Later than usual this time around as has been an exceptionally busy time for me personally. A vast majority of positive experiences here, the standouts being a surprisingly excellent remake and a few docos. However I continue to get less and less out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, films I have for the most part loved over the past decade-ish.
- The Secret Life of Pets (2016), Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud – Accusation of this being Toy Story (1995) with pets are (slightly) harsh. Above average fun, mainly due to the quality of the writing. There were some clever flourishes that got some hearty laughs out of me. The visual approach, especially the characters design, is really fun. And the simple adventure plot is enough to serve the joyful turns of phrase and charming characters.
- The Magnificent Seven (2016), Antoine Fuqua – Hell of a nice surprise. Looks great and is suitably epic. Unashamedly a Western, embracing the tropes and traditions of the genre in a way that is nicely familiar but not tired. The cast is exceptional and so diverse. Denzel is great and leads with movie-star magnetism. Haley Bennett provides a simple but effective emotional hook for the film. And Chris Pratt is here doing his thing where it probably shouldn’t work, but does. Everyone else brings a lot and creates a good sense of character with the screen time they get. A light, but never silly joy.
- Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Mike Flanagan – Flanagan is a really sharp filmmaker and it shows. Less a Ouija film and more a general love letter to classic horror – mirrors, creepy kids, priests etc. The period elements add a lot, the settings and production design are really great. It does get a touch silly with some unnecessary CGI and attempts to ramp up the scares. But it is nice to see a filmmaker clearly given huge amount of freedom with this kind of property.
- A Lego Brickumentary (2014), Kief Davidson & Daniel Junge – Feels like a doco for kids. In a good way. Thought on occasion it feels a fair bit like an ad. All quite creatively presented. It’s a fun film and conveys a good sense of the intense passion of people who work there and fandom of convention goers. There are some nicely drawn connections of projects on different scales and examination of the changes the company need to make to survive. A little fractured at times, but worthwhile for fans.
- La Paz in Buenos Aires (2013), Marcelo Charras – Wrestling documentary with a quiet, process focussed start. Making ring attire, creating posters on a home computer, the very grassroots marketing approach. Insight into the science and technique of telling stories in the ring is great. Nice portal into a world of a backyard wrestling ring that doubles as a clothesline. There’s also an interesting father/son dynamic with the dad offended his son would even consider working as a heel (bad guy). A nice film that may have been better with a stronger focus on a particular narrative.
- The Seahorse (1934), Jean Painleve – Very scientific study that voices broader themes and connections. A little shabbily shot. And contrived. But there are some genuinely stunning pieces of footage such as the male seahorse in labour. Worth it solely for those images. Which is a good thing cause it peters out. Saved by a cool montage with race horses. Although one of Painleve’s signature totally unnecessary and gross dissection scenes makes an appearance. Yuck.
- A United Kingdom (2016), Amma Asante – Good, but a little stuffy in the telling and workmanlike in terms of craft. Gets by though. The real life story is stunning and emotive which helps. Well cast too. Pike is excellent despite murmurings from some she is miscast, whilst Oyelowo is a standout. Especially in the delivery of one crushing monologue. He also really helps to envelop the audience in real life emotion of the story. Which is at times hampered by a rushed approach to narrative and character. But as a portrait of the petty meddling destructiveness of 40s-50s British Empire, it’s an effective & great one to see onscreen.
- Tig (2015), Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York – A film about Stuff, but perhaps not the stuff you were expecting. Tig Notaro sees the stand-up set where she announced she had cancer explode. And much of this is about the weight of attempting to follow up a truly great, transcendent piece of art. A remarkable love story here too as she explores new love and attempts to start a family. A wonderful doco, maybe the best I’ve seen all year.
- The Barkley Marathons (2014), Annika Iltis & Timothy James Kane – An examination of the infamous, borderline mythical ultra-marathon. Even how to enter is a secret. That desire for secrecy does mean that it is hard to give a sense of the course and how the race is progressing. But you still get enough to understand why it took 10 years for someone to even finish. The storytelling gets really good toward the end when it comes down to the last few competitors.
- Julieta (2016), Pedrot Almodovar – Does a lot of things I loved. And a lot I hated. But that makes for interesting viewing. Too arch and meandering at times. But the central relationship, which takes maybe three quarters of the film to coalesce, is rich, meaningful and complex. Actually there are a series of relationships throughout the film with complexities running underneath them. Awesomely performed, especially by the two titular performers.
- Broadway By Light (1958), William Klein – Experimental short with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker involved. Americans invented Broadway to “make up for nightfall”. A garish and striking montage barrage of branding and yellow neon light. Some interesting examination of light, both the neon and natural varieties.
- The Good Wife Season 6 (2014), Robert King & Michelle King – This is just so well acted. Matthew Goode, Michael J. Fox and Mike Colter are the regular guest stars. Not to mention Alan Cumming just doing stunning work. The political aspects of the show, in the past some of the weakest, are really good here as Alicia attempts to enter public life. Though that does mean the characters are split, so we see less of Diane and Cary than I would have liked. It’s a little unfocused, with a number of characters just disappearing. Still, worthwhile for the ensemble.
Not Worth Watching:
- Meet the Patels (2014), Geeta & Ravi Patel – Found this far more cynical than I was expecting. Chronicles the very specific pressures of a certain culture with its insistence on marriage and annual trips to India. Felt flat. The animated interludes are annoying and unnecessary. The character at the centre is also not a particularly interesting or likeable dude. Occasional examination of generational differences are the best parts. Film boils down to a guy being too scared to tell his parents about his girlfriend… but then he does.
