We still live in an age where sexually explicit films stand out firstly, and often only, on account of that explicitness. Think Gaspar Noe’s recent Love 3D (2015) and Lars von Trier’s wildly uneven Nymphomanic (2013). Alan Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) is certainly one of the most sexually explicit films I’ve ever seen, but the film’s style and economical storytelling linger a lot longer than the sex.
Stranger by the Lake opens with a slow first half, focused very much on the process of daily life. It begins with an almost silent sequence of a man arriving at a cruising spot, laying down the actions of being there – driving up, parking his car, walking to the beach through a forest, swimming and chatting to a couple of other men. The other predominant focus of the first part of the film is the establishment of character, which Guiraudie does in a very economic manner. In a way, what are being set up are archetypes, though that term does a disservice to the skill involved. Especially effective is the character of Henri, a man who sits apart from the rest of the cruising scene. This distance, his awkwardness and frumpy polo shirt, tell the audience everything they need to know about the character. It’s exposition through costume and placement of characters in space, rather than resorting to dialogue driven backstories. Similarly, with his moustache, tan and Adonis like body, we sense the alluring nature and dangerous physicality of Michel from the start, an element of that character that will haunt the main character Franck for the rest of the film.
Through the second half of Stranger by the Lake, two genres – thriller and crime – influence the film heavily. This part of the film begins with a murder, seen from a high angle, stationary shot, allowing the action to unfold just as it would be viewed in real life, but with the audience helpless to intervene. The crime aspects are the weaker of the two and perhaps some of the weakest parts of the film overall. The questioning of the various men at the lake by a lone detective is bland and laboured with no spark to the writing. The viewer never feels that the detective is serious about solving the case and there is no police-procedural style detail. The presence of the detective does help to provoke paranoia amongst some of the characters. But that could probably be generated in other ways. Thankfully though these sequences don’t take up much of the film and as a result do not affect its quality overall. In terms of the thriller aspects though, the film succeeds heartily, with an unconventional approach. Much of it is a creation of tension through omission. A body lies in the lake but doesn’t wash ashore or show up. The tension of if, and will it show up looms over the characters at the cruising spot. Similarly the simple fact of a character ceasing to show up creates tension as to their whereabouts and what they have done. The reflection of moments and interactions from the first half of the film, as well as the way Guiraudie strings those moments out, is another way in which major tension is elicited.
The widescreen shooting of the film looks totally spectacular. Much of the setting is established by a succession of glorious shots of the lake shimmering in the late evening light. The beautiful shots do not simply deliver on a visual level either, Guiraudie uses them as an integral part of his storytelling approach. The position, and especially the stationary nature of the camera, gives a sense of space and perspective. Late in the film, a shot mimics the set up when the murder was committed, building a serious amount of tension through this simple yet creative repetition, especially as it renders the audience feeling doubly powerless to intervene. Clouds rolling ever so slowly across the screen show the passing of time, as does the repeated shot of Franck’s car arriving each day, the only identifier that another day at the lake has begun. These shots are a structural tic that gives the film rhythm and progression. It’s not just time passing on a simple level, but also the advent of change – both change in a seismic life altering sense and also slow and infinitesimal change, which goes unnoticed until it is too late.
Verdict: Stranger by the Lake is a damn pretty thriller. One where the tension comes from very astute writing and the manner in which moments from the first half of the film are reflected and folded back on themselves. It all leads to an ending that, whilst a touch signposted, tears the emotional heart of the film asunder, albeit still in its understated way. Pint of Kilkenny
No amount of derision for the late sequels can dim the love of folk for the first two Terminator films. The lacklustre reception to Terminator: Genysis (2015) reminded me that I had never really gotten around to seeing the classic entrants into the series, so it was time for Terminator (1984).
