January 22, 2011

The Diamond Age (#115)

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

What I said then:

[One of] the last few books I haven’t read by the genius author of The Baroque Cycle.

What I say now:

Though The Diamond Age has a hell of a lot to like about it, it still contains the first vague hints of trouble brewing in my torrid affair with Neal Stephenson. I've unconditionally loved everything else of his that I've read, whereas the love here is very much conditional, and is occasionally absent entirely ... like a snarky girlfriend who gets home at midnight and won't say where she's been, but you let it slide because the sex is still great. Did I take that metaphor far too far? Yes, I did.

It's not an easy book to summarize, but I'll have a crack: nanotechnology has enabled the invention of Matter Compilers, which can create anything you want, atom by atom, by plucking molecules out of the air. This has led to the complete breakdown of current political systems, with nation-states being replaced by global affiliations of people with similar attitudes to morality. An elderly neo-Victorian Lord wants his granddaughter to grow up to question the morality of the tribe she's been born in, so he hires a nano-engineer to design for her 'The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer,' a teacher, friend, counsellor and subversive influence, all in the form of a book. But the engineer makes illicit copies of his invention, and one finds its way into the hands of Nell, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. How the Primer (through the telling of a single, infinitely complicated story) enables Nell to change her circumstances, taking her from an illiterate runaway to a head of state, forms the main substance of the novel.

I had two major problems with The Diamond Age. The first was its (seeming) aimlessness. Nell has no purpose; her only aim is to learn from the Primer and live her life. She doesn't have anything she wants or aspires to, and so much of the book is lacking in drama. Don't get me wrong, lots of things happen, but they just kind of ... happen, with no guiding principle moving the story in any one direction. As entertaining and cool as the world Stephenson creates is, a lot of the book feels like we're just hanging around, checking out how darn cool it is. Coolness is nice as an added bonus, but it's a bit thin when it feels like the be-all and end-all.

Then, more than three-quarters of the way through the book a tremendous switch takes place, and suddenly we're thrust into the middle of a futuristic Boxer Rebellion as Chinese peasants take back their country from interlopers both foreign and technological (much of the book is set in China). The deteriorating political situation is part of the backdrop through the first part of the novel, but it feels like cheap sleight-of-hand when Stephenson drags it to the foreground. My thought process as his intentions became clear went like this: "What? Of all the myriad minute detail that you've included, I'm supposed to have been paying attention to that? That, of all things? Why not the cool robot-horses?" It really left me perplexed and disoriented which, generally speaking, is not what you want to be as a reader.

So ultimately, I thought the setting was brilliant, and the story much less so. Which was disappointing, because I was hoping for more.

Cheers, JC

about to read: Darkness Visible by William Golding
books to go: 114

January 18, 2011

'Questions Never Asked' --- short story

Last night was the first 20 Melbourne Writers meeting for the year. The theme/challenge this time around was (gack!) 'Unrequited Love' ... which I can't say I was really looking forward to writing about. Hence the majority of this story got written at the last possible moment: I was up to about midnight on Sunday rushing to get it finished. Anyway, enjoy!

Questions Never Asked

Below decks, the orlop was fetid with lantern-smoke, bilge-water and sweat. Though the engagement with the French privateer had ended hours ago, the acrid stench of gunpowder lingered in the wood. Sequestered together out of the way, the wounded men groaned with every pitch and roll of the ship.

Beeton lay in a hammock in a fevered dream. They had given him laudanum and rum, and a strip of leather to bite down on, before the surgeon had sawed off what remained of his leg. He tried to doze, but his missing leg still burned with terrible pain, as though the grape-shot had torn through it mere moments ago. To take his mind off his agonies, he thought of Captain Pullings.

He even managed a smile, weak though it was, as he recollected his first interview in the Captain’s great cabin, when he had been on board only a matter of days, back on the far side of the globe.


When he and his fellow convicts had come on board, still in fetters, their chains clanking, the Captain had made a short, disinterested speech, exhorting them all to learn their duties, to perform them to their utmost, and, if they did all that, promising that when they returned once more to England, they would be returned to civilized society. The only part of the speech which was truly inspiring came at the very end, when the Captain had turned to Horning, the beefy master-at-arms, and commanded them to be released from their manacles.

Rubbing life back into his wrists and ankles, Beeton had watched the Captain’s glittering, brocaded back as he descended to his cabin and wondered what kind of man he was in the charge of now. A ship of His Majesty’s Navy was a small step up from a cold gaol, but the wrong Captain could easily make it seem a floating wooden prison all of its own.

Asking around, the other sailors were as in the dark about Captain Pullings as he was. Only lately to command, the Captain had never yet taken the HMS Splendide to sea, and was still a mystery to his men. His seamanship, his courage, and his philosophy of discipline were all the subject of much speculation amongst the foremast jacks.

Beeton only espied the Captain once more as the ship took on its stores; one afternoon he called out his gig and had himself rowed in a wide circle about the Splendide, before coming back on board and ordering a complete re-organisation of her holds. The newer men grumbled as they laboured amongst the casks, but the older hands were quietly pleased. ‘Shows he knows ships,’ Half-Nose Watkin explained to Beeton. ‘We wasn’t balanced proper, we was too heavy in the bow. She’ll grip the water better now.’

The next day found the Splendide anchored in Portsmouth still, and Beeton manning the capstan bars, helping to heave up the last of their salt-beef from the lighter overside. His hands were blistered and bleeding when Horning pulled him from his place without a whit of explanation and dragged him below. ‘Make y’self smart,’ the master grunted.

‘In these rags?’ Beeton protested, but he did his best, buttoning his shirt and wiping the sweat from his brow as they descended to the Captain’s cabin.

On nearer inspection, Captain Pullings was young for command, and handsome. A fine mouth was set in his tanned face, black hair tumbled casually across his forehead, and his eyes were blue. Setting off his features was a quality more ineffable; he had the blithe, careless confidence that came with privileged birth.

He looked up from his desk when the door opened and eyed Beeton shrewdly. ‘Come in,’ he said. ‘Stand there.’ Beeton did as he was told. ‘You came to us from the Exeter Assizes, did you not?’

‘Yes, sir.’

The Captain smiled. ‘You’re at sea, now, Beeton.’


‘ “Aye-aye,” Beeton, is the correct affirmative response.’

‘Yes, sir.’ The Captain raised an eyebrow and Beeton blushed. ‘Aye-aye, sir.’

‘How long were you in prison?’

‘Not three months.’

‘And you were offered the choice between a naval career, or else …?’

‘Transportation to the colonies, sir.’

‘I am informed,’ said the Captain, searching in his desk drawers for a quill, ‘that before you were a criminal you made a living for a time as a gentleman’s servant. Is that correct?’

‘It is, sir. I was first valet for Lord Marlborough.’

‘I know Lord Marlborough.’ The Captain cocked his head and studied Beeton thoughtfully. ‘You are well-spoken, and even in those slops, you are presentable. How came you to prison?’

