Like plenty of folk, last year I started doing #52filmsbywomen, attempting to watch at least a film a week directed by a woman. There is a huge range of great films to choose from and I easily filled my quota. But I was also keen to check out some older films directed by women, which are not as immediately findable as those on my Netflix queue. Which led me to the career of Ida Lupino, generally regarded as one of the true pioneers when it comes to female directors.
The Bigamist (1953) is one of Lupino’s most famous films and shows her willingness to take on material that is challenging, or was considered taboo at the time. The film subtly and effortlessly sets up the core plot machinations. A husband and wife, unable to conceive a child, are undergoing the adoption process. They are both presented with a form, allowing the powers that be to look into every detail of the private life. He’s aghast. She signs immediately. And from this simple, yet great sequence the audience is hooked, wanting to know where his hesitation stems from. The plot is not all that big on tension. When it is, the film plays like Double Indemnity (1944), but about adoption rather than insurance fraud. If the film does sag a little, it is during a very lengthy flashback. This is partly an issue because it sidelines the character of Eve Graham, played by Joan Fontaine who is perhaps the most interesting in the film or at least the character impacted by the events of the film in a most meaningful way. There is a lot going on in Eve’s relationship with her husband. Their inability to conceive a child and the business bent their relationship takes on because they work together. Perhaps most important is the fact that she’s so capable, better at his business than he is, a fact that clearly wounds his masculine pride. Fontaine delivers a great, emotional performance here, in a role that could have been kind of thankless in lesser hands.
Eve’s husband Harry is the bigamist of the title and Lupino delivers a very complex character. In a way he is set up as an almost sympathetic figure. Or perhaps more accurately a figure of pity. We see different sides to him – the doting enough husband, an annoying womanising cad – as the film progresses and depending on which woman he is with at the time. However for all the back and forth Lupino gives you with the character, it is clear that he is a weak scumbag and that is the overwhelming impression she wants to leave you with. In the end, the adoption inspector is the one who nails him and verbalises the audience’s feelings when he rebukes Harry by saying: “I despise you and I pity you.” The intricacies of the characters are one of the film’s real strengths. They are all interesting to some degree and Lupino establishes layers to them. The director controls the narrative in such a way that we are given fleeting peeks at these different elements when she chooses.
Verdict: The Bigamist starts out as a crime story with a difference, quietly morphing into a flashback heavy character study. The gender politics are pretty forward and Lupino excels at delivering complex characters that will challenge you as to exactly how you react to them. Pint of Kilkenny
Yet another huge month volume-wise for December and it turned out to be a relatively mixed bag. I’m really struggling to find the time to write at the moment, hence this being so late. But what is here is a good mix of catching up on 2016 things I had missed and a random assortment of older films.
- Finding Traction (2014), Jaime Jacobsen & Charles Dye – 55 minutes is really not enough time to capture the scope of an ultramarathon record attempt. This is ok and inspirational, but probably one only for runners. The filmmaking is workmanlike and any attempts at style flounder. But it does capture the mental aspect (i.e. trauma), of ultrarunning quite well.
- Tehran Taxi (2015), Jafar Panahi – High concept, yet organic feeling structure bears out the issues and differing viewpoints in contemporary Iran. Basically a dash-cam and Panahi talking to his passengers. Almost a strange car-bound melodrama at times, with some notes of farce too. Is meta in a way that I really dug. An ode to classic film in a very reserved, technically constrained way. A film about filmmaking from someone not allowed to make films. But more playful than you’d expect, and pulls no punches politically.
- Arena Azteca Budokan (2014), Orlando Jimenez Ruiz – Punk style doco about a specific wrestling gym in Mexico. Huge family dynasty, all living in apartments at the gym. Rambunctious – both the low-fi filmmaking and the atmosphere there. Also some great insight into Japanese wrestling culture. Very much focused on the female elements of this family, their worldwide achievements and legacy.
- Into the Inferno (2016), Werner Herzog – Immediately feels totally Herzog at his best. Though there are less of his interjections overall than I perhaps would have liked. Totally fearless, a little unhinged at its best. Stunning natural imagery, including some heart stopping historical imagery. A globetrotting volcanic adventure of Werner and his volcanologist mate Clive Oppenheimer. He doesn’t do it a lot here, but he is a master of combining imagery & voiceover in a poetic way. Unsurprisingly given the director, the mythical connotations of volcanoes are much more interesting than the scientific study of them.
