The mark of a good film critic should be their top 10 of the year (or however many they feel is an appropriate number). It gives you a reasonable guideline as to whether or not their kind of film is your kind of film, and if you can reliably take their opinion as a guide when choosing the films to see on a regular basis. The mark of a good film blogger, on the other hand, should be their bottom 10 of the year. Unlike a critic, who is contractually obliged to watch everything, a blogger is typically picking and choosing and their bottom 10 should be a reflection of how often they’ve put themselves in harm’s way. Now, it’s fair to be said that reviewing a poor film in often significantly more fun that critiquing a good one – and more fun to read as well – and the same can be said of anything from restaurants to bicycle pumps, but there are only so many times any sane person should put themselves in the path of tedium and banality in the name of the gratification of their readers.
So in that sense, it’s been a great 2013 for me. Rather than last year, where my bottom 6 were all one star films, this time that can only be applied to the bottom two, and the remaining eight in the list make up all of the two star films I saw this year; anything else in the 150 or so new films I saw in the cinema, plus re-releases and films seen at home, were all worthy of at least two and a half stars. Consequently I would only really suggest the top – or bottom – four should be completely avoided; all the rest are more of an “approach with caution” warning, and you may well find more of merit in them than I did. I will, as always, provide my justification for seeing it, and any full reviews have a hyperlink on the title.
There is another way of looking at this: even though it was a TV movie, so wouldn’t appear on this list, I found one film this year utterly trashy and poorly made, yet still some admittedly clichéd fun. So these are the ten films this year that I enjoyed less than Sharknado.
Reason I watched it: it was the gala opening of the Cambridge Film Festival, with the man himself in attendance.
There’s nothing hugely bad or offensive in Hawking, other than the fact that it gives about as much real insight into the world’s most prominent living scientist as looking at a postage stamp gives you insight into the Queen. There’s nothing of any real meat or consequence here and most of it misses the point by a wide margin, and the tantalising glimpses into what drives Hawking are all the more frustrating given their lack of context. Some topics are sensibly glossed over to a point; I don’t believe there’s much to be gained from delving into Hawking’s marriages and their break-ups, but actually the viewpoint of his first wife Jane provides some of the documentary’s best moments.
Reason I watched it: because I grew up in the time the film portrays.
Maybe the reason I didn’t take to Computer Chess was exactly that: it felt like an hour and a half in the company of some of my less interesting computer science lecturers from the early Nineties. I did computer science at GCSE, A-level and as part of my degree, and while others saw a great amount to appreciate in this mock doc of nerds from the Eighties, to me it felt like a reasonable ten minute short stretched way beyond breaking point, familiarity breeding contempt well before the end. The characterisations are all one note and with too little variation, the plot runs like treacle and the ending feels tacked on. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.
Reason I watched it: The Planet Hollywood boys all had a film out around the same time, and I wanted to compare and contrast.
The winner of that particular competition, by a considerable distance, was the Arnie comeback movie The Last Stand, which had no pretensions other than being a good deal of fun and succeeded admirably on those terms. Bullet To The Head, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme and director Walter Hill at his least inspired; those who know much of Hill’s work will know that’s not a good sign. Stallone mumbles his way through a turgid script that feels as if direct to video would have been a compliment, the action’s completely uninspired and it all attempts to morph into some form of half-hearted buddy movie with less chemistry than a Junior Chemistry set with half the pieces missing. Sadly, it wasn’t the worst of the three Arnie / Sly / Bruce movies from the first quarter of the year, by a long, long way.
Reason I watched it: because the trailer actually looked reasonable.
There’s no harm in attempting to invert the tropes of the romantic comedy; why should it always be sunshine and light? On paper, the attempt to start with a marriage and then watch the comedy spring from seeing that marriage on the downslope to catastrophe should provide more laughs than the normal romantic comedy. On screen, it became a collection of insufferable oiks who deserved everything they got and the general sense of unease sapped the fun quicker than you can say “decree nisi”. The ending is nonsense, but by then I was well past caring.
Reason I watched it: I still cling to the increasingly forlorn hope that M. Night has one good film left in him.
It’s not this one. M. Night will always hold a place in my heart for the simple reason that Unbreakable was the film I saw on my first date with Mrs Evangelist, back when we were both much younger and I was less wrinklier. (She isn’t more wrinklier, in case you were wondering.) After Earth manages to retain the nonsensical plotting of later Shyamalan while retaining the forced stoicism that passes for acting in his films, and it all comes across as slightly laughable when it’s intended to be threatening and tense. At this point, I’d be too afraid of the often requested Unbreakable sequel for the fear he’d screw it up.
Reason I watched it: because I’m a card-carrying Trekkie.
