Let the catch-up continue!!! This was also the month I started my podcast. So if you see any hyperlinked titles here, click through to find the full podcast review.
- Ali Wong: Baby Cobra (2016), Jay Kara – Great delivery. Some of the material is a touch tired, but her personality wins that over. Nicely brings her unique background to the material. I laughed a lot, which seems a pretty fair measure of these things.
- Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrey Tarkovsky – Not a fan of Tarkovsky but I love this. Elevated images of childhood and incredibly black and white cinematography. Harrowing use of imagery and editing. Use of shadow to dominate and oppress the frame. A really beautiful and artistic film. The titular childhood, or rather the loss of it, is quite profound. An exploitation of childhood rather than a loss really. Some of the meandering artiness does detract at times. Though it also deepens Ivan’s character.
- Merantau (2009), Gareth Evans – That notion of right of passage from childhood to adulthood. Also really gets at that feeling of being adrift and overwhelmed in a new city. Uwais has such a nicely unique fighting style. Choreography is top notch and even early on Evans had some chops when it came to shooting action. I like how Uwais gets his butt whooped on occasion. It’s a nice, simple action film plot. Though it gets a bit icky with the treatment of the main female character. The sequence in the shipyard is perhaps one of the all-time great fight sequences.
- Crumbs (2015), Miguel Llanso – I really liked this understated, unique piece of Ethiopian sci-fi. A sparse number of characters interacting in a similarly presented space. A simply rendered post-apocalypse with absurdist touches – a nazi turns up at one point. Incredible to see a disabled person in such a prominent (and romantic) role. It’s a great performance too. I really like this world, and the subtle sci-fi battle for survival that takes place in it. A cool quirkiness that doesn’t grate, perhaps due to the low budget craft – a giant hand space-ship, engagement with long dormant pop-culture (ninja turtles). Also very funny, both in quiet dry ways and in the way it repurposes current everyday/pop-culture items as objects of great significance. The latter is especially charming.
- Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015), Dibakar Banerjee – A lot of period style here, some heightened noir and genre vibes throughout. At times the presentation of Bakshy as a wannabe Sherlock ultra-intellectual doesn’t work. But those elements of the character become more watchable as the film progresses. It’s grand to see that kind of character operating against the backdrop of WWII era Calcutta. It’s a well-acted and bloody invocation of classic detective stories, hewing closely to the form’s conventions. An excellent score too. Bakshy’s self-doubt makes for a nice wrinkle to the super-smart detective vibe.
- I’m So Excited (2013), Pedro Almodovar – Just my second Almodovar film. A very funny vibe – beginning with the disinterested mannerisms of the flight attendants. The soundtrack is cleverly used to support the comedic, faux-serious vibe. I really dug this film. A whole raft of great performances and a great comedic tone too. Or tones I guess as it rolls up and down, weaving in some more serious dramatic notes too. And a director who is able to manage all of this remarkably well.
- Bad Education (2004), Pedro Almodovar – Almodovar is such a great visual stylist, he can bring a totally different look to each film. This film utilises a flashback upon flashback structure that continually reframes the narrative. But it’s never confusing and the relevance to the ongoing story is always clear. A film about a lot of things including the intersection of career & friendship, as well as the impact of childhood sexual abuse on a life. A very dark, meticulously crafted narrative that is a clear commentary on systematic abuse in the church and the depravity bred there. But it’s not the whole focus at all, the film also comments on notions of performance and living in a performative way.
- Chevalier (2015), Athina Rachel Tsangari – Captures a testosterone fuelled vibe from the start. Bitter and resentful competition to be the blokiest bloke on the boat, commenting on the daft masculinity that exists to even allow such a thing. An absurd ultra-competitiveness over every little matter, that you could totally see happening in real life. The premise is revealed in a very dry, almost wry way. This is also very funny in a way unlike any other film I can recall. Way the toxicity builds is really well judged. Sublimely controlled filmmaking and storytelling.
- The Birth of Love (1993), Philippe Garrel – The artistic black and white shooting is an early way in, important as the characters and storytelling are initially a battle. Pockets of intimacy against an urban backdrop. Personal moments against the sprawl and realist glimpses into the domestic sphere. Well performed and backed by a lovely, sparse piano score. Though this is also one of those age old tales where the female characters are far more interesting but barely onscreen. There should be something insufferable about how the two leads shirk responsibility and lead selfish lives. But it is interesting how that is viewed by the filmmaker and re-contextualised in the film.
