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