Beeton shuffled his feet. ‘I do not wish to dissemble, sir,’ he said, choosing his words with care, ‘but it is a matter of some … delicacy.’

Captain Pullings laughed aloud. ‘Ha! So it is true! He caught you meddling with his daughter. The cantankerous old fool. I had heard rumours to that effect, when he sent his whole family back to the country at the height of the season. I think all of England heard those rumours. You’re a famous man, Mr Beeton.’

Beeton could think of nothing to say; he went so far as to allow a faint smile to play across his lips, but did not dare more. In truth, it was Lord Marlborough’s son, a beautiful but callow youth, in whose embraces he had been caught. He considered himself lucky not to have been strung up.

The daughter was a sweet girl of fifteen. Beeton was sorry to learn that this garbled version of his foolishness was getting about; doubtless it would be injurious to her future prospects.

‘Keep your own counsel, then,’ said the Captain, ‘but I can read the truth writ all across your face.’

‘Aye, sir.’

The Captain jabbed his quill into a near-empty bottle of ink and began transcribing some orders or other. ‘I am currently without a steward, Mr Beeton, and I’ve a mind to appoint you to the task. Have you any objections?’

‘No, sir.’

Captain Pullings eyed the weeping blisters on Beeton’s cracked and bleeding palms. ‘Hands like yours were made for finer work than hauling on ropes,’ he commented. ‘The purser and the cook can instruct you in your new duties. Get below and fetch me a cup of coffee.’

‘Aye-aye, sir. And thank you, sir.’


The Splendide’s orders took them to the West Indies. Once out of harbour, the pitch and yaw of the ship as she rolled through the waves made all the new hands sea-sick, or at least made them stumble about like drunkards, flailing for handholds. Within a week, however, stomachs and feet had settled, and Beeton no longer noticed the floor’s listing, except when he tried to set the captain’s table.

The first part of the voyage seemed charmed; the French fleet was blockaded in their ports, giving the English rule of the oceans, and every sail they met was friendly. The only time the guns had cause to be run out was when the crew spent a few mornings practicing their revolutions.

The lubbers had time and peace to learn their duties well, and of the three men who slipped from the masts in their first fortnight aboard, only one had the misfortune to land on deck and break his neck. The others dropped overside into the water, and Captain Pullings had no hesitation in ordering the ship about to pick them up. Other captains, Beeton was told, might have simply sailed on.

These humanitarian acts were not the only thing to endear Captain Pullings to his crew. When, after a solid day of sail-drill, he timed the crew hauling in the flysheets and furling the mainsail in less than twenty minutes, he allowed an extra ration of grog for the entire ship. When he invited the lieutenants and midshipmen to dine with him from his private stores, he bade Beeton and Stuart, the cook, to add the leftovers to the men’s dinner the next day. And when, during a gale, the wind had veered six points and threatened to take them all aback, he had handled the ship with calm, purpose, and—even to Beeton’s uneducated eyes—tremendous skill. He had refused to yield the quarterdeck all that long, dark night, until morning and calm had arrived together.

As steward, Beeton’s duty was to be at the captain’s side always, and he relished it. Captain Pullings had ordered that each dawn he be woken at four bells in the morning watch; Beeton rolled from his hammock at three bells so as to have a coffee brewed, a cigar lit, and to have time to memorise the direction and strength of the wind, which was invariably the captain’s first question upon being shook from his slumber.

In action, the captain gravely informed him, Beeton’s place was on the quarterdeck, ready to convey the captain’s messages or, at the last, to protect him with cutlass and pike. One of the few jacks to stand such exalted station, Beeton was not envied for this: opponent gunners would invariably aim for the cocked hats and brocade of the senior officers, oft times turning the planks of the quarterdeck into a splintering abattoir.

Beeton was an observant man, and sensitive to the intricate moods of men of great birth. Soon enough he could predict the captain in his wants: arriving with a boat cloak just as the northerly breeze became too cold to stand; or unpacking the card table before it was ever called for, when the captain was merry; or subtly warning off gregarious lieutenants when the captain wished to pace the deck in silent thought.

However inappropriate, Captain Pullings didn’t bother to hide his delight with his new subordinate. Of a naturally light-hearted disposition, he was as at ease with Beeton as he was with those nearer to him in rank and class: First Lieutenant Fotherington, sixth son of an earl, and the doe-eyed young Midshipman Blakeny, who was apparently the captain’s own relation—both his second and third cousin, according to rumour, or some other connection equally mysterious.

As Beeton, with each passing day, revealed himself a man of sense and intelligence, the captain even came occasionally to solicit his opinions. Only ever about inconsequential matters—at what latitude it would be safe to pack away his warmest clothes; whether, when the original supplies of sealing wax ran out, ordinary candles might be adapted to the purpose—yet each inquiry was an example of considerable condescencion all the same.

It wasn’t long before Beeton was bewitched by the captain’s beauty, by his passion and skill, by his intelligence and his wit, and by his considerate nature.

Sometimes, in quieter moments, Beeton thought he could sense that the captain thought well of him too. He seemed unattached: there was no ring on his slender fingers, and no letters to sweethearts from Captain Pullings’ pen were ever added to the mailbag waiting for the next ship they met headed back to England.

And there were looks they shared, glances that hinted at an understanding deeper than they had ever openly acknowledged. Towards the end of one particularly raucous wardroom dinner, the captain had insisted each of the attendants share in the last bottle of wine. Every other jack was given a fresh mug, but Captain Pullings poured a generous few mouthfuls into his own fine-stemmed glass and offered it to Beeton, looking him solemnly in the eye as he took it and drank. Handing the glass back, their fingers touched, and Beeton didn’t believe that the captain was unaware of the currents that passed through their clammy skin.

Approaching the West Indies, the atmosphere below decks became stifling. The collected savage breaths of four hundred sweating men were trapped by the low wooden ceilings and transformed the boiling ship into a hot, humid oven. Sweat clung to every pore and, except when duty required it, every man on board did away with as much of his uniform as his own modesty allowed.

On deck, the captain was exempt from this indiscipline, only ever emerging from his cabin in full uniform. In the privacy of his cabin, however, he would often strip off his shirt; Beeton was the only man allowed to intrude on this intimacy, and he drank in the sight. Whether Captain Pullings understood the torture that his blasé nudity was inflicting, Beeton could never be sure. From simple admiration, Beeton was shaken to vicious lust, and he could think of little else but the captain’s imagined embraces.

But each hint of fellow-feeling the captain betrayed was followed by a moment of bitter-tasting coolness. Which was the real man: the jocular captain who laughed gaily as an ill-timed roll would send them both sprawling as Beeton helped him into his pants, or the stern taskmaster who could stand unbending on the quarterdeck for twelve hours or more without so much as a single backwards glance for his patient, lovelorn steward?

