As the early months of the year now almost dictate (in that I’ve done it twice now), it’s time to look back over the list of films/movies/motion pictures (as you prefer) I’ve seen and books that I’ve read, and reminisce, summarise, and highlight just by how much I missed the point and/or artistic merits of each.

Don’t panic – this shouldn’t take too long.

  • Taken 2 – I’m not 100% sure how I wound up watching this given that I’ve not seen Taken 1, but it was an action romp about retired CIA agent Liam Neeson and his implausible but at least less-accident-prone-than-Kim-Bauer daughter played by Maggie Grace in a far less hot role than on Californication.  It turns out the director’s name is Olivier Megaton, and that’s probably my favourite thing about this film.  Really made me think, “Man, what would *I* do if Albanian criminals kidnapped my wife and I in retrobution for me killing the leader’s son after he kidnapped my daughter?”.  If I were Liam Neeson, I’d have just used my gnarly Jedi powers.
  • Argo – Great story about the weird but true story of the rescue of US agents during an Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 by a secret op in which rescuing agents assembled a cover story of scouting out a location to film a scifi blockbuster.  Brilliant stuff, and Ben Affleck totally on form as director and star.
  • Hot Shots – One post-Saturday night Sunday morning we revisited this early 90s comedy staple: it’s got to be one of my favourite films (although, I don’t suppose it featured in my Top Ten list in 2009) filled with Airplane-style lunacy and a relentless pace of stupid gags.  This was the film that made Cary Elwes very difficult to watch indeed in SAW later in his career (“Kent, your nostrils are flaring.”).  I could probably quote the thing from end to end.  “That is the whitest white part of the eye I’ve ever seen… do you floss?”, etc.
  • Thor – My attempt at engaging with the Marvel Studios film stable: I’d have used a different 4-letter word for the title of this.  I really, really like Viking mythology (enough to name our Rover Crew after it, anyway), but putting a god in as a superhero’s just bloody ridiculous. And then, having embraced the magic & nonsense of having gods & powers, they make the Bifrost bridge (linking the mortal plane with Asgard) a piece of technology!  Just bullshit.
  • Captain America – slightly less offensively stupid superhero film, which I mainly watched because my American mate Ryan’s obsessed with the Captain.  I’ve no doubt that to someone well up on their superhero trivia this was a great steaming pile, but I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as Thor.
  • The World’s End – long-awaited conclusion to Wright, Pegg and Frost’s Cornetto Trilogythis film follows a group of middle-aged ex-schoolmates brought back to their rural town by their former “charismatic leader”, and made to go through the motions of doing a pub crawl.  I really enjoyed this, because not only was it a gagfest in the vein of the other 2 films in the trilogy, but I enjoyed watching Simon Pegg convincingly playing such a reviling(/as well as pitiable) character, and thought they did a great job addressing the theme of not moving on.  Possibly the weakest film in the trilogy, but the gap is nowhere near as big as the gap between Star Wars and Return Of The Jedi.
  • Hyde Park on Hudson – there may have been loads going on in this historical piece about Franklin Roosevelt, but in my mind it’ll always be “the one where the old bloke got his cousin to give him a handjob”.  Possibly just a badly assembled film.  Bill Murray watchable as ever though.
  • The Lone Ranger – 2013 was a real bumper year for me watching shit films.  I thought I’d give this a go on our flight over to South Africa on the strength of the fact it had Johnny Depp playing another character piece, but it very quickly became obvious that that was the strength of the argument for having made it in the first place.  The veil of sleep overcame me several times throughout this film, so I have no recollection of what it’s about but I feel strongly that instead of being called The Lone Ranger they should’ve called it The Film Which Stars Johnny Depp With A Bird On His Head.  Distracting, that bird.
  • RED 2 – I didn’t go into this with high hopes, based on the other films I saw on that flight, but RED 2 was a surprise win.  Ridiculous ensemble action piece about a bunch of retired top-level spies coming together to thwart one of their old enemies threatening to destroy the world, framed against a fish-out-of-water story between Bruce Willis and his post-retirement civilian wife (Mary-Louise Parker, wonderfully kooky as usual).  I would imagine this nonsense didn’t win any awards, but for me it sits in alongside with Hudson Hawk in the list of highly enjoyable stupid Bruce Willis films.
  • Romance and Cigarettes – quite offbeat piece which I wanted to watch purely on the strength of it having been written & directed by John Turturro.  Steelworker James Gandolfini has affair with Kate Winslet and it’s discovered by wife Susan Sarandon, using frame-breaking musical sequences to flesh out the emotional side of the story.  Odd.  Good.  Odd.
  • Jack Reacher – Ding dong, more cinematic crap!  I’d been tipped off to this by my mate Rodney as to how bad this was, but still worth a look.  Probably the issue here was that the film had been based on the books (which I’d never read, but finding this out one feels compelled to do some research), and one of the key things about the character of Jack Reacher is that he’s 6 foot 5.  Quote from film PR at the time: “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way”.  What next – a one-legged man playing Tarzan?
  • Gravity – in a complete reversal of the poor film choice trend, we saw this at the cinema round the corner from my house and my immediate response was a big Keanu-style “WHOOOOA!”.  Thoroughly gripping (to the point of white-knuckling) all the way through, the story of Sandra Bullock floating around in space was so captivating it even took my mind off the fact it was Sandra Bullock.
  • World War Z – second white-knuckle film in succession here: this is probably not a film you’d describe as a romcom.  A post-zombie apocalypse story with Brad Pitt playing a UN specialist trying to find any way of neutralising the zombie plague threatening humanity.  Utterly terrifying combination of the relentless march of the undead, and the exponential viral nature of the infection, but also because the zombies here were the single-minded freakish able-to-run starving scavengers (such as in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set) rather than the more traditional slow shambling sort: giving you far less time to aim a shotgun headshot, for starters.
  • Much Ado About Nothing – Shakespeare in modern clothing, and proof once again that the text of communication’s not the important thing.  Well-directed Shakespeare is once again proven to be totally accessible.  Nice backstory that this film was Joss Whedon’s wife’s wedding present to him (allowing him to film this rather than go on holiday for their anniversary like usual – and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go on a holiday that cost even a small film’s budget??)
  • Clash of the Titans – Seeing 3 decent movies in a row was an obvious anomaly, and in many ways this remake of the campy 1981 cult classic was more than an antidote.  I have no idea – ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA – what possessed me to watch this.  My notes at the time say “Steaming shit of a polished turd. Dire script, OTT effects, no character sympathy whatsoever”.  So that’s hardly redeeming, is it? It was broadly amusing that the central story idea was that of Perseus trying to save his village, called Argos.  Why didn’t they just order a magic sword out of the Laminated Book Of Dreams?  It could’ve been called Clash of the Accents – another fantasy piece demanding authenticity by all of its actors putting on ridiculous brogues, presumably because that’s how people in mystic worlds used to speak.  Liam Neeson basically put over a foilwrapped Billy Connolly.  Ralph Fiennes must’ve said “for that money, I’ll just do Voldemort”.  And Mads Mikkelsen just keeps looking around with an expression saying “What am I doing here?”.
  • Elysium – WHY ARE THE PEOPLE RUNNING THE FUTURE SO DAMN STUPID?!  By the time that this dystopian future piece set in 2154 comes around there will have been COUNTLESS films and books warning evil empress figure Jodie Foster about the dangers of the rich elite ruling relentlessly over the downtrodden colony of plebians.  The peasants ALWAYS revolt.  Oh wait, is that an allegory hovering gently into view?
  • The Net – When you’ve seen this many shit films, why fight it?  Sandra Bullock – an expert computer expert – finds herself at the sharp end of computer identity fraud, immediately prompting the question “Why didn’t they send her hurtling off into space in this film instead?”.
  • Coffee and Cigarettes – I got this to watch because after Romance & Cigarettes I knew that there was another film mentioning tobacco in the title that I wanted to watch, and for some reason my inner prat figured it must of been this one because it had Jim Jarmusch’s name attached.  I didn’t finish this though – felt like watching a series of improv scenes done by non-improvisers where they had to act out a miscellaneous few minutes which must feature mention of coffee and of cigarettes in it.  I found it painful.  Like being at a staging of a play based on a famous movie where you know that the audience are all waiting for the lead actor to inevitably say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, or, like, whatever.
  • Thank You For Smoking – spin doctor for Big Tobacco shows alternate world view and some great reframing of an argument, in a piece with a great collection of characters.  I spent most of it wondering where I’d seen Aaron Eckhardt before, but noticed William H. Macy’s excellent portrayal of an over-inflated nervous shit.  I think this was the tobacco reference I was looking for.
  • Catching Fire – having quite enjoyed the first volume of the story of Katniss Everdeen & friends, this film started kinda painfully as an obvious sequel (“Oh no, even though we won our freedom by participating in the cutthroat Games, the evil President Snow has found a loophole to make us go back in there AGAIN!”), and ended in a tragically unsatisfying non-ending which basically screamed YOU HAVE TO SEE THE THIRD FILM IN ORDER TO GET CLOSURE ON THIS!  One chap leaving the cinema behind us was vocally less impressed than we were…  like, from all the way inside the cinema to out through the mall and over the road.  He’s probably still bitching about it.  As Liz pointed out, it more or less followed the book – including the end – exactly, so shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who’d read them.  It made me think a lot about what a great job Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in shuffling some events about in order to ensure they had 3 distinct, satisfying films.

