July was a mixed month. There were a couple of recent hyped genre releases that I was really excited for which underwhelmed. But on the positive side of things, there was a really good variety of stuff worth my time including recent big releases, docos and a few of my favourite 2016 releases so far.
- Inside Amy Schumer Season 1 (2013), Amy Schumer & Daniel Powell – I quite liked this, but it took me a while to get through. Struggled with the standup interludes which are much more miss than hit. But laughed a hell of a lot at some sketches. Schumer is working through her politics through the season and some of that is a little misjudged. Unrelentingly crass which may work or not, depending on your mood.
- The BFG (2016), Steven Spielberg – Plenty of the storytelling magic possessed by Dahl and Spielberg is on the screen here. Utterly charming from the very first appearance of the titular giant. Rylance’s performance is quite incredible. Has a great physicality and presence. Film looks wonderful, especially the main giant and there is also a nice fantastical bent to the rest of the environments too. The John Williams score provides an ideal accompaniment. A perfect family friendly sensibility.
- Chocolat (1988), Claire Denis – Denis is excellent at conveying a sense of place, specifically Africa, in the films I have seen. A slow film about the journey of colonialism. Told mainly through the relationship between the youngish male servant and the white French family. There are some weird vibes between some of the characters, and I’m not sure how on top of that at all times the script and performances are. The film is almost too subtle. But worthwhile in the way it captures the attitudes of day to day colonialism, rather than any attempt to chronicle the broad sweep of colonial rule. Notions of the ‘motherland’ in relation to colonialism a constant theme.
- Unbroken (2014), Angelina Jolie – So much of this threatened to be stock standard WWII fare. And plenty of the story is. But Jolie has an interesting visual style and brings a unique viewpoint to the character moments. The uneasy mixture of bravado and trepidation of young man at war is captured well. There are some really well and clearly staged dogfights early on. The conventional second half is still rendered in an engaging way. And it has one of the best of those ‘real people’ codas that are so infuriatingly popular.
- Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro – After watching this I realised I really haven’t seen much of Del Toro’s work. And I need to. A visually arresting gothic tale. So much focus on sets, costumes and use of colour like we never see. The story is a touch slight. But it ends well, with an incredible sequence. And there is just so much really creative stuff you won’t mind. The score is grand and lush. The film melds the drama, romance and horror genres in a way that’s creative yet familiar. The performances from Wasikowska and Hiddleston are really excellent. Chastain gives a strange turn, but the bloody drawn out knife fight between her and Wasikowska is the highlight of the film.
- The Walk (2015), Robert Zemeckis – Something about Zemeckis and his (naïve, schmaltzy) storytelling just works for me. Can tell this has been wholly designed for a big, 3D screen. But it still did enough for me on 2D blu-ray. It’s an interesting mix of elements that work and that really don’t. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a good performance. The stepping through of the processes behind the stunt are strangely engaging. The romance is undercooked though and it really meanders. But then it delivers poetry in the big climax. There is too little conflict or tension for the relationships between the characters to really engage at all. A unique effort from Zemeckis.
- Goldstone (2016), Ivan Sen – Sen’s follow up to the incredible Mystery Road (2013) is another thoughtful, complex and violent effort. He is making detective stories like no one else right now. This film has so much to say about the state of our country. Perhaps it has always been like this, but the forces that keep it this way are constantly changing. The director has also composed one of the scores of the year here. Aaron Pederson brings a different Jay Swan to the screen and its fucking badarse. Sen may well be the best crafter of 3rd acts in world cinema. Here is another crushing, pitch perfect crescendo of violence and thematic resolution.
- The Mermaid (2016), Stephen Chow – Delightfully weird. Images of environmental destruction, pollution, deforestation and dolphin massacres give way to an awful special effects laden something or other. There is more visual ambition here than any other film you’ll see this year, even if not always executed well. I struggled with the storytelling sensibility for quite a while, but all of a sudden the absurdism becomes quite winning. It’s really funny too, with a very silly brand of humour. It’s very well written, laugh out loud stuff with a solid note of grand romance toward the end.
