Sunday, April 28, 2013


 100,000 hits!

When I started this blog on April 25, 2011, I didn't expect many people to be interested in my opinions. Today, the hits finally reached 100,000. I know that many of you get that every month, or more often, but it's more than I ever expected or hoped for.

Thanks to everyone who spent a minute or a few hours reading my posts, and to all those who retweeted them or left comments. I'll try to keep adding new content as time allows.

By sheer coincidence, this also happens to be my 300th post.

For new readers, here's the index to all of my reviews.

If you are interested, here's where the bulk of my traffic has come from over the past two years:

United States 35433
United Kingdom 8152
Canada 5330
Germany 3115
Russia 3026
France 2965
Italy 1940
Brazil 1392
Pakistan 1124
Australia 819


Hitchcock (2012)
Biography, Drama, 98 minutes
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette and Jessica Biel

If you have read my post on favorite directors, you'll know that Alfred Hitchcock made the list. I don't know much about him, other than the movies he left us with. That's why I was so interested in seeing this biographical drama. When I found out that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren were involved, I was tempted to see "Hitchcock" the week it opened in theaters. I missed that opportunity, and the remainder of its run had one evening showing per day, so I eventually decided to wait for the Blu-ray. Reviews have been disappointing, but, as always, I trusted my instincts and decided to make up my own mind.

Hopkins doesn't try to mimic Hitchcock's voice exactly, but he does employ the deliberate mode of speech that most of us are familiar with. The makeup isn't entirely convincing either, but it's good enough to get the job done. Hopkins plays the director quite seriously, and I felt that Hitchcock's playful nature was a little underused.

What the movie attempts to do is take us back to the making of Psycho, which was released in 1960. Paramount's bosses were seeking something similar to North by Northwest, which had been released in 1959, but Hitchcock wanted to try something new. We learn how the project was chosen, and the sacrifices that Hitchcock and wife Alma made to make it happen. It's an interesting look at a brief time in a career which spanned more than half a century.

The movie gets a lot of things right; It looks and feels like 1960, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel manage to resemble film stars of that era, and the casting in general is excellent.

I've been thinking about why reviews were so negative, and I've come to the conclusion that it is a movie which will appeal to a very specific audience. It's not a gripping drama, and there isn't much excitement. This is a story intended for movie buffs or fans of Hitchcock. If you want to know more about his character, and how movies are made, this has something for you. Character studies are hard to get right, and the movie is far from perfect. But I was engrossed for 90 minutes, and enjoyed learning how some of the events came to pass. The marketing for Psycho was inventive, and contributed to its early success. Some of that story is shown here.

The biggest source of conflict in the movie is Hitchcock's relationship with Alma. We learn something about their home life, and ultimately how important she was to his success. There's an explosive scene, just over an hour into the movie, in which Mirren's performance is elevated from good to great. It reminded me somewhat of the scene in Doubt, where Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman finally confront each other.

Seeing "Hitchcock" makes me want to watch Psycho again, and I will do so in the near future. I've also been watching the excellent Bates Motel, starring Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, and would recommend that as a good companion piece to Psycho if you're a fan.

"Hitchcock" works for its intended audience, but many people will find it lacking. It's a quiet movie, focusing on characters and details, rather than intensely dramatic scenes. I'm not sure what moviegoers were expecting. Perhaps they were hoping for a detailed look at Hitchcock's entire career? Lincoln fell flat for some viewers for similar reasons. If you enjoy seeing good acting, and have any interest in the man, "Hitchcock" is worth your time.

Overall score 4/5 (for it's intended audience)

Return to index of every review on the site.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The truth about Steve Aldersley

Can You Handle the Truth?

I was awake for two hours in the middle of the night yesterday, because I was thinking about how people conceal most of the important things about their lives, and what really matters to them. We do this for all kinds of reasons. So I decided to reveal some things that I have rarely talked about.

This post has very little to do with movies, but it's like an extended version of the brief scenes in Amelie, where we learn the likes and dislikes of some of the characters.