When I saw Star Trek Nemesis, the last of the four Next Generation excursions into cinemas, I felt – and Paramount agreed – that it was time to give the franchise a rest for a while. I didn’t expect to be revisiting those feelings just two films into the reboot of the franchise, especially when I’d enjoyed the 2009 film so much. But my enjoyment of that film was based in part on giving some of the dumber elements of the script a pass, and sadly all of those elements are back with a vengeance this time, given more screen time with some additional stupid layered on with a space trowel. Recruiting Benedict Cumberbatch was a bad move as he acts everyone else off screen, not ideal for your leading men, and the film clings to past elements of the franchise to almost desperate levels. It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who’s ever seen, well, anything, and the fact that one of the three writers is returning for the next film is one too many for me.
Reason I watched it: because it was showing at FrightFest.
My second trip to the annual FrightFest, held in London’s Empire Leicester Square over the course of five days around the end of August. This year there were four screens in operation, and your day pass entitles you to see anything in the main screen, plus the option to claim tickets for other screenings. This was the one time of day when I couldn’t manage to get into a smaller screen when I didn’t fancy the main screen film, and sadly my concerns were borne out. Director Farren Blackburn has a strong background in British TV, from the likes of Luther and Doctor Who, but he never manages to find the right tone here, the po-faced thrashing about barely enlivened by occasional flecks of humour. Character actors of the likes of James Cosmo populate the background but are given little to do, and if the Vikings were this dull in real life maybe it’s a good job their time has long since passed.
Reason I watched it: because I’m about to turn 40 myself and I thought it would be useful to know what’s coming.
Except no-one in the world is like these people. No one. These aren’t first world problems, they’re – and I’m being extraordinarily generous here – upper middle class first world minor inconveniences, and after an hour I was ready to try to force my way into the screen, grab both Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters by the shoulders and to attempt to shake some sense into them. Possibly also to scream at them, “YOU’RE RICH AND REASONABLY SUCCESSFUL AND YOU’RE UTTERLY UNGRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE. TAKE A LONG, HARD LOOK AT YOURSELVES AND THEN GROW UP!!!!!!” I will not complain once about being 40 as long as someone buys me a copy of this on DVD. So that I can BURN IT.
Reason I watched it: it was showing at the Cambridge Film Festival and I’d heard of the director.
If you see over thirty films in eleven days, most of them chosen on the basis of a short paragraph in the festival brochure that gives you very little to go on, there’s bound to be the odd misstep. I only made two this year: I managed to see an Iranian film called Taj Mahal without realising that it was a direct remake of a French film called The Snows Of Kilimanjaro that opened last year’s festival, and while I preferred the remake it wasn’t a film I ever felt the need to see twice. The other mistake was this, chosen simply by recognition of Richard Jobson’s name, which turned out to be one of the most poorly produced films I’ve ever seen in a cinema. Low quality production values, sometimes obscuring dialogue or rendering scenes unwatchable, laughably bad flashbacks and a script which made me pine for the drama and quality of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, which this appeared for large parts to be foolishly attempting to imitate. A depressing example of how independent British film can, just occasionally, get it badly wrong.
Reason I watched it: I’d thoroughly enjoyed all of the other Die Hards, and despite the bad reviews and disastrous PR campaign I’d hoped there was some redeeming feature somewhere in this.
They brought back Mary Elizabeth Winstead for about two minutes. That’s literally all I’ve got.
Oh Bruce. You knew that this was a pile of rancid turtle faeces, didn’t you? That’s why you appeared dead on the inside for large parts of the promotional tour, wasn’t it? You knew that this was a collection of diabolically shot action scenes, anaemic and uninteresting characters, jump-the-shark plotting that’s so wafer thin it’s a miracle it was spun out to an hour and a half, even with padding, and lacking all of the hallmarks of the series that made all of the four previous instalments so enjoyable. Like watching someone else describe parts of an uninteresting video game to you, it’s the film equivalent of when a tennis player goes 4-0 down in a set and then throws the last two games just to get to the next set so they can start again, and by the end all involved are barely going through the motions. It was never in doubt that this would claw in enough money to make a sixth episode viable, but if another Die Hard does ever make it into production it would take an achievement worthy of the Nobel Prize For Stupidity to make something worse than this. (Incidentally, that’s not a challenge, Bruce.)
Earlier this month, I saw the original Die Hard in 70 mm at my local cinema, so both my favourite and least favourite films seen in the cinema this year have been Die Hard films. Yippie-ki-yay, mother fumbler.
Day 6, the halfway point of the eleven day festival, and the point at which I once again decide to put comfort before style in my appearance. I make that excuse a lot, as well as a lot of other excuses for my appearance, but this one’s genuine. My normal short sleeve shirt and jeans combo is normally supplemented by dark trainers, but my white running shoes are much more comfortable and also help when I’m bounding up the stairs to the screens two at a time. I also base it partly on the theory that The Shawshank Redemption first posited, that you never look at a man’s shoes, but this may fail on my account on at least two cases: generally, people would rather look anywhere than my face, and Andy Dufresne didn’t drag some white Nike knock-offs in a plastic bag through the sewage tunnels of a fictional prison. Still, I’m spending most of the day sat in a dark room with my feet under the seat, so for slogging up and down Cambridge’s streets, the running shoes come in extra handy.