- Ukraine is not a Brothel (2013), Kitty Green – A punk vibe is brought to the very specific story of feminism in Ukraine and a societal lack of awareness of it there. A fight against the post-soviet conception of all Ukrainian women throughout the world being sex-workers. And the overriding patriarchy of the society. The film also examines the performative dimensions of protest and the intersectionality or otherwise of this particular feminist group. The complexity of the ideas are allowed to come out. Though there is a late twist of sorts that whilst shocking, is a bit contrived and risks turning it into a conspiracy film.
- Smokin’ Aces (2006), Joe Carnahan – One of the more underrated crime films of recent times. If I was going to be a smartarse I would say it’s the type of film Tarantino wishes he could make. Good patter to the dialogue. Dodges exposition with a succession of super-fast snappily written scenes of blokes in the pub or FBI meetings. Delightful hints of the absurd and black comedy impinge on the central narrative. It’s the best Jeremy Piven has ever been whilst Alicia Keys and especially Common are really great. Violent, stylish and does some interesting things with time, folding it in on itself, overlapping it. But in really clear ways. Classy schlock.
- The Handmaiden (2016), Chan-wook Park – A wild, at times silly film. But once it establishes the actual plot through-line I kinda loved it, despite the structural shenanigans that annoyed me along the way. One of the most erotic, explicit films I’ve seen in a mainstream cinema. It looks lush and artful whilst the two female leads Min-hee Kim and Kim Tae-ri deliver two totally different characters. They suck you into the mental space of the characters superbly. There’s a lot going on and a lot to take in. You can easily forgive the imperfections because it’s a singular, bold take.
- Love & Friendship (2016), Whit Stillman – Kate Beckinsale steals the show here. She connects with the rapid patter of the script and makes it sing. It’s slight, in an Austen way. And both wryly amusing in an Austen way and rambunctiously hilarious in a non-Austen way. A lot of the latter comes from Tom Bennett who basically crashes into scenes doing a stand-up routine and makes it work within the world of the film. Performances all round in addition to Beckinsale are really excellent. Hers is the most interesting character though, chasing and attaining a lot of men and sex. And ‘gets away with it’ in a way you would perhaps not expect from the source material.
- Yakuza Apocalypse (2015), Takashi Miike – Drenched in blood from the start. Some pretty shocking stuff in here at least early on when the tone is quite serious. At their best, the fight sequences function effectively as storytelling. Then after about 30 minutes the el cheapo costumes and absurdity start. At which point it’s a very different, but totally acceptable film. The storytelling is poor, but they do some interesting stuff with the mashup of the Yakuza and zombie genres.
- Star Trek Beyond (2016), Justin Lin – Lots of fun. I liked it. I wrote a full review for An Online Universe which you can check out here.
- Tickled (2016), David Farrier & Dylan Reeve – Much hyped. But this is a not very good film about a moderately interesting story. Feels like it is a building to a monumental crescendo. But it just lands a bit flat. Never landed the big gotcha moment it was angling for. Also feels like there are so many missed opportunities in terms of story, motivation and theme here. States toward the end that this has been a film about power. But that is never really interrogated through the film. Which is a shame, because there is much potential here for that. Bland filmmaking, but potentially still worth a look if you know nothing of the story.
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), Burr Steers – The first line of the whole film made me laugh. And that was the biggest highlight of the film by a mile. Nowhere near as fun as I’d hoped. Quite heavy on the gross violence, but totally bloodless. The effects tap into the fun horror vibe the rest of the film should have nicely though. In fact a lot of the composite parts are serviceable in a comedy-horror way – design, costumes and soundtrack. And the lead performance from Lily James brings a good sassy presence and comedic timing. But the tensionless storytelling and script is woeful as are the slow, undercooked and ugly action scenes.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), Dan Trachtenberg – This was a real let down. The logic of it all feels awry early and never really straightens out. The plotting and script feel underdone in the way it attempts to evoke real life events, and to an extent the first film. There is very little atmosphere created from situations that should be dripping with it. I do love the final reveal and setup for the sequel (which most seem to hate). But the journey there is laborious and just feels dreary. Hard to explain. Almost feels as if you can see the director’s brain ticking over onscreen and the whole feels over-contrived as a result.