- Summer of ’92 (2015), Kasper Barfoed – A snappily put together sports film, though the focus on the coach means it struggles to make strong characters of the players. The incorporation of actual match footage is a great choice. Though it stumbles when the actors are spliced in. But the central character of the coach is an interesting guy, the way he faces disrespect from the media is a different focus than the norm.
- The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Agnes Varda – no film has ever endeared me to its creator more than this one. Varda is such an engaging and inquisitive presence onscreen as she creatively explores the documentary process. Rumination of elements of her life through the presence of one type of landscape. Such a specific concept, but is made to feel otherwise. Constantly beautiful and visually playful. A beautiful life history. Both through reflections and more performative considerations. Also functions as a consideration of her filmography, done in such a way that its worth those not familiar with her work viewing it.
- Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Amy Holden Jones – Such a great entry into the slasher canon, made all the more important by the fact it’s written, produced and directed by women. Gory, and let’s face it, a big fuck-off drill is a great slasher weapon. An extremely 80s film. I dig that it’s very teen girl focused and that’s from a female perspective. There’s some excellent extended tension in individual scenes. And the film lightens the mood with some fun fake outs. Plus stylistically there’s some cool stuff here, cross-cutting and match shots. The film functions well as a reflection on abusive men and misogyny. A great slasher.
- Wonder Woman (2017), Patty Jenkins – The period approach and the choice of director pay off handsomely. It is subversive and feminist to see a woman dominant in the sphere of war. Not just the WWI depicted in the film, but the fact it’s a war film with a dominant female fighter. How she moves on a totally different level, a blend of grace and destructiveness. The mythology elements add a nice wrinkle to the standard fish out of water elements. It perhaps doesn’t quite come together as a whole. But there is so much to love. The ensemble works well with an incredible Gadot at the core. Embodies the power of the character and someone with a unique viewpoint on masculinity, war and power given her upbringing. The relationship, both as war comrades and romantic interest, with Pine’s Trevor is really well handled. Booming sound design punctuates the action, though the soundtrack is disappointingly unnoticeable for the most part.
- Ophelia (2013), Annarita Zambrano – Two boys ride to where they think a woman is sunbathing nude. Young and playful. It’s not menacing, but the male gaze is present from very early on. Horrifically they find her dead body in the tide. They cover her and move her away from the ocean. Two really good, un-showy performances from the kids. Place her body in an ‘acceptable’ state, as if to make amends. Though on another level executing a level of control as they bicker over the body in a typical male way.
- Hot Rod (2007), Avika Schaffer – Hilarious, as this crew always are. Real nice sunny visuals and a top comedy cast – Samberg, Hader, McBride and Isla Fisher. McShane threatens to steal the show as a shitty father in law. Impossible not to be swept along in the charm of this. Even if it perhaps does not linger in the memory as much as some of their later work.
- Beauty Shop (2005), Billie Woodruff – There’s some truly wacky acting in this thing – Kevin Bacon and Alicia Silverstone are… really going for something or other. Shift in location from Chicago to Atlanta adds some texture. Once Latifah opens up her own shop it improves heaps. Ends up capturing that same vibe as the other films, but in a legitimately female focussed way. Familiar and fresh. Love this series of films.
- Munyurangabo (2007), Lee Isaac Chung – Presents a very specific patriarchal society, along with the set of expectations that brings around familial responsibility and notions of stature. Also gets to the ethnic divisions in Rwanda. As much as the film does a good job of conveying all of that, no doubt some of the subtleties are lost on me. The film nicely reveals over time the true nature of their journey and ethnic relations between the main characters. It’s very artistic, at times having a nice impressionist road movie bent to it, though the perspective is occasionally unclear. But those idiosyncratic elements provide the film’s best moment – a character looks at the camera and delivers a powerhouse poem straight at the camera.
- Monster Trucks (2017), Chris Wedge – Look there is very little here, but what there is strangely worked for me. Rob Lowe as an oil baron an obvious plus. As are underwater sorta octopus aliens with an affinity for monster trucks (these show up within 5 minutes). And I was pleasantly surprised by how strong the animation is and particularly how well it is incorporated into the action sequences.
