This is probably my favourite piece to write each year. To me these totally subjective lists are far more interesting and genuine than the farce of awards season. There was a lot of good stuff this year with much of it coming from an increase in diversity (though it goes without saying that a monumental amount of work still to be done there). Looking over this list, it is striking how few of the films feature a conventional white male lead. That was not conscious on my part, but it is positive to see and hopefully the diversity behind the camera will continue to increase as well.
As I was coming up with this list, I noticed some real trends of films I loved. That’s where the ‘ish’ of this list comes from as I’ve chosen to put together some of the great films to discuss them that way. With the happy added bonus that I can include more than the usual 10 films. You know the drill with the rest of this stuff. Any film that had its first commercial release in Aus in 2015 was eligible as were festival films that don’t have a commercial release on the horizon. And these are my favourite films of the year, not the ‘best’. Anything with a full length review is hyperlinked as well.
Honourable mentions: It was a really great year for genre film I thought, with a decent amount featuring in the top 10. In addition to those, there was some great sci-fi including Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, Ex Machina and the Wachowski’s criminally underrated Jupiter Ascending. It was perhaps an even better year for horror with Turbo Kid, Digging up the Marrow and Final Girls all sticking great concepts. Housebound was a hilarious and frightening horror-comedy, whilst it was also a better than average year for straight comedy with the female fronted Trainwreck and Spy leading the way. The best James Bond film of the year was definitely Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. We were also treated to an excellent debut thriller from Joel Edgerton with The Gift and a crackling quiet gangster film with J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. In a year where their major film was distinctly average, Ant-Man showed Marvel can still do stand-alone storytelling and it was their best film for a while. In terms of more arthouse fare, I saw some great films at festivals this year including Guy Maddin’s Forbidden Room, Hsaio-hsien Hou’s The Assassin and the more mainstream Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was rather maligned. Why Don’t You Play in Hell was released widely this year, whilst we were treated to the latest Terrence Malick Knight of Cups, which whilst I loved at the time it has perhaps not stayed with me as much as his other films. Three last honourable mentions (wow, a lot of great films this year): the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour and the dramas Ricki and the Flash & Love is Strange.
10. In Order of Disappearance
This year’s John Wick (2014). Only no one is talking about. Instead of Keanu Reeves, we have a Stellan Skarsgard everyman utterly slaying dudes left right and centre to establish what happened to his son. Fantastic structure of Skarsgard moving his way up the chain, from minion to minion. Stark, stripped back and violent action filmmaking.
9. High concept scares
You could probably fit three or four of my honourable mentions under this trend as well. These films are both small horror films, but that stick totally to their high concept. The result were the two scariest, and best, horror films of the year. In terms of horror this year, it was really the indie/smaller style stuff that impressed rather than any bigger studio efforts.
I had zero expectation for Unfriended. The marketing made it look like any other teen horror film. But the concept of the film is that it all takes place on a group skype call. The filmmakers totally stick to the conceit too, making the visual of the computer screen work and innovatively using it to set the pacing of the film. The approach feels fresh and it’s helped by performances that are much better than we’ve been taught to expect. There’s (refreshingly) no real commentary attempted regarding the use of social media. It is just adopted as a fresh way to tell a horror story.
There are not too many horror documentaries out there I could name, so that in itself makes The Nightmare unique. This focuses on sleep-paralysis and much of the terror comes from the inescapable thought in your head that there are really people out there dealing with this affliction. Oh and the monumentally pants-wetting imagery Room 237 (2012) director Rodney Ascher delivers through the re-enactments. Re-enactments are so often awful, but these are stylised without ever betraying the truth of what the film is talking about, or the experiences of the sufferers. Chilling. The scariest film of the year.
Sitting down to write this list, I was struck by how much Wild has stayed with me. It takes that rather tired notion of the ‘journey’ and actually makes it feel meaningful. Stunningly shot and so well acted. Not just Reese Witherspoon in the lead, but also many others including an excellent Laura Dern. The last five minutes are perhaps still the most transcendent and encompassing of the beautiful potential of cinema that I saw in 2015.
It is weird to see a film as original as this get utterly mauled critically by folks who spend the rest of their time lamenting cookie-cutter blockbusters. Jupiter Ascending was another film that fell victim to that this year, just not quite as good a film. I suspect a lot of people have issues with the casting of Die Antwoord, but I found them so genuine and was not distracted at all by their performances. The plot allows some really good humour and action sequences, whilst there is heaps to dig into on thematic and symbolic levels.
6. Centre for interesting, challenging Aussie films who can’t trailer good but do everything else good.
Last Cab to Darwin
The trailers for both these films were so bad that were it not for the guidance of Chris Elena on twitter (a must follow if you don’t already), then I wouldn’t have bothered. What do I know I guess, because by appealing to the demographic the trailers did (little old ladies basically), these films have raked in a really good amount of Australian box office money.
