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Non-Review Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is a paint-by-numbers redemption narrative, anchored in a tremendous central performance from Ben Affleck and enriched by its keen observations.

The basic plot of The Way Back will be familiar to most audience members. Jack is an alcoholic construction worker who is struggling to hold his life together. He has learned to do just enough to remain functional, but not so much that the people around him haven’t noticed his struggles. Jack stubbornly refuses any assistance offer by his family or by his ex-wife, believing that he has found something resembling an equilibrium. His addiction has pushed him into a slow and noticeable decline, but he has yet to implode.

He’s Backfleck.

Almost entirely by chance, Jack finds himself drafted back to his old high school, emotionally blackmailed into coaching their basketball team. Jack had played basketball as a teenager, but gave up on the sport in much the same way that he has recently withdrawn from the world around him. Inevitably, through his coaching, Jack finds himself connected with the lovable misfits that he takes under his wing. Jack guides these young men towards sporting glory, helping them (and himself) to find purpose in what they are doing.

It is all very conventional. There are very few surprises in The Way Back, which feels almost like one of those well-executed manoeuvres that Jack has his team execute out of the court. Everything lines up, all the pieces are moved with purpose, and the end result is never really in doubt. However, The Way Back elevates this well-worn formula with two secret weapons. Most obviously, Affleck finds an intersection of his traditional movie-star charisma with the baggage of his star persona. More subtly, the film is willing to just observe its characters, to let them be themselves.

Team works.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

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Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy passed away today.

Nimoy is an interesting figure. He is an actor and director with a long a prolific career, who seldom wanted for steady work. He did a lot of quality work in front of (and behind) the camera. Nimoy was a series regular on the sixties version of Mission: Impossible, taking over from Martin Landau. He played a major role in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland. He also directed both Three Men and a Baby. He worked quite regularly and quite frequently. His body stretches over half a century.

leonardnimoy1

However, all of this work (and it is great work) is inevitably overshadowed by a single role. To an entire generation of people – not just fans, not even just casual television viewers – Leonard Nimoy was Spock. With his pointed ears, memorable catchphrases and iconic Vulcan salute, Nimoy was enigmatic half-human half-Vulcan who served as the first officer of the USS Enterprise. His work spans the franchise, from the unbroadcast original pilot (The Cage) to the most recent JJ Abrams feature (Star Trek Into Darkness).

This was the conflict at the heart of Nimoy, the extremely professional performer who worked pretty consistently throughout his life and the one role that he turned into a screen icon across television and film. Nimoy was a complex character. He famously published an autobiography declaring I Am Not Spock, only to follow it up with I Am Spock. It is a credit to the actor’s complexity and nuance that both could seem to be true in the same instant.

tos-amoktime12

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Non-Review Review: The Descendants

George Clooney’s work in The Descendants is being hailed as the actor’s greatest performance to date. Truth be told, I suspect that Clooney’s filmography has (generally speaking) been remarkably strong, so it’s difficult to really isolate the actor’s “best” performance. That said, I do think that The Descendants allows Clooney to play his most mature role to date, as Clooney finds the heart and the heartbreak in this darkly comic drama about a “part-time parent”who gets a major bump in responsibility following his wife’s near-fatal accident.

Hedging his bets...

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Michael Gough, RIP

You know, I’m never quite sure what to say about the passing of actors who I only really associate with one particular role. It’s not even that the role is all that I know them from or that I haven’t seen them anywhere else – I am well aware that Michael Gough’s prolific career spanned everything from theatre to movies to television, in the UK and the USA. However, to me, Gough will probably always be Alfred. I just hope I am not doing the distinguished actor a disservice by remembering him like that.

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When the Sheen Comes Off: The Lonely Ballad of Charlie Sheen…

It’s human nature to want to rubberneck at some grotesque car wreck. I have no idea where that grim compulsion is rooted, but it is buried deep within our human nature – we can’t resist it, like some form of morbid curiosity. In fact, on major motorways, the problem is so intense in that it has been suggested in the Netherlands that police should erect blank screens to stop passing drivers from peering at accidents. As I watch Charlie Sheen’s continuing descent into madness (because it seems – defying the laws of nature – like there is no rock bottom), I can’t help but wonder if we should do something similar about the actor’s recent attempts to train wreck his career.

