You know how last month I mentioned personal stuff going on that made that piece so late? Well the same personal stuff has left me with a lot of time to watch movies, mainly in chunks around 3:30am, which means this month’s effort is a monster. Heavy on light viewing fare though, so expect loads of action flicks and a really surprising number of sequels too.
- The Good Wife Season 7 (2015), Michelle & Robert King – An up and down, but worthwhile close to The Good Wife It’s basically back to the same old firm, abandoning the charm the smaller Florrick Argos had brought. And the constant dropping of characters with no mention is deeply frustrating. But Lucca is a great addition to the cast. Pays off big emotional setups from seasons earlier with devastating effectiveness. The courtroom storytelling aspect has gone downhill a fair bit this season though, in no small part due to the continued sidelining of the character of Cary. But despite frustrations, this season satisfies and even delivers a monologue moment that’s one of the show’s finest.
- Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3 (2015), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Continues to be a truly great TV comedy. More of the same this season. But when the same is hilariously silly writing and an ensemble cast of incredible characters, that isn’t a bad thing. The surprising depth to the characters is the show’s secret strength I think. And the cast which seems it throws up a new MVP each season. Here it is Melissa Fumero as the hilarious ‘straightwoman’ Amy Santiago.
- Black Mass (2015), Scott Cooper – Takes a lot of inspiration stylistically from Goodfellas (1990). But based on an even more incredible true story. I really like the score and how much it is used. The script it not the best, though the performances minimise the impact of that. Depp is really good. He reigns in his bullshit and brings a fierce, quiet menace that is amplified by his wasted, cruel appearance. Sketches out the hero to worship on the part of Edgerton’s deluded bum of an FBI agent. Depp’s vicious character, with him embodying the required demeanour and physicality, is very much the focus of this violent film.
- FE26 (2014), Kevin Jerome Everson – Dynamic short documentary portraiture of two guys stealing unused copper to sell. Pained as a bit of a victimless crime (which it probably is) to get by. Two really interesting dudes and you get a sense of why they do this and how. As well as illustrating the financial crisis as the cause of all the empty houses, but through the perspective of these two guys.
- Semi-Pro (2008), Kent Alterman – Better than I recall, one of the best uses of Ferrell in full blow silly mode. Helps that Woody Harrelson is playing it pretty straight, functioning as a perfect foil. Cast is all good, Andre 3000 and Maura Tierney bring a lot too. Riffs on, but is not beholden to the sports film structure. Also does some fun stuff with the period setting. Has perhaps a lower jokes per minute count than a lot of Ferrell’s films, but some of the laughs are huge.
- Elle (2016), Paul Verhoeven – Totally challenging filmmaking. Storytelling in a way that I think our brains are not programmed to comfortably deal with. A horror film. Adapts many facets of the genre – basements, score, jump scares, horrific childhood events – to say something about sexual assault. A lot of the film chronicles someone working through the trauma of rape. But it’s not only about that. Isabelle Huppert is otherworldly good here and it’s difficult to imagine the film working as well with another actress. Amongst everything else, the best directed film I’ve seen this year. Verhoeven has his audience on a string.
- Eldridge Cleaver (1970), William Klein – Portrait of a Black Panther leader in exile. An incredible talker, impassioned and confrontational about the process of the American system. Has deep ideas and the words to engage you with them. Openly militant in his desired approach. Also functions well as a potted history of Afro-liberation struggles, told by those doing the struggling. Relevant too as we can see the U.S. establishment using the same tactics of propaganda against supposed Islamic extremism as they did against the Panthers. A rumination on the connections between violence and policy.
- Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni – Looks great. A creative, if not totally innovative, visual approach. These films are good at nailing that theme of being totally out of one’s depth. But there’s some super unnecessary stuff in here about beauty standards. The action is so well choreographed and animated though. And all the voice cast are really solid.
- Zoolander 2 (2016), Ben Stiller – Feels like it slips smoothly into that same comedic groove as the first. Quite funny and there are lots of cameos done with great spirit (Kiefer Sutherland just pips Sting for my favourite of the film). The performances are really strong and it is sharply written. Rehashes beats from the first film sparingly and when it does, they’re fresh and funny. I laughed a lot.
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), David Yates – Like most middle films, this one meanders a lot. And it struggles to feel anything but perfunctory and make the plot meaningful. I think that’s a lot easier to do at this stage of a franchise in book form. But there’s some really strong thematic attacks on conservatism I loved. And some nice casting, especially Imelda Staunton playing against type, Gary Oldman being damn good and Radcliffe & Watson just having their roles downpat at this point.
- F/X (1986), Robert Mandel – Very 80s. Nice, clean action film setup. Bryan Brown has real leading man charisma. Some of the effects plotting is fun, if a little silly. It’s a touch unremarkable, but the acting puts it over the top. The villains are all good and Brian Dennehy has a really great presence.
- F/X2 (1991), Richard Franklin – Very 90s. Really follows on from the ramifications of the first which I like in a sequel. Brown’s Rollie now makes toys, which is nowhere near as cool as doing movie special effects let’s face it. Has some really tense moments, almost in a horror style. But also has a man fighting an animatronic clown suit. Return of Dennehy as Leo is an awesome addition. Plotwise, it’s basically a remake, but with the job change making it a little sillier. And with a lot more Home Alone (1990) overtones. There is also a real nasty, brutal side to this one.
- Bad Moms (2016), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore – Such a winning cast. Kunis is really good as the lead. Pinkett-Smith and especially Applegate, nailing the uppity PTA president, are great in supporting roles. And Kathryn Hahn is a pitch-perfect piece of casting. The soundtrack really pops. There is so much to like about this film. Open and unembarrassed in its raunchiness, riffing on white dude entitlement and the struggles of parenting. Not at all mean spirited which feels so nice. An inclusive, funarse film.
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt – A lot of biblical stuff – landscapes, direct references in speech, search for a new promised land and the placing of faith in divine providence. Michelle Williams plays a very good character, she sees through the idiotic Meek much more astutely than the others. Film delineates the genders in a strange, interesting way. Characters are basically all sketches which works for this film. The character of Stephen Meek seems out of place though, an almost comical note to him. Film as a journey. Starts out as a quite ethereal one. Then very much a real one. Those two intermingle.
- Amanda Knox (2016), Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn – Really well constructed and broad ranging true-crime storytelling. All talking heads means the lack of authorial intervention does allow some claims to go un-interrogated. But it really sketches out (in their own words often) the sense of ego on the part of the local police force, and their shameful rush to arrest because the eyes of the world are on them.
- The Equalizer (2014), Antoine Fuqua – It’s a slow start. But Denzel’s presence and Fuqua’s visual style lift it. The early interactions between Denzel and Moretz crackle. So it’s a shame she disappears from the film for so long. It meanders too much from what should be the core story. Loses that heart. But individual scenes are really well paced and there’s great style to it all, especially the extended action sequences. Exceedingly, incredibly violent though.
- Tallulah (2016), Sian Heder – The main attractions here are Ellen Page being excellent and some really well drawn themes on the struggles of being a new parent (including the emotional brutality of post-natal depression). Page has a really personable screen presence and that comes through here, even when playing a drifter who steals a neglected baby. Her interactions with Allison Janney’s disapproving kinda mother in law provide both the film’s best parts and its most trite. Slight, but good.
Not Worth Watching
- Raiders (2015), Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen – Such a rich story for any film lover, but they don’t do much with it. Filming of the final scene decades on feels like a vanity project and it’s hard to get invested in it. There’s also something quite upsetting about the dude getting hurt in the explosion they put on to complete the film. Cowboy filmmaking. The storytelling is slipshod, even if the historical stuff is of more interest. Which is a bummer because things like how they all bonded over their similar tough upbringings is really interesting.