Of the two, Last Cab to Darwin maintains a level of the convention suggested by the trailer. But from this structure that has been many times before, director Jeremy Sims hangs a lot of interesting ideas. In particular the relationships (both romantic and platonic) and the interaction of the film with indigenous issues are much bolder, than would have been expected. Australian identity is very, very problematic and the film addresses that in an interesting way, whilst the sorta-romantic pairing of the central couple is wrenching and uplifting at the same time. Helped along by four excellent central performances and a great Ed Kuepper score.
The Dressmaker though is perhaps the most unconventional film on this list. It starts with Kate Winslet being introduced like Clint Eastwood in a western and continues getting stranger. This feels like an eccentric summation and extension of all Australian film history that has come before. A dramedy evolving into a tragicomedy. The performances throughout are artful and passionate, both from those you would expect such as Winslet and Hugo Weaving, and those you would not such as Liam Hemsworth who has never been better. Cerebral, bold and crushing storyelling.
A film about masculinity populated almost entirely by dudes sounds nightmarish to me. But this is a really artistic and challenging effort, focused on examining, analysing and undermining traditional notions of poisonous masculinity and privilege. In the hands of a worse director than Bennet Miller, this could have gone wrong in a number of different ways. But he makes the film just visually interesting enough and guides the flow of the storytelling. The performances are all excellent, it being very difficult to choose who is better out of Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo or Channing Tatum.
4. Hello old friend
Mad Max Fury Road
2015 was unfortunately the year the term ‘legacyquel’ was coined. As much as I despise it, there is no denying the phrase, and the films, are here to say. These two films show that’s not always a bad thing though and provide a roadmap for studios in how to make these kinds of films artistically satisfying.
Mad Max Fury Road has received universal praise from rapturous critics (though my parents didn’t like it… contrarians). This was perhaps an easy series to return to, because the earlier films are loosely connected in any case. The film itself is a pure jolt of cinematic energy, combining age-old storytelling and chase mechanics with new technologies and a generous serving of George Miller’s visionary genius. A film that is essentially an out and back chase is a tough sell, but it is impossible not to buy into the off-kilter genius that is bombarding you from every direction, including the excellent soundtrack. Not to mention its delightful feminist leanings.
The last time Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan teamed up, the result was Fruitvale Station (2013), my favourite film of that year. As far as I know, Creed is essentially Coogler’s baby. He came up with the idea, pitched it to Stallone, who was humble enough to let him run with it. This film references the earlier Rocky films and clearly inhabits the same world, but is also something totally, authentically, different. Stallone gives the best performance of the year managing to keep up with Jordan, as well as Tessa Thompson. Works wonderfully as both an emotionally resonant drama and a sports film.
3. Brave new blockbuster worlds
The Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II
2015 was a year where the big studios pegged a lot of their hopes on the laziest blockbusters imaginable, cowering in the form’s formulaic embrace. Jurassic World, Star Wars the Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron were all films I liked, but were also films that played it totally safe particularly in terms of storytelling. To balance that though were a raft of big movies that took mainstream audiences in bold new directions. These two films are not just here because of their female leads (though there is no denying that is a trend that will hopefully continue to boom), but because of the storytelling approach and the ideas within.
It’s only when you stop and think about the target audience of The Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II that the true importance of the franchise is revealed. This franchise will be formative for a generation I think and it has exposed those people to really incendiary ideas about war and authority. War is brutal and it is terror, and this film depicts that truthfully and unflinchingly. You can quibble with parts of this film, but the third act is stellar and taken with the third film of the series makes for a war film as good as any in a long time. There is also a bunch of thrilling action sequences and storytelling twists that feel well earned.
As for Inside Out, I’m not really sure how the target audience would have taken to the film. But I took to it a lot. It is such an overwhelmingly creative ride and one of Pixar’s top few films ever. It is such a storytelling feat to balance the aspects of the story taking place inside Riley’s head with those occurring externally, but it is totally seamless. The way in which complex psychological concepts are presented are so exceptionally beautiful. And the lessons that are seeping from the screen into the impressionable audience, such as the relationship between sadness and joy, are really important ones. I can’t wait to watch this over and over again, to pick up on details that passed me by and just enjoy being in this world.
The biopic is such a tired genre, which makes Ave DuVernay’s film all the more impressive. It’s an exploration of wide-ranging ideas around the nature and techniques of oppression and how to combat it, told through a tight timeframe. It’s a great script, especially considering much of Luther King’s words are copyrighted (which seems absurd to me) delivered by an excellent cast including David Oyelowo who inhabits King Jr perfectly. It never feels like we are watching a performance or mimicry. The film repurposes the tools of action and horror cinema to deliver an incendiary, prescient reflection on the civil rights struggle.
Nobody is making films right now as revelatory as Joshua Oppenheimer, both in terms of style and especially subject matter. He is dealing with issues heavier than we can imagine and still making them watchable. But only just, this is a brutal film that will challenge you to finish. The film functions as a quite incredible companion to The Act of Killing (2012). It takes on the same events, from the opposite viewpoint and with a different stylistic approach. In my initial review, I referred to the film as “muscular”, and it feels like that in a way no other film does. A film that is experienced on an almost physical level. It’s worth it though, because the within the specific horror that is being discussed, are all manner of universal lessons to consider both in day to day life, and on a societal scale. In terms of storytelling chops, no contemporary documentarian can touch Joshua Oppenheimer.
Right around the time Wes Craven sadly passed away last year, the comic Coming of Rage #1 appeared bearing his name, and that of Steve Niles. Whilst the timing may have led to thoughts of a cash-in, obviously work on the comic had begun far before his death. Keen to immerse myself in as much Craven as possible, I grabbed a copy of the first issue to see what it was like. Here are some quick thoughts:
Things I liked:
- It’s a Wes Craven comic. You can definitely feel Craven’s influence here. At times you can see the spirit of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), though to be frank, it is more often the spirit of lesser Craven, particularly Cursed (2005). Even though that film is certainly toward the bottom of his oeuvre, I think it still has a good teen horror vibe that hopefully this series can cultivate over time. Also, and I don’t mean this disparagingly, the best bit in this whole issue is the afterword Craven right at the end. In it, Craven tells where the idea for the series came from and how he sees it unfolding. Not all of that is on the pages of this first issue, but to hear the great man lay out his vision, that’s a major attraction. It ends with the crushing coda that he thinks Coming of Rage would make a good TV series (I can certainly see that) and that he would love to make it. Man, a Wes Craven horror TV show would have been utterly badarse.
- The cover – I had this lying around for a few weeks before I had a read. For the first little bit, I thought the cover was pretty rubbish. But it really grew on me. The contrast of a normal face with a monstrous middle (and tips of fingers) and the way that middle section is a piece of paper torn away. It’s a cool bit of pretty classical horror imagery.
Things I didn’t:
- The story – I’ll acknowledge that first issues are hard to do in comics. By design, they essentially have to be solely set-up with very little actual story. The issue here is that neither of those aspects really resonate or show you anything decidedly different. There is some ok mythology, but you’ve probably seen everything here multiple times before. Neither does the ending really leave you hanging as much as it should. I’m certainly not freaking out, desperate to get my hands on #2 cause I can’t bear the tension of not knowing what happens.
- The art is a mixed back, but below average overall. Some of the landscapes and interiors are pretty good. But what dominates are the pretty average character designs. They are uniformly bland, but on a lot of occasions they descend into bad. Most dissapointing of all are the tepid monster designs that just really don’t pop off the page at all.
Verdict: I guess the main question when summarising thoughts on a comic is if I’ll keep reading. The answer is yes… just. I’m attracted more by the fact it is a limited series (6 issues I believe) and thanks to Craven’s words at the end, rather than being totally blown away by the book itself. To be blunt, if Craven’s name wasn’t on it, I would not have been continuing. It’s obviously not totally awful, but hopefully the complexity of the story continues to increase. Stubby of Reschs
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: Comics Review: Quick comic review: Marvel Star Wars #1 and Comic Review: Captain America the first Avenger film tie-in.
Hey look at this. I’m sorta almost back up to date. December was a pretty big viewing month, as it always is for me. And there was some great stuff, with a couple of the best films of the past few years here. As well as some rubbish.
- Turbo Kid (2015), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell – Takes place in an apocalyptic ‘future’ 1997. Lovingly crafted fun with one of the very best soundtracks of 2015. Like the 80s aesthetic, and it only on very rare instances grates or lets quaintness overwhelm the story. The minor script issues may keep you from 100% engaging with it. But the performances are swell, lead Munro Chambers is good whilst Laurence Lebouef and Aaron Jeffery are even better, having great presences for this environment. Lebouef is the real find, her performance is silly and over the top, but it never annoys. The action is kinda great too. They get the grindhouse splatter down pat as the film goes on.
- Selma (2014), Ava DuVernay – A film of jaw-dropping power through style. Shows terror wrought with bombs and terror wrought with administrative oppression. DuVernay is such a smart director and coupled with an out of this world performance from David Oyelowo, brings us one of the best films of recent times The script is evocative and authentic, ringing so true. In addition to Oyelowo, the performances across the board from Common, Oprah and Dylan Baker among others are all very good. Uses historical biopic conventions and does something revelatory with them. Also contains a couple of set pieces as engaging and full of stakes as any action film. Terrifying, strident, inflammatory and prescient.
- Shaun the Sheep (2015), Mark Burton & Richard Starzak – So damn cute right from the start, full of minutiae and visual jokes filling up the screen. Made me laugh a lot with its cleverness. The minutiae of daily life is skewered. It’s never really anything but lightweight visual jokiness. But that is done very well. Struggles to maintain momentum for the full length though. Tough to tell a story this long with zero dialogue. Impossible to not be appreciative of just how damn good it looks though. Guaranteed to induce smiles.
