antihero: "Election" comes to mind. Then there's the murder clean-up scene in "Psycho," where the viewer is led to hope Anthony Perkins will not miss anything that might give him away. My favorite example of a sympathy-for-the-bad-guys movie is Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," where you see two murderers' psyches unravel after they kill a guy for kicks.

Allen, like Hitchcock, is drawing from the themes in Dostoyevsky's "Crime & Punishment" (we glimpse the protagonist reading the book in a brief scene), but he's trying for something different here -- sober acknowledgement of the average psyche's capacity to kill and then move on. The murder is almost banal, and though not easy, it's just a matter of preparation, timely action and a bit of luck. I felt strange watching this, not quite sure what effect Allen wanted the story to have on me.

Allen is equally opaque when depicting the "other woman." We aren't given much reason to like Johanssen, just enough to understand her. She's an unsuccessful actress trying to escape her abusive and neglectful parents in an abusive and neglectful world. She's someone who matters to few people, whereas the rich girl the protagonist marries (the comparably plain Emily Mortimer) is loved, a little pampered, and has learned to matter by carving a modest place in the world. It might also be added that she and her good-natured family are more than a little dull. But they're a part of a connected world. If one of them were murdered, there would be fallout, while the muder of Johanssen, who lives alone in a low-rent apartment with few friends, barely causes a blip other than for a few neighbors to shake their heads and a mediocre police detective to think about her case a little longer than usual.

I've written too much with too little to say, but "Match Point" has enough underlying ideas to be worth seeing once and only once. And oh yeah, it's better than "Interiors."
A friend writes: "By the way, I'm afraid I don't agree with you about Match Point. Couldn't stand it. I suppose that was the point, but . . . I almost turned it off in the middle. Am I becoming intolerant in my old(er) age? At least we agree about Kung Fu Hustle."

"Snakes on a Plane": Worth seeing
You have got to motherf---ing see this motherf---ing movie.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?": Worth seeing
Very good little documentary that carefully examines why electric cars (which had a limited release by GM and Ford in the early 2000's) never made it onto the mainstream market or highways of the U.S.

It adheres to its mystery-style title by lining up a set of suspects ("the consumer," "the oil industry," "the auto industry," "the White House," "the battery's limitations," etc.) and looking into the role each played in basically killing what should have been a wonderful solution to the country's oil dependence and its pollution problems.

The conclusion the film reaches is that most of the suspects had a hand in removing electric cars from the market, which was done before ever giving them the chance to slowly build a market, which is normally given to other new products. Instead, electric cars were introduced as for-lease only, they were leased out for a period of time (in California, often to celebrities like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson who wanted to support eco-friendly products), and then uncremoniously removed, with all leases stopped.

Ultimately the GM line of electric cars were all taken to a testing area in Mesa, Arizona and crushed -- for no good reason. The auto industry apparently didn't want to undermine the sale of their top products, gas-guzzling SUVs, as well as the sale of combustion-engine parts.

As the documentary shows it, the auto industry was only releasing electric cars begrudgingly, and then they did things that purposely undermined their own success, like using creepy advertising campaigns that were the opposite of sexy. The oil industry, of course, didn't want to see electric cars wipe out the dependence on their product, and the movie shows that they had a hand in killing the electric car by buying the businesses that make them, presumably to shut them down (actually, I would like to know more of the details of this -- the movie spends little time on it).

The White House was also to blame, essentially kissing Detroit's ass and allowing the worst fuel-economy standards in over 25 years, and never showing any kind of leadership on innovating fuel technology (except bogus stuff that they knew wouldn't happen under their watch anyway). Electric cars' limited battery capacity was also a problem, but the documentary shows that innovations for longer battery power were right around the corner and have since been successfully overcome (supposedly now you could have electric cars capable of going a couple hundred miles before needing a recharge).