For a beloved sci-fi, the story is actually pretty stripped back. Taking place on separate timelines, 2029 and 1984, a lot of the early exposition is handled by a single screen of text explaining the rise of the machines. From there, a couple of mean dudes arrive in ’84 from the future, and the story is underway. It’s astutely written, setting up the goal of the plot (i.e. kill/protect Sarah Connor) without explaining why. It allows the action to fly from the very start, but maintains intrigue as to exactly where the plot will go. Even today, the violence in the film is quite bracing in its brutality. The body count is ultra high and with major characters possessing zero empathy, they mow numerous people down without a care. The Sarah Connor character, at least in this film, does not feel like a particularly strong one. It’s a traditionally matriarchal spot for her in a film. She has to be fought over by men, to preserve her abilities as a mother. Whilst that could be more modern, thematically the film remains resonant. You could easily patch drones onto this plot with no troubles at all. It’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of over-automation, particularly in the military sphere.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a decidedly awful actor. But he does have an undeniable and unique presence to him. As such it is easy to see why the Terminator has become his most iconic role as it is designed for someone with his abilities. He doesn’t have to emote, in fact it’s better if he doesn’t. The film’s much lauded effects have undoubtedly dated to a degree. But they are yet another example of how you would take dated practical effects over dated CGI any day of the week.. It is impossible not to respect the level of craftsmanship and artistic creativity that went into the process. But there is no doubting that some of the effects work toward the film’s conclusion has a bit of a Harryhausen vibe, and not in a good way. Overall though, the design is one of the strengths of the film. Arnie’s body and the way it breaks down looks great, whilst the interaction and fuzzy borders between man and machine is rendered effectively. In addition to the lean writing, much of the tempo can be attributed to the soundtrack. Brad Fiedel’s score is electronic, but with a real authentic sounding beat, a combination that sets the pace of a lot of the action.
Verdict: Deserving of its place as an action/sci-fi classic, The Terminator still holds up despite some of its elements showing their age. It did strike me as not particularly setting up for a sequel, so I will be interested in how forced the storytelling of future films in the series feels to me. Pint of Kilkenny
You can kind of imagine the pitch meeting for Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut in the director’s chair. “Hi I’m Ryan Gosling, you know me from everywhere. Can I have some money please?” And that makes sense too. I was keen to watch this mainly for the Gosling, though I had also heard good things about the soundtrack.
We would all be richer though if those pulling the financial strings had done a little more due diligence, perhaps enquiring as to Gosling’s plan for the film’s story and style. The film is set in an America destroyed by the housing and financial crisis, presented with deliberate post-apocalyptic overtones. It’s not as rad as that sounds, trust me. The conflating of a post-apocalyptic wasteland with modern day poverty stricken and destitute parts of America is a really good idea in theory. But in practice, all the lingering shots of overgrown streets, tourist attractions under water and abandoned houses are not imbued with any meaning by the film’s atmosphere or script. Overall it’s a really clunky attempt to say something about the recent U.S. housing crisis. For all the arty trimmings, the story goes to the most obvious places possible and has zero fun getting there. Gosling goes for a lot – an ethereal dreamlike quality, social commentary, absurdity, arthousiness, tension and some occasional sci-fi/horror elements – but he’s reaching and nothing ever feels anything other than really played out.
The end result of Lost River is that it just feels as though Gosling is aping far better directors such as Nicholas Winding-Refn (unsurprisingly) and Terrence Malick, but without their assuredness. Whether or not you appreciate the work of those two names, the kind of films they make are very hard to put together and even harder to make watchable. The opening scene here legitimately feels like Gosling is trying to remake The Tree of Life (2011), and plenty of the imagery is in a similar vein. The oblique dialogue and storytelling is similarly reminiscent of that film and the work of Winding Refn, though here it is filtered somewhat through a hint of pop culture influence. As for the soundtrack, which I mentioned I had heard a bit about, well it’s decent but did not blow me away. Even at that level it’s probably the highlight of the film truth be told. There are some good moments and there’s some nice interplay with the overall sound design. But for the most part there seems a lack of commitment to put any of the boldness on the soundtrack to the front and centre of the film. Instead there is a reliance on the performances to see it through. But whilst the cast has pedigree, you know the performances are flat when even Ben Mendelsohn feels muted. Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker and Saoirse Ronan are all similarly underwhelming. It is only an unrecognisable Marr Smith with any real life to his performance, bringing a real sense of menace to a character that has not had any created by the writing.
Verdict: Unfortunately Lost River really does not succeed on any level. There are attempts at a whole lot of things, but it all feels undercooked and I was totally disinterested throughout. It was always going to be easy for Gosling to snap his fingers and get a directorial debut off the ground. Based on this evidence though, there other voices I would much rather see get the investment and backing. Schooner of Tooheys New
Monty Python is one of those institutions you were either introduced to at a young age and you join in the obsession, or they completely pass you buy. Given watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) was my introduction to the troupe, you can guess where I land on that spectrum.
The film takes a more is more approach to the joke count. The jokes bombard the viewer and it is hard to keep up. To be sure, many of them don’t land, in fact I would say most of them don’t. But every so often something stands out from the base level of silliness, with a level of inspiration that makes it plain why the Monty Python crew are held in such high regard by many. Unlike many of the great comedies, the jokes are really only on one level though. They mainly come from the witty silliness of the script. There is the occasional thematic hit, on religion for example, but even these are kept very light rather than genuinely subversive. This lack of subversion does date the film somewhat though with jokes using Jewish slurs, focused on a potentially trans character and some iffy rape jokes sticking out. This is not to say they were designed to offend, but they feel more dated because there is little attempt to make subversive points through the use of these ideas.
Despite the comedic writing being quite tight, perhaps the most endearing element of Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the slapdash, slightly anarchic quality that it has. Random storylines come and go with nary a care in the world, the comical Judean People’s Front takes centre stage and actors play a procession of different roles. It’s not really the kind of film where performances particularly stand out. But John Cleese’s manic energy and effort in each scene is tops. In addition, Graham Chapman as Brian, brings a charming boyish naiveté to that role. There are a couple of cracking tunes as well. I loved the opening theme whilst the final song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” which accompanies perhaps the film’s best visual joke, brings back personal memories as it was the song that closed my pop’s funeral.
Verdict: All things considered, Monty Python’s the Life of Brian did make me giggle a fair bit. So on one level, mission accomplished. But beyond that, there is not really that much there, which is perhaps why this review is on the slightly short side. It’s a very well done, silly comedy. Not much more to say than that really. Stubby of Reschs
July started out pretty slow on the viewing front. But I suffered a concussion and blew out my back, which meant I couldn’t do much for the last couple of weeks of the month aside from watch movies (unfortunately including any writing, which is why things have been quiet). So it turned into a massive one, with a couple of my favourite new releases of the year, some classics of the highbrow & silly variety and one of my absolute least favourites of the year. Read on and share your thoughts below.
- Ant-Man (2015), Peyton Reed – So refreshing. A real different tone and scale to anything Marvel have done in an age. They do some really different things with the action too, embracing the possibilities Ant-Man’s powers bring. It’s very creative. Also one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. Full of top performances. Fab to see Michael Douglas in a big role, peak Paul Rudd while Lily & Pena are as good as anyone. Not much of a villain, but I didn’t really care. Was too busy having a blast with this heist caper at the fringe of the Marvel universe. Let’s hope they put their Avengers-building obsessions on hold a little more often.
- The Trouble with Harry (1955), Alfred Hitchcock – Set in a sharply coloured English countryside, this is a gentle Hitch film. A quietly amusing farce based around a dead body with a touch of silliness. Shirley MacLaine shines as a mad sassy single mum. A strange film. Almost feels more like an Agatha Christie play than a Hitchcock film. Lifted by a jaunty Bernard Hermann score that really reflects the mood and a deceptively well crafted script, especially in terms of characters. Minor, but frothy, Hitchcock.
- Beyond the Reach (2014), Jean-Baptiste Leonetti – A grindhousey B-movie vibe manages to overcome a script that’s at times awkwardly bad. Doesn’t hurt that Michael Douglas is chewing scenery as an ultra-rich modern cowboy with a slight psychotic/egomaniacal streak. Jeremy Irvine’s physical presence is a good foil for Douglas’s psychological one. The basic set-up – rich dude hunting salt of the earth dude through the desert – is good fun and they vaguely try and take a psychological angle on it. You can feel the physicality of both the action and the setting. Delightfully silly.
- Insidious Chapter 2 (2013), James Wan – There is a great shared style and atmosphere to the Waniverse. He really is a master and this is utterly frightening at times. Wan uses sound so well too. Rose Byrne excels as the frazzled horror wife. The script incorporates humour much more seamlessly than you would expect. Like the best of Wan’s work, it trades in familiar horror tropes, but feels like a homage rather than derivative. Though can’t help feeling the cross-dressing killer trope is played out by now. This is a step-down from the first, especially the jumbled storytelling of the final act. But it’s still well above average.
- The Lodger (1927), Alfred Hitchcock – There is a great flow to the storytelling in Hitch’s first feature. The genesis of his style is here, fisheye shots and close-ups on reaction faces. The great, but not distracting, visual creativity is there from the start. Much of this is stark, otherworldly and almost plays like a horror film rather than a thriller. Pulls no punches with the intense ending either.
- Drug War (2012), Johnnie To – A good ol fashioned cops and robbers (drug dealers) tale. The set-up is strong, the story spinning out from drug trafficking gone wrong. Quickly gets into the meat of the story and the cop procedural aspects are excellent. The gangster elements get a little convoluted but the storytelling never loses its clarity. It is a little slight on the tension front and in building the ambivalence in the characters that it needed. But the ending is bloody intense and there is some excellent gunplay in the action.
- 71 (2014), Yann Demange – Had pretty low expectations for anything original here. But it’s pretty unique, due in part to the conflict being one not generally presented onscreen. Such a small city to be so harshly divided. Portrays effectively a volatile situation, stark and confronting in conveying a city ready to blow. The pulsing score is excellent, as is the camerawork which boosts the claustrophobia. Both of these also combine to convey the main character’s disorientation as well. The intrigue over who is good, who is bad, adds a lot.
- The Transporter (2002), Louis Leterrier & Corey Yuen – Flawed, but pretty much peak The Stath. For the most part, pretty light and funny with some cool self-awareness. Kicks off with and awesomely fun and creative car chase. Occasionally the action level slips a little, exposing the rather awful storytelling and dustier performances. But it’s shot quite nicely and The Stath is so delightfully Stathy. Some nice martial arts sequences too.
- Sinister (2012), Scott Derrickson – Pretty much everything Blumhouse are behind is worth checking out these days. Starts with a terrifying mass-hanging. Ethan Hawke is a true-crime author who moves his family to where the horrific event he is writing about took place. Hawke, as he does most of the time, brings some real gravitas to this kind of genre fare. Creepy as hell, with the use of old super-8 films being really creative and atmospheric. It’s not particularly nicely shot and occasionally feels too familiar. But it picks up and is worth a look if you’re in the market for a good bogey man story.
- Magic Mike XXL (2015), Gregory Jacobs – This film is rather awful in many respects. The script is bad, most of the bits where dudes aren’t dancing are rubbish and there’s some dodgy acting. But we need more films like this. A slapdash celebration of life and sexuality. One where every body type is included in the fun & celebrated. Really is a joy of a film. Tatum and his cohort are all great, but Jada Pinkett-Smith may be the pick of the cast. Great example of how a soundtrack can drive a film just as well as an original score. More money thrown at similar fare please.
- Wet Hot American Summer (2001), David Wain – Exceptionally cast, silly 80s nostalgia. Nails the awkwardness of those late teen years. So much of the casting is perfect – Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo and Christopher Meloni are all excellent. It’s utter, stilly fluff that whilst delightfully stupid does throw in some cool commentary about sexuality and embracing one’s true self. I chuckled a lot.
- Downloaded (2013), Alex Winter – Even though it’s not that long ago, Napster feels like a thousand years in internet terms. Bill S. Preston Esq himself reminds you just how revolutionary it was. The film is not a total success. It’s mad wordy, which both works and doesn’t. It also doesn’t manage to give a full side of even one side of the story and the compelling founders could have had more screen time. But it reminds you of the importance of Napster as a forerunner of iTunes and even Netflix. Situates the brand well in the history of record companies and booming corporatisation. The first time technology has been on the side of the consumer not the suits. Innovation rarely comes from those embedded up top of the power status quo. The film’s greatest success is sketching this power struggle at the heart of the story.
- Step Brothers (2008), Adam McKay – Thought I’d matured beyond standard Ferrell fare. But this is a pretty funny sctipt. Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen are great casting additions too. Giggle factor was definitely higher than average. Has quite an improv feel to it. Adam Scott does smarmy very well whilst Ferrel and John C. Reilly bounce off each other.
- Blitz (2011), Elliott Lester – Can’t go wrong with The Stath bashing delinquents… with a hurley no less. Especially when it’s a buddy cop film with him alongside Paddy Considine. Why oh why didn’t this kick off a franchise? Pretty old school, rocking unlikeable anti-heroes above all. There are narrative flaws you could drive a Dwayne Johnson through, but it’s too much fun to really care. Though there are some moderately successful attempts to build more depth into the plot than your standard Stath effort.