- Return of the Jedi (1983), Richard Marquand – Almost feels like fantasy as much as sci-fi. Might be all the puppets. A little heavy on the exposition, but this is a big improvement on the second film. However Lucas’ flaws are starting to come to the fore. Jabba’s lair a weird combo of very kiddie and very adult imagery that doesn’t really work. He is good at story beats but not so much character moments, relationships and dialogue. Plus the Ewoks suck majorly. Thankfully though there are enough big monster battlin moments and atmosphere that the flaws in this one are bearable. Perhaps the best score of the series too.
- Love is Strange (2014), Ira Sachs – A unique love story. A newly married older gay couple are forced to live apart when one is fired. Chronicles that separation, how much of them is tied up in the other after living together for 20 years. A relationship examined through the longing they have for one another when wrenched apart. Can’t remember such an effective love story where the couple were apart for so much of the film. John Lithgow and Alfred both give really excellent performances too. A really nice, effective film.
- Best of Enemies (2015), Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville – a fiercely uncinematic documentary focusing on the TV debates between Gore Vidal and conservative caricature William F. Buckley. A coming together of two monumental egos. Vidal the arch-intellectual egomaniac liberal other to Buckley’s privileged stoicism. There is some serious malice between the two of them. It’s distracting enough, but I would have liked more of the actual debates themselves. Does a good job in the sidelines of establishing Vidal’s role in bringing the ‘normality’ of homosexuality to mainstream American discourse. The ideological strains set up here persist to this day as do the tactics of TV ‘news’ services.
- Creed (2015), Ryan Coogler – Coogler and Jordan once again combine for phenomenal effect. Surprisingly emotionally resonant, powerfully so actually. There is a deep vein of authenticity running through the film thanks to Coogler’s excellent script. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Sly Stallone could hold his own with the incredible Michael B. Jordan. I don’t think that Stallone has ever been this good. Tessa Thompson in the lead female role is also quite brilliant. It’s a great way to sorta revitalise a franchise and good on Stallone for being so humbly on-board. It’s reverential to the films that precede it, but happy to depart radically. The boxing sequences are beautifully shot, artistic but you can always see what’s going on. The cinematography throughout is really wonderful
- The Guest (2014), Adam Wingard – An extended ode to John Carpenter by way of vintage James Cameron. Simultaneously authentic and stylised though as it heads in a stranger direction in the second half, it becomes a little too self aware. Maika Monroe is a star whilst Dan Stevens in the lead is charismatic. The soundtrack is good, but I would have liked it to intrude more, which is a rare thing for me to say. It’s a complex thing they are going for and it works for the most part. For me it got a touch silly toward the end and the character motivations were a little unclear. But this is a really unique slow burn melding of tones, styles and genres.
- The Final Girls (2015), Todd Strauss-Schulson – Brilliantly sets up its pastiche approach. It’s a funny script, really switched on and quite inspired. I literally fistpumped with how awesome this film is on two separate occasions. I usually hate the Groundhog Day style structure but this does it in an interesting and fantastical way. It slows down a bit after a powerhouse start. But some sci-fi elements and the fact it is just really well performed get you through. As do the genuine laughs. It’s a meta-slasher that focuses on being loads of fun rather than insightful. Which is fine by me.
- The Flash Season 1 (2014), Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg – Fits beautifully into this CW comic book TV universe. A traditional style superhero origin story. Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen working out how the hell to use his new powers. They do a really good job in conveying Barry’s speed. Much more effects heavy than most shows, but thankfully the effects are also a lot better than most shows. Recalls, but also has a separate identity to Arrow, the two shows crossover really nicely. The key relationship here between Joe and his adopted son Barry is really sweetly drawn. It’s cheesy, and dispenses with deep mythology so some moments don’t carry the weight they could. Very much heightened comic book storytelling with time travel, multiple Flashes and more. If a comic show with a giant psychic gorilla is your thing, you’ve come to the right place.
- Arrow Season 3 (2014), Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim – Oliver Queen has grown into a super interesting character. The flashbacks have fleshed out his character well. The show is by this point basically a team show and the audience is emotionally invested in the whole lot of them. This season perhaps struggles without the long arc of the one prior. But in terms of storytelling, this has evolved from pulp into something more high quality in terms of dramatic storytelling. I also love how basically every woman ends up turning into a total action packed badass. There are a couple of great antagonistic presences, including Aussie Matt Nable doing a pretty good Ra’s Al Ghul. Can’t believe how there are now so many, really satisfying and complex relationships in this show, both romantic and otherwise.
Not Worth Watching
- Tusk (2014), Kevin Smith – Kind of an in-joke for listeners of Smith’s podcast (which I’m not one of). I actually liked a reasonable amount of this. Some of Smith’s comedic writing early on is genuinely funny. There is also a nice focus on, and engagement with, the theory and practice of storytelling. But that fades over the second half. Justin Long is a good comedic performer whilst Michael Parks is chilling as a brutally sadistic villain. But the film turns when Johnny Depp turns up in an extended, unwatchable, cameo. His stupid performance totally ruins the tone, importing a silliness that belongs to a different film. Sucks all the atmosphere right out of it.
- Ruben Guthrie (2015), Brendan Cowell – Opened the Sydney Film Fest this year, which is frankly a mind-boggling choice. And given this film is laden with Lexus product placement, a company that is a major sponsor of that festival, it’s a pretty questionable one too. From the first, the critique of Aussie drinking culture (which needs critiquing) is blah, with a sneering bent to it. The film is unfunny too. It’s better to make an issues film about characters who resonate with us. The more interesting, but totally ignored, aspect of this film is the effect of a substance (or lack of it) on a creative. They don’t touch on this in any interesting way though. A lumbering script, it looks ugly and there’s a mean-spirited way that the film treats it’s characters and their foibles, especially disparaging to the main female characters. Cowell has something much better in him than this.
- Paper Towns (2015), Jake Schreier – This film features two very interestingly constructed and performed main characters. And basically nothing else of note. Doesn’t bother trying to hide it’s teen film conventions. But there is some kinda bold plotting when we are just hanging with the leads. Carla Delevingne and Nat Wolff bring to life two characters that feel fresh, though the film unnecessarily is from the perspective of the male character. She does not have a typical teen star vibe or gravitas, bringing a unique presence lacking elsewhere. The film crawls along with totally contrived and not particularly creative adventure film construction. Plus the supporting characters are badly written and averagely acted which brings the leads down.
- Aloha (2015), Cameron Crowe – Probably the worst script of 2015. Attempts to be generate depth through the Hawaiian setting and mainly fails. It’s a great cast, but most of them are bad. Emma Stone is miscast to the point of offensiveness. Not to mention her performance is distractingly manic, recalling a bad Jim Carrey impersonator. Bradley Cooper proves himself totally unable to elevate awful material. Actually that’s a universal criticism with the notable exception of Rachel McAdams who convinces, despite a horribly written character. It’s a really awkward film. Motivations jump all over the place, to the point where it seems like on a few occasions they forgot to shoot pages of the script. A monument of awfulness.
- Tomorrowland (2015), Brad Bird – Has a very classical Disney feel and look to it. So much so it often feels like an average midday movie. The design elements, a mix of handmade and computer generated stylings, impress early. But it’s pretty slow going with a labouriously unnecessary flashback. Even the world building quickly becomes beset by huge gaps in logic. Not really sure about the philosophical stance it is taking either. Clooney is wasted, but Britt Robertson has a lot of charisma. She is hamstrung by the horrid material. Hugh Laurie cops it worst on that front though, forced to deliver a horrid, jarring soliloquy. It just doesn’t have any weight to it. Middling.
- Big Eyes (2014), Tim Burton – With no Johnny Depp on offer, Burton turns to Christoph Waltz for a distractingly shit performance, and boy does he deliver. There is some fun filmmaking in parts, playing with the colour palette and Amy Adams is wonderful. It’s just really clunky. Writing just does not feel sharp at all and Burton’s usual unsubtly it front and centre. Tis a shame, because it’s a wonderful true story and there are some interesting, if underexplored, notions of domestic control and its insidious nature. Interminable.
- The Good Dinosaur (2015), Peter Sohn – Really quite bad. Overly cutesy vibe immediately makes plain we are not watching top shelf Pixar. Animation style is innovative but the phenomenal and realistic backgrounds often jar with the cartoony characters in front. On both story and thematic levels, we’ve seen all of this before a million times, most notably in The Lion King (1994). The score, ranging from bland to distractingly schmaltzy, characterises the difference between this and Pixar’s other, exceptional, 2015 effort. A concerning low point for Pixar, with their template journey storyline feeling much more unoriginal this time out.
If you only have time to watch one Selma
Avoid at all costs Aloha
Over the past few years, New Zealand has been churning out some really original genre films that have gained a major following on the festival and genre scenes. Think Turbo Kid (2015) and Housebound (2014) among others. One of the most recent and beloved examples is Deathgasm (2015), yet another film that comes from super-producer Ant Timpson, who had a hand in the two aforementioned films as well as producing both ABCs of Death anthology films.
Put simply Deathgasm is a heavy metal infused demon horror romp filtered through Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films. Though following the release of said demon, the action more or less follows a zombie film template. It’s a fast paced film, with the story racing along. Though story is not where the film’s focus is. Most of the attention is on the schlocky, intentionally cheap looking violence and the effects. Trust me, this is a super violent and super gross horror flick. Interestingly the best comedy bits, and indeed the best moments of the film in general, accompany this violence. There are silly moments of humour laced within the violence to help mediate its impact. It would all be a little full on really if the weapons themselves and the reactions of the characters involved were not so damn funny. In addition to the violence, the practical effects also focus heavily on foaming mouths and projectile vomits. These start off cute and funny before escalating to epically gross torrent levels.
