I didn’t realise how heavy a viewing month this was for me til I sat down to write this. Wildly mixed in terms of enjoyment too, though overall a rough month. There was a heavy focus from me on the #52filmsbywomen challenge, with 11 of these fitting that bill.
- Echo Park (2014), Amanda Marsalis – Refreshing to see a love story that does not pander to the audience, glibly giving them what they want. Begins with Sophie, a very unhappy party to a very affluent relationship, fleeing. A little of the scripting is a touch forced early on as new relationships are established. But that fades away. There are plenty of interesting characters, in particular Sophia who could have so easily been an over-entitled cliché. The soundtrack is really nicely used, unconventional choices accompanying the action. Feels very true to life. The way people act, undermining themselves and their relationships.
- The Bling Ring (2013), Sofia Coppola – Celebrity in the Facebook age is immediately established. Characters are wallowing in a world of insufferable entitlement. Privilege and shallowness coming out in their actions. Sort of formless. Which I would so often find infuriating but didn’t bother me. Film also works really well as a portrait of Los Angeles. Both the physical place and its collective psyche. Some of the acting is a little patchy, though not from Emma Watson who is outstanding. The film gives a really good insight into the inexplicable mindset of these teens.
- The Rage – Carrie 2 (1999), Katt Shea – This film manages to simultaneously be the most 90s thing ever (it even has one of the kids from Home Improvement), and a blistering still relevant take down of jock-led rape culture. Not everything totally works. But there is just so much interesting shit going on here. Theme wise and stylistically – it’s interestingly shot, with quick cuts whilst the plot utilises flashbacks really well. It’s very surprising how well the flashbacks to the first film work actually. And the stark presentation of the horrific nature of jock culture was much more shocking than I was expecting. On the pure horror front, it definitely retains the spirit of King’s original character, whilst there is some great gore toward the end. Quite powerful at times.
- Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), Liz Garbus – A portrait of the certain kind of genius it takes to become a chess grandmaster. The first half makes you care deeply about a chess match, even if you don’t play the game (like me). It also envelops you in the sheer history of the game, making notions such as the fact Fischer may have been the greatest player since the 6th Century wondrous. Garbus is a very astute filmmaker, the way she weaves documentary techniques together. Occasionally personalities transcend niche sports and Fischer did that for chess. But if the first half of the film is about a unique dude and great sporting theatre, the second is a turn into the darker side of that genius required. The paranoia, madness (and again here we see the historical precedence) and utter single-minded obsession is stark. In the end, the final feeling is of overwhelming sadness as the unique Fischer descends into an anti-Semitic shell of the person he once was.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 2 (2014), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Whilst a lot of the laughs come from well crafted silliness, the real reason the show stands out is the ensemble character development. Almost every character changes in an interesting way and interacts with the other characters in fun ways. And ways that change what you think of them. It is so well performed, as well as any drama. Plus this show makes me laugh a fuckload. So easy to watch, but doesn’t feel like a throwaway.
- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg – In mainstream circles, Joan Rivers has oft been reduced to a figure of ridicule. So it is great to see a film that establishes the foul mouthed comedian side of her. Obsessed with work, with being booked. Both due to passion and her expensive lifestyle. Also thoughtfully shows a performer who’s been passed by but doesn’t realise it. Not in a nasty way though. Doesn’t negate the fact she was still a pioneer and a trailblazer. The film nicely draws out her contradictions. A little sad. Way she is disrespected by the industry, down on her luck.In mainstream circles, Joan Rivers has oft been reduced to a figure of ridicule. So it is great to see a film that establishes the foul mouthed comedian side of her. Obsessed with work, with being booked. Both due to passion and her expensive lifestyle. Also thoughtfully shows a performer who’s been passed by but doesn’t realise it. Not in a nasty way though. Doesn’t negate the fact she was still a pioneer and a trailblazer. The film nicely draws out her contradictions. A little sad. Way she is disrespected by the industry, down on her luck.
- The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven – Given the film’s reputation, it’s hard not to start it with a pit of anticipation in your stomach. Reminiscent of Craven’s other early work though perhaps not quite as assured. The juxtaposition of horror with domestic bliss & slapstick comedy is clumsy and the soundtrack is truly awful. A raw film by an at the time raw filmmaker. But it’s an incredibly uncomfortable portrayal of control and particularly the revelling in it. The film assumes the male gaze in an intimidating way. Deeply troubling film, even today. The shift in the middle works well. The methodical preparation for revenge. The film grows increasingly darker throughout, all the way to the end.
