Here’s more worth watching from last year. Some solid new releases from last year and a whole bunch of really arty stuff as well. As always hyperlinked titles go through to full (though short) podcast reviews.
- Denial (2016), Mick Jackson – Really well performed, if unsympathetic, look at a trial involving holocaust denier David Irving. Timothy Spall is chillingly good here, one of the best performances of the year. A cerebral courtroom script that teases out legal complexities without making you fall asleep. The ventures to Auschwitz, whilst not the film’s focus, are harrowing and haunting. There are certainly moments of clumsiness. But the performances of Spall, Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott mean this is well worth your time.
- Mulheim/Ruhr (1964), Peter Nestler – A town portrait built up through sheer mass of images. Very fast cutting and the images feel almost like stills. The jaunty score didn’t work for me and perhaps more coherent thematic thread would have been nice. But it’s unique and the black & white is lovely and crisp.
- Scream 3 (2000), Wes Craven – Even in this reference laden series, Craven remains the master of suspense. The meta stuff here is legit funny and not too distracting. It also lulls you into a false sense of security at times. A blinding mix of the terrifying and very funny. The camera placement in the film is so spot on, showing how much can be achieved through that. Neve Campbell is incredible as Sidney as always, whilst there is a hilariously written Carrie Fisher cameo too.
- The Burning (1981), Tony Maylam – Camp based slasher. Gross and intense at time, heightened by Savini’s genius. Gardening shears are involved. Decent at capturing that sense of teendom. Surprisingly, does an excellent job at depicting (and attacking) toxic masculinity. Skewers it in a way that I’ve not really seen before in a slasher. The main villain is a bit weak though.
- Live by Night (2016), Ben Affleck – I’m a huge fan of both Affleck as a director, and the work of Dennis Lehane that this is based on. Solidly enjoyable rather than great. Does a decent job of evoking atmosphere, a Boston of Italian and Irish mobs. Solid take on an attempt to have disdain for authority in a world riddled with it. A little laboured, with some strange narrative diversions, but enjoyable.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Tobe Hooper – I really dug this. A strange cacophony of a film. Wild, with a totally different tone to the first. Dennis Hopper, industrial vibe, comedy and Savini effects. Hopper is really excellent. The comedy is achieved surprisingly through quite classically constructed jokes. Remarkable that a sequel so tonally different as this not only gets made, but also feels quite true to the first. Feel the tonal choice says a lot about Hooper as an artist. Caroline Williams gives a great performance as the female lead, balancing being a scream queen with some very funny and silly stuff. A rare film that works both as a horror and a comedy.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), Luc Besson – Saw in 3D which I think added a lot. Colour popping, wondrous vision. The planets feel tactile despite the otherworldliness. Damn creative design of cities/worlds/beings. I though Delvinege was really impressive, she has a real charm. DeHaan’s too cool riff on Han Solo takes a while to warm to, but it works well I think. It’s flabby as fuck, but that sort of just added to it being pretty adorable I thought. Full of delightful diversions just to explore the world that Besson had built up. Besson controls the whole thing pretty well.
- Atomic Blonde (2017), David Leitch – Old school cold war spy flick. Really excellent, heavy use of the compilation soundtrack. The action is supremely well done, which makes up for the story being pretty cold war 101 type stuff. Theron is really good and excels with the action. I found James McAvoy’s character wasn’t played quite right tonally. There is some interesting enough filtering of the story through the reliability (or otherwise) of the narrator. Bummer it ends on a pretty tame twist.
- Starship Troopers (1997), Paul Verhoeven – Derided on release, beloved now. This is pretty great. Really sharp stuff. Analyses the interaction between the media and military complex super astutely. Denise Richards is pretty good aye. Loved this film. Very funny. Takes place I a slightly absurd but anchored world. There’s an interesting superficiality to the film. On one level, can kind of understand why it was dismissed upon release. On the more genre side of things, I dug the effects and they hold up perfectly well, whilst the schlocky sci-fi battling is also great. Rather fab.
- Towards Mathilde (2005), Claire Denis – Love when a film interrogates a different artistic process. Analysis of dance is great, but not all of the rehearsal footage feels particularly worthwhile. That said, there is something hypnotic in observing the work – performance and the construction of performance merging. Interesting to see and consider the final product in relation to the disparate bits of preparation and construction that went into it.
- Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Doris Wishman – A earnest shoddiness to the film as encapsulated by the particularly sketchy ADR work. But this still has a fair bit to offer. Very stark, astutely rendered sexual assault scene. Sudden and shows the grossness of the male gaze, with its power and ownership. Hard to watch and quite terrifying. The film functions as an examination of the violent expressions of the patriarchy. Low on plot details which means it feels quite real. Though the intrusive and incessant jazz score works against that. Overall a sickening (as it should be) profile of a woman brutally beaten down by society.
- Motel Hell (1980) Kevin Connor – Something so endearing about a ‘Motel Hello’ sign with a dicky ‘O’. A funny vibe to it all. Crusty old dude plays it perfectly and there are some cool visuals. And some nice little wrinkles in the background. The isolated setting is particularly excellent. Some surprisingly wry stuff about people as animals. Glorious schlock with bonus chainsaw points.