- Hotel Coolgardie (2016), Pete Gleeson – Immediately establishes the sexist culture. Owner of the local pub essentially demands the new employees are attractive women. Referred to as fresh meat by the customers and borne out by their actions. A quite simply made, deeply disquieting film that lingers on awkward moments. Illustrates starkly the ‘ghettos’ of men that spring up in these locations. A depressing film about depressing people. Wisely focuses on a couple of locals, which allows the characters to be fleshes out and bring out the complexities. The film is not trying to say these men are evil. But that there is a toxic culture all around them, not specifically about drinking culture. Uncomfortable viewing.
Not Worth Watching:
- Agata’s Friends (2015), Laia Alabart, Alba Cros, Marta Verheyen & Laura Rius – Focusses in on the partying and camaraderie of uni life. At times it also captures the aimlessness of sorts of early uni life, the silly tiffs and the faux intellectual bluster of students. But needed a stronger sense of character. The plot and relationships between them are frustratingly vague which really hurts it overall.
- 1941 (1979), Steven Spielberg – I think this is Spielberg’s worst film, certainly his wildest misfire. There are hints of his ability to find tonal notes, particularly in the situating of the plot in WWII California paranoia. But it’s deeply, desperately unfunny. It’s true you can make a comedy out of anything. But this gives none of the weight to the war that a film should.
- Mongol (2007), Sergei Bodrov – A great looking film desperately let down by the storytelling side of things. The life of Genghis Khan should provide really rich source material, but that’s not realised unfortunately. A lot of the early going is just Temudjin getting his arse kicked repeatedly. It’s a bit of a mess. The film fits into a recent trend of romanticised Khan origin stories. The film’s central thesis seems to be that Genghis Khan was a family man who overcame great adversity. Suspect there’s more to it than that.
- Assassins Creed (2016), Justin Kurzel – What a stupid fuckin movie. Opens with a moronic rock song over period setting, which immediately captures the blend of crass and bland we are in for. A large part of the issue is that I just don’t think there’s much potential to this plot. And the basic driving force of the narrative is totally nonsensical. The themes around control of power are simply laughable in their portrayal. Plus this is just an utterly non-exhilarating ride really. A muddled mess.
- Deepwater Horizon (2016), Peter Berg – Competent, though uninspired and laboured storytelling. Well constructed, the sets etc. And Kurt Russell and Gian Rodriguez give good performances, as you would expect. BP get roasted from the start which is nice, but it is strange (and a little disingenuous) that they don’t try to tell the whole story/aftermath whatsoever. So oppressively blokey and bleak.
If you only have time to watch one The Beaches of Agnes
Avoid at all costs 1941
For a range of reasons, I’m about a year behind on these worth watching posts. But over that entire time I have taken notes on every film I watched. I thought it was about time to write them all up and start churning these out. It will take me a little while, but you have about 200 or so reviews coming your way.
- Jessica Jones Season 1 (2015), Melissa Rosenberg – Hard-boiled detective tropes with a strong filter of a disturbingly well-realised PTSD. I really liked this. But it’s super intense and took me a long time to work my way through it. Kirsten Ritter excels as the weary, put-upon, but brilliant Jones. And as Kilgore, David Tennant is a remarkable, brutal vision of misogynist power with Jedi abilities. Utilises a lot of horror techniques to ramp the intensity up even more. A searing indictment of male privilege
- Riverdale Season 1 (2017), Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa – I don’t really have a grounding in the Archie mythos, so took me a while to get into this one. It’s a weird fuckin show. Some stylish visuals and the two lead female performances are excellent. Though the character of Archie is the least interesting thing about the whole show. The pulpy mystery elements are really interesting and some of the romance stuff is really sharply written. Crafts a nice heightened small town full of secrets vibe. Even with all the truly daft teen dialogue flying about, this show makes it work. Notably is really strong at parsing the differences between adulthood and being a kid, as well as that element of teendom that everyone’s a little fucked up.
- Mildred Pierce (2011), Todd Haynes – Does a good job of presenting a women facing off against a society that dismisses her and does not care for her (and by extension her kids). Miniseries format really gives the adaptation space to breathe. It’s great, subtle work by both Haynes and Winslet. It’s quite flat narratively. But you are made to ache for the central character by the creative team with this really bleak rumination on life and humanity.