- Hush (2016), Mike Flanagan – This is one of the best home invasion films I’ve ever seen. A deaf and mute woman is alone in her house in the woods when she comes under attack. Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, sound design is a very big and very clever focus. The sensation of deafness is effectively conveyed through the combination of sound and her imperviousness to it. Film has a great soundtrack too. Very cool to see subtitled sign-language on screen. The film explores interesting notions about inner spaces whilst progressing the narrative. Certainly toys with convention and expectation in very clever ways and the result is super terrifying. A creatively executed horror film with a lead character who is a badass (but not in a fantastical way) deaf women.
- Queen of the Desert (2015), Werner Herzog – It’s a bit of a trainwreck but an interesting one. Many will disagree but it’s well performed. Nicole Kidman especially I think avoids mawkish parody on two fronts: as a white privileged woman exploring the Middle East, and one ‘unlucky in love’. It has some interesting things to say about colonialism (some intentional, some not). The soundtrack is interesting too, mixing Middle Eastern sounds with traditional ‘epic’ scoring. Herzog is clearly someone who still wants to tell unique stories. Definitely goes on too long. The last half hour is a slog and the chronology of the ending is muddled.
Not Worth Watching
- The Moth Diaries (2011), Mary Harron – Horror film that very much captures a girly boarding school vibe early on. It’s a little contrived and rushed. The plot is where it falls down in the end, far too thin even for the very short running time. It looks pretty sharp though. I like the use of colour and also the use of the lack of it. Also suggests classic gothic literature in some interesting ways, though in the end not as much as it could have. The tone is too light for it to have the impact it should.
- Deep Impact (1998), Mimi Leder – I was hoping for some really stupid fun. Didn’t get any of the latter unfortunately. It is very low key at the start. We seem to spend a surprising amount of time with Tea Leoni’s journalist character running down stories. Any positives are well and truly hamstrung by a truly dumb script. One that manages to squeeze minimal tension out of the impending end of the human race. The personal emotional beats feel really out of whack too which makes it feel emotionless. The effects are pretty rubbish as well.
- The Look (2011), Angelina Maccarone – This is a film that never manages to penetrate the pretentious artifice it is built on. So arty man. But also so distant and ponderous. There are occasional flashes of insight or interest that punch through – for me personally it was mainly the novelty of seeing Paul Auster my favourite author onscreen. But it is mainly just Charlotte Rampling sitting around chatting with some mates about the philosophy of performance or love or death. There is the occasional interesting and very human piece of insight and reflection. But it’s more often contrived and also too often feels like a first year philosophy class from hell.
- The Abyss (1989), James Cameron – This was a major disappointment. Too slow to start and the storytelling is unnecessarily muddled. There’s some nice technical work, as you would expect from the director. The sound design is incredible and that sense of underwater claustrophobia is well communicated. But plotwise, none of the character machinations are particularly interesting whilst he nature of what the crew are up against is simultaneously too unclear and uninteresting. No pop to the storytelling, with two narrative threads that don’t really sit well together and sorely lacking in logic.
- The To-Do List (2013), Maggie Carey – Such a killer cast. When it does get by it’s ultimately on their charm, because the scripting is very rough. Rachel Bilson steals the show as a ditzy big sister. But this is definitely not Aubrey Plaza’s best work. There is not a shred of believability to her character. And disappointingly the film really has nothing to say about sex. It’s also more than a little gross and much lower in laughs than you would expect with the cast.
- The Good German (2006), Steven Soderbergh – There are certainly things to not only appreciate but outright love here. The retro styling and black & white cinematography that is exceptionally sharp. Toby Maguire does menacing very well too. But that style sort of overwhelms everything else. The story is pretty standard immediate post-wartime fare. Which whilst occasionally touching on an interesting nerve, such as the notions of survivor’s guilt, ultimately falls victim from being Le Carre-lite oblique and shadowy espionage stuff. Deliciously beautiful, but ultimately lacking in weight.
- The Fog (1980), John Carpenter – Far from my favourite from this horror great. Hammy framing device gives way to a slow start. Really lacks the thematic interest of Carpenter’s best stuff. The plotting is a little vague as well. Supernatural elements essentially bringing slasher villains to town. But there is no real clarity to the menace. It’s not a write off. The score is amazing as his all are, though there is not enough of it. Jaime-Lee Curtis is so fucking charming in this and Janet Leigh is here yo! Feels like a tired effort from a maestro, a supernatural hodgepodge that feels too small scale.
