At the start of this year, I made myself some goals in terms of viewing for 2016. Just some directors and areas of film that I would like to work my through, including one studio. That studio was the iconic Studio Ghibli and I thought I’d start off at the end with When Marnie Was There (2014).
This is a film centred on notions of teen anxiety. Although the film wanders out from there on different paths, it always returns to that to remind you that’s what the film is revolving around. The emotional stakes are intense, as the teenage main character Anna struggles with realistically presented mental issues such as anxiety and self-worth. These are presented in a way that will strike close to home if yourself or those around you have fought with those. As a result of her illness, Anna goes to stay with her aunt and uncle, which also allows the film to delightfully contrast urban attitudes and stresses with rural sensibilities. The latter are encompassed by the aunt and uncle who are gentle, tender and patient people beautifully helping to nurse Anna back to fuller health. In addition to the portrayal of mental health, the emotional intensity is also increased through the themes of betrayal and familial mystery that run through the core of the film.
Every time I start up a Studio Ghibli film, I am immediately struck by the animation. It is not just that it is ‘hand-drawn’ in this world of computer animation, but also how the studio uses that. In this film it is more subtle than in some of their others, with the time spent straddling the real world and a fantastical one weighted heavily towards the latter. But even with that level of restraint, the visuals still provoke plenty of emotion, through their simple beauty but also how in how they help to tell the narrative. There is a quiet beauty in the imagery, think more about how your eye is drawn to a scene of a watermelon being chopped rather than any wild Princess Mononoke (1997) fantastical creatures or sword fighting.
One point of interest for me was that I picked up some real queer overtones to the film. The relationship between Anna and Marnie unfolds like a romance, specifically a lesbian one. Both characters refer to the other as their “secret”. They take things slowly and as it progresses so does the length and tenderness of their physical contact. A late plot reveal means that any overtones do not fit in with the film more broadly, but I still found them to be quite stark. Perhaps this is Ghibli’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). A film with very clear queer themes, but many involved in the production were unaware of those overtones.
Verdict: When Marnie Was There is not one of Ghibli’s absolute best films, but it is certainly one of their most emotionally intense. The simple, central arc of Anna’s mental illness is very satisfying, and the film finishes with a crushing and emotional kicker. Stubby of Reschs
Always a busy time of year, January was a big month for me. Catching up with films I missed from last year, along with starting my 2016 on some selected directors. Some of the not worth watching films were really quite dire, but despite that this was a pretty good month. I really liked a lot of films I’d not seen before from big name directors and there was some fun genre stuff mixed in there too.
- Backcountry (2014), Adam Macdonald – This, somewhat conventionally plotted film, falls into the ‘why you should never under any circumstances go camping horror subgenre. The foreshadowing of the eventual bear attack is cleverly done and indeed there are a lot of good moments amongst the conventional story. The sound design is a really striking focus at the start of the film and cleverly creates tension too. Film is sharply shot as well, making good use of shot length and differing focus. There’s some great use of that same conceit as The Reef (2010) where real footage of animals is cut in to the narrative to make the tension a whole lot greater. If you’re into well-acted, intense creature horror, with a healthy lashing of leg-snappin, then you can do much worse than this.
- Advantageous (2015), Jennifer Phang – If stylish, female driven sci-fi sounds like your kind of jam (it should) then this is worth checking out. It’s a subtly done near-future where the worldbuilding is interesting in that not everything has changed. There are a couple of very good female lead performances and it is very much a female centric film. Thematically It focuses on the dynamic of a struggling family, how living pressures impact heaviest on females, aging, women in the workplace and the value of humanity in the face of exceptional technological developments. That sounds like a lot, and occasionally the film does feel a little overburdened with thematic concerns and the budget shows through at times too. But for the most part, the feminist and racial issues are weaved in well to a quite heartbreaking and oft chilling film.
- Somewhere (2010), Sofia Coppola – Films about aimless hollywood party brats finding themselves are not usually my deal. But then again they are not usually directed like this. Stephen Dorff gives a good performance as the aimless party dude spinning his wheels in a sea of booze, strippers and so on. His daughter comes into his life in a way that could be trite, but instead she helps him to recognise the sea of artifice in which he is drowning in a quite genuine feeling way. Coppola shoots this interestingly, people filling up large parts of the frame and action dropping out of it. This is a very quiet film, too quiet for some. Much of the early going is just Dorff alone with his loneliness. It is this quietness that helps the film avoid becoming cliché though. And Dorff and Elle Fanning strike a really substantial onscreen relationship. This is a really beautiful film to me.
- A Very Murray Christmas (2015), Sofia Coppola – I didn’t really have that much expectation for this, being only a moderate fan of Murray and no real fan of Christmas specials. But this is great. Songs are used to some nice storytelling effect and a little of Coppola’s visual style finds its way in too. It’s really bloody funny, with a mild mockumentary vibe early on. Everyone is great in it and having a lot of fun. I thought Miley Cyrus was excellent, even if I didn’t love the dreamscape conclusion. But majorly adored everything in the bar.
- Ricki and the Flash (2015), Jonathan Demme – Unfortunately ignored on initial release, perhaps due to having a monumentally awful trailer. This has a glut of interesting ideas including a central character in Streep’s failure of a mum, the likes of which we don’t really see on screen. Also a rumination on when a quest for greatness falls massively short. It’s well performed from all, Kline, Streep and all the supports. Very well written, a funny script that amusingly captures those disastrous family moments whilst also going some dark places. A quite emotive experience. Both the main character and the film are a willing shout of authenticity into the void of pretension.
- The Hateful Eight (2015), Quentin Tarantino – was lucky enough to catch this on 70mm and I loved the pomp of seeing it that way. The intermission, snow swept widescreens, the program, the intermission and an incredible Morricone score blasting. But for all that it’s only an ok film, and one that exhibits all of the issues of late career Tarantino. I preferred it to Django, but the tonal unevenness suggests he needs someone to reign in some of his ideas. The cartoony schlock of the violence takes you out of the film, as does the inexplicable voiceover that suddenly appears after two hours. He’s also not assured as a comedic writer. He puts really horrific stuff next to his brand of humour in a way that does not work. In my crowd people also laughed a lot at the violence toward women, a problematic response, but one that it felt like Tarantino was angling towards. That, and his teenage obsession with the ‘N-word’ mimic the tired and unincisive provocation for provocation’s sake of Ricky Gervais. But the performances are great, especially from Walton Goggins and Channing Tatum and it is fun to see the chamber mystery playing out buried beneath the Western iconography. Just wish Tarantinos ego, trying to create some notion of the auteur, didn’t continually get in the road.
- She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Spike Lee – Lee’s first film is also a relatively unconventionally constructed one. Characters talk straight to the camera and the scene is set through black and white still photos of Brooklyn. Struck me a little as a more self-aware, schooled in film iteration of a Cassavetes film. He has a great eye for shots – a profile close-up of two characters in profile experiencing sexual ecstasy. The acting is on occasions distractingly rough, but also very god at times, especially from Tracey Camilla Johns who nails the main character the film revolves around. Spike Lee is decent too actually and brings patter and comedy to the script with his performance. It focuses very much on sexual perceptions of women, and the construction of it all swirling around one woman draws this theme out well.
- Far From the Madding Crowd (2015), Thomas Vinterberg – This Thomas Hardy film is an adaptation like many that have come before, but it is a bloody beautiful and well acted one. The quality of the filmmaking, especially the classical and nuanced acting, mean what could feel like yet another bland adaptation instead manages to pop off the screen. Carey Mulligan totally inhabits and creates her character, mainly through the cheekiness. It’s a film almost solely concerned with love, which mean some choices in that regard are a little hard to reconcile in one subplot, especially how the main character had been established prior to that. The core relationship between Mulligan’s Bathsheba and Gabriel is really smartly and gently drawn though. And It features and ending that is wholly and totally satisfying. One the film totally earns.
- Everything or Nothing (2012), Stevan Riley – this making of doc focusing on the James Bond series is above average, but still probably just for fans. Great trivia nuggets abound – Christopher Lee was Ian Fleming’s distant cousin! It is more focused on the personalities behind the film than deconstructing the films’ production. But that’s not so bad as it does a good job of examining the flaws of Broccoli, Fleming and others. There are a bunch of great talking heads including the aforementioned Lee, the larrikin George Lazenby, Roger Moore who seems to have a great attitude toward the films and Ken Adams in particular.
- An Old Mistress (2007), Catherine Breillat – This is an interesting film, made all the more so by the sorta-theatrical manner in which it is performed. Part of that comes from the lush period trimmings. Asia Argento has a great presence to her onscreen, strangely both formal and laconic in a strange way. The script is very talky but still quite intelligent. The flashback structure does rob the narrative of an intensity it could have used. A portrait of passion that bothers to present both sides of that passion. Passion that cannot be escaped, no matter how much you want to. Also a surprisingly great portrait of grief.
- The Dressmaker (2015), Jocelyn Moorhouse – A stylish and eccentric extension of Australian film culture and a reinterpretation of ocker culture more broadly. Refreshingly driven by females in front of and behind the camera. It’s all wildly original and uniquely, overtly Australian too. Kate Winslet is as good as she’s ever been here, delivering an artful and passionate performance and handling an array of tones supremely well. The writing and performance of Hugo Weaving’s character turns something that should have been a caricature into something with both poignancy and humour. Which is a cipher for the whole film really. A film that is crushing, devastating and cerebral. Winslet’s Clint Eastwood-esque intro is probably my favourite 2015 film moment.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), Alison Klayman – What an incredible person. The film gives great insight into his process initially. Then shifts to focus more on his social activism. A lot of pretty confronting stuff here about the horrific 2008 Sichuan earthquake and Weiwei’s attempts to expose the government’s cover-up attempts. Also a terrifying insight into contemporary Chinese surveillance and oppression. Illuminates the man as well, his family history and relationships. Shows his bravery and passionate streak. But also his imperfections and at times uncaring nature. The film looks brilliant too, an appropriately artistic approach. As great as all the examination of his social causes is, I would have liked to see more focus on his art throughout the film.
Not Worth Watching
- Dumb and Dumber To (2014), The Farrelly Brothers – A strange film. The timing is off in that the original was so beloved, but even that had faded by the time this was made, and it bombed massively. A suspicion that this style of comedy and delivery doesn’t work these days is supported by the final product. There are a couple of moderately inspired moments – the explanation for the long delay in making a sequel for example – and Daniels and Carrey are talented enough to draw the odd laugh out of you. But most of the jokes are eye rolling levels of shithouse. Along with a massive helping of real crassness, particularly directed at the female characters. Close to unwatchable, and distasteful.
- The Voices (2014), Marjan Satrapi – The basic pitch – man hears the voices of his pets when off his meds – sounds original and ripe for horror goodness. The execution though, despite the occasional piece of inspired design work and some excellent female performances from Weaver, Arteton and Kendrick; leaves much to be desired. A lot of that is due to the writing, which has a wildly inconsistent main character seeping into a wildly inconsistent story in general. It’s quite disturbing, with a take on mental illness that is interesting in theory but quite distasteful in practice.
- Christine (1983), John Carpenter – Carpenter adapting Stephen King turns out out be kinda goofy, especially the teen film elements. It’s set up in car-making 1957 Detroit with “Bad to the Bone” on the soundtrack. Anything with the car is good fun, indeed it works a lt better than any murderous car plot really deserves to. That’s thanks to Carpenter’s craft which always shines through. The film looks great too, the car repairing itself scene is especially arresting. In the end though, it’s a little too much goofy teen flick, not enough killer car.
- The Ridiculous Six (2015), Frank Coraci – There was a fair bit of intrigue when Sandler signed a multi-picture deal with Netflix. Well any thought that deal would be used for good has been felled in one decidedly unfunny, not to mention racist, swoop. Even in the moments it is not being offensive, the film is utterly and awkwardly unfunny. It is seriously denigrating to Native Americans in a way that makes you wonder why Netflix signed off on this. Boring and even more lacking in intellect than the standard modern day comedy. None of the exceptionally talented cast come out of this well. Rob Schneider clunks as a half Mexican and Taylor Lautner would be the most embarrassing thing about one of the most embarrassing films ever made if it were not for the presence of Vanilla Ice as a slang slinging Mark Twain. Just awful.
- The Revenant (2015), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – Yeah sure it looks like it was a tough shoot. That’s not what makes a good film though is it? And constant, unrelenting brutalism does not give a story thematic depth in and of itself. Nor does said brutalism inherently make any statement on what it means to be human. At times, it veers almost into the comic – the Hoth moment for example. Visually it’s a mixed bag. The widescreen landscapes are undeniably arresting while the canted close-ups feel unique but overused. But it often felt like it had an over-digitised sheen to me. Nowhere near worth the huge swathes of time it takes.
- Looking for Grace (2015), Sue Brooks – A strange film. Overwhelmingly quaint, until it veers sharply into heavier territory in a way the script hadn’t earned at all. Totally unnecessary fractured narrative structure too. There are some good performances, but the film also manages to over-direct a number of really talented performers like Radha Mitchell and Richard Roxborough into rough, tonally ill-suited performances. One of the main issue is that any potential for stakes is removed immediately, leaving the rest of the film listless. An unsatisfying hodgepodge of comedy and drama.
- Self/Less (2015), Tarsem Singh – I’ve always been a fan of Tarsem’s films, but that’s been based on his phenomenal visual inventiveness. This very basic and overfamiliar sci-fi story features none of that, making it a slog. Minimal effort is taken to set up the logic of this body-swapping search for immortality enterprise. The filmmaking is lazy too, relying on montages too much and showing nothing out of the ordinary. Script is bad as well, especially the human motivations and interactions, which are at times comically off the mark.
If you only have time to watch one The Dressmaker
Avoid at all costs Dumb and Dumber To
Like everyone, Star Wars has been on my mind of late. So when I saw the original trilogy pretty cheap on VHS a while back I snapped them up, for a more faithful(ish) experience compared to the far too tinkered with blu-rays that are out there. These were never formative films for me in the way that they were for so many others, or the way the James Bond films or Jurassic Park (1993) were for me. I saw them as a kid, recalled liking them, but that was the extent of it.
For me, Star Wars (1977) is miles away the best film in this franchise. It delivers a lean narrative, heavily influenced by classical adventure story tropes, with a sense of fun. It goes character intros (without labouring unnecessary mythology), a big action beat, regroup, bigger action beat. It really is as simple as that. But within that structure Lucas delivers a film that would spawn a legacy probably unmatched in some ways in film history. That the storytelling feels so informed by classical tales is not altogether a bad thing. Lucas is repackaging beats that have been go-tos for centuries, but making them feel at least a little inspired. It helps that with all the classical inspiration, the film is also happy to do a few unconventional things. For example, Darth Vader is revealed in no time flat. Most films would hold that back for an age, whereas this one sends him out front and centre within five minutes. The world-building of the film is an interesting aspect. We are exposed to different worlds early on and that is effective. But it’s based totally on design and physical details (or often a single physical detail) rather than any level of in-depth world-building.
Carrie Fisher gives the pick of the performances and gets reasonable screen time to go along with that, unlike Star Wars The Force Awakens (2015). Her badarse heroine s is perhaps the most original feeling character too. As good as the characters of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are, they are very much archetypes. Lucas’ propensity for kiddie characters is apparent from the get-go too, though not overbearingly so. It’s one of the paradoxes of the Star Wars phenomenon I guess that those characters are pretty interminable in the movies, but also played a large part in driving the phenomenon that the series would become. This one is more of an ensemble piece than I recall, with Obi-Wan and the droids playing large parts, along with the three central figures. Given our current CGI saturation, the effects in Star Wars jar initially. But that fades quite quickly as the artistry, particularly in the model work, becomes apparent. That level of design artistry is so important, because let’s face it some of the character design could have gone so wrong. Designs like those of C3PO or Vader, could have looked totally silly if they were not executed so very well.
Of all the achievements of this film (and I think the original trilogy more broadly), it is John Williams’ score that may be the pinnacle. By now truly iconic, in the world of the film it is so lush and heightening. It’s not just that the score is so damn good, it’s that Lucas uses it so well. The introduction of the character of Luke, such an important moment for the entire franchise, is basically made by the soundtrack. The sound design is similarly exceptional, the whooshes of the dogfights obviously, as well as smaller flourishes like Vader’s laboured breathing. The editing though has the bemusing quality of a film student looking to impress. It is distracting and recalls Homer Simpson’s obsession with star wipes so much that I was almost a little bummed we didn’t see one here.
Verdict: Star Wars is a film of simple charms –clear adventure storytelling, a worthwhile set of sci-fi worlds, decent characters and great space-set dogfights. Here, George Lucas delivers those charms in a way that he, or anyone else, has never been able to replicate since. Pint of Kilkenny