I also read some books, after moving to a house which was located 2 tube rides from where I was working.  I think Britain will always maintain its intellectual reputation so long as it has decent public transport and people have to travel forever to get to work and back.

Part of the reading bit was me finally catching on to the idea that I could run a Kindle app on my iPad, thus providing me with a thin justification for having bought it in the first place.

  • A Game of Thrones / A Clash of Kings / A Storm of Swords / A Feast for Crows / A Dance with Dragons / The Hedge Knight / The Sworn Sword / The Mystery Knight (George RR Martin) – I read these – no, devoured them – purely as an extension to my love of the TV series.  As one of those people who came to the books after having watched the first couple of series I can’t tell whether I missed anything by having not done it the other way around…  however the TV production is so rich and has such great production values that I don’t think it detracts at all.  I was initially very impressed at the way Martin would kill off characters (in a reversal of the sort of suspense 24 never has, because you *know* Jack Bauer has to survive til the end of the day, at least), however this gave way to tedium towards the latter books as you sensed the author thinking, “Oh bollocks, now I’ve got to quickly paint some rich character backgrounds to make people feel upset when I kill these ones off too”.  Great stuff.  I hope he finishes this story before he collapses of a massive heart attack.
  • Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Greg Palast) – serial investigative agitator & pest Greg Palast (whose work I adore) lays out a trail for how US elections were rigged by way of discounting key votes in the interests of big business.  Thoroughly frustrating stuff, because you can’t bring it up in conversation without sounding like a paranoid consipracy nut, and I have a tendency to bore people stiff when faced with the argument “Well it’s not like my one vote will make any difference” which crops up around election time, as I would more than likely feel compelled to lecture people that they’re right but not for the reasons they think.  Making me sound like a paranoid conspiracy nut.  I thoroughly recommend that people read Palast’s books though.
  • The Princess Bride (William Goldman) – utterly excellent book which I selected on the basis of the utterly excellent film, which takes the device of a story of a story being told  and takes it to another level with the author’s interjections and biographic style.  I didn’t think there was any way this story could’ve been made MORE awesome, but this book does it.  And naturally it was impossible not to imagine the characters as acted in the film, and again luckily this was fine because they did a fantastic job and avoided things like casting Tom Cruise as Fezzik (Fezzik’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise presumably would portray in his own way).
  • Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse) – my first ever Wodehouse book, prompted in part by my cousin’s fascination with the oeuvre.  Ridiculous and delightful, and I love that the only person in the world alive who talks like that was one of the people in the lead roles of the much-loved TV adaptation.  The story’s paper-thin, the details totally ridiculous, but the whole thing comes across as fanciful and loveable.
  • The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson) – having enjoyed some of Jon Ronson’s other investigations this one about understanding what exactly a psychopath is and to what extent are these traits manifested out in the world was very interesting indeed.  Descriptions of studies, processes and clinical trials in psychiatric treatment were particularly terrifying and reinforce my view that once you’re in you’re basically screwed.