In torment, Beeton invented fantastic scenarios in his mind, running through every conceivable and inconceivable scenario that might lead them to the brink. But rank and class stood between them, an impenetrable wall of glass that could only be seen through, never smashed. How could he, a lowly gaol-rat, proposition a ship’s captain, a man destined since birth for a seat in the House of Lords? The thing was impossible.

It was up to Captain Pullings then; it must be. Beeton thought the captain wanted him; on more confident days he was certain of it. Whether it was modesty or propriety that held the captain back, Beeton tried to give him an easier time of it by deliberately placing himself in compromising situations. He would wake the captain before lighting the lantern, rather than after, to give them a few minutes in a cabin dark and furtive. Twice he grew so desperate that he deliberately spilled wine on the captain’s pants, so he could kneel at his feet and wipe at his crotch. None of it availed.

Beeton envied the other foremast jacks; their clumsy trysts seemed, to him, absurd in their simplicity. Take a liking to a common sailor and all you had to do was wait until the rum was ladled out on Sundays, then stumble with him down to the cable tiers and grope together in the dark, rats scurrying about your feet. There were many that chose not to exercise themselves thus, but they simply turned a blind eye to the buggery—for it is a simple truth that questions never asked are never answered.


Beeton couldn’t remember the shot that had taken his leg, but he had no wish to. His laudanum dreams had only one object: Captain Pullings. Lying half-dead in the orlop, surrounded by those just as mangled as he, Beeton knew that the captain would come to him.

He could recall, above the tremendous crashing of the guns, the sincere alarm in the captain’s tone as he had shouted for the loblolly boys to carry him below. Through a veil of powder-smoke, he could picture in his mind’s eye the fright in the captain’s visage as he watched his beloved steward dragged off the shattered quarterdeck. In that moment, leg gone, Beeton finally knew for certain that Captain Pullings loved him.

And so he waited, for the captain would come. The battle was fought and won above him, and he waited. In the dark and the stink, he waited. Men died around him, and Braun, the surgeon, sniffed his wounds for gangrene, and the collecting blood on the orlop decking had to be sluiced clean every two bells, and he waited. Day became night became day, and every able man had to help plug the shot holes to keep the old Splendide from sinking, and he waited. Ignoring the crippling pains still emanating from his phantom leg, Beeton patiently waited.

At last, the captain came. ‘Beeton. I’m glad to see you still alive.’ Captain Pullings had scarce ceased barking orders for forty-eight hours, and his voice was a rasp.

‘I am happy to be so, sir.’ It was no lie: at that moment Beeton was truly happy. Though the words were spoken through grinding teeth, the sight of the captain’s sweet face, lined with such tender compassion, had sent angels dancing into Beeton’s heart.

‘I wanted to ask you, Beeton …’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘I wanted to ask … do you know of any other man on board who could act as my steward?’


‘It will doubtless be a long time until you are fully recovered. We are making for Kingston, and we’ll be disembarking all our injured at the Naval Hospital there. When you’re gone, is there anyone you think suitable to replace you?’

Beeton’s angels vanished, laughing over their shoulders. ‘Replace me?’

Captain Pullings clapped him on the shoulder, smiling gently. ‘Well, I need a steward, and it can’t be you, can it? Is there anyone you can recommend?’

‘I … I …’ The captain looked him straight in the eye, frank and friendly as ever, but nothing more. ‘No, sir. Nobody springs to mind.’


Beeton lived. He avoided gangrene, and as he learned to walk on his new peg-leg, the pad of meat at the end of his stump grew calloused and hard.

But there was a second wound he had taken, less noticable than the first, but far more painful. And no matter how calloused and hard his heart grew, that second wound would never truly heal.

Story notes:
  • Can you tell that I'm a Hornblower fan? I didn't need to do any research for this story, because I've read so much C.S. Forester that all the technical vocabulary of those olden-timey sailing ships is ingrained in my memory.
  • And look, when I used the line 'doubtless it would be injurious to her future prospects,' the Jane Austen fan in me gave a little thrill as well.
  • Reading back over it, I can sense the rush I was in to get it finished. I think the second half of the story is much weaker than the first. From 'Beeton was bewitched by the captain's beauty' onwards, it devolves into a (really pretty silly) bodice-ripper ... or whatever a male equivalent of a bodice-ripper is. In the next draft I'd like to make the 'is he?/isn't he?' romance plot much more subtle. At the moment it's about as subtle as a cannonball to the head.
  • (Oh God, I'm such a wanker for even thinking this, let alone writing it:) My usual philosophy of story-telling is to try, as the writer, to become invisible. I normally don't want people to notice the 'writerly-ness' of my stories, because I think it distracts from the story itself (on a side note, this is my problem with so much literary writing - authors want me to notice how clever they are and what pretty sentences they can write, which actually detracts from my enjoyment of the plot). If you're truly caught up in a story, you can lose yourself in it, and nothing's worse than being dragged back to reality by a bit of self-indulgent writing. So normally I try to hide my tracks, hoping that as you read you're only thinking about the characters, my puppets, and not about the writer behind the scenes pulling the strings.
  • But in this case the style is very obvious. My excuse is this: if the bulk of the story were written in a modern fashion, but the characters spoke in a pastiche-Georgian sort of way, then the clash between the two styles would be jarring, and that would, I thought, be even more distracting. So the lesser of two evils was to write the whole thing in that ye-olde style and hope I could do it well enough that the 'writerly-ness' of the whole thing didn't detract too much from your enjoyment. I doubt, on a first draft, I was successful, but maybe I can neaten it up and smooth the edges when I go back over it.

Cheers, JC 

currently reading: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
books to go: 115

January 12, 2011

Itty-Bitty Film Review Archive 2011

28/12/11 - We Bought a Zoo, directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church and Elle Fanning.

I've never really been a Cameron Crowe fan, and his downward spiral continues with this oppressively saccharine, thematically unsure, tonally confused film. It doesn't even seem to have any idea what it is. Damon and Johansson try really hard to give the feather-light plot a bit of weight, but it's a complete waste of their talents. 2 stars.

26/12/11 - The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Toby Jones.

As a Tintin fan from waaaaaay back I was dreading this film, but I'm happy to report that my fears were (mostly) unfounded. It won't change the world or anything, but it's a perfectly serviceable, usually pretty fun adventure film. It's major flaw is that Tintin himself has no personality to speak of, so there's an emotional vacuum at it's core. Expect to chuckle, don't expect to feel anything. 3 stars.

22/12/11 - Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen, starring Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams.

A pleasant enough time-waster, but this film is built on very slight (and kinda obvious) foundations. Really it was at it's best when Wilson's winsome accidental time-traveller just hung out with cool old famous people, and the film riffed on their known personalities. Corey Stoll as Hemingway, Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and Adrien Brody as Dali each stole the movie when they were in it, it's just a pity we kept leaving them to get back to the damn story. 3 stars.

16/12/11 - Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt.