He's not Half the Man he used to be...

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Putting the “-ess” in “Sexist”: Why Do We Have a Best Actress Award?

The fact that no woman was nominated for Best Director (after Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win last year) has caused a stir at this year’s Oscars. I’m not an excessively politically correct individual (just read the blog), but I like to think I’m sensitive to issues like that. Presumably the presumptive female directing nominees would have been either Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone or Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right, and – to be honest – I don’t think either was better than any of the five existing nominees. The continued snubbing of Christopher Nolan bothers me far more.

As I thought about the complaint more and more, part of me wondered when the gender of an individual becomes important for awards like this – my gut feeling is “never.” The best is the best, why should we handicap or install quotas? Except for the fact that we do have gender quotas for certain awards. This train of thought led me wonder why we still have a Best Actress and a Best Supporting Actress category… And, to cut a long story short, I really couldn’t think of a good reason.

Are we kidding ourselves?

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Is There Method to the Madness: Christian Bale’s Weight & Method Acting

Christian Bale is losing a massive amount of weight again for his role in the upcoming Concrete Island. It’s rather topical, given that the actor took time out of an interview to lambaste those who would deride his massive amount of weight loss for The Fighter:

‘To be honest, I find it laughable that it’s considered to be some f—ing gimmick — it’s so patronizing. For God’s sake, do people not understand what a pain it is to do? It’s as though it’s some comment about, ‘Oh it’s easy for him, because he’s done it a bunch of times.’ It’s not easy, it’s not fun — it’s horrible.”

In fairness, I think Bale misses the general thrust of the argument when he makes the (entirely fair) point that it’s a very difficult process. I don’t think anybody will argue that such control over his own body mass is easy (as, if it were, I’d probably choose to be the epitome of physical fitness, but it doesn’t work that way). I think the general question is whether such a large fluctuation in weight adds a benefit to his roles that is worth the physical strain. Is there a gain for the pain, so to speak?

What's the skinny?

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Non-Review Review: The Night of Living Dead (1968)

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

– Barbara’s brother tempts fate

The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying… It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.

– Roger Ebert discusses the impact of the film on his first viewing

It’s interesting to look back on a film and see that it created a whole new genre from scratch. The Night of the Living Dead is a humble, small and effective little black-and-white effort that doesn’t even seem aware of the impact that it would have. As shrewdly as it creates the monster which defined the latter half of the twentieth century (and the first few years of the twenty-first), there’s nothing pretentious about George A. Romero’s production. In fact, it consciously harks back to all manner of influential and paranoid fifties horrors (with a dash of science fiction). Still, there’s a reason the film has endured for so long. Although it never pretends to be anything more than a gloriously trashy B-movie, The Night of the Living Dead is committed to being the best gloriously trashy B-movie it can be. The only thing more fascinating than its pop culture impact is how well (mostly) it still hold up today.

Barbara's in grave danger...

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Non-Review Review: The Young Victoria

There are a few period dramas about classical nobility released every year. Most of them, such as The Dutchess are fairly bland and lifeless affairs – indeed, it’s hard to create an energy or dynamism around a world most of us have never known which is built upon self-restraint and self-control. The tendency is towards po-faced self-importance and excessive melodrama. While I would be hard pressed to describe The Young Victoria as “exciting” or “thrilling”, it is one of the better period pieces I have seen to focus on the British Royal Family, perhaps because – despite the impressive scope of its subject matter (Queen Victoria was, as the end titlecard informs us, the longest-serving monarch of Great Britain) – it remains tightly focused. It’s a story of courtship and romance, loyalty and dependency. It’s a genuinely and honestly romantic film.

Royalty and politics make strange bedfellows...

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