- Santa Clarita Season 1 (2017), Victor Fresco – This doesn’t seem to be one of the Netflix originals that has a lot of people talking about it. But I think it’s my favourite so far. Gross and over the top visceral in a gleefully yuck way, with some great practical effects. All four of the lead performances are really nice and the connections grow over the course of the season. The mix of comedy and cannibalism you’ve been looking for. Even though the last ep was a slight let down, I am hanging out for season 2.
- The Terror Live (2013), Byung-woo Kim – Great setup. Dude calls a radio station threatening to blow up a bridge, gets dismissed, then does it. This then escalates into a live TV event. Showcasing the callous, cynical nature of the media. Also focuses in on inequality in contemporary, supposedly developed, South Korea. A very chatty thriller that gets a little silly at times. Second half is certainly not as tight, in part because it feels the need to make the story too complex.
- Personal Shopper (2016), Olivier Assayas – There’s a lot of really complex stuff going on in this film. It’s one I really liked but perhaps hard to articulate exactly why. For starters, it functions deceptively well as a straight horror film. And Kirsten Stewart gives a pretty extraordinary performance. Much of it is hard to pin down, in a nice not frustrating way though. It’s a film about forbidden desires, personal ambition, mortality and the meaning of life.
- T2 Trainspotting (2017), Danny Boyle – Densely edited and shot. This is not a sequel I was particularly anticipating, but the approach is admirable. Reflects on what it feels like to have fulfilled none of your potential. The difficulty of coming to terms with a ‘normal’ life. Nice mix of older characters moving through these thematic concerns and new ones giving a fresh set of eyes on these blokes who are both tired and refreshed.
- The Burbs (1989), Joe Dante – Young Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher & Bruce Dern is a hell of a start to a cast. Such a Joe Dante film, with his unique storytelling knack. Fisher in sardonic mode can’t be beat whilst Hanks is great as a put-upon suburbanite. Corey Feldman is nicely precocious too. The plot is suburban concern elevated to live & death struggle, lots of slow-motion and soaring music (the score from Jerry Goldsmith is excellent).
- Batman Returns (1992), Tim Burton – At his best, as he is here, Burton is so good at creating these unique, heightened worlds. Very much helped along by Danny Elfman’s expansive, but not over the top, score. The plot is full of holes & undercooked elements, But that actually plays as charming, doesn’t feel workshopped to death. A superhero film with sharp moments of real darkness, but not an oppressive vibe. Danny DeVito gives a performance that’s both lovely and menacing. One that could so easily have come across as mere gurning.
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Steven Spielberg – For me this is the weakest of the whole series. Suffers from being in a single location, lacking the globetrotting elements that are the series’ strength. But at the same time, there’s some brilliant stuff here. The John Williams score is the best of the series. And there is plenty of secret passageways and booby traps. The dude getting his heart ripped out of his chest is a striking sequence and the mine cart chase is Spielberg at his absolute best. It’s also cool to see an Asian American sidekick – Short Round – who is really capable. I was surprised at how much I was into that character.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg – Starts shakily. The River Phoenix Young Indy flashback is a great set piece, but the exposition of how he got his hat, scar etc is daft. But that kicks off a rollicking adventure that is my personal favourite of the series, with five or so truly great set pieces. Plus the added bonus of father and son banter that stays just the right side of silly. Helped by Connery utterly hamming it up. The film also never forgets to convey the gravity of a scenes’ actions, especially those that involve Nazis. Spielberg really shoots the shit out of this one.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Steven Spielberg – Much better than I recall. Watching them close together smooths some of the more egregious issues (aliens basically). On paper the best cast of the series. And the opening section I think does a nice job of re-purposing the Indy mythology (yes the nuke the fridge thing is hella-daft). Refracts various tropes really well, grabbing the snake to escape quicksand for example. Though the second half is too CGI heavy which undercuts its charms. Overall though, I dug it.
- John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), Chad Stahelski – Seems to have gotten lost this year, but this is another excellent action flick. Love that Wick is this borderline mythological figure. That extends to everything really. This is action film as mythology – gold coins, secret codes and blood oaths. Totally abandons plot for long stretches. But it doesn’t matter when the action is this good. Cleanly and creatively shot ‘gun-fu’. Thin characterisation is saved by excellent performances. Especially by Keanu, who by this point is an all-time action great.
