Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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Written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan

Eddie Mannix, a fixer at a 1950s Hollywood film studio, must contend with a star who’s been kidnapped by communists, another who’s fallen pregnant, and another who can’t act…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tilda Swinton plays two roles. Twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker are both journalists, and are based not that loosely on real-life gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The gag is that they always appear in quick succession, confusing whoever they’re trying to get information from, and Swinton’s having fun with the characters’ clipped voices and supreme confidence.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (4) assays another Coen-brothers idiot. Frances McDormand (8) has a tiny yet comical cameo as an editor. Fred Melamed (2) was also in A Serious Man. Josh Brolin (3), Tilda Swinton (2) and Scarlett Johansson (2) appear again.

Best bit: We see a number of scenes from fictional movies being shot at the studios – a Biblical epic, a Gene Kelly-style musical, an Esther Williams-style swimming film, a Western, a stuffy drawing-room drama… They’re all entertaining in a behind-the-curtain way, with the musical being the best. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a song-and-dance man who’s playing a sailor in his latest movie. The sequence we see being shot is an elaborately choreographed number called No Dames, which has some dazzling dancing and subversive lyrics.

Review: It’s not awful, but there’s a relentless sense with this film that it’s not as good as it should be. It’s a sketch show rather than a wholly satisfying movie, and like most sketch shows is very hit and miss. The Acorn Antiques-style fictional movies, for example, are tremendous fun, while there are a number of classy and funny performances – not least from Ralph Fiennes, who nearly steals the entire film as uptight-yet-polite English director Laurence Laurentz. But the story is so lightweight and scattergun. Threads seem to get picked up then dropped on a whim, while Scarlett Johansson’s subplot is beyond cursory. The film meanders and never seems to rise above a mildly interesting second gear. There’s also, sadly, a smugness about the proceedings. It’s a funny film, but nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

Six Soviet submarines out of 10

Two years of reviews…

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Over the last two years, I’ve written 268 reviews for this blog. Most (204) have been about films, while 33 have been about TV and 31 on music. (A full index can be found here.)

A year ago I did a post rounding up the first 12 months, which you can read here. So I thought it’d be fun to do another.

Series-by-series, the reviews break down like this:

* James Bond: 26 reviews
* Steven Spielberg: 31
* Police Academy: 7
* The Coen Brothers: 16
* The Beatles: 17 (covering 21 albums)
* Star Trek: 13, including Galaxy Quest
* Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie
* ABBA: 8
* Carry On: 36
* Dracula: 29
* Star Wars: 13, including Spaceballs
* The Smiths: 6 (covering seven albums)
* Fawlty Towers: 12
* Back to the Future: 3
* John Hughes: 6
* Blackadder: 6
* Blade Runner: 3
* The Omen: 5
* Alien/Predator: 11 – six Alien films, three Predator films and two crossovers

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. The 49 reviews that have gained 10 out of 10 are:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Alien
Aliens
Aliens: Special Edition
Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Back to the Future Part III
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
The Breakfast Club
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
The Empire Strikes Back (actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat
Fawlty Towers: The Builders
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
GoldenEye
Hatful of Hollow
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The Queen is Dead
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Return of the Jedi
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Wars

The other scores break down like this:

9.5/10: 1 review (Blade Runner)
9/10: 39 reviews
8/10: 45 reviews
7/10: 38 reviews
6/10: 29 reviews
5/10: 24 reviews
4/10: 12 reviews
3/10: 11 reviews
2/10: Five reviews
1/10: Eight reviews (Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, Batman & Robin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, Carry On Emmannuelle, Carry On Laughing, Dracula Reborn, The Ladykillers, The Star Wars Holiday Special)

That’s an average of 7.16. (It was 7.45 when I did a round-up of my first 128 reviews this time last year.) The most popular years, meanwhile, has been 1979 and 1987 with 11 reviews each.

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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When a Soviet agent is arrested in New York City, lawyer James B Donovan is employed to defend him. Then the opportunity arises to swap the spy for an imprisoned American airman…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Mark Rylance won both a Bafta and an Oscar for his quiet, measured, charming performance as Rudolf Able, the Russian charged with espionage. But Tom Hanks probably has the harder job playing insurance lawyer James Donovan. He has much more screentime and a wider variety of scenes to play. It’s an extremely Tom Hanksian character, in fact: a gentle but determined and moral man with a dry sense of humour. He also gets a likeable running gag about having a cold.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening is superb: an almost wordless, gripping sequence where Able lives his life, picks up a dead-drop, and is followed by federal agents.

Review: Bridge of Spies is, for its first half, a courtroom drama. Then it evolves into a Cold War spy film, and throughout there’s a spine of JFK-style paranoia and politics. It’s fantastic stuff. Being critical, perhaps the plot calls for people to be reactionary a bit too often, but it is set in the time of Joseph McCarthy. You could also argue that the story lacks any real nastiness. But some lovely detailing in the writing, acting and production design mean that the two hours pass every enjoyably. And the Coen brothers co-wrote the script, which guarantees it never approaches being too earnest. On a technical level, this is immaculate filmmaking. It always is with Spielberg. Right from minute one you know you’re in safe hands. Having watched and reviewed a variable mix lately, this was like sitting through a karaoke and then putting on an ABBA album. It’s just on a more solid, more professional, more accomplished level than most films. For example, there are numerous techniques to make a film buff’s heart soar – motivated camera moves, cute scene transitions, long takes that let the actors breathe, the same imagery repeated in different contexts, handheld camerawork when there’s actually a reason for it… All things that are strangely rare in modern Hollywood movies. But the direction is never showing off or drawing attention to itself. The story is king. Spielberg’s best live-action film since at least Catch Me If You Can.

Nine U2 spy planes out of 10

A year of reviews…

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A year ago today, on 2 April 2014, I posted a quick review of Dr No to Facebook. I’d watched it the previous evening, having decided on a whim to redo every James Bond film in order. The reviews I wrote of the series seemed to go down well, and I was thrilled by the feedback and interaction they generated. So I did the same with every Steven Spielberg movie – and then kept going with various other series.

In January 2015, after a few friends suggested it, I built this blog. I copied across all the stuff I’d already put on Facebook and now post new reviews here as well.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve written 128 reviews of 111 films and 17 albums (well, 21 albums actually: seven were condensed into three reviews). A full index can be found here. Series-by-series, they break down like this:

James Bond: 25, including the two non-official entries, Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again
Steven Spielberg: 30, including Poltergeist, which he’s rumoured to have directed
Police Academy: 7
The Coen Brothers: 16
The Beatles: 17
Star Trek: 13, including – for a laugh – Galaxy Quest
Superman/Batman: 20 – eight Superman films, nine Batman films, Supergirl, Catwoman and The Lego Movie

For every review except the Police Academys, I’ve given a score out of 10. Twenty-five things have received a maximum mark:

Abbey Road
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Batman (1989)
The Big Lebowski
Casino Royale (2006)
The Dark Knight
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Fargo
GoldenEye
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Jaws
Jurassic Park
The Lego Movie
Licence to Kill
Love
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Revolver
Rubber Soul
Schindler’s List
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The other scores break down like this:

9/10: 22 reviews
8/10: 22 reviews
7/10: 15 reviews
6/10: 13 reviews
5/10: 12 reviews
4/10: 3 reviews
3/10: 6 reviews
2/10: 1 review
1/10: 2 reviews (Batman & Robin and The Ladykillers)

That’s an average score of 7.44628099. Or ‘7ish’, as I like to call it.

The most popular year, meanwhile, has been 1989. I’ve reviewed six films from those glorious 12 months – Always, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Licence to Kill, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That’s apt: I was 10 years old in 1989 and the huge volume of genre movies released that year played a big role in turning me into a film geek. (In second place are 1984 and 1987, with five each.)

Thank you to everyone who’s ever read, liked, commented on, discussed, asked me about, or generally engaged with all this nonsense. It means the world to me.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

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Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, is crashing on friends’ sofas and pestering his agent for money… Will he have to give up his music and return to the merchant navy?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Sally Sparrow from Doctor Who gets lots of shouting and swearing to do, but it’s not a huge role.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (6), in a wig and with an affected voice, crops up for a section in the middle.

Best bit: The comedic Columbia recording session.

Review: Well, there’s plenty of lovely music, often with the songs being played in full. But I found this really quite dull. The first half has been meandering along – neither grippingly nor unpleasantly – but then a lengthy road trip involving John Goodman sucks all the energy out of the film and I just wanted it to end. Characters come and go, but none is especially likeable. A disappointing way to end this 16-movie viewing of the Coens’ canon.

Five cats out of 10.

True Grit (2010)

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Written by Joel and Ethan, based on True Grit by Charles Portis; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

In the post-Civil War Wild West, 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Hailee Steinfeld is just brilliant as the headstrong, smart and astute Mattie.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Jeff Bridges (2) is having great fun playing Cogburn, while Josh Brolin (2) plays Tom Chaney, the man they’re looking for. JK Simmons (3) has a voice-only cameo.

Best bit: Our first sight of murderer Chaney.

Review: As full-blooded in its commitment to a genre (here, the Western) as, say, Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing were. But this is more successful because as well as conventions it has conviction. There’s real heart to this movie. We get clear storytelling, playfully elaborate dialogue, interesting characters, good performances and stunning production design – and unlike in the last two Coen movies, we also have an emotionally satisfying ending. The best one in this watch-through since O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nine half-bitten-off tongues out of 10.

A Serious Man (2009)

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Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

A schoolteacher’s wife wants a divorce, his dream job’s under threat, his brother’s sleeping on the sofa, his neighbour’s crossing into his garden, his son’s dealing with a bully, his daughter wants access to the bathroom, and a student’s trying to bribe him… How will he cope?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Ooh, look: it’s The Big Bang Theory’s Howard as a young rabbi.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): None.

Best bit: The shaggy-dog story about the dentist.

Review: A strange one. The way Larry’s life gradually crumbles apart around him is fun to watch and is well paced, and there are lots of good actors in fun roles, but it’s hardly the most gripping 100 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. The movie begins with a seven-minute prologue – all in Yiddish and set at some indeterminable Ye Olde time – which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. And, like in Burn After Reading, the story just stops rather than having an ending.

Six TV aerials out of 10.

Burn After Reading (2008)

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Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

When CIA analyst Osbourne Cox loses his job, he decides to write his memoirs – but the sensitive document falls into the hands of two gym workers, who plan to blackmail him…

Seen before? Yes, on DVD about three years ago.

Best performance: The headline five – sex addict George Clooney, self-doubter Frances McDormand, angry John Malkovich, childlike Brad Pitt and severe Tilda Swinton – are all terrific.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): McDormand (6), Clooney (3), Richard Jenkins (3) and JK Simmons (2).

Best bit: When Linda and Chad attempt to extort money from Cox.

Review: There’s a really odd clash of tones in this one. It begins like a Tony Scott techno-thriller (something like Enemy of the State or Spy Game). There are shades of One Foot in the Grave in Cox’s forced-retirement blues. It’s partly a twisted romcom, at times like a 1970s paranoia thriller, and becomes more Hitchcock-esque the longer it goes on. Despite (or maybe because of) this, whenever the script hits a crossroads it turns down the road with the fewest clichés, which keeps it interesting. Perhaps the film loses its way at the death (the end is sudden and perfunctory), but mostly it’s enormous fun.

Eight sex swings out of 10.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

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Written by Joel and Ethan, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Joel and Ethan; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a bloody crime scene – a drugs deal gone bad – and walks off with a bag full of money. Psychopathic murderer Anton Chigurh gives chase…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tommy Lee Jones. An obvious casting choice for a world-weary, grizzled Texas sheriff – but nevertheless a good one.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Stephen Root (3) has another small role, and Josh Brolin (1) plays Moss.

Best bit: The tense nighttime chase in the desert.

Review: The Coens’ fifth movie set in the American South is a splendid return to form. They know how to shoot and populate wide, open spaces so well (compare with the studio-bound Ladykillers, which felt so dreary). We’re back to the slow and methodical style of Blood Simple: there’s little humour, lots of sequences have no dialogue, but it’s engrossing. I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next. A prime slice of film soleil.

Eight motel rooms out of 10.

The Ladykillers (2004)

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Written by Ethan and Joel, based on 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers by William Rose; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Ethan and Joel

‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) rents a room in the house of a religious, elderly woman so he and his gang can use her cellar in their plan to rob a casino…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Cloak, white suit, odd facial hair, false teeth, geographically unsure accent – what the buggering fuck is Tom Hanks doing?!

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Bruce Campbell (4) has a cameo, Stephen Root (2) has a small role, and JK Simmons (1) is one of Dorr’s gang.

Best bit: An American football game filmed from a player’s point of view.

Review: Tiresome beyond belief. Good comedy is based on truth, but this drivel is about outlandish cartoon characters played by actors more concerned with being eccentric than being interesting. If you ever wondered what 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven would be like if you took away the wit, style, panache, likeability, skill, talent, tension, comedy, charm, charisma, class, subtlety, surprises, twists, intelligence, good cast, cool music, sharp dialogue and enjoyment levels, then this is the film for you.

One irritable bowel out of 10.