The documentary also shows why the other alternative fuel source, hydrogen fuel, is not going to be viable for a long time, if ever, and was used by the enemies of the electric car to maintain our current gas-car dependence. The one thing that really bothered me about "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is they never told you how much the electric cars originally cost. Due to limited release, they were probably expensive. Were they $50 grand? $100 grand? The average consumer would never buy that. If mass produced, could they be made for the same price as other cars? Are there any special components that would keep them expensive? Because after watching the movie, I would seriously consider buying an electric car if they could be built cheaply and had reliable long-charge batteries. In the meantime, it's good to see that there are some decent hybrid vehicles available.

Clearly, if electric cars are as viable as the movie makes them out to be, all it would take is one adventurous entrepreneur to get the capital to make and sell electric cars to the public. Given the way things work in the U.S. of late, it will probably end up being the Japanese who have the balls to get it done.

One other complaint about the film is that they showed a little too much of a red-haired female pro-electric-car activist. I didn't mind, per se, but it seemed a little bit like the filmmakers were in love with her. Anyway, this is a good documentary and would make a good companion piece to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

"The Descent": Worth seeing
Good low-budget horror movie, with a bit of a "Blair Witch" spirit, where things just go from frustrating to concerned to bleak to panicked -- and then to even worse. I saw it right after a refreshing swim and just before going into work. "The Descent" was invigorating, making expert use of claustrophobia and darkness, making my heart beat faster, getting all tense, and then walking out into the daylight and taking a deep breath and laughing at myself for getting scared. Women lost in caves -- lots of estrogen there.

I am in the U.S. and so only got to see the incomplete theatrical ending, which is made less disturbing for wussy U.S. audiences. Apparently the original U.K. ending is less happy, more bleak, more "go home with a bad feeling." On second thought, maybe the U.S. ending is OK. It was a scary movie. The creatures they encounter in the caves remind me of the classic Nosferatu from the old black-and-white film, mixed with the "bat boy" from the covers of Weekly World News articles.

My biggest complaint with the movie is they could have developed the characters more. I am not a fan of talky movies, but I found myself wanting more dialogue from these women, a few of whom I had trouble telling apart. They could have juiced up the story-within-the-story a little more, too (one of the women was involved with one of the other women's husbands).

I like horror movies but see very few of them, because when they're bad, they're really bad. But this one is good.

"Lords of War": Not worth seeing
This movie has a huge list of pros and cons, but I put "not worth seeing" because Nicholas Cage is just too hammy in this to recommend. Cage wins the "most overexposed actor" award for this summer. This month alone he's in two new releases, "World Trade Center" and "The Wickerman." He can be both really effective and subtle (I really liked him in "The Weather Man") and pure annoyance ("Con Air," "The Rock," etc.).

Playing a rags-to-riches arms dealer, Cage is just a tad too much of the latter in "Lords of War," which is otherwise a very interesting dramatic tour of the illegal arms trade and the soulless people who profit from conflict, becoming instrumental parts of the cruel behind-the-scenes politics that formed so much of foreign policy in the 1980s and beyond. On that level, "Lords of War" is great, and if were taken down a notch of obnoxiousness, I'd recommend it (Jared Leto, as Cage's drug-addict brother, adds additonal layers of ham).

It's also disturbingly violent, but mostly about things you ought to be disturbed by, like the fact that so many children end up as soldiers in third-world countries. "Lords of War" does have a number of inventive and memorable scenes, including its opening scene, which uses a combination of CGI and filmed footage to show the life of a bullet, from its factory creation until it ends up killing some poor sucker; as well as a scene involving the complete time-lapse dismantling of a large cargo plane.

Politically the film has several good points to make. These are of course quite cynical, but the film shies from depicting anyone as evil, and it is intelligent enough to lay out the arms dealers' rationalizations in a way that challenges you to decide for yourself which excuses make sense and which are B.S. (there are moral judgments to be made, but to do so requires a complex understanding of the many places where the lines have been blurred).