- Alien: Covenant (2017), Ridley Scott – I loved this, which following the totally uninspiring marketing, was a nice surprise. Gnarly, bloody space horror action with some cool exploration aspects and solid characters. The design, as always in this series, is excellent. Even having a CGI xenomorph, works well here. Personally I actually find the focus on the Fassbender androids not that interesting. For me Waterson is the star and I would have loved to see her be the focal point of the narrative. But overall, I liked this a lot.
- The Sea Wolves (1980), Andrew V. McLaglen – Crusty concept with a stuffy script that is totally elevated by a great cast – Roger Moore, Gregory Peck and David Niven. They bring the charisma to make the material work. Decently shot on location. Builds nicely to the final, somewhat tense mission which is delivered well in borderline silent way.
- Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016), Tim Burton – Surprisingly for a decent Tim Burton film, the worldbuilding is pretty limp here. Lacks atmosphere, thought the characters and intrigue are nice, as is some of the visual stuff. It’s distracting enough, but can’t help thinking that this would have totally kicked arse if in the hands of early 1990s Burton. The last act has a cool YA fantasy team-up vibe going for it.
- Stranger Things Season 1 (2016), The Duffer Brothers – This took a while to grow on me. It felt too derivative initially. The hype suggested I would be all in from the start, but it took me four or five eps for the commitment to horror imagery to really cement itself and I was into it from there. Winona Ryder is great as a mum under incredible stress and the kids really bring a lot to their characters. I was perhaps never totally engrossed in the actual plot, but I really liked the vibe and a lot of the ways it was put together – score and styling for example. That said, it’s a great emotional release at the end.
- Secret Agent (2016), Charles McDougall – One of my favourite books gets a pretty uneven BBC adaptation. The costuming and set design is typically great. Characterisations are stark and solid. Despite the miniseries length, some of the book’s complexities are definitely smoothed. Some vicious barbarism brought to life. The high point drama wise is undone to an extent by super shoddy special effects. Toby Jones is excellent – needy, ineffectual, powerless and conflicted. He brings all that to life.
- Master of None Season 2 (2017), Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang – So loving and stylish. Amazing how the episodes feel so uniquely individual, yet the season has a coherence to it. Though the early parts don’t flow together the way we are used to in the streaming age. On occasion it is too ambitious and the experiments impact the watchability. But the best episodes (first dates and thanksgiving) are also experimental so it is understandable that’s what they are chasing. The performances are excellent too – Ansari is super genuine, Bobby Cannavale feels like a good addition whilst Lena Waithe and Eric Wareheim’s characters provide a valuable bridge to season 1.
Not Worth Watching:
- The Girl on the Train (2016), Tate Taylor – Some nice early twists which is a plot conceit I dig. But even from the beginning – the intro of characters – it’s a little jumbled. The mystery never feels deeper than a structural contrivance. Have to fill in the gaps cause she’s drunk. The jumping back and forth in time is even more unnecessary here than that technique is usually. This is essentially a really good Emily Blunt performance in a meh movie.
- Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 (2017), James Gunn – Utterly unremarkable. Not awful, was just nothing really of anything for me. Humour feels really forced and too omnipresent. Bautista’s Drax is the only source of humour that feels at all genuine or organic. He, and Michael Rooker as Yondu, give the clear standout performances. Takes the approach of splitting up the crew, which eliminates much needed sources of banter. And the main plot involving Quill’s father simply never engages. Neither Pratt or Kurt Russell are given enough to chew on.
- Superman (1978), Richard Donner – Despite some nice elements, this one doesn’t quite hold up anymore. The production design is still utterly incredible. And it starts strong with the snappy Brando cameo and a ‘down home’ kinda charm to it. But the over the top bumbling Clark Kent is not the best use of Reeves’ charm. A looong time before we actually get to see Superman. Too long for me. But a lot of the extended end sequence is really good. Supes racing all of California trying to save people.
- The Dazzling Light of Sunset (2016), Salome Jashi – This doco focussed on the news coverage in a small Georgian community very slight and needed a stronger focus. Though guess it does succeed in exposing the viewer to an experience totally outside their own. Best when considering the engagement between subject and filmmaker. Would have loved to see that, or more of an authorial hand coming through.
If you only have time to watch one Santa Clarita Diet Season 1
Avoid at all costs The Girl on the Train