- A Cure for Wellness (2016), Gore Verbinski – About as weird a mainstream film as has been released in recent years. Great, jarring sound design and use of soundtrack to set the mood. A different Dane DeHaan performance from the other one this month – he’s callous and weary here. All atmosphere, creepy imagery (eels and shit) really does go a long way. It is sloooow and looong though, often going around in circles. Disappointingly wanders into some overfamiliar territory around questions of sanity and builds to an underwhelming (though gross) reveal. One weird movie.
Not Worth Watching:
- Logan Lucky (2017), Steven Soderbergh – This was a disappointment. A South of West Virginia, John Denver and construction work. Threatens to be a different vision of the American working class, but then falls into some of the same stuff we’ve seen before. Performances are a mixed bag. Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterson and Channing Tatum are excellent at inhabiting this vibe. But Adam Driver struggles with the Southern shtick, whilst Daniel Craig makes little impression. The heartfelt character moments are nice. But too much time is spent on the tensionless, humourless heist.
- Sunday in Peking (1956), Chris Marker – Day in the life style observation. Market an outsider here to an almost orientalist degree. Glib ignorance rather than anything particularly malicious. Coupled with rapid fire voiceover that more overwhelms than informs. Aside from the early point of Marker viewing a place memorialised from childhood postcard, there’s nothing noteworthy about the imagery or his thoughts on it.
- Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017), Michael Showalter & David Wain – This was a major bummer, I’ve loved all the other ‘Wet Hot’ stuff. Feels too arch/knowing. Lacks the character bits that made earlier iterations work so well. Misses the mark wildly, aside from the occasional individual performance (chiefly Josh Charles & Alyssa Milano).
If you only have time to watch one The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Avoid at all costs Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later
So there’s been a decent gap in these. This one was because I was sure that I had written the complete July wrap-up in the past, but I’ve managed to lose it. So I eventually relented and rewrote it all. The hyperlinked titles are the films that I recorded podcasts on. So click through for a full, though only 10-15 minute long, review. Enjoy!
- XX (2017), Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Roxanne Benjamin – More consistent than the standard horror anthology. Some cool short film concepts. Nicely acted with a firm grip on building atmosphere. Though there is a weird dedication to non-endings, which is strange given twists and finality are often a feature of shorts. Kusama’s effort stands out. Takes horror tropes and examines them from a female perspective.
- Broad City season 3 (2016), Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson – Continues to be hilarious. The episodes just fly by when you get going. I blinked and was done. At times gutbustingly hilarious. Which in a way makes it more accessible than other seasons. There continues to be minimal character development. Which you would think might be starting to grate. But this is all exuberance and very smart hilarity.
- Pro-Life (2006), John Carpenter – Carpenter’s second Masters of Horror entry is sharp and solid. Takes a cool little thriller setup and goes somewhere wild with it. Ends up a genre mishmash with some action sequences thrown in. Plainly shot and bland settings, most likely as a function of the budget. The writing is really good and Ron Perlman is perfectly cast here. Cool effects as well, both practical and CGI.
- Nobody Speak (2017), Brian Knappenberger – A portrait of the chilling environment toward journalists driven by Trump. Establishes Gawker as this outsider, flouting traditional journalistic convention. A trashy centre to a serious story. Essentially turns into a story about how the ultra-rich love to bully. Though perhaps doesn’t expand enough on the real dangers this presents to society, when billionaires brazenly wield great power.
- Power Rangers (2017), Dean Israelite – This is pretty wild. Opens with a dying power ranger in prehistoric times. Pterodactyls, aliens, spaceships, blue Brian Cranston and a cow gets jacked off. This is just the first 5 minutes. Settles a little after that. Mainly really good, with some inexplicable filmmaking choices thrown in there. Fun as shit though. All of the teen performances are charismatic and create a sense of difference from one another. Unsurprisingly plays like a superhero flick, but focused on the camaraderie in discovery/testing their powers together. Also the score is super good. But there is a talking robot that is Jar Jar Binks level awful. The action isn’t incredible and they take too long to go full power ranger. But it captures the spirit of the show really nicely.
- Umbango (1986), Tonie van der Merwe – Extremely low budget South African western with a hacky vibe to it. Though mostly endearing. Something charming about the shooting and how it plays the western thing totally straight. Super talky, taking place on sets that are almost comically tiny. Probably a little too talky to be a classic B movie, though it holds enough interest for curiosity viewing.
- Nude on the Moon (1961), Doris Wishman & Raymond Phelan – What a strange film. It is pretty great until it arrives at the titular nude moon stuff, where it gets super boring. Looks decent enough and crafts some nice sci-fi charm through the first half. Building a rocket and flying to the moon has never been made to look as easy as it does here. Slight as all get out.
- The Beguiled (2017), Sofia Coppola – A quite interesting take on the war film, opening with visceral wounds and dehumanising of the enemy. An all-female house in the civil war south is an interesting perspective. There’s a great patter to the script, especially in the hands of such good performers. First 2/3 is a really well controlled war film. Then the film takes a turn. From there it becomes much shaggier, but full of tension and elements that require pondering. Especially in terms of character choices.
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986), John Carpenter – This is cool story of mateship not often seen onscreen. An awesomely fun mashup of genres. Hard hitting action and hilarious. Have to love peak cheeky Kurt Russell. Cracking, fun creature design. In short, movies don’t get any more fun than this.
- Outland (1981), Peter Hyams – I liked this. Connery plays a grizzly old space cop very well. Authority mixed with world weariness. Monitoring mining ops on Io. It looks great, an interesting aesthetic. The grittiness of mining tumbling into sci-fi glossiness. Simply plotted, definitely a cop story on a space outpost rather than heavy sci-fi.
- Day of the Dead (1985), George R. Romero – Hell of a creepy start. Romero really combines visuals and soundtrack to haunting effect. The score is quite incredible. This film really crafts something deep with the zombies – their plight and terror. Tom Savini is some kind of genius. Corpse effects in the lab. Interesting take on the military here. Masculinity, misogyny. Interesting plot focus with long sequences focused on the zombies’ psyche and physical capabilities. One seriously gruesome flick.
- Tower XYZ (2015), Ayo Akingbade – Short with a weathered, shot on film vibe to it. Poetic, spoken word style voiceover. A really unique portrait of a city neighbourhood and youth.
Not Worth Watching:
- Yoga Hosers (2016), Kevin Smith – Pretty rough. Though the two leads have a reasonable level of charm and chemistry. And it’s occasionally quite funny. The script is beyond awful. But Smith’s strength at getting good performances from actors remains. Bringing Johnny Depp’s unwatchable character back from his last film has the same result here.
- Music of the Heart (1999), Wes Craven – It can be easy to dismiss Meryl Streep due to her comical number of Oscar noms. But she is outstanding here, as is Angela Basset. Those two performances are the main reasons to watch this pretty flat affair that Craven doesn’t seem to be able to bring a whole lot too. He’s not helped at all by the half-hearted script. Overwhelmingly twee.
- I am Self-Sufficient (1976), Nanni Moretti – Early Moretti with parallel storylines of a dude whose wife leaves him, and attempts to get an experimental play off the ground. Kind of cerebral and also a little boring. Basically turns into the making of an abstract piece that is in itself abstract. Pretty drab stuff. Ribbing on the affectations of abstract art don’t really work well at all. Though there are occasional nice allusions to the overt self-awareness that can plague that sphere. In the end I didn’t really know what was going on and I certainly didn’t give a shit.
- War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Matt Reeves – A disappointment. A lot of war film posturing – shooting, score, carnage. Plays super overwrought, leaning into that war film stuff. So much so that it loses its uniqueness. The story beats are lacking and the stakes are all wrong. They’re bound up in human characters we don’t give a shit about, not the apes. An overwhelmingly masculine feeling film. Effects are still incredible though.
- War of the Worlds (2005), Steven Spielberg – Close to Spielberg’s worst. Cruise as a regular joe is a tough sell. Think he works better as someone who is meant to be exceptional. It’s a bad character fit. There are occasionally reminders of Spielberg’s greatness. The first reveal of an alien with Williams’ score pulsing in the background is masterful. Get that it’s based on a book, but a lot of it plays very silly. The refugee allusions are well crafted, if a touch obvious.
- Dunkirk (2017), Christopher Nolan – Basically, not explicitly anti-war enough for my liking, though it gets to their horrifying plight well enough. I didn’t mind the split narrative. But the structural fuckery with the timeline pissed me off. An experimental war film. But that structural fuckery means only individual moments work, not the whole. Engages at a sensory level, but fails to tell a story and has minimal sense of scope.
If you only have time to watch one Day of the Dead
Avoid at all costs War of the Worlds
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
It’s everyone’s favourite time of year, top 10 season. Or maybe that was a month ago. Whatever. You know the drill – I go on Aussie release dates. Anything with a first wide release in 2017 is eligible (festival only releases with a wider release on the horizon are not included). Straight to VOD/Netflix stuff is eligible. That’s about it really.
There was a bunch of stuff I loved this year that didn’t quite make this list. On the drama front Jeff Nichols’ continued his incredible recent run with the beautiful Loving, Salma Hayek gave maybe the performance of he year in Beatriz at Dinner, Patti Cake$ gave us something different in the coming of age space, The Lost City of Z was grand ol adventure combined with a touch of social commentary, T2 Trainspotting was way better than any far overdue sequel has any right to be, Colossal combined chilling domestic violence with Kaiju, Sofia Coppola proved her endless radness with the excellent The Beguiled, Battle of the Sexes seems to have been underestimated by all and gave us a fitting portrait of a sporting revolutionary and In Dubious Battle had the biggest scope of any of James Franco’s literary adaptations and is perhaps the best.
Franco also delivered The Disaster Artist, one of the better films in the comedic realm last year in a pretty strong year for the genre. Ali’s Wedding was the best Aussie film and best rom-com of the year, though The Big Sick gave it a run for its money on the latter front, Hasan Minhaj Homecoming King was a mix of heart, storytelling and hilarity, whilst The Lego Batman was maybe the comedy of the year, far exceeding its overrated predecessor. There are some action adjacent flicks on the list below, but add to that the best Fast and Furious film in 11 years with The Fate of the Furious, the criminally underrated John Wick 2, the rightfully beloved Wonder Woman, the kickass spy beats of Atomic Blonde, the daft so bad it’s good silliness of Geostorm along with the more cerebral crime action found in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. There’s loads of horror below, but add to that It which was a huge hit and the dual space terrors of Life and Alien Covenent. Also a joy in outer space was Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets which was probably the most beautiful film of the year. Finally two lone rangers in weaker areas for the year: I Am Not Your Negro was the best doco film aside from the one on my list whilst Coco was an excellent animated effort from Pixar.
10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It’s impossible to know how this film will play in 5 or 10 years time. But I had to include it here to acknowledge my favourite filmgoing experience of the year. A 6am session on opening day, mates and champagne on hand. Of course, that does not equal an ace film – I had seen the so-so The Force Awakens the same way. But in a year of pretty solid blockbusters, nothing was as exhilarating as this film. I’m generally a liker not a lover of Star Wars films, but I loved this one. Rian Johnson delivered something that operates within the broad framework of what the franchise required, but the film still feels distinctively his. This is big budget mainstream filmmaking somehow imbued with an exultant quality. Artistry abounds, from the diverse cast to the dynamic shooting and design elements that have always been the series’ strength
9. Song to Song
This is film as atmosphere as really only Terrence Malick can do it. For me he is a master, but I can also totally understand those who struggle with his work. The characters are archetypes, moving through a vague set of relationships and interactions and the acting is able to convey what Malick is going for. Ryan Gosling seems to struggle a little, but Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender are able to play these archetypes without being overtly wooden. Mara is especially good, simply projecting some levity into the obliqueness that swirls in the film. A film about intimacy above all. Recalls it and suggests it. Makes you reflect on it.
We continue to see more artistic approaches in documentary filmmaking. There is the risk, seen in a number of films this year, that can lead to the heart of the film being obscured by stylistic flourishes. With the rotoscoped approach here though, director Keith Maitland makes craft service the story. It is inspired in that it allows the talking heads to appear as they did when the shooting occurred, way back in 1966. It also helps to avoid the clunkiness inherent in re-enactments. Not to mention the moments where these interviewees switch to their real-life selves in a way that make them feel like emphatic payoffs. Maitland also weaves in real black and white footage from the day throughout to ram home the real, genuine horror of it all. Harrowing, emotive, sad and brilliant stuff.
7. The Girl with all the Gifts
There are horror films below that I have grouped because they feel new and the voices behind them are innovative. Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with all the Gifts, doesn’t feel like that, in fact it feels like an update of Romero’s Day of the Dead in many ways. But the result is one of the best zombie films ever. Opening on some kids being held in a military facility and shifting to a guerrilla transit across a zombie-ridden London, this is grounded and real genre filmmaking. The young lead Sennia Nanua is really wonderful in a difficult role utilising an exaggerated, slightly inhuman physicality. She is well supported by more seasoned artists such as Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine. The film uses the iconography of the war film throughout to emphasise the battle between the two parties. Super bold ending too.
6. More of this please
There’s a long way to go, but one really welcome trend in 2017 was African-American directors bringing to the screen really different tales of the African-American experience. You can see two more of those much higher on this list, but I wanted to highlight these two as well, which are masterful examinations of history and lived experience.
Denzel Washington’s Troy acts almost as a cipher for the entire modern history of African Americans here. Oppressed and beaten down repeatedly, the result is a character that is hard to like, but impossible not to watch. And it’s thanks to that performance and character that this deep, specific portrayal of an experience takes hold. One that we don’t directly see play out, just the result. In addition to Washington, there are exceptional performances from Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson here. Films and characters don’t need to be uniformly pretty, likeable or sympathetic. They can be more complex than that. This entire film revolves around one deeply flawed individual, what has impacted him and how he comes to impact those around him as a result.
Barry Jenkins’ film is one that takes you out of whatever your life is and immerses you totally in another. As a character piece, each of the three acts totally gives life to the character of Chiron. The fact that is achieved so beautifully with three different performers is testament to the acting, but also very much the writing and directing. Each section interlocks and informs the other, with a true sense of character building up as a result. Both a very specific film about African-American homosexuality, and a character portrait that intrigues and entrances with its subtleties of craft.
5. The Edge of Seventeen
The teen coming of age film is all too often dismissed as being light and unimportant. But this genre is a hard one to nail, especially to bring it to life in a way that speaks to people of all ages, not living a similar experience. Hailee Steinfeld is amazing, incredibly fun and charismatic but bringing a depth to the character all too rare seen in teens on film. She bounces off an excellent Woody Harrelson and Hayden Szeto. The film is also super funny, perhaps the funniest film on this list. Laughs filtered through the awkwardness of teendom, but without ever being nasty about it. Rounded out by an ace script and a soundtrack that features popular songs without ever being forced. Utterly watchable.
4. Call Me by Your Name
By the time I got around to seeing Luca Guadagnino’s latest, it had been hyped to such a level on my twitter feed that was impossible for it to meet. But I was still blown away. As great films do, it surpassed all expectation. Or rather, it sidestepped those expectations. Call My by Your Name refuses to be what we expect it to be and refuses to have the characters make the decisions we are expecting. The film builds slowly, lingering on the push and pull of new personalities adjusting to one another, both in the realms friendship and romance. Yes Timothee Chalamet is excellent, but Armie Hammer is perhaps even better. The film ruminates quite beautifully on the struggle to have the courage, and perceived baseline knowledge, to open oneself up to love. And out of nowhere features the great monologue of contemporary cinema. Complex, beautiful, romantic and sensual.
3. New voices in horror
Driven by Blumhouse and streaming services, I do think we are living in a golden age of horror. A lot of that has been devoted to the same kind of people telling the same kind of stories (but really bloody well). But this year there were some diverse voices telling some fresh stories that I wanted to highlight.
Director Olivier Assayas has been around for about 30 years, so it’s on one level difficult to call his a new voice. But this is horror as we rarely see it, artistic, complex, and subdued; a reflection on forbidden desires, mortality and personal ambition. Perhaps it is due to the fact there is so much going on that the film seems to be forgotten about in discussions of horror flicks. However it is a remarkably effective and creative straight up ghost story. The film effortlessly expands the definition of what we should expect horror to be and conjures scares from places other films really struggle too. It also features perhaps Kirsten Stewart’s finest performance as she continues to show she’s one of the best performers of her generation.
Don’t be put off by the gimmicky focus on people fainting in screenings. The gruesome moments are eye-popping, but there are only one or two of them rather than it being a constant assault. Rather be excited that it delivers on the other focus of the marketing hype – the existence of a female directed feminist cannibal film. The overall unease comes from a generally disquieting vibe rather than grossness or shock. People being flung wildly outside their comfort zone and reacting in peculiar ways. The film focuses on sisterhood, even (or especially), when confronted with forbidden desires. The central performance from Garance Marillier forces you to take on her physical agitation whilst the score mixes in abrasive bursts for emphasis. Thought provoking and surprisingly watchable for a film with flesh eating.
Who would have guessed the year’s best horror film would be from a dude best known for sketch comedy? Incredibly assured for a feature debut, this is frightening and prescient. The connections to racism are pretty bold, in that they are overt in their connection to the story, but in a way that never feels distractingly obvious. Peele’s love for classic horror comes through, repurposing beloved riffs and tropes into something new and bloody terrifying. It is hard to sharply critique generations of insidious, controlling racism whilst still crafting a horror narrative that finds unique ways to scare the audience. And the fact Peele manages this makes him one of the most exciting new directors in the world.
I’ve watched this one a few times now, and each time I am more impressed. The emotional complexity of the central character is unparalleled in the comic book genre, and the result is the best film that genre has ever produced. Realistic vulnerability is at the forefront, definitely not a hallmark of this kind of film. Logan and Professor X are beaten, broken, fuckin over it and forced to go again, though in a totally different way. Everything Mangold puts together here – the score, the realistic bloody violence, the road-film riffs – pays off and enhances the whole. Small and meaningful, with a self-contained story and acknowledgment that worldbuilding can be sparse and still work. A film that you feel on a physical level.
For a long time Logan was my #1 film of the year. And I was totally fine with that, it’s an exceptional film. But Dee Rees’ Netflix original is the best film I saw in 2017 and it’s not even remotely close. Broader in scope than I was anticipating, an almost Shakespearian feeling examination racism filtered through the period around WWII. Rees is storyteller totally in control of what she is doing, artistically jumping between perspectives and using those to build an environment, atmosphere and character history. Incredible performances from the entire cast, led by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige as two family matriarchs. The racism is clearly articulated and chilling. The incredible shock of an African American soldier returning home after fighting for his country, only to find he can’t use the front door of a shop. Builds to a horrifying, yet very well earned, culmination. Powerfully brutal in a way that left me speechless.
Happy New Year. Hope you guys had a great festive season. I know I haven’t been seen too much on this site and around the place of late. Life continually getting in the road. I am actually intending on catching up on my outstanding Worth Watching posts over the next 6 weeks or so (eight months of movies and TV to write about!) because I have been taking notes the whole time. Also planning to get a top 10 of the year list up sometime this month (if you’ve written yours, hit me with a link in the comments, would love to read it).
But as I was at my dreaded first day back in the office the other day, I realised that I had never shared the details of my new(ish) podcast with you cool people. I’m up to 25 episodes now of Driving home from the cinema reviews. It’s a short (generally about 10 minutes) review show on whatever I’ve just seen. Hopefully you guys will give it a shot. You can find all the episodes here and on iTunes of course. Some of my favourite episodes in particular are Episode 25 – The Last Jedi, Episode 18 – The Girl with all the Gifts, Episode 14 – Battle of the Sexes and Episode 10 – Ali’s Wedding so perhaps start there. Give it a listen and subscribe if you dig it.
Let me know what you think. I know I listen to some of your podcasts already, but if you have one then share a link below so I can be sure to check it out.
Peace to you all.
There is perhaps no more iconic filmmaking duo than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collaborating from the very late 30s all the way to the early 70s. Relatively early on in their partnership, they developed I Know Where I’m Going (1945), a class focussed romance that melds the pretty stuffy with the quite progressive, and some great location filmmaking.
The film focusses on Joan Webster, played by Wendy Hiller, as she travels from London to an island in the relative middle of nowhere, to marry her richass fiancée. Of course things don’t go smoothly and she finds herself stuck on the mainland, within viewing distance of her beloved’s island, but unable to get there. Here she spars repeatedly with the (apparent) everyman Torquil MacNeil, who is also aiming to get to the island. The setup is a pretty typical upper class person stranded with, and falling for, ‘regular folk’, kind of deal. And despite a few wrinkles, that’s more or less how it plays out. Though there are some pretty avant-garde sequences used early on, to suggest here marriage is to a company not a person, and focusing in on the idea of her selling out her identity for that. The character of Joan is a major positive too, adding something a little different, especially in the very contemporary way she interacts with the men around her. Which makes the general averageness of the plot even more disappointing. It’s quite stuffy, with various social visits being trudged through. You can see what Powell and Pressburger are doing, setting up a version of society to bore her and for her to rebel against. Straight into the arms of her new love interest obviously. But it’s all quite tiresome getting there. The schmaltzy romance stuff is similarly received, constant close-ups and longing looks. However the story does have some nice notes of how fate intervenes in our lives, often to very positive ends.
Toward the end, those themes of class do re-emerge, now with quite a sharp edge to them. Joan’s selfishness and impatience comes flooding out and she is very willing to exert her economic power over the lower classes to get what she wants when she wants it. A lot stronger an element than the love story guff, which is only bearable due to the performances. Overall the film is really about her embracing her ‘true class’ rather than another man. Though not in as negative a way as that suggests. The film looks really great. The location shooting, full of fog and moors is used to great effect. It really feels like these locations are bearing down on the characters and influencing their lives in a meaningful way. There is some beautiful framing, the use of light shadow and fog really helping to take advantage of the great locales. It’s an incredibly strong aesthetic. Some of the scenes at sea also really effectively use the location available. There is some great rear-projection work that turns them into quite intense action sequences. The visual effects never distance you from the action. The opposite in fact as it realistically almost induces sea sickness. Really effective. Plus there are whirlpools which are always rad.
Verdict: The strength of I Know Where I’m Going lies not in the plot, but in the way it is brought to life. The location shooting, sea-based sequences and above average acting help to elevate the film beyond the plodding details of the story. Stubby of Reschs
With Blade Runner 2049 (2017) in cinemas now, all the kids (and me) were revisiting Ridley Scott’s original. Long famous as much for the director’s endless tinkering and various cuts, it feels like of recent years people have started to actually consider the final product, and rightly position it as one of the better sci-fi films of all time.
Once forced to endure the horrors of the theatrical cut as part of a university course, the director’s cut of Blade Runner (1982) is now the only one for me. Who knows what the differences are except for the scrapping of the abysmal Harrison Ford voiceover and the total flipping of the ending’s tone, but that’s enough for me. Actually just canning the voiceover would be enough, there’s argument to be had about which ending is superior. The film follows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, employed as a Blade Runner to hunt down synthetic replicants who have been banned from earth. The film is small for a sci-fi flick, and the story beats can essentially be reduced to a crime story. A fair amount of the film is just Deckard running down clues. It’s a slow burn, not heavy on plot and taking place in a pretty confined setting (as in a single city, not multiple worlds or galaxies). These genres are melded visually too, subtly evoking noir films through lighting and weather, and directly referencing the genre through costuming elements. It is these aspects that put the visuals over the top, and to this day it is a remarkable looking film (even on the shoddy VHS copy I watched). One element of the film that is perhaps underappreciated are the excellent action sequences. The early rain soaked chase as Deckard hunts a female replicant who has escaped him encapsulates everything the film is going for. On a stylistic level at least, if not thematically. A dour vibe is lent to the sequence through the weather, Deckard gets his weariness from Ford and there’s some surprisingly good gun battling and chase elements through the crowded, polluted streets shrouded in a neon glow that oppresses as it illuminates.
Discussion around the film so often focusses in on whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant (driven in large part by the change to the ending in the director’s, and subsequent, cuts of the film). However the assertion that Deckard is a replicant is not all that supported by the text, aside from the insertion at the ending. And the film’s main thematic concern – what it is to be human – is a strong focus without attempting to answer the question of Deckard’s nature. Indeed this focus on the constitution of humanity is present from the opening text crawl right through to the excellent final showdown. We all love Harrison Ford. But he doesn’t have the greatest range and here he slips into a bit of an Indiana Jones as spacecop territory. The real star performance-wise is Rutger Hauer as replicant Roy Batty. Hauer is just a raw physical presence here, but somehow communicating that with a level of subtlety. His line readings from some of the best parts of the script certainly help in that regard. He carries the key end sequence that is the film’s high point. A bravura, extended showdown that eschews wild action beats for a mental and even spiritual confrontation. It is rightly iconic. Batty’s dialogue and philosophy, plus the reserved arch beauty of the shooting provide the artistry. Deckard copping a real beating (most notable the symbolism laden nail through the hand) provides the brutality. It’s a heady mix. Just how alive Batty is in the face of death, the bliss of feeling rain on his face, even if he is not ‘real’, is the most affecting element of the film. Moreso than any of the supposed ‘human characters’, playing into those considerations of what it is to be human, and if that even matters all that much.
Verdict: This is kind of beautiful sci-fi filmmaking. Thought provoking without being unnecessarily cerebral in its plotting, incredible noir-infused visuals and underrated action. Well worth a look, even in the face of the underwhelming sequel. Pint of Kilkenny
Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of those films that seems to have cultural impact and name recognition that outweighs how many people have actually seen it. Selected imagery from the film has found fame outside the classic film bubble, but reducing the film to that overlooks its worth as a fantastic, stylish genre mashup.
Generally speaking, it takes time for a movie to fully captivate. The web needs to be weaved so to speak. But somehow Eyes Without a Face pulls you right into the mystery from the first few minutes. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. But through shot composition and overall mood driven by the scattered score, a car trip that just feels a little off lures us in. From there the film builds into a crime-horror hybrid that recognises that both mystery and shocks are important to overall success. Doctor Génessier has a real Doctor Frankenstein vibe about him as he yearns for the ‘mad-scientist’ solution to his daughter’s mutilation in a car accident. That probably makes the film and the character of the doctor a touch more whimsical than it is. The film examines how actions that can be grounded in supposed love, can be violent, misogynist and inexcusable. Indeed protestations of love can be used to excuse heinous thoughts, words and deeds. There is great mystery in the way the face of Christiane (the doctor’s daughter) is kept from the camera. This culminates in a literal unmasking that perhaps does not have the Phantom of the Opera (1925) level impact it was aiming for. As for the horror side of things, well for starters the film features one of the greatest masks in film history. Talking Jason or Michael Myers level of simple, terrifying iconography, though perhaps with more thematic weight to it, when considered in light of the focus on patriarchal possession of the female body. The doctor is imposing blankness and uniformity onto his daughter’s body against her will. A body he also touches and manipulates throughout the film without seeking her consent.
Also on the horror front, the film features a sequence of grossness that I didn’t believe existed in film until at the least the 80s. A slow, considered scene of a face being surgically peeled off. This main surgery sequence is methodical, almost silent to emphasise the gravity of what they are doing as a scalpel deliberately runs underneath face skin. These people are literally peeling a face off! And here, unlike in a lot of films, the audience really feels the impact of that and is forced to consider it. A lot of the great style of the film goes to the horror. In another sequence, documentary style still ‘mug-shots’ are used to show the rejection and failing of Christiane’s face transplant. Again this melding of documentary into the horror film for added impact and authenticity feels way ahead of its time. It is also measured and services the themes of the film, rather than just using gross photos to shock the audience, as it is sometimes used for such as in Adam Green’s otherwise pretty excellent Digging up the Marrow (2014). The final shot of peace after the chaos is a horror staple and Eyes Without a Face closes with one that is meaningful and almost physical in the way it soothes jangled emotions wrought by the 90 minutes that precede it.
It is quite amazing the grossness Eyes Without a Face creates quite simply through the well-executed practical effects. A thin mask, good acting, camera placement, shot length and positioning of the characters, all combine to make the scene difficult to watch because of its penetrative ickiness. Part of what makes this scene work so harshly watching it in 2017 is that we as an audience are so used to CGI for something like this. So when practical effects are used so well, it feels almost extra real. There are also a lot more subtle ways that the film injects unease into the audience than face peeling. The shot composition throughout is creepy, even when showing something mundane. It’s often symmetrical, an over-curated vibe playing into the surgical overtones of the film. This also speaks to the control of the doctor over all the characters, as though the films aesthetic is similarly restrained by him. The score is a wonderful mixed bag. A lot of it recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock – scattered, jarring and disconcerts the viewer into a state of trepidation. But there is also a distinct sense of Wizard of Oz (1939) at various moments, potentially using some of the same music.
Verdict: The way that this film combines the mystery and horror genres makes it a must see. There’s a complexity to the themes and technical brilliance here which is filtered through simple, yet totally effective, style and stark early cinema grossness. Pint of Kilkenny
One of the conscious choices I made at MIFF this year was not to discount repertory screenings. In the past I’ve been obsessed with only seeing new films. But I want to focus more on film fest ‘experiences’ and not just see films simply because they are new. Especially given how strong some of the repertory options at MIFF this year were. My older films fitted into two distinct streams. Firstly I’ll cover the two films I caught from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ Pioneering Women programming stream. Then the three I managed at the Astor’s all night ci-fi marathon.