If you have an opinion about me at all, it will probably change if you read all of this post. You might reach the conclusion that I am arrogant, snobby, crazy, full of myself, or any number of other things. Feel free to let me know.

Here's one example of someone finally telling the truth in a movie (offensive language warning):

The truth can be funny, but it can also be a hard thing to reveal. Do you tell a close friend that their spouse is cheating on them, they suck at their job, or they don't have the talent to come close to achieving their dreams? Probably not.

In this case, I'm revealing the truth about myself. I can decide exactly what to reveal, and you can decide whether you want to read it. I say that because one of the things I know about myself is that I have stopped engaging in small talk. Let me explain:

Have you ever been trapped in a conversation in which you have no interest, but you fix an inane grin on your face and endure it for the sake of the person speaking? Well, I don't want to inflict that kind of pain on my potential audience, so I spend most of my time listening to other people. If I genuinely think that they want to know something, I'll talk as long as they like, but I don't force my opinions on people. I save that for here. The difference is, you can stop reading without offending me. Are you close to stopping yet?

The next thing I'm going to reveal is something that I almost never mention. It's an asset, but I never mention it on job resumes. It just annoys people and makes them believe that I am saying that I am somehow better than them. It's also one of the things that gives me the most pride. I'm intelligent. I have a 158 IQ. Websites claim that I should be capable of winning a Nobel prize, but here I am writing a blog while I wait to watch Django Unchained with my evening meal. I've never come close to winning a Nobel prize. In fact, I've contributed almost nothing to the world in my 50 years of life. Does that make me a failure?

That brings me onto a related subject. What constitutes success? Most people would say financial success and possessions are the best measure, but I can't agree. Those things are meaningless if you don't have the time to enjoy them. I think success is achieving your personal goals, and it's different for every person. One thing I do know is that I am happy. When I look around at most of the people I know or encounter, they are complaining about something that is missing in their lives. Some of these things are so trivial. However, I'm not saying I am completely successful. Maybe wealth and possessions are low on my list because I don't have much to brag about?

What I really want to do before I die is change the world. I will probably never have children, but I do want to leave this existence with something positive to my credit. It's probably not going to be worthy of a Nobel prize though. I think my best shot is to write something that touches people in some way. I'm a big fan of science fiction and treasure books by authors such as Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Maybe if I made a real effort, I could create something worth publishing?

I've never had any idea what to do with my life. If I had thought of it while I was in school, I might have pursued a career as a film critic, because I do enjoy reviewing movies. That's partly why I give up some of my weekend to add a review or two. If I can encourage one or two people to see a film they would otherwise have missed, that's a small positive contribution I have made to someone's life.

Am I boring you yet? Let's tackle a couple of big topics.

Religion is important to a lot of people, and I don't mean to infuriate anyone with my thoughts on this topic. I think it's fairly pointless to spend your life worshipping whatever deity you happen to believe in. It's far more important to do what you think is right. Everybody instinctively knows when they do wrong. Just stop yourself and try to do something that adds to the lives of other people instead of putting them down. I can't believe that any superior being would encourage followers to kill in the name of the cause. Oh, I can't abide racism either.

Politics is another inflammatory subject. I've stopped devoting time trying to figure out which party is likely to adhere most closely to its manifesto. I consider it a complete waste of time attempting to decipher those lies. It makes such a tiny difference to my life one way or another, so I spend my time on more important pursuits, such as writing this post.

If there isn't life on other planets, I would be extremely surprised. I only wonder whether I'll ever have proof before I die.

So what do I care about?

I like animals. Especially the furry ones.

People matter to me. I'm sad that I'm growing up without seeing my brother, sister, niece and nephew. I have very few friends, but the ones I do have are important to me. I prefer connecting deeply with a few people, rather than having a book full of almost meaningless acquaintances. I don't measure success by the number of followers I have on social networks. Some of the closest people to me are those that I rarely see, or have never actually met in person. I miss my grandparents, and friends left behind in other countries.