- Green Room (2015), Jeremy Saulnier – The first half is perhaps a little stronger than the second. Mainly due to its depiction of band life on the road and the feeling of being steeped in a particular muso culture. Beautifully shot. It’s a great genre setup – cash strapped band take a gig at a skinhead bar. There’s a coarseness to the film that works but also makes it an at times tough watch. We’ve all had nights that get a little out of hand and this amplifies the shit out of that idea. Tense, nasty and brutal. Perhaps even a little too much so at times because it overwhelms some of that earlier texture.
- Arq (2016), Tony Elliott – I usually hate the time-loop plot conceit, but it’s built organically here. And it throws in a cool early twist which I’m always quite fond of. Solid sci-fi actioner that does a lot well – the production design is tops, I like both leads (Rachel Taylor & Robbie Amell) and they do good work here, and the machinations and shifting alliances are relatively enthralling to watch. It’s a nice slow burn that was not as schlocky as expected. Really tense by the end too.
- Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Steve Box & Nick Park – You can see there is so much love and care in every frame of this film. It’s completely disposable, with no thematic concerns. But there’s something almost refreshing about that these days, where every film feels like it is meant to mean something deeper. Love the classic riffing on classic horror films and the visual approach is as grand as you’d expect from Aardman. A surprisingly excellent score too.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone – Hilarious music mockumentary, led by the unstoppable Andy Samberg. Inclusion of big name, real life musos is inspired. I just had a smile the whole time. Samberg is this totally unassuming dude who is doing the greatest comedy out there at the moment. Quality of writing in general, but particularly the songs is brilliant. Does lose a little momentum in the second half, but there are lots of big laughs.
- Scouting in Palestine (1965), Pier Paolo Pasolini – Great insight into Pasolini’s headspace prior to the making of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). Can see his perceptions of the Middle East being changed the more he experiences it, his frustration apparent at the modernity which doesn’t gel with his needs. Also a view into his artistic process, assessing everything for its filmic worth. Though Pasolini does sort of ‘other’ the locals in a way that’s problematic, talking of “savage, pre-Christian faces”.
- Forty Guns (1957), Samuel Fuller – There’s a really cool suaveness to the whole thing that you don’t expect from a Western of this vintage. The dialogue utterly snaps. Really creatively shot with a focus on the body, close-ups of eyes and hands etc. Stanwyck is great as you would expect, playing a really strong character. I like the construction of the story too –keeping the leads apart for such a long time, then when they finally meet they crackle. Interesting themes of the pressure for people to settle down as the frontier is finished. Any sense the central romantic intrigue is perfunctory is so well performed you’ll get over it quickly.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Gareth Edwards – Decent rather than amazing. Feels like Edwards’ film which is good. Storytelling is solid, especially the pretty ballsy ending and the dogfighting action is great to take in as always. The phenomenal cast is the main attraction. Felicity Jones convinces and inspires, Diego Luna is an able assistant and folks like Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads and Mendo do a great job at rounding it out. But it’s for sure the weakest score in the franchise’s history. The universe is starting to feel a little tired. And to me this sits unsteadily to the side of the main franchise.
- A Teacher (2013), Hannah Fidell – An immediately discomforting situation as a female teacher undertakes a relationship with a male student. Plenty of style here. The use of music is amazing and the shooting lends everyday sequences a heightened sensibility. The lead performance from Lindsay Burdge is very good, capturing someone who is naïve and out of their depth. An illicit affair as an outlet for fucked up shit in her life, a distancing thing. Like the running we see in interludes. Builds up the deep sadness of her character as someone who really does not have it together. The inevitable fractures do come, but in a very realistic way from both parties.
- Viva (2007), Anna Biller – Totally commits to its conceit – music, shooting, stylings. Awesomely, intentionally laboured. Riffs on TV/film of the period and classical advertising. Wholly unique and kinda audacious. There are so many ways this over-stylisation could be fumbled, but it’s well brought to life and never becomes too self-aware. There’s a real dark edge to the film too. The performances are great. Focusses on gender attitudes and skewering them. A pastiche both of genre (musical, farce), as well as style.
- Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), Rick Morales – Basically 70 mins of shtick. Which eventually runs out of charm. But it is still just worthwhile because it’s good fun for a while. The silly, pithy dialogue transports to the 60s, while the music and gadgets are brilliant. Cutely plays on technical differences between then and now. But the fight scenes really go on and are bland. The inconsequential nature of the plot really tells as it goes along too. As does the fact it’s a little painful in its self-awareness.
- Miss Stevens (2016), Julia Hart – There’s an America singalong, so that’s an automatic thumbs up from me. Another portrait of a person in a role of responsibility struggling. Good characters, with the teens instantly recognisable to us all. Lily Rabe lands the tricky performance of a teacher very much inside her own head. Occasionally becomes too trite and the film stumbles when examining relationship grey areas. But there is some really solid examination of mental illness here and lots to like.
- Salut Les Cubains (1971), Agnes Varda – A quite incredible mix pf photography and film. A mix of Varda’s personal history/reflections, with a more objective overarching history of the revolution. Smartly delivered with two separate voiceovers. Incredible use of photos and beautiful craft to it all. The soundtrack is really great too.
- The Finest Hours (2016), Craig Gillespie – A Disney film that feels almost painfully wholesome at times. Effects are incredible, there’s an epic scale to the waves and boats, with none of the shittiness that generally comes with generating that kind of scope. It’s good, though you get the feeling it’s aiming for something a little more epic/great. There is a nice romance at the heart of it, well brought to life by Chris Pine and Holliday Grainger. Casey Affleck is a little over-actey though. Whilst it never threatens to raise the tension at all high, this is perfectly passable stuff.
- Vagabond (1985), Agnes Varda – Opens with the death of the ‘vagrant’ main character, which lends a sad inevitability to it all. Very little care shown throughout as she is basically dismissed by though around her. Structurally a touch cluttered. But the lead performance from Sandrine Bonnaire is dynamic and just the right amount of enigmatic. About loneliness and the necessary, or otherwise, nature of societal interactions. Love how her idealism is challenged or played on as she moves through the film. Due to her status, people see her as a novelty rather than a complete person. Also, all elements of society feel able to proffer some judgement on her. Really great stuff
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Taika Waititi – Wry kiwi humour. A much more poignant setup than I was expecting. Film is quite grounded in the character of Ricky and what he has lived through. Charming and really sharply written, mixing in a lot of heart nicely. Waititi has a real eye for a shot or sequence, often combined with music (for example one of my favourite ever car chases which occurs late on). And both the lead performances are great and complement each other perfectly.
Not Worth Watching
- Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), Jake Szymanski – A hard one for me. There were lots of laughs and some good performances. Aubrey Plaza & Anna Kendrick are super good and their characters bring a lot, whilst Zac Efron & Adam Devine have a good rapport. But it’s really aggressively hetero-normative at times, which definitely lessens the appeal. A bit one-note too.
- Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), Werner Herzog – Perhaps my least favourite Herzog doco. Siberia such an intriguing place, but this is very specific but also very quiet and reserved. Also this is totally focused on hunting and that really ain’t my thing. None of his usual insight. The happiness of the title is very much a form of back to basics freedom Herzog is advocating. Though of course there are some spectacular pieces of nature photography throughout.
- Red Dawn (1984), John Milius – This is such a totally over the top conservative piece of work. Some nice scenery is brutally and frequently interrupted by really gross violence. Silly plot as you flick a montage switch and some kids are suddenly amazing guerrilla bandits changing the face of World War III with farcical effectiveness. Zero character development which particularly hurts the female characters, meaning Jennifer Grey & Lea Thompson are wasted. And the storytelling of a war within a war is poor, with no sense of the scope as to where it fits in.