Ethan Hawke has a good role as a law-enforcement agent who is trying to catch Cage; it's a cat-and-mouse game where the mouse is often just clever or well-connected enough to get away from the cat. Incidentally, the title "Lords of War" is a play on the word "warlord" (there's an African character who always says English compound words backwards).

"The Matador": Worth seeing
Very cool, character-driven movie. Maybe I'll write it up more later. But Pierce Brosnan was terrific. He plays an international hitman, not a matador, and his performance is wild, funny, charismatic and dangerous-sexy -- basically everything that Brosnan held back when playing James Bond. Greg Kinnear plays a regular guy who becomes Brosnan's unlikely friend, and Hope Davis is Kinnear's wife (you can rarely go wrong if Hope Davis is in a movie). The cinematography in this film is very deft, with great color choices and whatnot (even the location titles, which fill the screen, are cool). It's like the perfect movie to enjoy while drinking wine and chilling out...at least, it was for me.

"Sky High": Worth seeing
This is a really fun little superhero movie, and I'm a guy who is pretty damned tired of superhero movies. This one's different in that its focus is on the teenage children of superhero moms and dads. They tend to inherit superhero traits from their parents, and these powers tend to show up around the same time as puberty, so all the teens have to go to a secret high school that is hidden on a floating pad way up in the clouds (which they get to via rocket-powered school bus). Some of the teens have more powers than others, and some teens never fully get their powers, or only get semi-useful powers, dooming them to become sidekicks rather than heroes.

The Disney writers had a lot of fun with the details of this, and they keep everything logical and internally consistent. The scenes are snappy and move the story along well, while giving you time to enjoy decent performances by unknown teen actors. The casting of the adults is terrific and includes Kurt Russell as the superhero dad (Russell's career started in Disney movies, so it's cool to see him in this), Kelly Preston as the mom (she's not a personal favorite but she does well enough and looks the part), two "Kids in the Hall" comic actors (Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald) as teachers, and Bruce Campbell (from "Evil Dead II") as the brutish gym coach.

There's a bit of teen-romance intrigue, making the movie as much a Disneyfied "Pretty in Pink" as it is a superhero thing. Perhaps as homage, almost all the songs are updated 1980s songs (it's kinda weird to hear "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" in a Disney flick). All in all a tight, effective picture, one you can't go wrong renting if you don't mind the fact that it's kid-level entertainment. Oh yeah, I liked the movie's clever closing line, which I won't ruin by repeating here.

"Serenity": Not worth seeing
"Serenity" is a science-fiction movie that is smart, fast-moving, and at least moderately inventive, but it still isn't good enough to recommend. The main creator is J.J. Abrams, who did TV shows "Alias" and "Lost" and the TV show that "Serenity" is based on (which...if I weren't lazy I would look up on IMDB). I felt like "Serenity" was made because J.J. Abrams wanted to put another genre feather in his cap -- "See! I can do sci-fi too!" -- rather than because it had anything new to add to the genre.

The movie has some fresh storytelling techniques (esp. the beginning, which uses a flashback/hologram combo to lay out the plot situation in record time), and likable young-ish characters. It also has a relatively smart and good-natured heart about it, not reducing any characters to pure good or evil, and granting its primary antagonist a sort of reprieve at the end.

All of this, however, does not make up for the generally derivitave nature of the story, the lack of any really fresh action sequences (there are action scenes, but they are merely "good enough"), and only the sketchiest glimpse into future politics, social changes, and other questions one likes to see answered when viewing a story about a drastically changed world.

J.J. Abrams, or whoever wrote this thing, put most of his energy into character relationships and the like, and slowly unfolding plot, in which a team of good guys runs around trying to solve a mystery/potential catastrophe and then make things right while chased by a team of bad guys. Which is all well and good, but...you know, I wanted something more. Anybody remember when science fiction movies were WEIRD and showed you things YOU NEVER SAW BEFORE? And had IDEAS?