- The Descent (2005), Neil Marshall – Bit miffed as to why this is such a beloved modern horror classic. It starts off iffy. By the numbers character intros and overbearing style. The script is poor throughout. I found the scares really cheap too, never bothering to tap into the inherently terrifying nature of caves. Despite the potential offered by the location, it looks really average. Relies too heavily on the stupidity of its characters to drive the plot. It doesn’t improve once the shit hits the fan either. The geography of the caves is muddled and the action is impossible to follow. A dreary disappointment.
- Finding Dory (2016), Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane – Weak stuff. Feels more like a remake of the first than a sequel. Beats are lifted straight from the first film. Has a risible, repetitive narrative structure. There’s some cute moments and characters. But nowhere near enough to make this cynical exercise worthwhile. Rests more heavily on nostalgia than any film of the last five years. Splitting up of the main characters for much of the run time is a mistake. And I think that based on this evidence Dory as a character is better suited for a (large) support role as in the first. With so much time here the shtick quite quickly becomes tiresome.
- Life Partners (2014), Susanna Fogel – An up and down film, with maybe the clunky script being the element that tips it over the edge. The acting is good. The two leads Gillian Jacobs and especially Leighton Meester, carry the up and downs of a friendship well, whilst the supporting cast led by Gabby Sidibe all have a great presence. But the Adam Brody character, a major one, is insufferable. The plot is shorthand, way too rushed and the script never establishes the attraction of Brody’s romantic lead which is something the film rests heavily on.
- Vacation (2015), John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein – The awkward family photos style opening is a deeply unoriginal start and a solid harbinger of things to come. A rubbish, unintelligent script does not help. The little bro character is one of the most obnoxious characters I can recall. Helms and especially Applegate are pretty good performers. But their energies don’t fit well with this film. A lot of the incidents are actually quite nasty when you think about them. Chris Hemsworth and Leslie Mann in a small sequence really bring something lacking from the leads. Energy I guess. Bad even as far as modern comedies go.
If you only have time to watch one Hush
Avoid at all costs The Descent
It is absurd that Ghostbusters (2016) has prompted such serious conversations, becoming a flashpoint for the unbridled misogyny that has beset geek culture of late. Manbabies are railing against the film whilst simultaneously declaring they will never see it, whilst spamming IMDB with zero star reviews. This is all even more absurd because the only area in which Ghost Busters (1984) truly excels is in being really, really fun.
You can add another reason to feel sorry for the so called Ghostbros who are refusing to see this film – they are missing out on one of the year’s best times at the cinema. There are definitely things the film does not do particularly well. But much like the film it is based on, this is above all fun. Really well performed, well directed and spectacular looking fun at that. The story is pretty thin and will feel familiar to anyone who has seen the original. Two scientists posited a theory of the paranormal years ago. In the interim one has gone ‘legit’. They briefly feud early in the film. That is resolved very quickly, then with another scientist and a MTA worker in tow, they set up their ghostbusting enterprise. Fun ensues. And that’s what it is all about really. There are some flat spots. Early on particularly and it is a little exposition heavy at times. But it is all the other aspects – the acting, score, action, visuals – attached to this story that make this a very worthwhile watch. Where there is thankfully some depth is the paranormal mythology set up. It helps to explain the actions of the main villain and adds some malevolence to the goings on that are populated with somewhat silly looking CG ghosts in a way that actually works well. As for the controversy swirling around the film, it engages with that really well I feel. A couple of the script’s funniest zingers are one-liners about the internet trolls commenting on YouTube videos and railing against the fact that women couldn’t possibly bust ghosts. But the script never makes this a focus, rather getting in some good jokes, but never distracting itself from the main plot.
One of the major assets this film has going for it is that the best mainstream comedy director working today Paul Feig is at the helm. Not only is he good at the funny stuff, but just like in Spy (2015), though even more so here, he proves himself really adept at doing action. The large scale set piece at the end manages not to merely devolve into an effects-fest, but continues the narrative threads set up earlier. Also sprinkled throughout are a reasonable number of good smaller pieces of fisticuffs. We’ve seen how hard it is to tell compelling action with any sense of weight when it is a human performer facing off against a bunch of CGI sprites. But the director and his performers bring that to life well. There are some nicely done scary moments too, especially the haunted mansion style opening where the sound design and riffing on genre tropes makes for pretty effective stuff. The film looks exceptional as well. Not only does the 3D avoid the common traps of being totally dark or having that tacky diorama feel, it elevates what is on screen. There is a black border around the image which allows weaponry and lightning to go outside the frame. It’s a simple approach, but it feels fresh. Plus the slime and ghosts coming right for you is as fun as you would expect, without being overdone. I would definitely recommend making the effort to catch it in the 3D format.