The film does have its issues. There feels like there is a lot of imagery and fan service for metalheads in the film. Which is rad. But it doesn’t do a whole lot for me because it was never my scene. Also, despite being quite pithy and funny, the script is not quite strong enough to pull off the straight comedy bits. This is not helped by the actors not feeling like natural comedy performers in these scenes. Having said that though, the acting is really good overall. Lead Milo Cawthorne is immediately engaging and makes you care deeply about his character. Kimberly Crossman shifts from the most desirable girl in school to an axe-wielding wise-cracking badass as easy as you like. And James Blake broods well as the very funny bad boy. Here’s hoping all three of them continue to pop up in films like this. Even a sequel would be fine and dandy with me.
Verdict: This is a must see for any horror fan who doesn’t always want to take themselves too seriously. I suspect that for real metal fans it will huge amounts of fun. As it stands, it’s a very worthy addition to Timpson’s rather impressive run of getting excellent, unique horror stories out there. Stubby of Reschs
Reaching back into last year to reflect on my November viewing. Overall a really good month, catching up with some genre classics I had never seen and also some of my most anticipated cinema releases of 2015. Plus two excellent TV series.
- Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), Lorene Scafaria – A farce that embraces that genre, with people still working in an insurance office with 21 days til the apocalypse. Simple world building – comet, no mobile phones, no flights. Rules established early. Steve Carrell is a good fit for this as a homely fuck-up approaching the apocalypse. He is aided by plenty of cool little cameos including Adam Brody doing silly stapstick, Connie Britten and Gillian Jacobs. Keira Knightley and Carrell have a good rapport. Quite gentle storywise, even with the impending doom. A delightfully small film. You beg for it not to go in a love story direction, but then it’s totally delightful when it goes there. A quiet, ungimmicky film that is about as charming as a film about the apocalypse could be.
- Escape From New York (1981), John Carpenter – In an alternate 1988, Manhattan functions as a maximum security prison. Smoothly sets up the ultimate inescapable prison. Awesome, simple storytelling continues as Air Force One crashes on the island and badass Kurt Russell, about to be imprisoned, goes in to save the day. Russell’s Snake Plissken is rightfully hugely iconic – that voice, that hair, that singlet! Carpenter’s soundtrack is a thing of beauty as absolutely always. The world of the film is tense, tough and lawless. Carpenter and Russell form a close to perfect one-two punch in this. The former’s score and simple, clean shooting with the latter’s gravitas and presence.
- Black Sea (2014), Kevin MacDonald – This feels like a decidedly old fashioned heist gone wrong thing. Which I love. Stakes are naturally escalated because when things go wrong on a submarine, they go really friggin wrong. Throwback of getting the crew back together and going on a treasure hunt. It’s a good script which is able to generate a believable camaraderie amongst the men and articulate why in the world people are attracted to a lifestyle like this. Plenty of good performances from the excellent cast. Though Ben Mendelsohn’s character is a little silly whilst Scoot McNairy is underutilised. It’s a unique film that is able to maintain tension on both the human psychological and sub fronts.
- Arrow Season 2 (2013), Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim & Andrew Kreisberg – Starts in a really intriguing place following the events of season 1 and continues that by totally switching up the mindset of the main character. There is a very interesting pseudo-addition to his crew in the form of his former adversary, the newly demoted, Officer Lance. The action is really well done, with a weight to it rarely seen on TV. For the most part the storytelling is delirious fun, though the motivations in the overarching arc of the season do stretch belief a touch. The show gets very dark and more than a little gruesome. Classical comic themes like the nature of heroism and dealing with great loss are done really well, with the last few episodes being genuinely emotionally affecting.
- Wonder Woman (2013), Sam Balcomb – This short looks absolutely incredible. As in better than most blockbusters. It’s basically plotless, almost like a music video. I like the two settings, really well done. Action is a little weightless. But the idea and execution, for what this is aiming for, are exceptional. Take a look:
- Trainwreck (2015), Judd Apatow – I know plenty of Schumer fans were let down by this. But I found it definitely one of the funniest comedies of the year. No wonder it’s so damn long though. Falls into that Apatow hallmark of having 10 punchlines when 1 would suffice. The cast is great. There is something very warm and engaging about Schumer’s screen presence. Tilda Swinton is ace and of course Brie Larson is amazing. This film should be taught as the gold standard of how to do cameos. Both Lebron James and especially John Cena totally slay in this. They are hilarious and poke fun at their public persona. The film is hilarious, but the conventional rom-com stuff is definitely too long.
- Knight of Cups (2015), Terrence Malick – The early going can be awkward and Malick occasionally loses the fight with self-parody that is a constant battle for him. But the auteur doing a character study is a unique & singular cinematic experience. Starts with nothing, then slowly builds as each episode reveals a little more of Bale’s central figure through his interactions with others. Malick reveals a truth in beauty in a way totally unlike anyone else working.
- The Nightmare (2015), Rodney Ascher – A chilling hybrid documentary that truly does belong in the horror genre. Part of the genuine terror definitely flows from the fact this actually does happen to people. The stories related by the participants are terrifying. I had heard criticisms of the re-enactments, but they are great. Creatively constructed and convey the horror perfectly. So weird, not to mention creepy, how people worldwide experience the same sleep paralysis visions. Probably the most purely terrifying film of 2015.
- Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II (2015), Francis Lawrence – What a series! The script struggles through the first act and there’s a coda which is (understandably) tacked on. Franchise has created a great cast of characters which is perhaps unnecessarily expanded a little here. Despite the minor quibbles though, I really think these films will be talked about in 10 or 20 years time. The film is a brutal and truthful depiction of the terror of war with a masterful third act. A perfect ending to a series that has introduced scores of people to some really incendiary ideas. People who otherwise probably wouldn’t have been exposed to them. I feel like the last two films combined are one of the best war films of this generation.
- Robocop (1987), Paul Verhoeven – So 80s. Attacks rampant privatisation. Frighteningly prescient still. And also still eye poppingly violent. It’s plays sorta lo-fi in an endearing way. Clarence is a great villain. It’s very stylish, a mixture of 80s camp and brutality. It is this camp/brutal brew that really sets it apart. Also bonus points for a tank that is literally marked “toxic waste”.
- Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Wes Craven – Actually invokes Stoker’s novel and vampire mythology a reasonable amount. Eddie Murphy creates a great character from the start. Brings a manic energy to the storytelling in a not altogether bad way. Angela Bassett is a good foil and has a great screen presence. It’s more of a comedy than a genuine horror-comedy. Which is fine, because though it’s very light on plot, it’s quite funny. Feels the least Craven influenced of all his films.
- Masters of None (2015), Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang – I didn’t like this early on. Felt it was trying way too hard to be current and was populated by the same privileged douches we’d find in a Baumbach film. But then the show finds its identity. There is interesting comedy about the migrant experience and the episodes display really good, relatively standalone, storytelling. By mid-season, the characters, whilst not weighed down with depth, don’t feel like ciphers either. And the show has some really good messaging, around issues such as rape culture and racism. Ansari really stands out as a performer here too.
- Public Enemies (2009), Michael Mann – Overall it looks better than its reputation suggests. Though it’s shitty any time there’s fast movement. Immediately establishes a mythic quality to these men. An American myth. Soundtrack helps to really build that as do the performances. Depp is excellent. Caricature creeps in occasionally but mainly he nails it. Bale’s smouldering FBI agent presence balances that well. Cotillard is obviously exceptional but used too sparingly. Good ol cops and robbers story construction, though it’s too languid. It’s decent rather than revelatory. Story is a little anemic. Even though it’s way too bloody long, but parts still feel under-explained.
Not Worth Watching
- Cliffhanger (1993), Renny Harlin – Watching it now, this is a real shaggy dog of a movie. The story could have excelled on a simple, high concept action front. But it really just clunks along. Really violent but there is no style to the presentation of that violence. Nor does the violence provide any real narrative impetus. Some ok scenery, but again, probably not as good as it should be. Stallone is kinda crappy too. The decent moments of spectacle are separated by far too many flat sections.
- The Program (2015), Stephen Frears – First Alex Gibney, now Frears. Folks are really struggling to bring the inherently dramatic story of Lance Armstrong to the screen. This is pretty dire. A totally thin, expository experience. We never get to know the key players, aside from Armstrong a little. Chris O’Dowd’s dogged David Walsh should have felt a much larger presence. The fleeting occasions the Lance mythos are examined are far and away the best. But much too fleeting. Neither excites as a sports film or engages as a chronicle of Lance’s downfall.
If you only have time to watch one Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part II
Avoid at all costs The Program
Comic book adaptations have been the rage for some time now. However oftentimes examples such as the MCU (which I love), do not feel like something with a comic book heart. Rather they feel like homogenous action/adventure stories taking vague inspiration from characters that started out in the form. Recently I’ve been delving into the first seasons of a couple of TV shows which manage to tell highly authentic comic book style stories, in two very different ways.