- Doctor Strange (2016), Scott Derrickson – This sees Marvel try something new. Unfortunately it’s really bad. The storytelling is flat and uninteresting, even for a Marvel flick. And it’s basically one we’ve seen countless times before. The script does nothing to elevate the thrust of the narrative and the decently written spiritual elements toward the start disappear fast. The only real achievement is it opens up the MCU to a more mystical realm pretty well. None of the characters are well developed, aside from Strange. And it’s a weird turn from Cumberbatch, seemingly not knowing how to play it tone-wise. The visuals and some of the creative chase scenes feel original and fun though.
If you only have time to watch one Tig
Avoid at all costs Meet the Patels
Pier Paolo Pasolini is an interesting dude. Actually that’s underselling it greatly. Pasolini may be the most interesting dude in cinema’s history. And perhaps the most interesting thing this gay, Marxist, atheist artist ever did, was make The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the definite cinematic account of the life of Jesus.
In terms of construction, the reverence that Pasolini has for the gospel as a piece of literature, makes the film play like a Shakespeare adaptation. There’s a faithfulness to the dialogue that initially jars, but quickly comforts the viewer through its familiarity and artfulness. The film is solemn and artistic, wordlessly creating a weight to moments, emotions and words that you can feel. The film opens on a close-up of the pregnant Mary’s face, centring her and the human, not deified, aspects of the birth of Jesus. The film is sparse in terms of exposition, presumably relying on the general familiarity with the source material. The story progresses almost as a montage of his greatest speeches for a time, effectively and rapidly establishing Jesus’ wisdom. The films builds through these speeches, with the words gaining more power and weight as the narrative goes along. There is an interesting lack of miracles or God in the film, rather casting Jesus in an interesting light. He talks of pitting family members against each other, while the scenes of him throwing down with the orthodoxy are the best of all. The film pulls no punches either in its approach. Both to paint a portrait of Jesus that is perhaps not what is expected, and in presenting the reality of the world as it was. There is an infanticide scene in particular that is very tough going. Overall there is a power to imagery and silence in the film. The wordless power of the crucifixion scene, boosted by the soundtrack, is very powerfully done.
Where you really see the director behind the film shine through, is in the subversive nature of Jesus. This is the Jesus of class struggle. A subversive, passionately geared toward overthrowing ingrained systems of power. An anarchist. Sure that’s inherent in the Jesus of the bible (if not the Jesus of today’s most prominent Christian movements), but Pasolini amplifies that over trite miracles. The focus of this cinematic Jesus (and by extension presumably the director) is blowing up the self-interest of those with unearned religious power. He ‘holds no distinction from man to man’. Again Pasolini emphasising the socialist aspect of Christ. There is a dichotomy to Jesus in that he is both man and more than man. Pasolini shows this through showing the way in which he renounces his family and other actions that appear questionable. As well as his very human grief at the death of John the Baptist. On the other hand is the depth of love he shows to the family he builds, of all those who have faith. A well of love that comes from a spirituality that transcends his biological humanity. Perhaps spiritual is too twee a word for The Gospel According to Matthew. Elemental may be more accurate and more in line with what Pasolini was angling for. This aspect is throughout the film. In the movement of people across landscapes, the acknowledgment of God, the purity of a child (any child), the great expanses of the physical environment and how Jesus occupies and moves through that expanse.
Verdict: This film from 1964 may well be the portrait of Jesus that 2016 needs. The historical figure, a fierce subversive, has long been highjacked by the right for their own devious means. Here is an elemental picture of the radical, delivered by a cinematic radical, lifted straight from the text of the bible. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Director Ken Loach is a champion for people who rarely have one in the field of cinema. Hell he is a champion for people who rarely have one in broader society, let alone the arts. I, Daniel Blake (2016) is as indignant and timely a film as the 80 year old has ever made – crushing, empathetic and infuriating. In the screening I was in, you could feel the energy pulsing through the audience as each injustice was wrought on the characters. The film sees Daniel Blake caught in the confusing maelstrom of the welfare system in England. A situation that leaves an honest man barely able to eat or get by.
Whilst the film is very specific to England, it confronts issues that also affect working class people in Australia as well as elsewhere. Conservative governments, fit to burst with privilege, see humiliation as an acceptable deterrent for welfare. They set out to frustrate those who desperately need help into abandoning hope because of the ‘system’. The film achingly depicts how state structures are used not just to humiliate, but to totally dehumanise those who most need the exact opposite in our society. The blame for this is squarely laid at the feet of conservative power, with their obsession for privatisation and savings above all else. Champions of ending welfare, they have never experienced hardship, so they can simply not fathom how others have. But all this is not achieved through staid or even generally depressing means. At the heart of the film is the (platonic) relationship between Dave Johns’ Daniel and Hayley Squires’ Katie. A single mum who Dan helps to get by in shocking circumstances. The heart and camaraderie of those in our society who have the least is one of the most uplifting elements of a film that for the most part is quite the opposite.
Verdict: The most important element of Loach’s filmmaking and worldview is his affection and respect for those he is depicting. I, Daniel Blake shows his sharp eye can turn equally to the oppressive mechanism of the state and the real people who are crushed by it. A quietly devastating film. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter