You know I always claim that there are no bad years in film. But I’m beginning to think 2016 may be the year that changes all of that. Again in April there were a couple of critically lauded new releases that I just did not think much of. It was a mixed month overall actually, with nothing reaching great heights, though I did discover some lesser known gems from favourite directors.
- Swamp Thing (1982), Wes Craven – From the outset, feels like a southern bayou set 60s B-movie. Everything contributes to that end – swish pan heavy editing, grouse practical effects, action that looks like it’s from The Power Rangers, schlocky dialogue, POV shots. I love the style of it all, the shooting approach is really varied. Enjoyment of the film does require an acceptance that it’s being deliberately schlocky. And also that this is not Craven’s usual horror fare, but rather a comedy-fantasy hybrid. It’s a totally strange film. A former Bond villain appears, essentially playing a Bond villain. It veers into a pretty philosophical closing section. A fever dream of a film.
- Secret Agent (1936), Alfred Hitchcock– ever wanted to know what a low-budget, Hitchcock James Bond film would look like? This provides the answer. High espionage, faked deaths and all. All those espionage moments are the highlights too as the character beats are not the best. But as with all Hitch films, there are some great stylistic flourishes. Close-ups of mouths, talking into ears, bold & aggressive sound design I like this a lot and it grows on you. Peter Lorre’s performance gains more subtly as the film progresses. Classic Hitchcock themes prevail as well.
- Please Give (2010), Nicole Holofcener – Mr Noah Baumbach seems to have made the privileged ‘New Yorker whining’ subgenre rather popular. This is probably my favourite of those kind of films, which I generally have derision for. It is helped by an excellent cast. Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet reminds you she should be in more, Catherine Keener is excellent in a tough role whilst Oliver Platt is just so damn talented. There is some tiresome dialogue, but it is balanced by other parts which are really sharp. Characters start out as caricatures and I guess they kind of are. But they develop to an extent and the film says some interesting enough things with them. It’s not the most exciting film, more observational than narrative driven. But the cast makes it worth your while.
- A Thousand Acres (1997), Jocelyn Moorhouse – There are some very old fashioned feeling elements – Midwest farming imagery, awful voiceover, motivations so patriarchal they struggle to be believable. But under that surface there is some interesting stuff bubbling away. The film gets a lot darker than I was expecting. The intrigue of the relationships develops nicely which is the main area that the Shakespearean source material comes through, along with the melodramatic moments. So too in scenes where the action and atmosphere is really ramped up – an extended storm sequence especially. Jessica Lange is exceptional as a survivor of sexual abuse, her crushing recollections will make your skin crawl. Pfeiffer is great too. A real shaggy dog of a film.
- In A World (2013), Lake Bell – Takes place in a very niche world – film trailer voiceover work, which gives the background to the occurrences a unique feeling. Great cast. Nick Offerman, Demetri Martin and Bell are all great while Rob Cordry dials his usual schtick down in an interesting, successful way. It’s fun and smart, and Lake Bell is clearly a very talented writer and director, in particular the former. There are some really powerfully written moments, especially in the subplot focusing on the marriage between Cordry and Michaela Watkins. Balances dialogue and narrative well. Also shows that Bell is equally adept at writing genuine laugh out loud comedy and meaningful drama. It’s a really nice film and the later plot developments make it one of the better rom-coms I’ve seen in a while.
- Scrotal Recall (2014), Tom Edge – Has a lo-fi feel to it. Hops straight into the framework of the series, which involves a bloke diagnosed with a STD tracking down former flames to inform them. It also, really satisfyingly, weaves in a broader story. This is a fun, really well written show. I found the male lead a little lacking in charisma. But the two other main performances are really excellent. It’s a decently diverse show that sets up the broader emotional stakes really well. They totally crush the last episode too. One of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly was not expecting to shed tears watching a show with this title.
- The Boss (2016), Ben Falcone – On the surface barely noteworthy. It’s only an ok script and the filmmaking is stock standard. But McCarthy is the best cinematic comedian going and she is wonderful as always. Her and Kirsten Bell work really well together and the supports are all quite excellent. Noticeable too that there are barely any dudes in this film which is great. Has some things to say about the selfishness of wealth and showcases some character types that feel new. But most importantly it’s just a really funny comedy.
- Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), Christopher Landon – This is patchy, as so many horror-comedy films are. There are some fantastically bloody, practical zombie effects. At times laugh out loud funny in either an absurd, or more commonly, crass way. Conforms to a pretty standard teen film template actually. Despite digging the gore, the horror elements are the weakest aspect of the film, in part due to the total lack of mythos.
- Escape from L.A. (1996), John Carpenter – It has some great, simple sci-fi worldbuilding and also a really interesting conclusion that plays into that genre. In the middle is an oh so 90s action flick, but one starring Kurt Russel as one of cinema’s all-time great badasses and directed by an on form Carpenter. The effects veer wildly from those that hold up nicely to the laughably awful. Darkly prophetic of 2016 America – moral crimes, the outlawing of certain religions and voluntary executions. It’s episodic, but full of interesting story choices, like Plissken’s fame preceding him.
Not Worth Watching
- The Ward (2010), John Carpenter – Has a real Horror 101 feel to it. Group of disturbed women in a psychiatric hospital, flickering lights etc. It’s not all bad, but it certainly mostly is. Amber Heard is not the worst, it at some point conveys the fear of unknown of someone in an institution and it looks cool on occasion. But the writing really does not evoke the 60s setting and it has a very cheap feel to it. Certainly lesser Carpenter, with his jump scares and ghostly imagery not having any fright factor to them at all. They fall very flat. I also have a broader issue with the use of electroshock therapy and the like in film’s set in these places, due to their troubling basis in fact. I think that takes the viewer out of the film rather than boosts the horror. Very predictable, derivative and lacking of weight of any kind.
- Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola – So much potential to examine a foreigner (or two), adrift in a place totally alien. I dunno though. Jokes about the the lengthiness of Japanese language just seen out of place in this kind of film. Actually the interaction with Japanese culture and society is rough throughout. Feel like Coppola has worked through a lot of these same themes later in her career in a much more interesting and succesful way. Though the low-key friendship between the leads is much more satisfying and nuanced than the rest of the film. Scarlett Johannsson is excellent though. She makes you buy into her lonely situation. Murray is good too, but it feels like he is acting in a much sillier film. The tone is all over the shop. Certainly a filmmaker still finding their way.
- The Jungle Book (2016), John Favreau – A real mixed back. It looks totally wondrous, the 3D is immersive and adds a lot. And I think that photorealistic animals not only look great here, but are a really exciting development for a number of reasons. It’s shot quite interestingly as well, though that is really only apparent early in the film and the score is great. But the story is anaemic. There is no epic scale to it and it just feels like a succession of beats being ticked off. The lead kid gives a really spirited performance. It is especially impressive given he’s surrounded by CGI. But the whole film is soulless, lacking any true heart.
- Mr Holmes (2015), Bill Condon – There are occasional moments of brilliance. Old Sherlock Holmes seeing the impact of the Hiroshma atomic blast cuts right through. Impactful. Especially so in light of the fact that this is a character who worships only logic. But moments of inspiration are too far in between, or this may even be the only one. This film is beyond quiet and reserved. So much so that it legitimately barely functiond in being a film. Though Holmes becoming senile is an interesting enough choice. And I’m sure there are themes to dig into. But I’m struggling to stay interested enough to care. Or perhaps it was just a mood thing. The stuff around ageing for example simply did not grab me.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016), The Russo Brothers – First things first, this is an Avengers film not a Captain America one. Seems trivial but speaks to issues around narrative identify I think. This is the film where Marvel’s storytelling approach finally ate itself. It is so totally bloated and none of it means a thing. Notion of a civil war is totally facile. No battle of ideals as there should be. Just an excuse to have a quip-laden 5 on 5 battle that goes on forever. Boseman’s Black Panther is a huge highlight though. If Marvel get out of Ryan Coogler’s way, they are going to crush that film.
If you only have time to watch one Scrotal Recall
Avoid at all costs The Ward