The heroes at the centre of both Arrow and Daredevil are what I would call ‘street level’ comic book characters. They are not gods, do not dress in super suits and are not from another planet. They don’t even have the bank balance of Bruce Wayne. Both of them start out in lo-fi costumes, unsure of what the hell they are really trying to do. Despite those character similarities, these shows feel totally different. Arrow is schlocky, it screams classic comic book tales in its telling. Daredevil is all gritty procedural, think the period comic creators realised people would still buy in if they went all grounded and dark. Daredevil is telling a very specific story, wrapped up in the mythos of the place it is occurring. On the other hand Arrow takes place in Starling City, a fictional place that functions essentially as Anytown USA, though there is also a separate plotline told in flashback form that takes place on island in the middle of the Pacific. The real-life issues of the former see Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil fighting against gentrification and the evil of property developers. Oliver Queen’s is a more personal quest. He is attempting to right the wrongs that various individuals have wrought on his home-city, on an undertaking driven by a notepad his old man gave him before he died.
The overarching focus of Daredevil ison keeping everything grounded. The writing, whilst a little overscripted early on, wants this to feel dangerous and above all realistic. Even Daredevil’s pretty incredible sensory powers are presented in an artistic, reserved way, almost as if anything else would take the viewer out of the world of the show. The action is not like that you would see on a cinema screen. Can feel the blows and even better you can see everything that’s going on. Wish more film action was shot in a similar way, but I guess it is not showy enough. The whole show is harsh, tense, nerve shredding and oh-so violent. The action is reflective of the show’s thematic concern with the darkness and fallibility of individual humans. Perhaps the only letdown in how Daredevil is delivered is the writing on occasion. As mentioned above, it does feel overwritten at times and the dialogue is patchy, with Vincent D’Onofrio having to deliver the worst (and on occasions probably the best) of the lines as the villainous Wilson Fisk. However there is an extended sequence of a priest waxing lyrical on the nature of the devil that is the best written piece of TV I can recall seeing in ages. Arrow on the other hand brings the frivolity happily. There are people flying all over the place in their silly suits, using bow and arrows and even sillier weapons. Though there is a hell of a lot of death in this first season, Queen’s no holds barred approach coming off as quite conservative in a way. But that approach, and its ethical ramifications, evolves nicely over future seasons. Arrow brings that classical comic storytelling vibe. There are, often silly, self-contained episodes with a rollcall of villains and moustache twirling plans. But the entire story is also feeding into a larger arc that involves Oliver’s family and the most devious plan of them all. The flashbacks are really quite prominent in this first series. They serve an important function in developing the mythos of the Oliver character. But are perhaps not as interesting on a pure plot level.
Character wise, Arrow sets itself up as a cool mini-team show (a trend that majorly continues in seasons 2 and 3) David Ramsey’s John Diggle and Stephen Amell’s Oliver have a great patter from the start that evolves from fun one-upmanship to shared commitment to a cause. Amell may have limited range, but he is great at action and able to set up a lot of the character through his physical presence. The writing of the character makes him surprisingly layered and majorly flawed. You would expect the more serious show to take this approach, but Oliver stuffs up and carries on like a bit of a jackass a fair bit in this show, much more than Murdock does in Daredevil. There is also a good family dynamic with Thea, drawing out the emotional beats and delivering some of the weight of the fact that Oliver really was marooned on an island, presumed dead, for five years. It is not easy for someone to simply return from that and have everything and everyone around him be normal. But the real star character of the supports is Felicity Smoak. Initially intended as a one episode character, Emily Bett Rickards’ winning performance obviously convinced the creators that she needed to be kept on board. Felicity is an awesome character, essentially a very capable, funny and sassy Miss Moneypenny or Lois Lane, though with more agency than either of those comparisons suggest. The fact that such high-schlock bothers with such complex characters is a major reason the show does not flame out after the original camp-fun has dissipated. On the other hand Daredevil essentially only bothers with the lead. Sure Foggy is a funny offsider, though an overblown and too comedic one. And their employee Karen actually has a fair bit to do as well as a good performance from Deborah Ann Woll that draws a whole lot of character out of the writing. But we are never that invested in what happens to these people. Perhaps the only other character we care that much about is Rosario Dawson’s Claire who functions as a really good counterpoint to Murdock. But that character appears far too little for some reason, popping up in only a handful of episodes. Even Murdock is a little thin at least in the present day action. Though like Arrow, the show delivers pretty successful flashbacks to progressively flesh out the character’s origin story.
Verdict: Much has been made of an over-saturation of comic book properties and it is hard to disagree with that. But the first seasons of these two shows prove that there is scope to tell these stories in a way that is appealing to more hard-core comic book fans and broader audiences. These are the type of comics I like to read, smaller scale and for the most part contained. But they are still quite different. They both prowl the streets, but Daredevil takes an ultra-serious approach in the fight against gentrification whilst Arrow culminates in a desperate race against an earthquake machine levelling most of the city. The first will probably appeal more to those who are into this golden age of TV more broadly or general crime fans. Whilst the latter damn fun but also damn cheesy and geeky at times. If you’re like me, both of these are well worth your time (I’ve since plowed through seasons 2 & 3 of Arrow as well as The Flash season 1).
Arrow Season 1: Pint of Kilkenny
Daredevil Season 1: Pint of Kilkenny