Two of the most derivative aspects of "Serenity" are the inclusion of zombie-like characters (always good fodder for extended fight scenes), and a character with super-human fighting powers, an element the filmmakers seem to have included just....because....it's cool. Ultimately I didn't hate "Serenity," and although I was tempted to give up on it mid-way through, I found it OK to watch to the end. But it is already fading fast from my memory.

"Blow Up": Worth seeing
This is a late 1960s movie by the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni, who set this film in Britain (it's in English). It was very hip at the time, with 1960s mod/pop styles and artful cinematography to match.

Visually this movie is sort of a precursor to "A Clockwork Orange," though not as surreal and obsessive as Kubrick's vision. "Blow Up's" story is a character study in which we follow one man, a professional young photographer, through a few days in his life. The photographer shoots fashion models in his studio, drives to various locations taking candid black-and-white shots, and generally roams around in his visually based world. Yet this man remains very disconnected from everything and everybody -- he treats everything as a subject or prop, and we glean he has few real friends or interests outside of his work.

Inside of this character study is a mini-mystery, a rather Hitchcock-inspired bit of paranoia that occurs after the photographer inadvertently takes a sequence of shots he later suspects have recorded a murder in a park. In the movie's most compelling scenes, he carefully and methodically "blows up" the images to reveal grainy details of the murder weapon, and possibly somebody hiding in the bushes.

This mystery, rather than being solved as in a standard thriller, becomes the catalyst to further illuminate his character -- the photographer realizes his powerlessness in a world he had previously roamed as king.

I liked "Blow Up" a lot, though it is a curious movie, requiring some patience, and never fully clueing you into its intentions other than via scattered symbolic moments (which can make a film more challenging, but can also be a storytelling cop-out). Vanessa Redgrave shows up mid-way through the film in a very enigmatic role, but one that leaves an impression (I'll never forget the robotic way the attempts to bob her head to some music -- you want to laugh at her, but she looks too strange to laugh at).

Other memorable scenes involve a photo shoot in which the photographer tells the models to close their eyes, and then just walks out on them (just because he can, I suppose); a scene involving the dressing-room seduction of some giggly teenage girls (everybody in the movie is very thin, as you'll see when the girls doff their clothing); and a random scene of the photographer visiting a bric-a-brac store and purchasing a large wooden airplane propellor, which he tosses into the back of his car. All in all, a rather enviable lifestyle if you're a late 1960s bloke with a knack for photography and an indifferent soul.

Oh yeah, there's a what-the-hell inducing scene downtown in which the photographer spots the mysterious Vanessa Redgrave woman, who then just disappears, and while searching for her in back alleys he ends up in the 1960s equivalent of a psychedelic rock-concert mosh pit, fighting to grab the broken-off guitar neck the band has tossed into the crowd. Later, outside, he drops the guitar neck in the street. (The one object that everybody wants in one context becomes a piece of garbage in the next.)

"Blow Up" also has a memorable ending involving some teenagers who dress up like mimes and play "mime tennis." The scene indicates character development because the photographer chooses not to take photos (he starts to, but then lets the camera hang limp at his side) but instead to participate by picking up the pretend ball and throwing it back to the mimes. He then walks away and disappears via a dissolve. Oooh, artistic!

So anyway, I would recommend "Blow Up" as a cultural time capsule and all-around memorable little art film. There's a nice jazz score by Herbie Hancock, and the clothes and styles are always an eyeful. Plus, "Blow Up" was very influential. You can see shades of its paranoid mystery happenings in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (where the observer becomes the observed), and Brian DePalma paid the film direct homage, adding his own, rather more obvious thematic ideas, in "Blow Out," which changed the media from photography to film and sound recording, and starred John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow.

In addition to its character study, "Blow Up" is a movie about images -- how they can both reveal and conceal what's really there, and how they can be empty or loaded with meaning depending on our interaction with them.

