DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

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DVD review: Danny Collins (2015)


Review first published on Movie Muser, October 2015  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer

Directed By: Dan Fogelman

Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a fictional music star whose career seems to have peaked at some point in the Seventies. Although not officially a has-been – he still appears to be very wealthy and is widely recognised by young and old everywhere he goes, Collins is unsatisfied. He hasn’t written a song in thirty years and seems less than enthused about his much younger fiancée (Katarina Cas).

While, as his agent (the ever excellent Christopher Plummer) points out, his problems are extremely minor compared to some people’s, the revelation that Collins was once sent an admiring letter by John Lennon which never got to him, triggers what can only be described as a very late midlife crisis. He begins to reassess his priorities attempting to rebuild relations with the family of his estranged son (Cannavale and Garner). He also moves into a hotel and soon he begins wooing the straitlaced manager (Bening).

The Lennon stuff seems to be largely an excuse to get some of the Beatle’s music on the soundtrack. This turns out to be a godsend as all the music performed by Pacino is absolutely awful. It is hard to see how Collins would ever have made it as a music star, even allowing for the fact that he is supposed to have worsened with age.

The performances are fine though particularly Garner and Plummer and as Collins notes he and Bening’s character do generate some “good patter” (as in banter).

The mock up album covers on the extras using pictures from Pacino’s own long career are good fun too. There’s an okay, short advertising featurette too in which Al Pacino at one point unwisely compares his decision to take the role to his decision to play Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. Needless to say , the comparison to his past glories would have been best left unmade.


Special Features: Danny Collins – Album Covers Through The Years Behind The Scenes of Danny Collins Featurette


Overall Verdict: Not likely to make Al Pacino’s own Greatest Hits album. Distinctly average.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Capote (2005)

The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.


Sub-heading: The Truman Show

Region 1 review. Text by Chris Hallam Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban Director: Bennett Miller

The Lowdown: On learning of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, author and celebrity Truman Capote travels to the victims’ town with his lifelong friend, novelist Harper Lee. By befriending the local community, sheriff and the killers, he finds material for his literary masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood’.

God knows what the good people of Kansas made of Truman Capote in 1959. Short, portly and as camp as a field of boy scouts, the ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ author was openly gay and more familiar with swanky New York literary parties than courtrooms and jail cells.

Capote’s personal investigation into the Clutter murders was to prove a turning point not just in his own life but also in the history of literature. ‘In Cold Blood’ would provide a compelling mix of fact and fiction that would revolutionise modern journalism. Yet the moment of Capote’s greatest triumph would also precipitate his downfall. The film centres on the author’s conflict as he befriends one of the accused men Perry Smith while ultimately hoping to benefit from his execution (if only because it would guarantee a suitable finale for his book). By focusing exclusively on the crucial 1959-1965 period, ‘Capote’ reveals as much as any standard cradle to grave ‘Truman is born, realises he’s gay, writes, becomes a success, parties, drinks a lot, falls out with everyone, dies’ biopic would have done. It also gets round the thorny issue that unless the subject is a suicidal maniac like Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, the process of writing (as with the world of computer hacking) is notoriously un-cinematic.

As Capote, Hollywood’s second most famous Hoffman is great, richly deserving his Oscar. But he’s not the only good thing here. The ever excellent Catherine Keener also excels as Harper Lee, Capote’s lifelong friend (Truman was the model for Dill in her ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’) whose success eats Capote up with jealousy. And with a flawless cast and sensitive intelligent screenplay from TV actor Dan Futterman, newbie director Miller (who has only directed one documentary before) doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Extras-wise, as so often before, the splitting of the ‘Making of’ featurette into two, merely serves as a none too convincing cover for the fact that neither are more than a few minutes long. And while both are good – the first half cantering more on Capote the man, the second more on ‘Capote’ the film – a longer documentary on Capote is sorely missed as it’s exactly the sort of film to leaves you thirsting for more info about its subject. Hoffman and Miller’s generally sedate commentary is lifted by Hoffman’s refreshing frankness in frequently admitting his struggle to get into character in many of his (ostensibly flawless) scenes. The other commentary in which Miller returns with cinematographer Kimmel is less interesting. But while more input from the screenwriters would have been appreciated, this is a generally fine package, which like the film, cannot easily be faulted.

Text By Chris Hallam

Captions 1: Hoffman lost 40 pounds for the role (although is still six and half inches taller than Capote was).

2: Catherine Keener plays Capote’s friend, author Harper Lee. The real Lee reputedly liked the film.