- Inside Out (2015), Pete Doctor & Ronaldo Del Carmen – Not just the best Pixar film in an age, one of their best ever. Probably their smartest. Love the creative way psychological concepts are presented, neuroscience and memory processing spring to life. It’s all so bloody beautiful. Presents some great lessons as well, particularly regarding the relationship between sadness and joy. Phyllis Smith gives a great voice performance as Sadness too. The adventure style story aspect was more successful than expected. And the editing, cutting between the spaces inside and outside the head, is exquisitely done. It’s actually a pretty dense film. Not in a way that makes it hard to watch, but in a way that makes me want to go out and watch it a bunch of times. Emotionally assured and hard hitting. Also so great to have a film with a female protagonist (well three actually). Totally focused in on that character and the minutiae of their experience.
- Ted 2 (2015), Seth MacFarlane – I sorta feel dirty liking this. Totally nothing storyline. But these films seem to blunt the worst of MacFarlane’s instincts. Plenty of laughs, some of them even surprisingly clever. The cast are all good. Amanda Seyfried, Marky Mark and Jessica Barth especially. Ted looks incredible too, and MacFarlane is much better as a voice performer. Though Alan Scherstul of the Village Voice did remind me there is a pretty terrible transphobic joke in here.
- Friday Night Lights Season 3 (2008), Peter Berg – Starts with a much lighter touch than the awful previous season, which is a good omen that mainly carries through. Taylor Kitsch is so good as Tim Riggins. They handle the abrupt, writer’s strike imposed ending to the last season well with a few flashbacks and then moving right on. At times, the season is almost a little too highly-strung, just needing to chill out a little. There is barely any focus on the on-field action this season, but the relationships between characters, especially that of Julie and Matt, are built to nicely. And the season finishes at the perfect point, with all the characters left in really interesting places.
- Friday Night Lights Season 4 (2009), Peter Berg – Hard to think of a more seismic shift between seasons. Coach Taylor takes over at a new, highly inept school. It’s a bold move with potential to emphasise sport as a vehicle for social change. And despite some concerns, it does so without being too condescending or twee about it. This season fills in the supporting cast with some interesting new faces, especially Madison Burge as Becky. Her platonic relationship with Kitsch’s Riggins feels really original. It’s a sharply written season. One of the strengths of the show as a whole is the interesting arcs for the lesser characters. Buddy Garrity’s comes to the fore this time. The acting is far better than average, Kitsch, Zach Gilford, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britten continue to be ace, and are joined by Michael B. Jordan, who is a simply exceptional performer.
Not Worth Watching:
- Splice (2009), Vincenzo Natali – There’s a lot of good elements here, but overall it’s a bummer. Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody impress as the leads. Design is interesting and it opens nicely with a real science focus. Plus technically the use of music and montage is very creative. And the thematic concern around the overlap between the natural and synthetic spheres is interesting. But, it gets really bland storytelling-wise. The focus on Polley’s maternal instincts never hooked me and felt too obvious a place to take it. In the end, that aspect of the story overwhelms the interesting beginnings.
- Don Jon (2013), Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Another where the reasonable amount of positives are outweighed by the negatives. Very much concerned early on with the male gaze, as Gordon-Levitt’s douchebag watches a shit ton of porn and picks up a different woman every night. The film makes some astute points through all of this, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a good watch. It’s narratively weak and a little boring overall, with the characterisation being slightly off too.
- The Gallows (2015), Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing – I praised Blumhouse earlier, but this is arse. A cool title, cool opening and decent premise lead absolutely nowhere. Desperately unscary, this is a film that fails to deliver on any level. Worst kind of found footage film, both in conceit and execution. Barely even manages to muster the cheapest of scares. Zero characterisation and no story. The nature of the threat, its malevolence, never established at all. One good performance (Pfeifer Brown) and the fact it’s short are the only positives.
- Finding Fela (2014), Alex Gibney – Gibney has been hugely prolific of late, with little promoted biographical docos sitting alongside his heavily promoted ‘A’ material. Half of this is essentially an advertisement for a Broadway musical you have no reason to care about. This is a shame, because the in-depth analysis of Fela Kuti’s music is a definite highlight. It’s far too rare though. Despite some warts being on display, it’s also hard to escape the feeling that a lot of Kuti’s major character flaws have been sidestepped here.
If you only have time to watch one Inside Out
Avoid at all costs The Gallows