"Kung Fu Hustle": Not worth seeing
This is a very hyperactive movie from the filmmaker(s) who brought us "Shaolin Soccer." I liked "Shaolin Soccer" well enough -- it was another take on the "Bad News Bears" style of sports movie where a bunch of underdogs form a team, but it used the latest in CGI and "Crouching Tiger"-style martial-arts to create a sort of super-powered, highly caffeinated underdog team.

"Kung Fu Hustle" establishes another group of underdogs, a poor Chinese neighborhood full of tailors and other blue-collar types. But it turns out that some of them are actually Kung Fu masters who for whatever reasons are hiding incognito. There's a local mafia gang that goes around bullying and extorting everybody, and somehow they get wind of the powerful people hiding in the village. So begins a battle between the two groups, and various supernatural and super-powered assassins are hired and freed from prison to join in the fight.

The movie is so ridiculous and over-the-top that it does have a lot of entertainment value. There's an eye-popping scene involving a kyoto (string instrument) used as a weapon, and a pretty neat scene involving a giant bell used to amplify somebody's voice. But the story is just a mess. We learn that one of the characters is "the one" who has been prophesyzed (hello, "Matrix") and at some point somebody says, "With great power comes great responsibility" (hello, "Spiderman").

Though there are some very inventive, eye-popping scenes, I really wish people would take the time to sit down and create an original story, or at least copy their story from less obvious sources.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang": Worth seeing
I'm playing catch-up on these reviews (I just started), and it's been a while since I watched this film, but I found it very enjoyable if slight.

The screenwriter is Shane Black, who used to be a very big name in Hollywood, having penned a number of successful big-budget action films. A long time ago I chatted with him on an America Online movies board; he used an alias but via guesswork I discerned that it was him and he confirmed it (yes, it could have been an imposter, but whoever I talked to really knew his stuff and I am a big enough movie buff that I was able to ask him the kind of questions that only the genuine article or a really skillful imposter would know). Not that any of that is important, it's just the first thing I think of when I think of Shane Black. He's a sharp, witty writer and it shows in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."

The movie is a black-humor, modern take on Los Angeles-based film noir stories, with their sympathetically flawed antiheroes, femme fatales and twisted, often unfollowable storylines (as in "The Big Sleep" -- a classic noir that makes almost no sense). KKBB's detective story does eventually make sense, but the movie's focus is on the characters at the far periphery of the case, especially Robert Downey Jr.'s character. He's a small-time crook who accidentally walks into a movie audition, gets the part, and then has to research his detective role by spending time with a real-life detective (Val Kilmer, as a likably unsentimental homosexual) on a case. Or something like that.

Somehow this brings Downey into contact with the woman who was his high-school crush, played by Michelle Monaghan (a very cute brunette actress who, for now, is indistinct in my memory from a lot of other cute brunette actresses, though I recall that her acting was appealing).

The main strength of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is that it takes very little seriously other than its desire to move fast and belt out a lot of snappy dialogue. It's a perfect vehicle for the cast to sling amusing one-liners at each other, and the filmmaking is a stylish evocation of the sights and vibe of modern nighttime Los Angeles.

It's not a great film, just an amusing and silver-tongued one, with a pretty nifty little action sequence at the end (if you're Shane Black you have to live up to your action-movie reputation). Strangely enough, Val Kilmer is starting to remind me a lot of Will Ferrell -- maybe it's that they both have big heads.

About this page:
I don't want to go overboard with this movie-watching blog, but I tend to write reviews for friends (in email messages) and on a message board that I frequent. So I figured I might as well make an ongoing list of movies I'm watching that friends can read out of curiosity and to glean the occasional recommendation. (Yes, I know I watch too many movies.) Hopefully I'll be organized enough to keep up with this, and hopefully if you're reading this you have found this page a diverting enough read to justify its existence. If not, or if you have any comments about any of these reviews, feel free to write me at
Snubblecom@yahoo.com. If I find your comments interesting enough, maybe I'll add them to this page as an addendum to the corresponding film review.