It ain't going to be to everybody's taste, but I was with Von Trier's study of depression and anxiety (and ... umm ... apocalypse) for most of its running time. Dunst and Gainsbourg give fearless performances as a pair of messed up sisters trying to hold their damaged psyches together long enough to deal with the fact that the world is ending. Though a little overlong, the brutally realistic depiction of the sisters' illnesses played against the fantastic spectacle of humanity's impending doom makes for disconcerting, at-times weirdly moving experience. 4 stars.

15/12/11 - Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird, starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Michael Nyqvist.

Bird directed The Incredibles, my favourite Pixar movie, so I had reasonably high expectations going in to this. And in terms of the action sequences, he delivered in spades: they were beautifully choreographed, shot, and edited. Unfortunately the bits in between the action scenes were rote, unadventurous and dull, never tapping into any emotion whatsoever. Expect to be wowed, then bored, then wowed again all the way through. (And can we please never have another villain whose motivation is 'I just want to watch the world burn, mwa-ha-ha! It was old twenty years ago.) 3 stars.

08/12/11 - Restless, directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska and Ryo Kase.

A sweet, slight romance between two disaffected teenagers, one of whom has terminal cancer, while the other is haunted by the ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze. The film borders on twee (the kids' hyper-specific obsessions, their impossibly amazing vintage wardrobes), but it won me over thanks to the thoroughly charming performances from the three leads, and Van Sant's usual assured direction. It won't change your life but it will make you smile. 3 and 1/2 stars.

03/12/11 - Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish, starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones, Franz Drameh, Simon Howard, Jumayn Hunter, Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway.

Brilliantly melding great jokes, pointed social commentary, genuine tension, and a crisp, clear narrative, this 'aliens-attack' movie set around a South London housing estate was a delight from start to finish. The young actors playing the gang are all great finds, and Cornish sets an incessant, exhilarating pace. A real hidden gem. See it if you get a chance. 4 and 1/2 stars.

27/11/11 - The Ides of March - directed by George Clooney, starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Max Minghella, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle.

Less a thriller than the trailer made it seem, and more a drama, Ides of March is a brutal dissection of all that's wrong with the contemporary American political process. Every character has their angle, and the price they'll sell their souls for, and the film expertly shines its light on their increasingly bitter negotiations. Well made and well acted, betraying its stage origins only in one clunkily handled revelation, its cynical worldview will creep under your skin. 4 stars.

25/11/11 - Immortals , directed by Tarsem Singh, starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans and John Hurt.

A preposterous, painterly, CG-and-slo-mo-filled epic in the "tradition" of Zack Snyder's 300. Tarsem (as he seems to want to be known) has a beautiful eye for surprising gothic imagery, that rivals Tim Burton at his best. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot else happening here: the plot is perfunctory, the acting disinterested, and (despite all the blood) the action is bloodless. Go to an art gallery and look at some pretty pictures instead. 2 stars.

21/11/11 - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 1 , directed by Bill Condon, starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke and Peter Facinelli.

Swings between being a kinda boring, pouty melodrama in which the characters talk about problems that don't exist outside their conversations, and being completely fucking batshit crazy. It's (almost) worth sitting through just for its weirdest moments: Edward biting Bella's stomach apart in an emergency fang caesarean; and Jacob, the werewolf, falling head over heels in love with a newborn baby. Like I said, crazy. Unfortunately it also consistently undercuts any plot points that contain the possibility of tension. Ultimately, the boredom won out. 1 and 1/2 stars.

20/11/11 - We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller and John C. Reilly.

Tilda Swinton is astonishing in this portrait of a mother coming to terms with a tragedy, and the lifetime of small events that led inexorably to the big one (I know that's vague, but I really think it's best to go in knowing as little of the plot as possible). Masterfully shot and edited, and with some utterly brilliant moments, it nevertheless didn't have the gut-wrenching effect on me that it seemed to be shooting for. It felt a bit one-note, hammering the same themes again and again with only minor variation. 3 and 1/2 stars.

17/11/11 - The Future, directed by Miranda July, starring Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Isabella Acres and Joe Putterlik.

A frustratingly mixed bag, when The Future was working it was a tender, sad little movie about the disintegrating relationship between two aimless, child-like 30-something hipsters. When it didn't work, it was ... an obnoxious, annoying movie about the same two hipsters. How you react to the main characters will dictate how you react to this film, I think, and I was only able to put up with them to a certain point. 2 and 1/2 stars.

13/11/11 - Our Idiot Brother, directed by Jesse Peretz, starring Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Kathryn Hahn, Rashida Jones and Steve Coogan.

A sunny, amiable little movie about a sunny, amiable guy whose naivete continually wrecks his sisters' lives. Rudd is charming as the titular doofus, and the film does exactly what it sets out to do, being uplifting without being schmaltzy. You won't be able to leave the cinema frowning.
4 stars.

11/11/11 - Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Kerris Dorsey and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

While it's well-made and well-acted, it has the same problem as Contagion, in that it doesn't do enough to make me care. I was certainly interested for the duration of the running time, but I was utterly unmoved. 2 and 1/2 stars.

04/11/11 - Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, starring Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, David Thewlis and Derek Jacobi.

Considering the ludicrous subject matter, this could so easily have been a batshit crazy Elizabethan romp ... except it takes itself seriously. The one actor who doesn't (Rafe Spall as a grasping, venal, semi-literate Shakespeare) steals the show whenever he's on screen. The rest is lost in a mush of silly moustaches, sillier collars, and utter disrespect. Seriously, they've got the young Earl of Oxford writing 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' when he's, like, ten years old! For fuck's sake ... 2 stars.

02/11/11 - In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Olivia Wilde and Johnny Galecki.

An intriguing central concept gets sadly half-arsed treatment, ending up a pretty generic action movie. Unlike Niccol's brilliant Gattaca, he never seems to get to grips with the more interesting aspects of his conceit (briefly, everybody stops aging at 25, at which point you need to work to earn more time), opting instead for shoot-outs, crashing cars and rooftop chases. It feels like a bit of a waste. 2 and 1/2 stars.

29/10/11 - Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Kaden Leos, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks.

When this film worked, it was simply sublime. When it didn't, it was weirdly boring. Most of the more 'genre-y' pieces of the puzzle were directed with flair and skill (in particular the unbearably tense opening, and a failed heist halfway through), but Refn seems to have no idea how to have characters talk to each other. If only he didn't keep disappearing up his own arsehole, Refn could have made a masterpiece. 3 and 1/2 stars.

28/10/11 - Warrior, directed by Gavin O'Connor, starring Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Morrison.

Though it's based around a fairly new-fangled sport (mixed martial arts), this is a really old-fashioned sport movie ... and I mean that in a good way. Though it was perfectly predictable, it went through its motions with a nice mixture of savvy and heart. Also, the three main performances were great, so I really cared about the characters as they had their faces pounded in. 3 and 1/2 stars.

22/10/11 - Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Matt Damon, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni, John Hawkes, Marion Cotillard, Chin Han and Monique Gabriela Curnen. (Whew again!)

I can't find fault with any of the technical aspects of Contagion: Soderbergh is a supremely gifted visual storyteller and it's crafted with an immense amount of skill. Unfortunately, the story bounces around between so many characters that we barely get to know anybody, and I had no emotional connection to the film whatsoever. Moments that were obviously intended to be moving fell completely flat (the exception was the relationship between Damon and Jacoby-Heron as a protective father and wilful daughter trying to isolate themselves to stay safe ... some judicious use of U2 helped that one story thread get across the line). 2 and 1/2 stars.

21/10/11 - The Three Musketeers, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, starring Logan Lerman, Matthew Macfadyen, Milla Jovovich, Luke Evans, Ray Stevenson, Christoph Waltz, Orlando Bloom, Mads Mikkelsen, Freddie Fox, Juno Temple, James Corden and Gabriella Wilde. (Whew!)

If this was treated with a light touch, it could have made a satisfyingly silly romp. As it is, only Freddie Fox as the foppish Louis XIII seemed to remember to make it fun, and the film sank beneath the weight of its own vapid earnestness, its dull, empty CG spectacle, and its firm commitment to making bad decisions with the material. 1 and 1/2 stars.

14/10/11 - The Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen jr., starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen.

More action than horror, this version is dumbed down, souped up, and kinda boring. The alien is used for 'Dude, check out those special effects' moments, rather than to create any kind of tension, or scares, and the Antarctic setting is pretty much wasted. Basically, the film devolves into being just another mediocre alien invasion movie, a la Super 8, Battle: Los Angeles, or Skyline ... and did we really need another one? It's fine to waste a couple of hours, but it's no better than that. 2 and 1/2 stars.

06/10/11 - Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy, starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo and Evangeline Lilly.

While a lot about Real Steel is pretty rote Hollywood fare, there are moments that punch through the wholesome, unthreatening vibe ... namely, Jackman is actually presented as a terrible father, who's mean to his kid. Yes, he comes good by the end, of course he does, but the film goes a lot further than would customarily be considered 'safe.' Other points of interest: the fight scenes are well-orchestrated (soooo rare in U.S. movies these days), and the kid isn't (quite) as annoying as the trailer made him seem. 3 stars.

04/10/11 - Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog.

There are moments when this doco exploring the pre-historic rock art inside the Chauvet Cave in France made me cry, and I couldn't even tell you why. The images are stunning, and the choice to shoot it in 3D is  a brilliant choice, showing us the art in its proper context, at one with the bending, jutting rocks. Herzog's proclivity for vague, pretentious voiceover continues to annoy me, but that's a tiny complaint when set against the beauty he's managed to capture, and the awe and wonder he evokes. 4 and 1/2 stars.

29/09/11 - Crazy, Stupid, Love, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, starring Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon.

A tonally scattered film that never marries its 'serious multi-strand drama' side with its 'gotta get people into the theatres, lowbrow comedy' side. All the characters are interesting, quite nicely drawn people ... who occasionally flip out and behave with as much sense or meaning as, like, Zach Galifianakis or something, dragging the film down with them. When it's good it's much smarter, and better, than the usual Hollywood pap. When it's bad, it's just pap. A missed opportunity. 3 stars.

13/09/11 - Friends With Benefits, directed by Will Gluck, starring Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman and Woody Harrelson.

Friends With Benefits tries to tread a fine line between taking the piss out of the dumb tenets of recent romcoms and taking those tenets to heart ... and it doesn't quite work. The charismatic leads keep you watching, but it ends up the kind of disposable fairy-floss it wishes it wasn't. 2 and 1/2 stars.

12/09/11 - The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Allison Janney.

The Help is overstuffed with too many subplots and is completely obvious. Despite all that, there are plenty of moments when it works, most of them courtesy of Viola Davis, whose portrayal of a character beaten down for her entire life who dares to allow herself to hope again is absolutely wonderful. And I'll give bonus points to a film that has about a dozen roles for women that aren't just 'the girlfriend' ... how fucking rare is that? 3 stars.

29/08/11 - Beginners, directed by Mike Mills, starring Ewan MacGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer and Goran Visnjic.

This film could easily have been one of those 'wacky' indie romances that trades on being twee, but there's a level of emotional honesty here that stuff like Juno can't match. MacGregor is absolutely brilliant as an introvert who can't maintain a relationship, and Plummer is wonderful as his father, who finally comes out as gay in his seventies, a few short years before his death. In a way it's a slight film --- its message could be summed up as 'Be Yourself' --- but that idea has rarely been stated as elegantly as it is here. I liked it a lot. 4 and 1/2 stars.

27/08/11 - The Guard, directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and Fionnula Flanagan.

This dark Irish buddy cop movie swings wildly between being completely fucking hilarious, bizarrely tender (in a hard-hearted sort of way), and falling flat on its face. Luckily, even at its worst moments, the ever-brilliant Brendan Gleeson is there giving the performance of his career as a bleakly cynical garda (policeman) in rural West Ireland. I'd watch a movie about that character going to the shops to get some milk, he's such a brilliant creation. 3 and 1/2 stars.

26/08/11 - Conan the Barbarian, directed by Marcus Nispel, starring Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan and Ron Perlman.

Look, it's bad, but it's bad in exactly the way you'd expect. All the dialogue is grunted, the bad guys chew the scenery, Conan's sword is constantly bloodied, and severed heads roll all over the place. There's no character, barely a plot, and contemporary Hollywood needs to remember how to film action in a way that's intelligible. Still, it did the job. 2 and 1/2 stars.

23/08/11 - Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston, starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci.

Euch, it's just so bland. There's nothing really bad about Captain America, there's just nothing about it that's particularly good, or at all memorable. It's just ... there. Cap himself is an incredibly uninteresting character, with no story arc and no motivations, and the film can't survive the black hole at its centre. Decent support work (especially from Jones and Tucci) helps pass the time. 2 and 1/2 stars.

20/08/11 - Cowboys and Aliens, directed by John Favreau, starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell.

This film is horrifyingly predictable (every single story element that they introduce plays out exactly how you think it will) and cliched. And any time they bother reaching for any emotional pull, the attempt feels hollow and rote. A waste of the talents of all involved, and Favreau needs to pull his finger out of his arse before he turns into Michael Bay. It's sad to say that about the guy that made Swingers, but it's true. 1 and 1/2 stars.

19/08/11 - Hanna, directed by Joe Wright, starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett.

Hanna feels like it was made from a half-decent first draft, not a finished script. There are plenty of interesting ideas in it, but they're disconnected from each other and add up to nothing. The excellent performances pull you along, but when it finishes you're left wondering why anybody chose to make it, because it means nothing in the end. And Wright, who can be a very good director, flounders when it comes to the action sequences. 2 and 1/2 stars.

18/08/11 - The Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell, starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard and Mark Strong.

Okay, okay, I should have known better. A completely disposable piece of CG-infected fluff, I'd forgotten this movie before the credits began to roll. A disaster at every level of its concept, there's nothing here (not the story, the design, or the characters) that even hints that it might have been a good film. 1 star.

15/08/11 - Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell and Judi Dench.

A very handsome, very well-acted (Wasikowska and Fassbender are both ace) adaptation of a book that I didn't like much, to put it mildly. The problematic plot elements are wisely passed over as inessential, and the romance works better for me on screen than it ever did on the page. It still suffers from the fact that Jane isn't an especially interesting heroine, but it passes the time. 3 stars.

13/08/11 - Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow and Freida Pinto.

If you're willing to accept the two halves of this film (the tender drama buildup and the batshit crazy action finale), then you'll have a lot of fun. The human actors are fine but, John Lithgow excepted, they get upstaged by the apes, which are brilliantly expressive. If there were fewer 'what the ...?' moments, when characters are forced to do things that are outrageously illogical and stupid to further the plot, then it'd be the blockbuster of the year. 4 stars.

22/07/11 to 07/08/11 - MIFF 2011, follow the links to each blog post to see the full reviews.

In Getting a tad MIFFed (part one):

Footnote, directed by Joseph Cedar, starring Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba. 3 stars.
The Silence of Joan, directed by Phillipe Ramos, starring Clémence Poésy, Thierry Frémont, Liam Cunningham and Mathieu Amalric. 1/2 star.
Pink Saris, directed by Kim Longinotto. 3 stars and 1/2 stars.
Boxing Gym, directed by Frederick Wiseman. 2 and 1/2 stars.
Finisterrae, directed by Sergio Caballero, starring Pau Nubiola and Santi Serra. 2 and 1/2 stars.

In Getting More than a tad Miffed (part two):

Armadillo, directed by Janus Metz Pedersen. 4 stars.
End of Animal, directed by Sung-hee Jo, starring Lee Min-ji, Hae-il Park and Kim Yeong-ho. 2 and 1/2 stars.
Give Up Tomorrow, directed by Michael Collins. 4 and 1/2 stars.
13 Assassins, directed by Takashi Miike, starring Koji Yakusho, Gorô Inagaki and Takayuki Yamada. 4 stars.

In Now I'm Really Getting MIFFed (part three):

Submarine, directed by Richard Ayoade, starring Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine. 4 stars.
On the Sly, directed by Olivier Ringer, starring Wynona Ringer. 4 stars.
Top Floor Left Wing, directed by Angelo Cianci, starring Mohamed Fellag, Aymen Saïdi and Hippolyte Girardot. 3 and 1/2 stars.
You Are Here, directed by Daniel Cockburn, starring Tracy Wright, R.D. Reid and Anand Rajaram. 2 stars.
The Yellow Sea, directed by Hong-jin Na, starring Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim. 3 and 1/2 stars.

In I Can't Stay MIFFed at You (part four): 

My Wedding and Other Secrets, directed Roseanne Liang, starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Pei-pei Cheng and Kenneth Tsang. 1 star.
Sleeping Sickness, directed by Ulrich Köhler, starring Pierre Bokma, Jean-Christophe Folly and Hippolyte Girardot. 1 and 1/2 stars.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin, starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy. 4 stars.
Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill, starring Brit Marling and William Mapother. 4 stars.

13/07/11 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, directed by David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Ralph Fiennes.

Look, it's impossible for me to be objective about the Harry Potter movies. Even with all their flaws I love them anyway, because of the crushing weight of my affection for the source material (Neville Longbottom might be my favourite character in all literature). Having said that, this one has fewer apparent flaws than most in the series --- though the '19 years later' coda is just as dumb on screen as it was on the page --- and, being the last of eight films, it finally gives you satisfying closure, and gives it to you by the bucketful. 5 stars (to me, because I'm a nerd ... take 1 to 3 stars off, depending on how interested in Harry Potter you are).

08/07/11 - Sleeping Beauty, directed by Julia Leigh, starring Emily Browning, Rachael Blake and Ewen Leslie.

It's nice to see an Australian arthouse movie that isn't exactly the same as every other Australian arthouse movie (either: 'sensitive main character must return to small country hometown and confront some dark secret in his/her past,' or 'poor people live their poor lives while being both dignified and pretty,' or both). Unfortunately, that's the only thing I can give Sleeping Beauty credit for: it's a complete bloody shambles. Nothing makes sense, nothing knits together, nothing matters. When the actors do try and punch some emotion through the sterile story, script and direction, it feels utterly unearned and hollow. 1 and 1/2 stars.

04/07/11 - The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn.

An obtuse, enigmatic film that soars at its best. The amazing camera-work, music and performances were just enough to keep me watching as information was being doled out in tiny, fragmentary bursts, but ultimately I thought it came together in its own subtle way (though the dozen-odd walkouts from my session would doubtless disagree). My appreciation is not without reservations: Malick occasionally went overboard with his focus on minutiae, and the final coda on the beach felt unnecessary to me. 4 and 1/2 stars.

01/07/11 - Transformers: Dark of the Moon, directed by Michael Bay, starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Patrick Dempsey, John Turturro and Frances McDormand.

They're barely even pretending to care about the humans in these movies any more. Every dialogue scene is ridiculously abbreviated, oddly disjointed, and completely devoid of interest. Which wouldn't even matter, if the battles were well-staged, but after two and a half hours of watching clumps of shiny metallic triangles beat each other up, it's impossible to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why. A big, dumb mess. 1 and 1/2 stars.

27/06/11 - Cars 2, directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, starring Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Larry the Cable Guy and Emily Mortimer.

While not the disaster that the appalling trailer had led me to expect, Cars 2 is locked in a struggle with its predecessor for the title of Pixar's worst movie. The mistake here is in making Lightning McQueen's rusty tow-truck buddy Mater the star of the show. The 'lovable lunkhead' thing is fine in (very) small doses, but it can't carry an entire movie. Though there's lots of fun to be found in the incidental detail, it can't hide that there's very little emotional involvement. 2 and 1/2 stars.

24/06/11 - Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh, starring Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman and Dustin Hoffman.

There's nothing particularly surprising about this one --- Po and his buddies must defeat the new threat posed by Gary Oldman's psychotic albino peacock, and learn something about themselves along the way --- but there's nothing particularly wrong with it either. It's bright, bouncy fun, with a bit of emotional heft when it needs it. And when we see Po as a baby panda in a flashback, it's too damn cute to be believed. 3 and 1/2 stars.

23/06/11 - Meek's Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Rod Rondeaux.

An incredibly frustrating movie. A tiny, lost band of settlers struggle across the American West, first under the direction of an incompetent guide, and then following an Indian that they capture. It's beautiful to look at and wonderfully acted ... but then, after the slowest of slow builds, just when you think the tension is going to boil over and the film will get really interesting, it suddenly ends. It's like a brilliant movie with the last ten minutes lopped off. 2 and 1/2 stars.

12/06/11 - Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths and Kyle Chandler.

I just wish there wasn't any fucking alien in it. There's a sweet, sad, funny little movie about a boy burying his grief for his recently deceased mother by helping his friends make a zombie movie here, but it keeps getting interrupted by ridiculously enormous action scenes. The alien, the conspiracy, the rogue government agents, the violence and destruction ... none of it is interesting in the least. But when the kids are on screen by themselves, bickering and laughing and fighting like ordinary kids, it works a treat. 3 stars.

11/06/11 - Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig, starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy.

A raucous, raunchy, at-times brilliant comedy about (duh!) a pack of bridesmaids. The 'gross-out' vein of humour is mined as successfully as it can be, but the big set-piece comedy moments (most of the crap from the trailer, really) are way less funny than the small scale interactions between the cast, all of whom are obviously having a whale of a time. Wiig and Rudolph, in particular, have a couple of 'sitting around and chatting' scenes that are the funniest things I've seen in a long time. 4 and 1/2 stars.

05/06/11 - X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughan, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and January Jones.

Now that's how you make a God-damn comic book movie. Vaughan acknowledges the goofiness inherent in the material with some lovely comedic moments, yet is able to get successfully non-goofy when he's aiming to hit emotional beats. McAvoy and Fassbender, brilliant actors both, help immensely; it's a rare blockbuster where the most captivating scenes involve two characters talking. With so many characters it gets a bit jigsaw-puzzle-y through the middle, but overall it was tremendous fun. 4 stars.

01/06/11 - The Hangover 2, directed by Todd Phillips, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis.

Man, it's exactly the same film. And, because most humour comes from subverting expectations, it ain't anywhere near as funny as the first. Everyone's going through the motions, and Galifianakis in particular needs to prove he can do more than one thing: at the moment he looks to have less range than Will Ferrell. 2 stars.

30/05/11 - Snowtown, directed by Justin Kurzel, starring Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris.

The story of the infamous South Australian 'Bodies in the Barrels' murders, told from the point of view of the young, foolish, fearful Jamie Vlassakis, who is slowly drawn into the plans of the charismatic sociopathic John Bunting. At times this film is magnificent; there are a number of scenes (always involving Henshall's amazing portrayal of Bunting) which manage to be mesmerising, horrific and weirdly poignant all at once. There are long stretches, however, when the desire to be arty and ambiguous gets in the way of the telling of the story. A slightly less pretentious treatment could have been a film for the ages. 4 stars.

 20/05/11 - Burke and Hare, directed by John Landis, starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes and Tom Wilkinson.

A black comedy about the famous Edinburgh grave-robbers turned serial killers, Landis' film is wildly uneven. Some jokes sing, while others land with a clunk that was so loud it nearly stopped being a metaphor. Behind each unique interpretation of the required accent, each actor gives their all, but the script does them no favours. 2 and 1/2 stars.

19/05/11 - Pirates of the Caribbean, directed by Rob Marshall, starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane.

After watching this, my major thought was that nobody involved in conceiving it or creating it actually cared one whit about the end result. It's naked capitalism disguised as a movie, and the disguise is even less convincing than is usual for a Hollywood blockbuster. It's not engaging, it's not fun, it's not really ... anything. 1 and 1/2 stars.

13/05/11 - Your Highness, directed by David Gordon Green, starring Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel.

Taking the piss out of fantasy films is kind of a redundant idea … don’t they already parody themselves? Apart from a meagre handful of laugh-out-loud moments, Your Highness is a joyless plod, content to rehash the same weak jokes over and over again, returns diminishing with every repetition. Lazy filmmaking. 1 and 1/2 stars.

12/05/11 - Water for Elephants, directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christophe Waltz and Hal Holbrook.

This film is exactly what was promised in the trailer: a handsomely shot, somewhat stilted, very old-fashioned romantic drama. Though plenty of dramatic things happen in the film, none of them really make much of an impact; we somehow feel we’re being kept at arm’s length. When the elephant engenders more emotion than the humans do, you’ve got problems. (Credit where it’s due: I will admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Pattinson’s performance. He wasn’t disgraced in this company.) 2 and ½ stars.

07/05/11 - Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.

The first half of Source Code is really promising. Gyllenhal breathes life into a tight, clever little sci-fi conundrum, all the supports are good, and interesting questions get raised. The film loses drive and polish about halfway through, with poorly executed elements straggling like loose threads. It ends up a bit of a muddle, though it remains entertaining enough … until the dreadful coda, anyway. It's a failure, but at least it's an interesting one. 3 and 1/2 stars.

06/05/11 - Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston and Stellan Skarsgard.

Marvel seem to be running out of steam. Apart from some hilariously histrionic design work, Hemsworth's massive pecs, and one or two cute fish-out-of-water moments, there's nothing much to this film. The storyline swings between being silly and dull (often managing to be both), the characters are flat, and any emotion I was supposed to feel was entirely absent. 2 stars.

02/05/11 - The Lincoln Lawyer, directed by Brad Furman, starring Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillipe, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, Bryan Cranston and Bob Gunton.

It's a stolid crime movie, kept just the right side of dull by a pretty (and pretty talented) cast - look at that line-up (Bob Gunton was the warden in Shawshank, for anyone who's less of a geek than me). Even McConaughey wasn't as annoying as usual, playing sleazy rather than preening, and keeping his shirt on. Nothing really exciting about it, just an undemanding little thriller. 2 and 1/2 stars.

30/04/11 - Barney's Version, directed by Richard J. Lewis, starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman.

Watching Paul Giamatti be a snarky schlub is one of the great pleasures of 21st century cinema; unfortunately the rest of the film is horribly disjointed, both in terms of plot and tone. It felt to me like a textbook example of a too-faithful adaptation of Mordechai Richler's book: novels and films are different mediums, folks! 2 and 1/2 stars.

29/04/11 - How I Ended This Summer, directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky, starring Grigory Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis.

A psychological thriller about two isolated meteorologists at a research station in the depths of Siberia. It's a very (very!) slow build, but there are moments of gripping tension as the two men lose their trust in each other. Unfortunately the entire plot begins with one character making a decision that's completely ridiculous and never satisfactorily explained, so the whole film is like a towering edifice built on shifting sands. 3 stars.

25/04/11 - Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.

Can a film simultaneously have a delicate touch and be completely over-wrought? When Carey Mulligan lets a single perfect tear roll down her cheek in a moment of exquisitely suppressed pain, it's beautiful. When she does it half a dozen more times, it starts getting silly. Handsomely shot, beautifully acted ... but it knows it's not making an impression, and so tries too hard to. 3 stars.

17/04/11 - Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone.

The trend in Hollywood towards mindless spectacle must surely have reached its apogee with this movie: Sucker Punch is an entirely empty film. It is a depthless void, a jumble of chaotic images that hold as much significance as a blank screen. NOTHING in Sucker Punch means ANYTHING. I think it might be the worst film I've ever seen. 0 stars.

14/04/11 - Paul, directed by Greg Mottola, starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman and Seth Rogen.

