The Great 2011 Film Challenge Part 4

Ooh, get me: challenging myself to watch 150 films I've never seen before over the course of 2011 and writing about those I do watch. No, I don't get out much.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

Now, Part Four:

Monster In Law (12/06)

This film shows its hand very early on through showing its hand. I'm talking cards here. Specifically, the tarot. Near the start, somebody does a reading. Films very rarely do the tarot justice (Death hardly ever means death, for instance), but I think that this was the worst on-screen tarot reading I've ever seen. They played it like snap. Now, there might well be a method of reading which does indeed involve throwing down one card after another and, if so, I retract my criticism. But, this being a J Lo vehicle, I doubt they spent any longer than forty-three seconds in their research. Am I judging the entire film by this? Yes. Yes I am.

Secret Window (20/06)

Written by Steven King. Because it was written by Steven King, the protagonist's a writer. And, because the protagonist's a writer, I sort of identify with him. Furthermore, because he's played by Johnny Depp, I really cannot help but like him. However, anybody who's seen any more than one film before will be able to guess the "twist" about ten minutes in. Still, it's quite enjoyable, and his house is boss. And, once things get sinister, things get really sinister. It was written by Steven King, after all. He knows how to write.

Hotel Chevalier (29/06)

A short film which acts as an introduction and a companion to The Darjeeling Ltd, this doesn't make much sense unless you follow it immediately with a viewing of the main feature. That said, it's as engaging and evocative as anything by Wes Anderson, with the added bonus of being the most erotic thing he's ever done, too. 

The Darjeeling Ltd (29/06)

This year Wes Anderson's become so very close to completing my holy trinity of directors. That's right: He's very very nearly in a state to be rated by me alongside David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick asone of my very favourite film-makers. Everything he's done (for I've now seen it all) has been slightly odd but very affecting – and everything looks beautiful. His films are like dog-eared Penguin paperbacks: rough around the edges and a little faded, but crammed full of such things as make life worth living. This one, apart from anything else, made me want to visit India. Hell, it just made me want to travel with monogrammed luggage.

Conspiracy Theory (04/07)

Apparently, people haven't always thought of Mel Gibson as insane. Watching this, though, that's quite hard to understand. Of course, back then people would look at the neurotic gibbering lunatic on-screen and assume that he's just acting. These days, though, it's quite hard to watch without assuming that they've just set up a camera in his flat in order to follow his every move. This hasn't dated too well (it smells like the 90s), but it's nonetheless gripping and features a crazy interrogation scene with such images as have the power of being burned indelibly onto the retinas.

Pitch Black (05/07)

I don't know why, but I often feel sorry for Vin Diesel. Why do I often feel sorry for Vin Diesel? I shouldn't feel sorry for Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel, for one, doesn't feel sorry for Vin Diesel. It's just that, the Chronicles of Riddick came out, and Vin Diesel earnestly insisted that the whole saga would turn out to be this generation's Star Wars. It wasn't to be. I wish it had been, though. Heaven knows we need something to care about. And I think that's why I feel sorry for Vin Diesel. He doesn't quite seem to understand. Pitch Black I quite enjoyed, though. The darkness is so oppressive that it soon makes you forget about just how artificial everything looks when the sun's out. And those monsters are amazing.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows pt. 1 (06/07)

Though I've now sat through every Harry Potter film, I've can't admit to having enjoyed very many of them. This one, though, I enjoyed a lot. For the first time since The Prisoner of Azkaban it felt like a faithful adaptation of the book rather than a tired “will this do?”, and often things got brutal and devastating. The scene, at the start, in which Hermione erased herself from her parents' memories was incredibly powerful, as was the slow dance to Nick Cave later on. My faith was almost restored in the series as a whole, but it goes without saying that the books will always, always be better.