- Gods of Egypt (2016), Alex Proyas – No weight to it at all. Looks cheap and awful. And there is no faster way to get me offside than to kill Bryan Brown, who is totally hamming it up, in the first 10 minutes. The action is a cartoony mess and the performances range from a totally lifeless Gerard Butler to the moderately ok Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Awful, but too shoddy and especially charmless to be a good bad movie.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016), Dave Green – Equally as awful as the first. Action is a too fast, cartoony mess while the voice work of the turtles is really poor. These films have completely sidelined and ruined the character of Splinter. Because everything feels so light and weightless, nothing means anything, even on a simple plot level. Stephen Amell is at least some fun as Casey Jones. Legit one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen.
- Man vs Snake (2015), Tim Kinzy & Andrew Seklir – Sick of these boringass docos. Someone does something vaguely interesting or impressive. Then someone puts together a bog standard doco on it. There is potential to do something different here – explore the hold video game arcades still have on small-town America. But nope. The incredible endurance aspect of the feat is never conveyed, even if you do get invested in his quest by the end.
- Anomalisa (2015), Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman – A visually interesting film about an entitled white guy is still a film about an entitled white guy. About a yearning for a stage in one’s life with a much greater intensity. Occasionally works as a collection of themes but never as an interesting narrative. Bella is a much more interesting character than the direly bland male lead who has a hugely inflated view of his own self-worth. More than a bit gross. Plies a woman with so many mojitos she can’t stand, before having sex with her.
- Nerve (2016), Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman – Like ‘truth or dare’ for the social media generation… but more obvious and crap than that premise suggests. Awful dialogue. Emma Roberts and Dave Franco work relatively well together. But the film is really poorly plotted with no balance to how it flows. And some woeful, tacked on attacks at anonymous internet culture.
If you only have time to watch one Tehran Taxi
Avoid at all costs Anomalisa
Like everyone who saw it, I was a huge fan of the first season of Rick and Morty. However the busy Dan Harmon and crew would leave us all hanging for a couple of years until they got around to delivering Season 2. Thankfully the wait was more than worth it.
The first season of the show embraced the concept of a foul-mouthed animated Back to the Future (1985) featuring the drunk, obnoxious super-scientist Rick and his grandson Morty full-tilt. The second season continues that with more space-based adventures, here delving into a multiuverse style concept that I don’t recall being so prominent in the earlier season. But it also does a whole lot more. Much of it hinges on Rick, for me already one of the greatest TV characters ever, and his blend of crassness and genius, as well as how Morty interacts with that. The latter is now showing shades of world-weariness to go along with the wide-eyed wonder of new worlds opening up to him that we saw in the first season. Rick is just utterly laugh-out-loud though, episodes such as the one focusing on Tiny Rick had me legitimately crying with laughter. One thing this show does that very few others attempt, let alone succeed at, is to blend silliness and seriousness. Some episodes are more uniformly one rather than the other. But most of the time the show blends the two in a way that really shouldn’t work, but the exceptional writing ensures it does. The show also pushes boundaries in terms of just how dark humour can be, mining some exceptionally grim sources for laughs. Though there is just as much silliness delivering laughs as well. A fair amount of my note-taking boiled down to recording zingers such as ‘Couchferatu’.
In many ways this feels like a culmination of all adult-focused TV animated comedy that has come before. There is the crassness of South Park, but here it rarely feels like simplistic blunt attempts to shock. It riffs on the same episode setup as The Simpsons, where often what the first five minutes of the episode is not at all what the rest is about, but here that often spirals out into absurdist realms. But where this takes the form somewhere new is that this is a challenging show in a totally different way to the others mentioned. Dense sci-fi ideas touched upon in Futurama are here taken to mind-boggling ends. These, and other aspects of the show, challenge viewers regarding what it means to be human and what it means to be a good one, Notions only flirted with in the most superficial way by these other shows. The ambition level is so high on some episodes that I think repeat viewings will be rewarded to help take some of it in. There is sort of a trade-off at play here. The more ambitious stuff is often the least funny. And occasionally the show becomes a little too intense, undermining enjoyment of individual episodes. But frankly it is genuinely beautiful and challenging in a way that elevates the whole show in any case.
Verdict: Crass, well written, geeky, self-referential, tapped into pop culture and fuckin funny. If that sounds like your thing then this season of Rick and Morty certainly won’t disappoint. Brilliant. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter