Bit of a mixed bag for September. A couple of new releases were duds, but overall the year continues to improve with a bunch more excellent new releases. I also dug further into the filmographies of a couple of directors I really like, such as Spike Lee, Herzog and a few more, which yielded really good results.
- Grace and Frankie Season 1 (2015), Marta Kauffman & Howard J. Morris – Four great characters at the core. They are a touch broad at least initially, but they have a lot of texture to them by the end. Not simplistic in what it’s saying. The two men coming off as assholes at times is a good approach. Very funny, but never neglects the complexity of the situation – the sense of loss that abounds basically everywhere. Not all quirky old lady buddy comedy. The performances are all good, though Lily Tomlin is the clear MVP bringing a hilarious spark to Frankie, a character that could have been a caricature. Late in the season, it really gets its patter, timing and extended cast of characters down.
- Perfect Strangers (2016), Paolo Genovese – An interesting enough twist on the dinner party where secrets are exposed subgenre. A smartphone based plot makes it a modern feeling update. A charmingly performed avalanche of characters, though most of the performers are excelling at being distinctly unlikable. Even when it goes some obvious places, it does so with charm. Has a mix of poignancy and silly comedy that works pretty well. Takes a bold choice on the ending that initially frustrated me, but really made the film linger in my mind.
- Heart of Glass(1976), Werner Herzog – This very early Herzog feature screams 70s Euro arthouse with long dialogue free stretches, opera etc. But it’s also distinctly Herzogy with the oblique voiceover referencing both apocalypse and renewal, and the kinetic stock footage of nature cut in. A world of superstitious villagers, a soothsayer and a lost glass recipe. At times hard to take in, but the sense of chaotic confusion and desperation amongst the villagers is well conveyed. Also some really good sequences of artisans at work. Liked it a lot, though its ethereal notions may frustrate.
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans(2009), Werner Herzog – I loved this. Perhaps the best distillation of Herzog’s unique worldview in a fictional film. Follows Nicolas Cage’s broken, desperate, corrupt, addict of a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage is excellent, bringing an appropriately grotesque physical presence, lumbering and hunched. His performance is all tics, wild eyes and comedic timing, which is exactly what the film calls for. You really ride with the character the whole time, all the ups and downs. The supports in Val Kilmer, Xzibit and Eva Mendes are also really good. The score is great too, enhancing the dirtiness and atmosphere of the film. But amidst all the randomness is a simple crime story structure – cops running down leads, interviewing suspects. The dark descent of a man is a common theme of Herzog’s. This film tracks it better than his more lauded efforts.
- My Soul to Take(2010), Wes Craven – Certainly lesser Craven, but the man just knows how to make an interesting slasher. A split personality killer returns 16 years after his apparent death, slaying kids born on the day he died. Craven always subtly tweaks the genre. Here the film toys nicely with the notion of whodunit, which is not really a slasher hallmark. Frank Grillo has a good presence for a cop whilst the teens are all good cipher characters. One of a few late films where Craven started to mix in elements of the teen film, relatively well too.
- Misery (1990), Rob Reiner – A fantastic, contained psychological thriller. In some ways a preview of where obsessive fandom would be 25 years later with an author held hostage by a super fan. There are great performances. Obviously from Kathy Bates, but Caan works off her in a really great duo. It’s awesome to see Lauren Bacall pop up too. The film escalates really well, as Bates’ character reveals herself. There’s some very dark humour and the darkness spills over early in a great scene where she finds out he killed her favourite character. It’s a cerebral game, as he starts to toy with her. And it gets vicious toward the end. Even though it mostly takes place in a single room, it’s interestingly shot with care given to camera placement and big moments punctuated by zooms on to character’s faces. Annie Wilkes is a great character and Bates brings her to life strikingly.
- Tunnel (2016), Seong-hun Kim – Tense Korean genre effort with a deliciously simple premise – dude gets stuck in a tunnel is basically it. The film has some great special effects. The outside/inside structure works really well. Interestingly it is the big, effects laden set pieces that work the best, as opposed to the quieter character moments. It perhaps doesn’t all quite come together. On a plot level all of the characters and institutions make too many unrealistically dopey decisions, and it foreshadows the shit outta some stuff. The soundtrack is distracting and used at a lot of unnecessary moments too. And it never really captures the claustrophobia of the situation. But there is one exceptionally emotional moment, carried by Doona Bae in the lead female role. A few of them hit hard late in the film actually, which meant I found myself utterly invested towards the end.
- The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015), Steve Yu -Taps into the psychology that made him so great as a wrestler. Gives you an early, very emotional, glimpse of his fall. Also gets to the fundamental lifestyle/career of a pro-wrestler that makes them addicts of all kinds. A dark fuckin life has left Jake Roberts a broken down dude. At times it does feel a little like an infomercial for DDP Yoga and it gets a little repetitive. But more of it is a really great portrait of an addict and addiction. Moments like seeing a man realise he’s been a really shit father, just like he always promised himself he wouldn’t be, are powerful to watch.
- Crooklyn (1994), Spike Lee – A great portrait of an African American neighbourhood, accompanied by a perfectly selected soundtrack. The kind of film that reminds you why Lee is such an important director. Generally never see neighbourhoods like this onscreen. Focuses in part on the struggle of artistic pursuit in the face of brutal societal monetary pressure. But is more just a collection of one family’s tales over time, rather than anything particularly plot-focused. There are some very emotional beats toward the end though. The characters grow on you. No clumsy setup, is just that by the end you are totally on board with them.
- Girl Asleep (2015), Rosemary Myers – Great to see films like this being made in Australia. Stylish as fuck. Shot in 4:3 and delightfully framed. Just the right side of Wes Andersony, aka not annoying. Performances are all good but Bethany Whitmore is exceptional. The whole film perfectly captures that time of life, of being 14 going on 15. Such a charming film, I can’t really imagine people not loving it. There is a long fantastical detour, which could jar or feel like a throwaway. But here it amplifies the themes of the film really nicely.
- Cigarette Burns (2005), John Carpenter – A ‘Masters of Horror’ entry. Interestingly written by film critic Drew McWeeny. The loving film nerd touches in the script are one of the major positives in this pretty minor, albeit scary and fun, effort from a legend. A film about film, the opening line referring to the magic of the medium, the threat coming from a mythical haunted film as well as various references to festivals and archives. Also considers the lasting effect that a film can have on people, as well as the form and practice of horror filmmaking. All of which is in the script, not necessarily the filmmaking. The conclusion goes some schlocky, gross places, perhaps struggling to pay off what has been set up.
- Midnight Special (2016), Jeff Nichols – A sci-fi road film erupting out of a Texas of cult-like conservative Christianity. There is a great sense of mystery as a kid deity is kidnapped by his dad and they race down highways with both the church and the feds in pursuit. It is really well performed. Child lead Jaeden Liebherher, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and Adam Driver in what I think is his best performance yet. It’s not a story dripping in originality. But it takes sci-fi tropes and turns them into a mediation on the nature of being a parent. The film also ponders unconventional forms of parenting, such as fostering, and the struggle of sending your child out into their own world. It is rare to see these themes examined through a unique prism such as this. Nicholls brings a lot of craft to the film, and the score is incredible. Spooky, melodic and driving. One of the year’s best.
- Sisters (2015), Jason Moore – A patchy effort. But especially in the first half there is some very funny scripting, not hurt at all by the fact it is Amy Poehler and Tina Fey delivering it. Taps into nostalgia for childhood, for your stuff and formative experiences. Their connection from years working together means you buy them as sisters. There are some great comedic performers in supporting roles, such as Kate McKinnon and Maya Rudolph, though they are a little wasted. The second half is very, very rough. Nowhere near the charm of the first not to mention Fey’s usual racial blindspots really come out.
- The Red Turtle (2016), Michael Dudok de Wit – You won’t see anything else like this bold film in cinemas this year. An essentially wordless shipwreck film with some of the fantastical mixed in. Those fantastical elements are a sightly mixed bag and they contribute to the film dragging a little through the middle. But they also provide some of the film’s most poignant moments. The soundtrack is great, particularly in the way it interacts with the very old school textural animation. The storytelling is a little off at times, particularly the second half where it meanders and goes some strange places. That is definitely a minor quibble though.
- Life Happens (2011), Kat Coiro – Chose this because I dig the cast, in particular Krysten Ritter and Rachel Bilson. The latter is ok, but doesn’t have all that much to do. But Ritter (also on co-writing duties) is one of the chief reasons to tune in. She really convinces and helps the film to convey just how fuckin hard it is to be a parent. Cool to see a single mum as the lead in a rom-com. Some of those more straightforward rom-com elements are a little cloying, with male lead Geoff Stults not able to match Ritter’s charisma. But the astute consideration of being a parent and how that changes you, makes this different enough from the norm to be worth recommending.
- Finder’s Keepers (2015), Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel – An absurdist documentary that starts hilarious and gives way to a portrait of sadness. Set in a very southern, ‘redneck’ world, where everyone in town knows the fourth generation mortician. The ‘man finds a severed leg in a bbq he buys’ pitch gives way to an examination of guilt and family issues at the heart of the story. There is some nice examination of how class issues play out in small towns and the film comes with a readymade villain in the deluded and greedy Shannon (who finds the leg and sees that as his big break into stardom). It feels stretched at times, but there is enough thematic weight here to maintain interest.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), Travis Knight – Ethereal yet tactile, both in looks and plot. There are some straight up horror elements to darken the fantasy tropes. The voice cast is over-familiar in a distracting way. But this is a rip-roaring and funny adventure film. Combines the jokiness of a Western style animated film, with the quest based structure of fantasy fiction. Love the ending too, taking a totally different tact to the big battle. A film full of incredible craft.
Not Worth Watching
- High-Rise(2015), Ben Wheatley – Rubbed me up the wrong way from the very beginning. Feels far too deliberate, as well as visually uninteresting. Actually as far as I can tell, Wheatley brings very little to this at all. Takes Ballard’s already unsubtle piece and makes it blunter. Though managing to have less to say at the same time. Luke Evans is woefully miscast, Hiddleston is decent whilst Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss give the film’s best performances. Narrative doesn’t build and surge as it should. Rather it clunks and lurches, which is a large part of the reason it’s essentially toothless. Takes the more (potentially) schlocky elements of the book and makes them surrealist instead. A choice that doesn’t work.
- Bernard-l’hermite (1930), Jean Painleve – Can tell this is an early work of his. No real connections between the footage and any thematic consideration. Using stark imagery to suggest something monstrous. There is manipulation in all documentaries. The issue is that with Painleve it often, for example here, feels exploitative.
- Sully (2016), Clint Eastwood – This is a totally flat effort. Plainest possible telling of a story that is unexceptional, at least in Eastwood’s hands. The director is not able to articulate onscreen what makes the actions of these people at all remarkable. The approach gives no thrill, no sense of the terror. All we get are these strangely evil, and inept investigators culminating in a comical public hearing where the reveals are meant to take our breath away. But they barely elicit a shrug. The awful fuckin dad joke the film ends on sums up the movie really.
- Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Lauren Montgomery – These films have a strong sense of assuredness and this one is no different. That is coupled with a good sense of place, the working class docks of Gotham for example. However a lot of that disappears when the film heads off-world for a lot of the run time. These less grounded sequences feel rushed and the fantasy moments don’t feel anywhere near as weighty as they should. The film also only works so-so as an intro for Supergirl. There is much to like, the dichotomy of the two titular characters is really strong and some of the action is really clearly & physically conveyed. But the issues outweigh the good unfortunately.
If you only have time to watch one Girl Asleep
Avoid at all costs High-Rise