Ladies of the House (08/07)

An American made-for-TV affair in which three free-spirited, independent women do up a house for some reason. This leads to montage after montage of the women being free-spirited and independent whilst they strip wallpaper and move furniture. Their husbands are one-dimensional jokes (one's supportive, one's not. One didn't really have any lines) and there was an utterly cretinous bit in which one of the free-spirited, independent women went to a plumbing seminar. “Was that 'monkey wrench' with an O or a U?” she asked, simply because the writer's needed something ostensibly amusing for her to offer at that point. I was just sat there throughout saying “what the hell is this?”

The Ladykillers (08/07)

This was more like it. We're talking creepy Alec Guinness in Ealing rather than Tom Hanks in the deep south. Though I've not seen the remake, I cannot see how it could possibly live-up to this – Coen or no Coen. The sweet old woman is simply adorable – you can see why those crooks found it quite impossible to off her. That they had no difficulty at all in offing each other, though, was hilarious. Mr. Guinness shows his chops here through coming across as genuinely unhinged where many would simply ham it up.

Dark Water (09/07)

Being a remake of a Japanese horror, I was initially wary of this. I can't really abide remakes, because what's the point? This, though, was quite excellent. It wasn't really scary, because mainstream American horrors rarely are. It seems that either directors still think that flashing lights, and sudden noises are scary, or they're contractually obliged by their studios to include such tropes. Viewed as a drama dealing with divorce, motherhood and dark supernatural elements, though, this was really quite good. Apparently it's even better than the original, but on that I can't comment. It does feature Jason C. Reilly, though – so there will always be a place for it in my heart.

Bridesmaids (10/07)

The critical stance on this went full-circle really quickly. It was first identified as a genuinely funny bastion of modern comedy amongst such tired dross as The Hangover Part 2. Some predicted that it would usher-in a brave new era for women in comedy, whilst all seemed to agree that it was very, very good. But then everybody went to see it and everybody agreed that it was good. So, because there can never be such thing as something that's good because everybody thinks it's good, soon the “overrated” remarks began to pile-up to the extent that all seemed to forget something very important – this film is hilarious. Beyond that, though, it bravely, honestly and respectfully charts a woman's fall from grace into depression. It's been pointed out that this doesn't matter, as in true cinematic style, it all works out in the end. But sometimes we audiences need for things to all work out in the end. I certainly needed it that day.

How To Train Your Dragon (10/07)

There are a lot of CGI animated features being released these days. I've no idea why, but my default stance seems to be one of wary contempt. There's so many of them that they must all be bad, right? But then, time and again, I'm made to see the error of my judgement when I actually sit down to watch the things. I even enjoyed The Ant Bully. So when the film in question seems generally regarded to be not just a fine example of animation in general, but a fine example of cinema in general, I'm often overwhelmed. I was quite overwhelmed by this. On initial release a lot of people spoke about the epic scope of the 3D flying sections. Well, I saw in in 2D and on a small-screen, and I was still hooked. That there indicates that here we have an engaging storyline, loveable characters and a great script – you know, the elements that made up a good film before everybody got so hung-up on special effects. The best bit, though, was the dragons. They're basically nothing more than giant cats in their mannerisms and, as such, they're completely adorable.

Grown Ups (11/07)

An Adam Sandler film which didn't really have much of a plot beyond “five childhood friends go on holiday together when they're adults”. They bring their kids, though, and their kids are spoilt nightmares with overwhelming senses of entitlement. They pout and sulk whilst the grown ups have a whale of a time. It comes across, then, as a damning shaky finger pointed at today's video-game fixated generation and, as such, it's pretty sanctimonious. But I couldn't help but agree with these adults as they despaired over their children who seemed wholly adverse to the simple joys of life. And their simple joys were so infectious that it made me pine for such a weekend with my friends.

Wizards (11/07)

Despite the merciless slaughter of cute elfin creatures, the disturbing Nazi imagery, the fact that characters refer to each other variously as “slut” and “son of a bitch”; and, despite the fact that, apart from anything else, the overall message seems to be that sometimes it's necessary to murder siblings using dirty and underhanded means – despite all that – this is supposed to be a kid's film. One of the main characters – a fairy – walks around in a top so revealing that it's a wonder that her gigantic breasts don't escape from the flimsy fabric in which she's contained them – and our hero, Avatar, comes across as a sort of Jerry Garcia/Rodney Dangerfield hybrid. But in saying all of this I'm not complaining. This was incredible stuff. I'm reliably informed that it was all set to smash all box office records. But then Star Wars came out. Imagine how different our world today would have been if an entire generation of filmgoers were defined by this, rather than Star Wars.

Fantastic Planet (12/07)

Stoic and earnest sci-fi which somehow also manages to contain one of the most transcendentally dreamlike and downright strange atmospheres into which I've ever immersed myself. The fantastic planet in question is alien in the purest sense of the word – to find yourself there would be terrifying, but to observe the curious habits and rituals of its inhabitants would be endlessly fascinating. Great soundtrack, too.

Les Escargots (12/07)

A short piece by him what also made Fantastic Planet, this was crazy. After experimenting with such methods as balloons and pulleys, a farmer discovered that his tears could make his crops grow gigantic. But gigantic lettuce attracted gigantic snails -  obviously – who proceeded to terrorise a local town. What was funny was the way the hapless inhabitants of this town still succumbed to the giant molluscs even though they literally moved at a snail's pace – less funny, though, was the somewhat disturbing manner in which the snails consumed or destroyed their prey. It ended ominously and outrageously with our friendly farmer taking a similar approach to his crop of carrots – with similarly horrifying results. Rabbits can run faster than snails.

How Wang-Fo Was Saved (12/07)

A further short film from our Fantastic Planet-creating hero, this one was far less out-there than the previous two. Nonetheless, though, it still had such an otherworldly quality about it to make it feel like a bleary dream. It dealt with a Chinese Emperor whose only respite during his lonely childhood were the transcendentally beautiful paintings of Wang-Fo. When he was finally able to see the world, though, he discovered that nothing was as beautiful in reality as it apparently was in the mind of Wang-Fo. So, being a wholly unreasonable despotic ruler, he condemned the poor painter to death. But how was Wang-Fo saved? Well, let's just say that his abilities to blend the real with the fantastic ultimately proved very useful.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (18/07)

Even though this had the finest opening line of any film, ever (“I need to speak to the goblin”), this was not as good as part one. Whilst my relationship with the books has always been mutually tender and loving, I've never really got along with many of the films. With the exception of The Prisoner of Azkaban and the first part of The Deathly Hallows, each of the films seems to have been made simply for the sake of making a Harry Potter film. By necessity, enough detail is omitted from the films that, often, they just feel like they're going through the motions. This one, unfortunately, felt just like that. They were finishing the series because they had to finish the series. The end felt watered-down, anticlimactic – nothing like the satisfying final mouthful that was the book. And, speaking of which, more-so than ever before, anybody who's not read the book will have difficulty in understanding several parts.

A Town Called Panic (19/07)

It's Horse's birthday. When Cowboy and Indian accidentally order him six-million bricks for his present, it sets off a chain of events which sees them incarcerated in a giant robot penguin, visiting the centre of the earth, shopping at a supermarket at the bottom of the ocean and missing piano lesson after piano lesson. The whole thing operates on a very twisted logic and is, therefore, unmissable.

Mirrormask (20/07)

Written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, this was always going to be special. It looks like an animated version of one of Dave's Sandman covers; it stars Rob Brydon and Steven Fry and features beautifully whimsical music. The plot is deceptively simply and, overall, it comes across as a mid-nineties CBBC serial with particularly high production values. Whilst for some this won't be a good thing, for me it simply means that the whole thing exudes a cosy and comforting atmosphere like a warm living room on a Thursday evening after school – it's lashing down outside, you've recently discovered tea, the worst part of the week is over, it's nearly the weekend and there's something magical on TV.

More to follow? Why not.

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