- Robocop 2 (1990), Irvin Kershner – Certainly not a bastion of subtlety. But also scarily relevant – privatisation and treatment of public servants core concerns. Robocop is comically slow and clunky. Doesn’t stop him unleashing loads and loads of really over the top, indiscriminate violence. Effects work is totally shoddy. The script makes very little sense and the politics around the nature of police work are pretty chilling given where we find ourselves now. And the use of the kid is totally disquieting. Not just bad, but really nasty as well.
- Into the Storm (2014), Steven Quale – It starts totally underwhelming with no exhilaration to the opening action sequence. And that’s basically where it stays. There are some great storm special effects that deserve a lot better than to be attached to this dud, which is really just a wannabe Twister (1996). Not wholly awful I guess, but damn close. Nothing lands with the impact you suspect the filmmakers were hoping for.
- Jenny’s Wedding (2015), Mary Agnes Donoghue – ‘Seems like an interesting premise for a Katherine Heigl film’ was a thought I would come to regret. So chaste, afraid to realistically present the lesbian relationship that should be the film’s focal point. The script is awfully clunky too. For all its faults, it does some stuff well. Tom Wilkinson is incredibly good, but it’s glaring how much he stands out in a mediocre cast. And some of the big emotional moments late on do land quite well.
- Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015), Wes Ball – Really kinda awful. Just a lifeless zombie flick with nary a maze to be found. The sexual politics are shitty too, with the minuscule number of female characters being constantly rescued by the dudes. Direction and storytelling are inept, whilst they really don’t bother with characterisation at all. Middle films are tough, but this is a monumentally bad piece of franchise storytelling, that barely progresses the overall arc in 2 hours.
If you only have time to watch one Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3
Avoid at all costs Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
As far as female arthouse directors go, Agnes Varda is right at the top of most lists. With a career that has stretched from La Pointe Courte (1955) to today, she has directed around 50 films. A remarkable achievement for any director, let alone a female one, given the system seems to be set up to deprive women filmmakers of multiple chances.
Perhaps her most famous film, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) is the first I’ve seen from Varda. It opens on a tarot reading, the cards on the table the only parts of the film shot in colour. From there it delivers a fantastic character study with a great sense of a specific time (the 60s) and a specific place (Paris). The latter two achieved in large part through the sequences of Cleo simply roaming the city. The main character is an increasingly famous singer, living in opulence and facing a health crisis of some form or another. For most of the run time, the audience is kept in suspense as to whether it is a legitimate illness or something minor exacerbated by hypochondria. The film is about a woman’s experience as she navigates a couple of tense hours but also a life. She may be a hypochondriac. But it may also be that she is merely being dismissed as whiny and attention seeking because she is a woman. It is notable just how much we see the action through a female lense, because it is so rare in film. There are interactions with cat calling bogans, brief loving portraits of toughass female taxi drivers and a focus on beauty and societal beauty standards. “When I am still beautiful, I am alive” Cleo reflects early on, intoxicated by her own beauty. But this is also the film pondering the importance of superficiality to this character, and women more broadly.
The greatest feat of Varda with Cleo from 5 to 7 is the way she conveys the inner state of her characters. This is done through form, style and music. A disconcerting camera with quickly repeated shots. Mesmeric reflections upon reflections. The settings providing a contrast between inner and outer spaces. Cleo ‘suffocates’ in her huge opulent apartment. The white, clear spaces not reflecting the tumult of her mind as she ponders her potential sickness and mortality. Similarly her aimless roving over the cityscape is evocative of the swirling, concerned inner life. The editing also helps reflect the place of a celebrity in society, everyone staring at Cleo. Again the discomfort the viewer feels as a result of these stares situates the film as emanating from the female gaze. The film is shot really nicely, the camera often situated closer than expected, putting us right in the action feeling what Cleo is feeling. This is helped by the great lead performance from Corinne Marchand – intense but at times charming, troubled and physically embodying the character.
Verdict: Totally focused on the female experience, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a study of character, time and place. Varda is a master of conveying the inner state of a character in a subtle, technically brilliant way that is well worth checking out. Pint of Kilkenny