I’ve often been mindful of the fact that, although I occasionally dare to masquerade as a film writer, I never seem to get watching as many films as I should. I often earmark things I want to see at the cinema, but don’t get round to them (due to either time or money issues) and while I think I’ve got a decent scope and knowledge of classic film, there’s still a vast and neverending pile of things I’ve never managed to see despite knowing I should have. So far this year, however, I’ve done a bit better with film-watching – getting out to the cinema a bit more, seeing a couple of things due to online-press-privileges, and taking better advantage of my Lovefilm account (i.e. being aware that to avoid wasting money I should really actually watch things, or at the very least rip them into MP4 format to watch on my phone, within a week or so of getting them). It’s all been largely accidental rather than a conscious effort, and I’m sure the moment I try and turn it into a conscious effort I’ll stop doing it, but for now, I’ve decided to write a little bit about films I’m seeing, in bursts, as I see them. Just as a bit of a writing exercise, and a way of keeping track of my attempts to keep up with film in general a bit better.

Just don’t ask me where the “listening to every album on my iPod in order” mini-album-reviews are.*

Anyway, Stuff I’ve Watched over the past few weeks or so includes…

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
There are reasons to see this besides Andy Serkis, of course. The soundtrack is, as you’d expect, terrific (and if you don’t like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, you’re really not in any way qualified to comment on anything). The supporting cast are pretty much uniformly excellent. And it’s pretty good fun (though occasionally a bit dark), drenched in “I wish I were 24 Hour Party People“-styled direction. But really… it’s all about Serkis. He is nothing short of phenomenal – close your eyes and he really is Dury (particularly when singing), although to do so would ignore how well he gets the physical mannerisms, too. Anyway, it’s a very enjoyable ride, terrific at times, although it does follow standard “music biopic” style/format a lot of the time. And it’s a shame you don’t actually get “Sweet Gene Vincent” properly in full.

Annie Hall
Yes, I’m a complete and total idiot for never having seen this before. But I cherish the day it finally showed up from my Lovefilm list. What an absolutely bloody wonderful, awe-inspiringly brilliant and clever and touching and sharp film. I knew it was meant to be good, but I stupidly didn’t know quite how all the meta bits would push my buttons (“Wouldn’t it be great if real life were like this?”), and of course I’m exactly the sort of neurotic nerd that Allen’s characters in this era of his career would appeal to. For some strange reason, it reminded me of Eternal Sunshine in its approach to relationships – the basic message being “Yeah, they’re kind of rubbish and they mess you up, but they’re worth going through over and over again anyway” – and I liked that attitude a lot. Oh, and it’s very, very, very funny. Absolute masterpiece.

Blur: No Distance Left To Run
Reviewed here, so there’s not much need to repeat what I said there. But the short version is: damned near essential (if a little self-indulgent and self-satisfied) if you’re a Blur fan, and filled with lots of interesting nuggets of contemporaneous footage. And if you’re not a Blur fan… why not?

Kick-Ass
I’m not allowed to say anything about this film or my opinion of it, because it was seen for review purposes and said review is under embargo. I’m just mentioning that I saw it, and you can infer whether I thought it actually worth passing comment on. Watch the trailer, though (warning – contains teh swears), for an idea of what it’s like. And the fact that the poster has already spoilered Empire’s star rating of it is a bit of a clue, too.

Up In The Air
Enjoyed this a lot – perhaps more than I was expecting to – and it marks Jason Reitman out, after Juno and Thank You For Smoking, as a Genuine Talent. Can we have him instead of his dad going Ghostbusters 3, please? Anyway, super performances from all three of the main cast, with Clooney in particular excelling at that old-school Clooney charm of his (it’s something you either like or don’t, but I always find myself warming to him, especially in Coen films), and although it seems to lose its way a little bit in a section that at the time feels like a poor last act, it subsequently only turns out to be a third quarter after all, and the coda that follows it makes it work. What’s especially surprising is how refreshingly lacking in “Hollywood cop out” it turns to be – not in a depressing way, just in a realistic way, to the extent that there’s a surprising lack of resolution of any kind. Mega bonus points, too, for using unreleased Elliott Smith demo “Angel in the Snow” extensively at one point.

Role Models
Shhhh. Alright, I wouldn’t have paid to see this at the cinema, but it’s a perfectly justifiable Lovefilm job. A bit of an obvious and lame and predictable sort of a comedy (surprise surprise, the lame man-child-ish lead characters learn a lesson, screw up a bit, then redeem themselves! Shock horror!) on the surface, what makes this work (aside from an excellent running thread involving Kiss) is the quality of the cast – Paul Rudd, Jane Lynch and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are all typically great doing their same usual schticks, and even Seann William Scott is on the likeable side of his usual narrow Stifler-esque range. It’s a bit of fun, basically, fairly forgettable but still enjoyable while you’re watching it. Which is more than can be said for a lot of examples of its genre, to be honest.

Quantum of Solace
This seems to have divided opinion rather more than Casino Royale did, but having finally got round to catching up with it, I found myself falling firmly on the “rather liked it” side. It lacks a lot of the intrigue – and, largely, the fun – that Casino Royale had, and the plot can be a little unnecessarily oblique (also, it’s a bit uninspiring for a Bond film – ooh, the nasty men are going to corner the water market in a single country!) but it’s a pretty uncompromising battering ram of an actioner, with some strong set-pieces, and Craig continues to make the CraigNotBond people look somewhat foolish with assured performances, somehow exuding charisma even as he’s being generally icily detached throughout.

Network
Fun fact: while the line as oft-quoted tends to be “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more!”, when Howard Beale actually says it it’s “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this any more!” Anyway, this is a truly bizarre but utterly engaging bit of satire from that wonderful “smart cinema” era of ’70s American film. As has often been said, though, one suspects it was rather more fanciful when it was made – whereas nowadays it simply looks all that more prescient. You could almost actually imagine The Mao Tse-Tung Hour happening nowadays, which is kind of scary. And when Beale wonders what’ll happen “when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world”, it’s hard not to think of Mr Murdoch and his gang. Anyway – cracking film, cracking cast (cor, Faye Dunaway’s character is pure evil, isn’t she?), cracking script. Weird-as-hell ending, mind.

Goodfellas
Yeah, yeah, another one I should have seen ages ago. In fact, it’s funny – I used to be accused by someone of being “obsessed with the mafia” for no apparent reason other than that “Bart the Murderer” (the first Fat Tony one) is one of my favourite Simpsons episodes. And yet I’ve never seen any of the Godfather trilogy or, until recently, the film I’d now call a challenger to The King of Comedy (yeah, I know, I’m weird like that) for Scorsese’s best. It really is quite stunningly directed, though – even when the plot moves into the less interesting ’80s, losing the seductive charm of the ’60s and ’70s-set sequences, you’ve got such bravura turns as the intensely fast-paced “paranoia” set-piece – and the combination of its visual flair and the across-the-board-brilliant performances are almost enough to make you forget just how brutal it all is. A difficult watch at times, but a rewarding experience, particularly if you’re fascinated by all of the “how it all actually worked” stuff (which I tend to be). I guess I might have to seek out Casino, now…

*the answer is that they will be back at some point. But not yet.

Google Buzz, then

Since everyone else is doing it, here are my two cents on this whole little fiasco. And I’ll preface it by saying that, like a lot of people, I like Google, usually. Gmail is a superb mail client, and while I don’t use them so much any more, Google Reader and iGoogle are excellent at what they do. They usually get stuff like this right, which is why it’s a surprise to see them getting this so wrong. Here are some points, then:

  • First off, for me, the biggest flaw is the fact that email integration is not optional. It’s not merely the fact that it appears as an extra link (with a bracketed number of unread items) in your sidebar. That, I actually like. I’m all for integrating different services into one place – at least, integrating from my perspective. I’d quite like having my email, Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal friends and a variety of RSS feeds readable in one place (it’s why I went in for the whole Netvibes thing a little while back, though I did end up moving away from it after a while, and never did get round to writing my planned Micro Mart article about portal homepages). I don’t want them all talking to one-another, though – that way can lead to potential disaster. Anyway, the point is, I don’t mind an extra tab in my email that shows me a Twitter-esque status updates feed. The problem, though, is the fact that in addition to that, updates from Buzz get sent to your inbox. And not just updates from your friends – I was getting mail items when someone I didn’t know commented on the status of someone I did. That sh t’s annoying enough from Facebook without Google themselves getting in on the act. These updates were even being sent to my iPhone via IMAP. Not on. There are ways to stop it – but setting up a filter to exclude them is a workaround, not a Google-built option. Simply put, intrusion into your mailbox is not something you should have to fudge your way out of – you should be able to turn it off.
  • Something else that’s come in for criticism is the way it automatically assumes who you want to follow. Now, I’ve never used the option the likes of Facebook have for finding your “friends” from your email contacts, and I’m sure I’m not alone. There’s a very good reason – I just don’t trust them to work well enough. And sure enough, Buzz managed to annoy me by being presumptuous. Here’s the thing, Buzz – there might be names in your inbox who you’ve mailed/chatted to a lot in the past, but don’t any more. And really, you should notice the fact that I haven’t emailed or chatted with my ex-girlfriend in close to a year, and therefore not automatically include her in the list. Alright?
  • Plus, of course, there are the massive privacy concerns. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where you’re aware that everyone can see who you’re following/friends with, Buzz has already started telling people who your most emailed/chatted to people are.
  • What’s perhaps the most staggering, for a company that’s usually so savvy about internet trends, is the way they’ve completely ignored some of the biggest controversies that have damaged Facebook’s reputation. Did they just miss what happened with Beacon? The lesson to be learned from the various (usually subsequently corrected) failures on Facebook’s part is that people want to opt-in, not opt-out. You can’t say, “Here’s this new thing we’ve set up, we’ve already made it so you’re a part of it, now go and read a load of tech blogs about other people figuring out how it works and what it actually does, even though it’s already doing it on your behalf”. You need to say, “We’ve got this new thing, here’s what it does and how it works. Do you want to start using it?”
  • Already, as Matt Sheret has pointed out, people are making the mistake of sending updates from Twitter over to Buzz (just as we all thought would be clever to do on LiveJournal, or Facebook, before – mostly – thinking better of it). This isn’t how cross-site integration should work – as mentioned above, it should be from the reader‘s perspective. I’d quite like to see Twitter on a tab in my mailbox, or Facebook updates in my Twitter client – it’s one less site to click through to when I’m doing my “rounds” – but I don’t want to read the same thing from the same person twice!

There’s definitely scope for Buzz to work – a Google-powered status update-based social network that links in with your email isn’t a flawed concept – but at the moment the execution, and the manner in which it’s been rolled out, are deeply flawed. It should be possible to use it – I’d certainly like to – without it being so inextricably linked with my inbox, contacts and everything else. It’s true that almost everything that people are complaining about can be turned off with a little digging – but crucially, they’re on by default. And by now, no-one with Google’s experience and expertise should think that’s a good idea. For now, then, I’ve switched it off entirely.