And there was more walking, for day six saw me taking in three different venues.
As part of my attempt to determine the Forty Films To See Before I’m Forty, Jim Ross from Take One had suggested some typically Scottish offerings to supplement my viewing. He did this already in the knowledge that Local Hero was coming to this year’s festival, so I felt duly bound by honour to take in Bill Forsyth’s tale of corporate America taking on rural Scotland.
First, I had to contend with Emmanuel College, which is just opposite the Arts Picturehouse and acts as a venue for a number of screenings. There’s very little signage at the college to indicate they’re showing films, but on wandering in the first gate I saw a small sign. Following another half a dozen of these signs led me to a modern building at the far end of the college complex, at which point the signs ran out and I found myself ascending a spiral staircase more in hope than expectation. Turns out I was at the venue, which was a modern lecture theatre with curtains drawn as much as possible but the occasional shaft of light still creeping in. Although the base of the seats is padded, they are still benches and I struggled and fidgeted through the next hour and a half.
Local Hero is a product of its era, resolutely Eighties with a truly eccentric performance from Burt Lancaster. It did succeed in helping Dennis Lawson to make a more significant cultural contribution than Wedge to popular culture, but at the same time it’s now impossible to watch Peter Capaldi in anything without now imagining him doing it as The Doctor. (His edginess and inquisitiveness make him an excellent choice in my mind, but I digress.) Eccentric goes a long way to summing up Local Hero, and I’d also throw in whimsical, pleasant and humourous, and while it’s not a cast iron classic I’m glad to have ticked it off my list.
I then cut across the road, attempting (not entirely successfully) to undo my route, and arrived back at the Arts Picturehouse for my next film.
When navigating the festival programme each year, it’s difficult to make informed choices about everything. Sometimes you’re looking for a familiar face or name, something to give you a hook into a film, so when I saw the name of Richard Jobson, that seemed enough to hook me into his latest film, Wayland’s Song. My familiarity with Jobson stems from his presenting stint on the late night ITV programme Hollywood Report rather than his film career, but I’m always keen to give British film a chance. What I was left with was the only film of any nationality of the whole festival that I regretted seeing.
Wayland (Michael Nardone) is a veteran of the Afghanistan war who returns home to discover his daughter has gone missing, and sets out to find her and not to worry about who gets in his way. The simplest way to think of Wayland’s Song is as a companion piece to the distinctly similar Dead Man’s Shoes, except without any of the narrative, directorial or production skill that went into the former. The acting ranges from a dull monotone to screechingly bad, the Afghanistan flashbacks suffered by Wayland are laughably inept and there are a whole host of production issues, not least the sound mix which at certain points leaves the dialogue inaudible. There isn’t a shred of originality in Wayland’s Song and there’s not much more competence, although if you do see it yourself, please let me know if I’m right in thinking that at one point, Wayland puts his iPhone to his head the wrong way around (with the speaker and home button away from his face), I’d love to know.
Following this, it was another fifteen minute walk back down to the Cineworld in Cambridge for my last film of the day.
People often ask me why I watch horror movies, and I resist the temptation to ask them why they watch Coronation Street or The X-Factor. I suppose it’s a fair question, as horror movies aren’t for everyone, and it’s a genre that covers a lot of bases, so some horror movies still won’t be for all horror fans. I’m not a huge fan of torture porn, but certainly the forbidden thrill of gore has often appealed, but for someone who’s pleasant and welcoming on the outside I have a dark and twisted core, like one of those new tubs of Ben ‘N’ Jerry’s, and certain horror movies appeal to that darker side of my personality.
It’s the story of three men who gradually find themselves entangled in each other’s lives: Dror (Rotem Keinan) is suspected of some brutal child murders in which the heads of the children haven’t been found, thus denying them a full Jewish burial. Miki (Lior Ashenkazi) is the police officer who goes too far in attempting to extract information through official channels, so is forced to follow Dror on a more informal basis in the hope he slips up. Unbeknown to them both, they’re also being tracked by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the most recent victim out for revenge and answers.
I found Big Bad Wolves very, very appealing, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. As with many horror movies, it manages to be blackly comic as well as bleak, but this is a film with more than two gears in its gearbox. It also succeeds in being more generally funny and occasionally a little surreal, but the true joy of Big Bad Wolves is how it manages to switch between gears, often in the same scene, effortlessly and never breaks the overall tone. It’s packed full of more twists than a bag of fun size Curly-Wurlys and writer / director team Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado excel on both fronts. I’d almost added a second day at this year’s FrightFest to catch this and a couple of other films, and was very thankful that this made it’s way to the FrightFest strand at this year’s festival.