- The Big Short (2015), Adam McKay – Wooh boy I hated this film. The styling is overbearing. Just no subtlety to anything. The OTT costumes, talking straight to the camera, music and editing are all far too blunt. Simply making bullshit finance twaddle understandable does not make a good film. The film feels like a pile of exposition as a result of this approach. Wilfully anti-humanist or interested in the plight pf people. Essentially the only thing that stands out in a positive way is Carrell’s performance. A preachy film which I think may have negative levels of people of colour or women. I expected to hate the characters in this. Did not expect to hate the filmmaking equally so though.
- Bone Tomahawk (2015), S. Craig Zahler – This favourite from last year does not fuck about with its truly gruesome opening. Really well acted, especially from Matthew Fox and a wounded, emotional Patrick Wilson who is especially good. But the script is only ok and the ‘evil Indians’ plot is one that I am pretty over. Perhaps I found the plot to be overly simplistic. Makes a late shift into horror territory, but it feels meaningless as the shift is not really earned. And it turns into gross torture porn too, with the vilest kill I’ve ever seen onscreen.
If you only have time to watch one Goldstone
Avoid at all costs The Big Short
Perhaps no American director seems to have created more cinephiles than Martin Scorsese. I have never been his most ardent fan though, generally liking rather than loving most of his work. But he’s also one I feel I need to continually revisit to see if I will ever find the spark of genius that so many others find.
The plot of Casino (1995) sees Robert De Niro playing up and coming member of the mob Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, making his way in the world of organised crime. An advanced party for the organisation’s tentative excursions into Las Vegas. He runs a casino which in turn funnels huge sums of money back to his superiors. Ace’s mission is complicated by having to keep an erratic, violence prone, ‘made’ (unlike De Niro) member of the mob Nicky Santoro (played by Joe Pesci), in some kind of check. All sound pretty familiar? That’s because Casino is painfully similar to Goodfellas (1990). So close it could be a remake. The grand sweep of the arc is the same, the ups and downs, machinations of the mob and a focus on ‘street level guys’ all reappear. The films mainly look the same and many of the same actors appear. Even specific plot beats echo loudly from one film to the other. There are some slight differences – the love triangle dynamic is well set up here involving Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna, and the notion of a film structured like an American epic but really only being about a casino intrigues for a little while. But the similarities certainly consume any tangible differences. In addition to these similarities, the film also loses its narrative core regularly along the way, feeling too vague. Some of the story elements, Ginger’s drug habit for example, are really muddled in the way they are conveyed, which lessens the impact of that part of the story.
Style wise, Casino does not do a whole lot out of the ordinary, and what it does is a mixed bag. The duelling voiceovers are tiresome and the cutesy stuff such as ‘back home years ago’ subtitles are ineffective. But there is a gaudiness to the colours that Scorsese employs well, helping the glitz and seediness of Las Vegas pop off the screen. Similarly the performances range from the disappointing, to the stock standard to occasionally good. Pesci is perhaps the best of them all. I don’t really care for his character, it’s basically the exact same little wired psychopath vibe we’ve seen before. But he performs it very astutely, becoming the focal point of the scenes he is in. At the other end of the scale, particularly in terms of the writing of the character, but also performance wise is Sharon Stone. The film asserts that she is “the most charming woman you ever saw”, but at no point does that come out. Stone plays Ginger as a blank slate and neither the writing or the performance gives us any clue as to why she becomes such a contested part of the story.
Verdict: In the end, I feel the same about Casino as I do about a lot of Scorsese films. It is a fine, watchable experience. But ultimately a pretty hollow one. For me, the film does not have anything to say and it is further weakened by being essentially the exact same film as Goodfellas. Stubby of Reschs