3: Unusually, two out of five of this year’s Best Picture nominees centred on gay characters.

4: Chris Cooper: in this and every other film this year seemingly.

5: The accused men have rather more riding on the outcome of the case than the success of a book. 6: The real Capote boozed himself to death in 1984.

Final Verdict An excellent, well-acted portrait of a troubled, super intelligent man at a pivotal stage in his life.

Rating FILM: 8 EXTRAS: 7

DVD review: Blue Valentine (2011)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2011  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Jen Jones Directed By: Derek Cianfrance Running Time:112 minutes UK Release Date: May 8. 2011 Certificate: 15

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy famously wrote, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. If this is true, then perhaps unhappy marriages follow a similar pattern. What isn’t in doubt and what becomes apparent very quickly in this is that the young couple, Dean and Cindy, portrayed here by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, are a very unhappy couple indeed.

It also becomes clear very early on is that the narrative sequence of the film has been deliberately jumbled up. Yes, it’s one of those films a bit like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We might first witness (for example), a scene of a balding, drunken Dean consumed with suspicion, paranoia and jealousy over the suspected infidelities of his desperately unhappy wife. The next minute, he’s a happier, more charming and carefree younger man wooing the willing Cindy by playing (with unintentional irony) You Always Hurt The One You Love to her on his mandolin.

The emotional impact of the juxtaposition of these scenes is frequently devastating. Dean and Cindy can clearly barely speak to each other by the later stages of their marriage and as some very uncomfortable sex scenes make clear she is ultimately physically repelled by him. Neither character is entirely black and white, however, and while Gosling’s Dean is generally the less sympathetic of the two, even he musters some sympathy.

As you’ve probably gathered, Blue Valentine isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. So why on Earth should you want to watch it at all?

The short answer is because it’s a superb, beautifully made film, criminally neglected at the Oscars. Although he perhaps doesn’t need an ego boost, Gosling consolidates his status (demonstrated in the underrated Lars and the Real Girl) as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Michelle Williams is, if anything, even better, giving a heart rending Oscar-worthy performance. “The Creek” now seems like a very long time ago indeed: Dawson Leery wouldn’t recognise her.

There’s also a solid Bonus Features package including a commentary from director Derek Cianfrance and editor Jim Hendon, a Q and A session from the Sundance Film Festival and a making of featurette. There are also some home movie sequences, glimpsed briefly in the film, played out in full.

But if you’ve ever looked at an unhappy couple and wondered why they ever got together in the first place, this could be the film for you.

Overall Verdict:

Not an easy evening’s viewing: the emphasis is more on the “blue” than on the “valentine”. But both Williams and Gosling are sensational and it’s undoubtedly one of the better films of the past year.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Director Derek Cianfrance and Editor Jim Helton

Q and A Featurette

Deleted Scenes

Making of Blue Valentine Featurette

Home Movies Clips

Trailer

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

DVD review: The Young Victoria (2009)

Chris Hallam's World View

Title: The Young Victoria

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany,

Directed By: Jean-Marc Vallee

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Release Date: July 13, 2009

Certificate: PG

Your Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, July 2009  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Queen Victoria didn’t just reign. She ruled.She in fact ruled for nearly 64 years, longer than anyone else, a record the present Queen may beat if she holds out until 2016 (update: this has since happened).

Yet while most films about, say, Henry VIII see him transformed from a handsome young Jonathan Rhys Meyers-type into an obese Charles Laughton-like glutton, movies about Victoria usually centre exclusively on her later years as a gloomy, sour faced old widow. This is different. Opening in the 1830s, we first meet Emily Blunt’s teenaged Princess Victoria as she develops an initially awkward romance with her…

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Red Dawn (1984): The stupidest film ever made?

Chris Hallam's World View

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Could Red Dawn actually be the stupidest film ever made?

It seems possible. This is, after all, a movie made in 1984 which depicts the United States succumbing to a land invasion by the Soviet Union. That’s right. You read it correctly. A Russian land invasion of the USA. At the height of age of nuclear super power confrontation. The opening scenes see a high school teacher being distracted from his teaching by the sudden arrival of an army of Russian parachutists, suddenly descending on the ground outside. When he goes to investigate, he is promptly machine gunned to death.

A high school massacre ensues. Not the traditional sort of US high school massacre with Americans shooting each other which we have become so used to. The director John Milius would presumably defend every American’s right to do that, after all. No, this is a nasty Soviet-inspired massacre.

The heroes…

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