On the performance front, all five of the leads are good at the very least. The patter between McCarthy and Wiig was the best thing about Bridesmaids (2011) and it is again joyful to watch here. They are both excellent performers. If anything there could have been more of that. Wiig does a lot with a character that could have been overwhelmingly boring, and her interactions with Chris Hemsworth are really charming too. Hemsworth is a lot of fun, subverting the traditional dopey receptionist cliché, though the writing of that character does on occasion veer a little too silly. Probably the best of the performers are the two relative newcomer ghostbusters. Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann is (rightly) getting a lot of the buss at the moment. Her energy is infectious and you could feel the cinema leaning in every time she was the focus. But I think Leslie Jones as Patty may even outdo McKinnon. She is my favourite character, getting a lot of the best moments and biggest laughs. The writing of some of the characters is a little up and down. Especially early on for McCarthy, she is subdued whilst the tokenistic beef between her and Wiig is sorted. But the script also provides the base for McKinnon and Jones to launch their winning performances from. The score of the film is a definite highlight. A film of this tone is hard to score and rarely done right. It is here though. It brings atmosphere to the more frightening scenes, but always just addingsome spookiness, not trying to terrify. Playful and spooky are hard to do without it sounding silly,but that is what is done really well here.
Verdict: Once again Feig, McCarthy and crew have delivered a comedy filled to the brim of laughs, fun action and really excellent performances. I certainly can’t wait to see this band of characters fleshed out on more ghostbusting adventures. Pint of Kilkenny
In 2016, the title 12 Angry Men (1957) is enough to send a shiver down the spine. There are too many angry men all around us, in real life, online and in the movies we consume. Perhaps Sidney Lumet’s best film though is thankfully not as infuriating as the title would suggest.
12 Angry Men is essentially a high-concept drama, taking place in a single room. The 12 of the title are the jury in a murder case, one that initially seems cut and dry, but that quickly becomes rather more complex. Henry Fonda gradually wins some of his peers over to his point of view, told through the camera as an isolated character gradually being joined in shot by more and more characters. The film functions as a reverse crime procedural – only it is not the police who are poring over the evidence and considering every angle of the case, but the jurors. The film argues both sides in terms of questions of what constitutes justice, can it be pure and how much respect the system deserves, through the simple plot. Unlike most other courtroom dramas, this film structurally starts at a very interesting spot. We do not see one second of the trial, rather it is deemed unimportant as the film starts as the jurors begin deliberations. Or rather than the trial being marked as unimportant, perhaps it is more accurate that in the end the power in the system rests not with the lawyers or even the judge, but with the 12 doing their ‘duty’. It’s a great script. Men sitting around a table talking about a case could go wrong in a multitude of ways. But this is sharply written with writer Reginald Rose delivering something that is simultaneously all exposition and none. It is layered and definitely talky, but never in a showy way.
It is difficult to make 12 dudes sitting around a conference table arguing look visually arresting. Or even moderately interesting for that matter. But from the get-go, Lumet uses the camera to both create interest and more importantly impart meaning. The film opens with awed shots of the courthouse where the action will take place. This reverence for the hallowed place of the law in our society will be both reinforced and challenged over the course of the film. Lumet is not afraid to put his close-ups right out there too, filling the entire screen with a face. The shooting is simple, but the use of these shots is astute, providing moments such as a change of vote with a jolt of meaning that other films may choose to deliver through sound design. For what is in narrative terms a simple story, there is a lot going on here. And as such every interaction, every shot, feels as though it is laden with meaning. The narrative focused on single murder is used to examine the whole of society in unfortunately still relevant ways. The film has a progressive bent, especially in terms of the examination of race. How white people look down on others, the dismissal of “slums” that are a “breeding ground” where undesirables are allowed to run rampant. White men discussing an ‘other’ that they (for the most part) have zero experience with or even any interest in. This culminates in a ridiculous rant about “them” and the accused’s “type”. Lumet wants us to see how foolish this crusty old man looks as he screams his backward ideas into an abyss as more and more people lose interest. Hopefully a whole society of them.
Verdict: With its high concept, single room location and unexpected narrative structure, 12 Angry Men is a pretty experimental classic. It works well as a crime flick, a courtroom piece as well as a thematic consideration of justice, the possibility of it and the role of it in society. Pint of Kilkenny