I'm a fan of Pegg and Frost from way back, so I'm probably too kind on this film. Two geeky British buddies visit Comic-Con then head off on a roadtrip across America, meeting a laid-back, wise-cracking alien who's escaped from Area 51 and is on the run. It's a slow-build - the first half-hour, though amusing, is pretty aimless - but as they near their destination everything gets complicated, frantic, and funny as hell. Fundamentalist Christians, men in black and Sigourney Weaver collide in the finale which manages to be both hilarious and oddly touching. 4 stars.

03/04/11 - Griff the Invisible, directed by Leon Ford, starring Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody.

A curious but amiable romance about two damaged dreamers who bond over their crazy obsessions: he's convinced he's a superhero, she believes that she can walk through walls. It's more downbeat than I was expecting, and a couple of the supporting performances are pitched way too big, but the leads sparkle in a mousy way (if such a thing is possible) and its sweetness stays just the right side of cloying. 3 and 1/2 stars.

23/03/11 - Battle: Los Angeles, directed by Jonathan Liebesman, starring Aaron Eckhart.

Whenever the characters speak to each other, this film is absolutely dire. The dialogue is some of the worst ever filmed. When they shut up and kill aliens, it's silly and loud, which is a big improvement. 1 and 1/2 stars.

20/03/11 - Limitless, directed by Neil Burger, starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro.

Wow, this was absolutely appalling. The script was hilariously inept, raising and discarding plot points with gay abandon, and never allowing any tension to last longer than a few seconds. Burger seemingly thought he was making Fight Club, but had no idea how to throw his ideas at the screen with any class. Cooper and Cornish tried hard, De Niro didn't (as we've come to expect) but nothing would have saved this mess. 1 star.

04/03/11 - The Adjustment Bureau, directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

A silly, disjointed mess. Damon and Blunt try hard, but the script is filled with gaping holes and continually brings up semi-interesting metaphysical questions which it doesn't have the wit or the werewithal to actually answer. And the deplorable final scene is pretty much the equivalent of the filmmakers saying 'Hey audience, fuck you!' 2 stars.

26/02/11 - The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell.

A perfect example of a great story not necessarily making a great film. After breaking out of a Siberian gulag during World War II, the ragtag group of escapees walk to freedom. In India. For the geographically dis-inclined, that's across the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, and about 4000 miles all up. Unfortunately the film is too disjointed to do justice to the landscapes and the committed performances. Weir is a great director, but this one won't be remembered. 2 and 1/2 stars.

23/02/11 - How Do You Know, directed by James L. Brooks, starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson.

When a romantic comedy is neither particularly funny nor particularly romantic, I'd say you've got problems. The three leads were too damn bland - hell, the whole film was too damn bland - for me to give a flying fuck about any of it. 1 and 1/2 stars.

19/02/11 - Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest.

This is a small film, but not a slight one. It's about how a struggling couple grieve in their very different ways after a family tragedy, and that's all, but the narrow focus is turned into a strength by Kidman and Eckhart, who both give stunning performances. The rest of the cast (from Dianne Wiest down to any extras who have a single scene) match them, and the script is pitch-perfect. See it. 4 and 1/2 stars.

17/02/11 - Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Matt Damon and Cecile de France.

It's like Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to do a film about what happens after you die, then didn't think about it any more than that. There's a few half-sketched ideas that might, with a lot more depth and complexity, have been turned into a great film, but most of what we got is just turgid and dull instead. And the kid can't act. 1 and 1/2 stars.

13/02/11 - 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, starring James Franco.

Franco is great as the initially-frenetic-then-pinned-under-a-boulder Aron Ralston, but Boyle's direction is intrusive, and the whole film feels slight. Boyle tries desperately to give the movie a spiritual dimension, to apply more meaning to the story than it can really hold, and the whole thing feels a bit forced, and ultimately even a bit tacky. 3 stars.

04/02/11 - True Grit, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

Once you get used to the rather curious tone (should a movie about a manhunt be this funny?), True Grit is a shining example of how, with a good script and great actors, watching characters sitting around talking can be a revelatory experience. Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld - not fazed by her company - are all brilliant. But God, the Coen brothers have completely forgotten how to end their movies: half a star is knocked off because of the annoying last two minutes. 4 stars.

29/01/11 - The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.

Well directed, and well acted ... but you've seen it all before. I get easily jazzed by seeing stuff that I think is original, but I also get bored easily by seeing films that just do the same old shit, and this definitely falls in the latter category. So much talent assembled, to make a film that has no compelling reason to exist. Shame. 2 & 1/2 stars.

26/01/11 - The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson.

Takes a pretty interesting idea - a sperm donor meets his teenage biological kids and their lesbian parents for the first time - and makes the least interesting film possible out of it. It's not so much that it's bad, it's more that there's a complete absence of 'good.' It's so bland, so middle-of-the-road, that I've basically forgotten it already. 2 & 1/2 stars.

23/01/11 - Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

This intimate drama takes place on a refreshingly small scale: it's a portrait of a decaying relationship where the smallest gestures can take on big significance, and Gosling and Williams are more than up to the challenge, both of them hypnotically good. I just wish the script had been as subtle as the performances. 3 & 1/2 stars.

20/01/11 - The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry, starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz.

Though not nearly as fun or as subversive as I'd hoped for from Gondry, it's still likely to be the most interesting superhero movie that comes out all year ... which ain't saying much, really. Jay Chou and Christoph Waltz shine, Cameron Diaz has bizarrely little to do, and, as per usual, Seth Rogen is just Seth Rogen. A missed opportunity. 3 stars.

15/01/11 - Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey.

Mad, ridiculous, melodramatic ... and so so much fun. As Portman's ballerina disintegrates mentally, Aronofsky uses every trick in the book to make you laugh, or jump, or cringe, or all of them at the same time. Body-horror and ballet make a perfect match of genre and setting, but to call it a horror film is to do it an injustice: it's so much more besides. 4 & 1/2 stars.

13/01/11 - Somewhere, directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning.

I was surprised to like this film as much as I did, I don't normally go for 'people-hanging-around-and-not-much-happens' kinda movies. There are images, entire scenes even, that are touched by genius ... I just wish Sofia Coppola would learn restraint: too often she brilliantly makes her point in an instant, then wastes another five minutes ramming it home. 3 & 1/2 stars.

12/01/11 - Tron: Legacy, directed by Joseph Kosinski, starring Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund.

Looking really cool, and sounding really cool (the soundtrack was by Daft Punk) couldn't quite make up for the fact that it made no friggin' sense whatsoever. And through the middle, when Jeff Bridges sat down and tried in vain to explain it all, it got pretty boring. 2 stars.

07/01/11 - Love and Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Jake Gyllenhal and Anne Hathaway.

This was a bizarrely disjointed film: when it was good, it was a very good romantic drama, thanks mainly to the performances of the two leads. But occasionally, thanks to a couple of 'wacky' characters, it turned into a different film altogether, and a much much worse one. 3 stars.