Undoubtedly my best experience of the festival was the screening of The Big Steal (1990) on 35mm. Director Nadia Tass was in attendance, as were cast members Claudia Karvan and Damon Herriman. Ben Mendelsohn also sent a quite hilarious introduction tape for the screening. Which was the perfect way to kick off a screening of what is one of the very best Australian comedies ever made. It’s a sweet high school love story with crime and heist elements. It’s also very reflective of Australian society, in particular class differences and the migrant experience. An exceedingly young Mendo is one lead, the head of a charming crew of teenage boys, also including Herriman and the utterly hilarious Angelo D’Angelo. Karvan is the female lead and even at this early age she brought a real complexity and presence to her character. Steve Bisley is perfectly cast as the hilariously sleazy second hand car salesman you will heartily root against. It was so great to see this with a huge crowd who constantly erupted with laughter and were totally invested in the film. Particularly what must be cinema’s only Volvo vs Holden Monaro chase sequence. A classic Aussie comedy and a teen film to rival basically any others. This is a little tough to track down, but I know it’s streaming on Ozflix and perhaps a couple of other places too. See it. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
The other film I caught as part of the Pioneering Women programming stream was Broken Highway (1993), a tough look at toxic Australian masculinity directed by Laurie McInnes. The plot involves a package, a dead mate and a trip to rural Australia. This was a dense watch, perhaps not well suited to the festival grind. There is a flatness to the action that feeds into the bleak vibe and an aimlessness to the plot that almost hints at a noir vibe. Though I do feel that the lack of attention on the storytelling front in the end plays against the film, obscuring the thematic goals a little. Focuses on this contest of masculinity. Men hurling accusations that the other is scared, as if to be scared is the worst thing possible. The film is shot in beautiful black and white widescreen while the dialogue is really well written, meaningful with a snap to it. There are some great performances. Claudia Karvan as a blunt and quick witted young women. Her range as a young actress was made readily apparent by the two films I saw her in at the fest. David Field is great as the villain of the piece, all lean physicality with his menacing, snarling performance. A film I appreciated, but was not totally enamoured with. Would certainly like to see it again. Schooner of Reschs
The first film I caught when arriving at the Astor for the all night sci-fi marathon was the mythical Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). This film features SNL alumni including Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as well as Zach Galligan, most famous for appearing in the Gremlins films. The sci-fi weirdness contained in the film was so far from what the studio thought they were getting for their money, it has barely been seen in the 30 odd years since it was made. The film takes place in a draconian future where entry into, and everyday life in, Manhattan is controlled by the Port Authority. The result is something totally unique, that whilst is far from a masterpiece, is the kind of film you can’t help but watch with a big smile on your face. It’s unsurprisingly funny in an elevated and absurdist way. There’s some funny, adorably shonky, futuristic imagery, such as NY skylines with a single animated dome. That example sort of encapsulates the charm on display here. Even when it descends into awkwardness or amateurishness (or both at the same time), you will always be having a good enough time to persist with it. Pint of Kilkenny
It’s pretty much a given that watching a film with a big, enthusiastic festival crowd will improve the experience. But it is quite possible that The Visitor (1979) was an exception to the rule. The film played far too comically. And certainly some of that is down to filmmaking craft and performances. Not all of it though, and it is hard not to get caught up in a rambunctious crowd erupting in laughter at what is unfolding on the screen. The film is wild in every facet. Visually it opens with dust clouds and hooded figures, the plot involves an evil kid and shitloads of bird attacks, whilst the cast includes the likes of John Huston, Lance Hendrickson, Glenn Ford and Sam Peckinpah(!). Especially early on the sci-fi weirdness really shines through, helped along by some creepy flourishes on the soundtrack. It’s a mix of tonally worthwhile and unintentionally hilarious, though as the film progresses the balance shifts more to the latter. The evil kid performance is deliciously hammy and John Huston battles very hard. In terms of genre it’s a definitely a very horror imbued sci-fi if that’s your thing. There are certainly parts of this to like. But it does get a little too unintentionally funny and there are just so so many bird attacks. I have no idea what was up with them. Oh and the last half hour is basically unwatchable. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989) is an infamous film that I had heard whispered about on podcasts and in general conversation. So after the above film I took a nap to steel myself for what was to come. I tweeted afterwards that 5:30am is as good a time as any to watch the film, but that I never needed to see it again. I’m not sure I agree with the second part now, a month or so removed from the experience. The film plays like a gruesome cyberpunk Frankenstein filtered through punk rock. Aesthetically there is a lot going on. The achievement on a small budget, editing and practical effects as Tetsuo gets less and less human and more and more machine is just incredible. It is incredibly gross, at least for the first half. After that he becomes so much of a machine that it is no longer as visceral or cringy body horror as the early parts. And there is a rape/murder scene in the middle that is difficult to describe and truly horrific to watch. But there is just something about the vibe of the film and the craft that went into it that makes this really worth a watch. The narrative is barely worth mentioning, totally avant-garde. Though even at 70 minutes, this feels a little overlong. Stubby of Reschs