I'm passionate about music. You wouldn't know it if you met me. But some of the best experiences of my life include attending concerts by my favorite bands. I flew 3,000 miles to see a Throwing Muses reunion, and have been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. There's nothing quite like live music. Feeling it as well as seeing it enhances the experience dramatically. I'll probably never miss a concert by Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Television, Pavement, or a whole host of favorite bands, if there is any realistic way of getting to the venue. I'll never forget the many nights I spent listening to John Peel, or the role he had in helping me develop my taste in music.

You already know that I love film. I focus on reviewing films that I already like, or those that I expect to like based on actors or directors I admire. That's why most of my ratings are high. I tend to focus on the positive things in life, and distance myself from people or situations that anger me.

Sports is the other big passion in my life. Part of the reason I moved from England to North America was to be closer to an NFL team. That grew into a writing job, enabling me to give my opinions on Fantasy Football. I've followed Liverpool FC for almost 40 years, and still watch six NFL games every week during the season. My happiest sporting memory has to be Phil Mickelson winning his first major.

I can never be bored unless I am with another person who is boring me. I could sit here on my own for the next 20 years without running out of things to do. I like that I can live inside my own head.

I'm ridiculously honest, and always try to do a good job. That's true whether I am working for someone else, or performing some task purely for my own entertainment or amusement. I don't like doing anything badly. That's not to say that I always do everything well though.

Deep down, I believe I can learn any mental task with the proper training. Unfortunately, very few people agree with me and put it to the test. That's because we are all so guarded in our interactions, and so set on doing things the conventional way.

Communication is probably the most underrated skill in existence. Think about all aspects of your life and you'll realize how true that is. It's vital in your job, with customers, with family, with loved ones, with your children, and on an international scale. How many wars began through a misunderstanding of some kind? How many relationships were threatened or ruined because the truth was never told? I try to be open and honest with every person I interact with. It's vital.

How am I doing?

You're probably not used to devoting so much of your time to random thoughts such as mine, so I'll finish there. My one piece of advice is to share some of the things that are important to you with those who actually care. Find out what makes you happy and figure out how to make it happen.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Damned United

The Damned United (2009)
Biography, Sports, Drama, 98 minutes
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent

If you grew up in England in the 70s or 80s, you'll understand that Brian Clough was something of a legend. His career as a footballer saw him score goals at a higher ratio than any other player in England, before an ACL injury forced him to retire. At the age of 30, he started a job in football management.

Clough's career began to take off when he became manager of Derby County in 1967. He brought in Peter Taylor as his assistant and the two turned the club into a successful team, gaining promotion to the top division in 1969. The title refers to Clough's hatred of Leeds United, after being snubbed by Leeds manager Don Revie during an FA Cup tie.

As unlikely as it may seem, Clough eventually went on to manage Leeds United in 1974, but he was sacked after 44 days.

The movie jumps between Clough's time at Leeds, and earlier in his career, showing events that led to his hatred of the team, and the reasons he became manager.

Director Tom Hooper treats Clough like the hero he was, but doesn't ignore the many mistakes he made during his long management career. Having grown up in the era myself, I feel that the movie does a great job creating the look and feel of the 70s. I remember many of the events, and always smile when I think of Brian Clough. He was outspoken and regarded himself as the best manager in the game. He wasn't afraid to criticize his employers, opposing managers, players, or the media. As a result, his interviews were always entertaining as he apparently didn't care what people thought of him.

Michael Sheen perfectly captures the spirit of the man, as well as the voice and the gestures. It's like watching a good impressionist with excellent acting ability. Sheen also worked with writer Peter Morgan on Frost/Nixon and The Queen, playing David Frost and Tony Blair. All three performances are noteworthy and worth your time.

Timothy Spall was a good choice for the role of Peter Taylor, and Hooper manages to convince us that the two were close friends for much of the time they worked together. Their relationship was more important than the relationships with their wives in some ways. Other notable performances come from Colm Meaney as Don Revie and Jim Broadbent as Derby County chairman, Sam Longson.

The story focuses on the effect Clough on those around him, and ends with a brief summary of what he went on to achieve. Although football is the reason all of this happened, the movie doesn't spend much time showing the players in action. It's more about management and the relationships that Clough formed with employers, colleagues, players and fans.

I can't imagine American audiences being very interested in the subject matter, but anyone who was a fan of English football in the 70s will love the nostalgic feel and the accuracy of Sheen's portrayal. It's not hard to see why Tom Hooper has been successful in recent years with The King's Speech and Les Misérables. It's clear that the man knows how to make entertaining movies.

Overall score 4/5 (for its intended audience)

Return to index of every review on the site.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

21 - Simple math can be entertaining and profitable

21 (2008)
Crime, Drama, 123 minutes
Directed by Robert Luketic
Starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is an MIT student who finishes top in his classes and is applying for a scholarship after being accepted into Harvard Medical School. We see him being interviewed as he attempts to secure the $300,000 that will enable him to enroll. Unfortunately, he's one of 76 applicants, and his rivals possess credentials similar to his own. In order to win the scholarship, he must write an essay that will dazzle the professor making the final decision.

Ben's life experience is unremarkable. He has a crush on a fellow student who is apparently hopelessly out of his reach, and his friends are geeks. He's serious and doesn't seem to have any fun, such as dating or socializing. What could he possibly write about?

That all changes when he impresses one of his professors, Micky Rosa (Spacey), during a lecture. He's invited to become part of a team coached privately by Micky, but this has nothing to do with school. Micky teaches him how to count cards, and explains that the system is certain to beat the odds if it is correctly applied. They plan to go to Las Vegas and win enormous amounts of money. While that sounds unlikely, Micky insists that it's not gambling at all. After a visit from Jill (Bosworth), at the store in which he earns $8 an hour, Ben eventually decides to join the team.

I'm sure that some of you are rolling your eyes. Can a system really beat the Vegas odds? Well, this story is based on true events, and the method of counting cards is surprisingly simple.

The title refers to both the best Blackjack hand, and the fact that Ben is about to become a 21-year-old. We see him learn how to keep the count. It begins at zero, and a point is added for cards between 2 and 5, while a point is subtracted if the dealer turns over a 10, Jack, Queen, King, or an Ace. Cards falling between 7 and 9 have no effect on the count.

The team consists of five students. Three sit at random tables to monitor the count. When the count is high, the odds favor the player over the house. The person then uses a prearranged signal and one of the remaining team members sits at the table and places large bets. A series of codewords is used to tell the high stakes player exactly what the count is. For example, "sweet" would mean that the count is +16, and highly favorable. The high stakes player then keeps track of the count and must have the discipline to quit when the odds are no longer favorable.

Sounds simple enough, right?

A large part of the movie is devoted to the action that takes place in Vegas. It's a glamorous lifestyle, completely different to Ben's Boston existence. If the movie works for you, you'll probably imagine yourself in that situation. The prospect of winning large amounts of money with very little risk is appealing. The risk portrayed in the movie comes in the form of casino security employee, Cole Williams (Fishburne). He's fully aware of the systems used by card-counters, as he used to do it himself. Although it's not illegal to count cards, casinos have the right to prevent people from playing at their tables. Williams has more violent methods than simply barring someone from playing, so he's the main villain in the story.

I wouldn't claim that 21 is original or unpredictable. You can probably guess some of the things that happen to Ben over the course of two hours. But, like many predictable stories, it's worth experiencing for the way in which it is told. If you are a fan of the main actors, find the thought of winning money appealing, or believe you have the abilities necessary to count cards yourself, you'll be thoroughly entertained. My favorite movie about cards is Rounders, but 21 is a close second.

I could have done without the flashbacks explaining the meaning every time a codeword was used, but that's a minor quibble.

Overall score 4/5

Return to index of every review on the site.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

I'm not going to give you a summary of everything that Roger Ebert achieved in his life. Instead, I'll try to put into words what he meant to me.

I never met the man, or received any comments or emails from him. I sincerely doubt that he ever read a single word that I wrote, but I still feel like I lost a friend. I heard the news on the radio while I was at work, and it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I knew that he had been ill for a long time, but I didn't expect him to die for a few more years.

My blog has only been around for about two years, and I have only been a serious fan of film for five or six years. Sure, I've watched movies all my life, but it's only recently that I really started to take notice of what I was seeing on the screen, and what was being said below the surface. Instead of choosing whatever was popular, such as the latest comic book adaptation or dumb comedy, I started to think about the things that matter in life. Sometimes it was enough to be thrilled or see impressive special effects, but the films that will stay with me forever are those which impact me on an emotional level. I'm not sure whether I would ever have explored so many films that I missed if it were not for Roger Ebert.

Ebert's style was to get right to the heart of a movie. He hinted at the plot, of course, but he had a knack of seeing why a movie worked, or why it didn't work. He sometimes compared the events to things he had experienced in his own life, and that helped me understand why a scene might have been powerful to him.

What I probably admire the most is that Ebert was always honest. He didn't praise something just because he was a fan, or a friend of the director. If you look at his 4-star review of my personal favorite, Mulholland Dr., you might think that he's likely to wax lyrical about anything David Lynch ever gave us. But that's not the case. Blue Velvet earned a 1-star review, and I respect his reasons for giving it such a poor score. I respect all of his opinions because he wrote about the subject for 45 years, and was surely a student of the medium long before that. I can't make similar claims.

Another admirable quality was the way Ebert reacted to setbacks in his own life. He dealt with his illness without complaining, and contributed a huge amount despite eventually losing the ability to speak. He openly admitted his weakness for alcohol, and didn't shy away from showing the world what he looked like after part of his jaw was removed. I smile when I think about the way he talked about his wife, Chaz, and the obvious love they had for each other.

A surprising thing about Ebert is that he was open to any genre, and could recognize the genius in anything. I wouldn't have expected him to like Tarantino's films, but he passionately endorsed them and understood the humor. He also thought about the intended audience for a movie, and rated it with that in mind. He never pretended that he was unable to be reached by movies intended to have mass appeal. I try to keep that in mind when I voice my own opinions.

I was always happy when Ebert added one of my favorites to his great movies list. I know that his opinion doesn't have any bearing on what I like, but it still gave me pleasure to read his thoughts on such movies as Spirited Away. Ebert's endorsement of my favorite films mattered to me, and I will definitely explore many of those great movies that I haven't had the chance to watch.

Roger Ebert's speaking voice may have been lost a few years ago, but his ability to reach people remained until the day he died. In fact, his influence will always be with me.

I started writing because of my love for the NFL, and the need to voice my ideas and opinions about Fantasy Football. I started a blog because I was encouraged to do just that by my closest friend in the world. But I continue to attempt to write movie reviews because of Roger Ebert. I'm unlikely to affect the world in any significant way, but my best chance is through my writing. If I persuade one person to watch a movie because of one of my reviews, it justifies the three or four hours I spent watching the movie and struggling over my wording.

Over the past few years, I avoided reading reviews until I had seen the movie and reviewed it myself. When that was done, I would read Ebert's review and see whether he agreed with me, or if he had noticed something that I hadn't. I'll eventually read everything he ever published, but I'll always miss his presence.

I think that the role of a critic is to give an honest opinion. That's not always as easy as it sounds, especially when you have met some of the people who directed or acted in the movies. I chose Ebert as my go-to reviewer because I knew that I would get his true feelings, but I also found that our tastes are similar. There's no point in reading the words of someone with completely different taste if you want to use the review to decide whether something is worth seeing.

One article that I will never forget has nothing to do with movies at all. Ebert wrote about intelligence, and how many people are afraid to show it. Why do we dumb down what we are saying?

Thanks Roger. The movies won't be quite the same without you. The world has lost an honest, witty, and intelligent man, and a wonderful example of what a human being should be. I hope that you would approve of my amateur efforts.

Return to index of every review on the site.