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larssen) – another book I read after seeing the movie, making it impossible for me not to visualise Daniel Craig as the protagonist of this despite in-book descriptions not really lining up with that.  About the only flaw I could find in this intrigue piece about a maligned journalist hired to uncover an industrialist family’s dark secret (aided by the eponymous girl, a socially disconnected computer hacker) was the author’s tendency to focus on unnecessary descriptive detail.  As a quirk goes though, pretty minor.  Great stuff!  Could barely put it down.
  • The Case of The Pope (Geoffrey Robertson QC) – Geoffrey Robertson is one of my heroes.  A decent, articulate, very intelligent lawyer – he first came to my attention when I was about 12 or 14 with his series of televised “debates” called Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals screened on the ABC, in which he would construct a fictional world featuring and shaped by the opinions and stories of the panel of guests assembled, and Robertson would deftly juggle the balls of the story, prompting each panellist to expose morally rigorous beliefs and then twist the story such that they were forced to make conflicting choices based on that moral rigour.  This book is a tightly constructed case of arguments about why the Pope – specifically at time of publishing, Pope Benedict XVI – had to answer for the crimes against children carried out by members of the Catholic church.  In the balanced and referenced discussion he describes the nature of the church’s secret internal disciplinary processes and how these directly contributed to further offending and harm, the coverups, the highly secretive internal processes, and dispelling the legitimacy of the Pope’s claim to being able to avoid prosecution as a result of being a Head of State.  Whilst making me feel physically sick in many places, this book was just brilliant in terms of its depth, thoroughness, avoidance of any sort of polemic, and tendency to avoid hyperbole and stick to the bare facts of the argument.  The bit where Robertson shows that the Vatican’s claim to statehood is based on a treaty between the then-Pope and Mussolini, which no other countries anywhere were party to (and therefore an invalid international treaty) was just bamboozling.  WHY do people put up with this crap?  I wish I were capable of even one percent of Robertson’s intelligence, probity and clarity.
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire / The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larssen) – following up from the previous book, I was unable to get the story of my head and had these sent straight to mi Kindle instead of working through the not inconsiderable stack of other books I had queued up.  Expanding impressively on the psychological weirdness of his previous story (and with Ronson’s findings still eerily fresh in my head) I devoured these two books similarly, about the just & righteous Blomkvist, and the shadowy and tortured Salander.  Compelling stuff, to say the very least.  Having read in an article somewhere that Larssen had a penchant for basing characters on figures from his real life, the conclusion to the third book made it quite clear who Blomkvist was based on, and suggested that had the author not died shortly after presenting his 3 manuscripts that maybe they’d have been a bit more closely redrafted/edited.  For instance, upon buying herself a new apartment and deciding to furnish it, Salander’s trip to Ikea is meticulously documented in the book – reading like a catalogue – with more or less no story relevance for the remainder of the two books.  But I think I find it comforting to read things that are both flawed and brilliant.

So there we are!  If anything, we’ve learned that I’m still crap at selecting films, and that my 2 sentence summaries are starting to creep out of control.

Jason’s Cinema and Literature Roundup for 2013 AD
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