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