Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. Also check out our From Our Netflix Queue series, highlighting worthwhile films and TV series that are available on Netflix Instant Watch.


El Vampiro

1957 Mexico. Director: Fernando Méndez. Starring: Abel Salazaar, Germán Robbles, Ariadne Welter, Carmen Montejo, José Luis Jiménez.

A favourite of director Guillermo del Toro, who programmed the film as part of the 2011 La Mirada Spanish Film Festival in Melbourne, the very first Mexican vampire film tells the story of a young woman returning to her childhood home after the death of her aunt only to find that her family is threatened by the malevolent Count Karol de Luvad. The special effects are unsurprisingly cheesy when viewed today; the ridiculous looking rubber bats are sure to generate many a laugh. But the film makes remarkable use of light and shadow to build suspense, and handles its central romance with surprising deftness. Although not as effective today as it might have been in the mid nineteen fifties, it’s not hard to see why El Vampiro is a cult favourite. Plus Germán Robbles as Luvad is a dead ringer for Christopher Lee’s Dracula in the Hammer productions of the 60s and 70s.
-TOM


Insomnia

2002. Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank.

When people talk about the career of Christopher Nolan, his 2002 remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia, is rarely uttered. Granted, in a career like his, Insomnia pales in comparison, dwarfed by the highly original signature films we come to know him by. It was one of those films I caught in the cinema when it first came out and then completely forgot about soon after. On a chance occurrence, I got to rewatch it nearly a decade later. The film is no masterpiece, but it is a fairly solid, if mostly conventional, noirish detective story, the kind of stuff that Michael Mann makes a living off of. Al Pacino plays a Los Angeles detective re-assigned to a homicide job in Alaska, where the unceasing sunlight and botched investigation leave him at the mercy of insomnia and a whole lot of guilt. Robin Williams plays the killer with his own peculiar deviations from type. Playing somewhat off the familiar script, midway through the story the two take on an uneasy alliance that affords them opportunities to spar face to face (reminiscent of the sit-down encounters between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat). As things get disoriented from Detective Dormers’ sleepless perspective, the story careens into morally ambiguous territory, forsaking any mystery about the murder and going instead for the rich thematic substance of guilt and innocence outside of the safe categories society imposes. And of course the Alaskan sun behaves as a spotlight to reveal all sins (in one of the films more awkwardly obvious metaphors). Even though the film feels like Nolan with one arm tied behind his back (confined by adaptation and genre) there is still enough of a signature there to feel like a Nolan film. Pfister’s cinematography makes love to the Alaskan landscapes in tints of blue, David Julyan’s score harkens back to what he did in Memento. My chief criticism is a lot of it feels too familiar, too by the book. Even the detour, though unique in details, is familiar enough to dilute the effect. But it passed the time nonetheless.
-MIKE


The UP Series

1964-2005 UK. Director: Michael Apted.
The Up series consists of several films filmed at 7-year intervals, documenting fourteen people’s lives as they grow older. It began with 7 Up in the 1960s, a social commentary documentary suggesting that British children’s social class was set by the age of seven, and that it would irrevocably affect the rest of their lives. The series checks back in on them every 7 years, covering the same basic topics of conversation that they did at age seven. But somewhere around 28 Up, the films stopped being as much about social/political commentary and started being about the personal journey of these fourteen people (or less; not all of them have continued to participate throughout the series’ run). There’s so much going on in this series, it’s hard to even settle down and talk about it – it’s great simply as a document of people’s lives and, yes, how the class they were born into affects their lives, but also as a meta-document on documentary itself as the participants become more candid throughout the series as to how being in the series has affected their lives (often adversely). Apted clearly edits the films with specific things in mind, connecting the answers of the children with those of the adults, sometimes creating causal connections that may or may not be real, and yet he also leaves in a lot of interview answers that cast doubt on the ethics of the entire project. Interestingly, though the initial premise of the series is the somewhat depressing idea that these people won’t be able to escape their social class (and to a degree, there’s some truth to that), the thought that struck me over and over is the indomitable human spirit on display here as people hit difficulties in one episode and have managed through them by the next. It’s difficult to rate each part individually, because really, the power of the series is in the whole – in seeing how much and how quickly circumstances can change for anyone, and how people are able to work through obstacles and find joy.
-JANDY


Barney’s Version

2010 Canada. Director: Richard J. Lewis. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Leferve, Scott Speedman.

What seemed at first like a light-hearted romantic comedy about love and marriage instead turns out to be a moving and superbly acted story of a man’s life in Richard J. Lewis’s Barney’s Version. Based on the novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler, the film stars Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, an aged, bitter and lonely Canadian television producer responsible for the long running (fictional) Canadian soap opera Constable O’Malley of the North. In flashbacks the film recounts Barney’s life and his relationships with his friends, in-laws, co-workers, children, father (played with wonderful humour by Dustin Hoffman) and his three wives (played by a profanity spouting Rachelle Lefevre, hilariously over-the-top Minnie Driver and the lovely and beautiful Rosamund Pike, respectively). Very funny for its first two thirds, but the movie is never stronger than in its heart-breaking final act, as Barney loses the love of his life and is soon thereafter diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Giamatti more than deserved his Golden Globe for Best Comedic Performance, but in my opinion could easily have stolen Colin Firth’s for Best Dramatic Performance as well; the underappreciated but always reliable actor has never been better.
-TOM


Showdown In Little Tokyo

1991 USA. Director: Mark L. Lester. Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee, Tia Carrere Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

As regular readers will be aware, I’m a bit of an action-movie junkie and this was recommended to me by a couple of like-minded friends. Well I finally got around to sticking it on the other night and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Yes, it’s plot is restaurant napkin material, yes Brandon Lee’s wise-crack delivery is pretty poor at times and yes it’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times already, but Showdown in Little Tokyo knows what it’s audience wants and serves it straight up. Mark L. Lester, best known for directing Commando (another cheesy action classic), delivers everything you would want in this type of film (i.e. guns, kung-fu, sword fights, bad one-liners and gratuitous nudity) with zero filler. OK, so there’s a little bit of a love story and some short flashbacks, but mainly the running time is made up of pure alpha-male wish-fulfillment. It’s lack of flab means the running time is incredibly short too at only 79 minutes, making this a fast-paced, lean trash-classic of the highest order.
-DAVID

Jandy Hardesty
the recovering academic

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