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
I was lucky enough to dash to the Melbourne International Film Festival for a weekend trip this year. I thought I’d write a couple of festival diaries, with paragraph long reviews of everything I saw. First up it’s the new films I saw, with the repertory films to follow within the next week.
A delayed train trip meant that I was not able to kick off my festival with Abbas Kiarostomi’s 24 Frames (2016) as originally planned. Some frantic changing of tickets and running from the train saw me taking in The Idea of a Lake (2016) instead. The film takes place in two time periods. The contemporary one focuses on a pregnant Ines, while flashbacks of her reminisces of childhood holidays by a lake make up the other half of the film. For the most part the contemporary aspects of the film work well. In particular the building of two key relationships of Ines’s – with her mother and brother. Whilst those relationships are deepened by the flashbacks, the relatively aimless wistfulness of the holiday sequences does not add a lot overall. From a storytelling perspective, the two parts don’t particularly inform one another, though they do on a thematic level. In addition, on two occasions as the film is settling into a rhythm, the director incorporates fantastical elements, which totally jars you out of the tone of the film. And they are not persisted with, making their presence strange anomalies. There is too much going on here. Which is a shame because the simpler contemporary familial aspects and the performances are really worthwhile. Stubby of Reschs
There is a fair bit of buzz around Loving Vincent (2017). Understandable too when you consider it is the first ever oil painted animation, consisting of around 70,000 individual paintings made in the style of Van Gogh. And the visual gimmick is truly stunning, not just the novelty of how it looks, but the way it moves feels totally new too. The score from Clint Mansell is also excellent, showing range for the composer who is probably one of the most in demand in the world. But for all the incredible visuals and music, the film is kind of ruined by the storytelling. What initially seems like an interesting choice to set it a year after Van Gogh’s death, quickly just descends into the same old biopic bullshit, just told through flashbacks. And the film is attempting some weird pulp detective true crime mash-up that is a truly strange narrative to anchor these technical feats too. It’s not just that the story feels like a strange fit, it’s also that it is a rote and inconsequential feeling investigation. Also just how closely it hews to crime fiction conventions – there are re-enactments, deep discussion of motive and running down of leads. It just does not work in the world of this film. You will want to see some of Loving Vincent for the remarkable visuals. Unfortunately due to the storytelling choices, you will have most likely had enough after 20 minutes or so. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Usually I focus my festival selections on films that I will otherwise struggle to see or that won’t open for a long time. So The Lost City of Z (2016) seems a strange choice given it opens in a couple of weeks. But it appears to be opening in a quite limited run, and at least when I booked my tickets, was not playing in Canberra. In any case, this was my only film in the beautiful Forum Theatre, so I was happy I caught it. The film looks beautiful too, no doubt helped by the festival’s projection expertise. It was shot on location and on film, both novelties these days. And this approach feeds into a classical, adventure style vibe. The film is evocative in the way it presents men leaving their families for years on end to fight wars and advance themselves, whilst also questioning whether that was necessarily fair to their families or even just the best thing in general. The obvious issue with this genre of filmmaking is that it reflects a colonialist, white saviour worldview. To its credit the film tackles this quite explicitly, acknowledging the fear amongst some Brits that what is found on these expeditions could upend their place in history and even the meaning of their god. Though the nobility of our hero and his crew, and their missions, is never questioned. As for our hero, Charlie Hunnam has a great presence in the lead while the supports, led by Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, are all excellent. Though the film has very traditional tendencies in genre and theme, it does not hew close to the expected story beats. Which results in a slower and more considered tale of obsession than I was expecting. Beautiful, well acted, and highly recommended. Pint of Kilkenny
A trip to MIFF this year wasn’t even on my radar until Terrence Malick’s A Voyage of Time (2016) was announced. With the scarcity of imax locations in Australia (Melbourne may actually be the only one), I realised that this may well be my only chance to see my favourite director’s passion project on an extremely big screen. There is something a little overwhelming about the film. Not surprising given it aims to encapsulate everything from the birth of the universe onwards in only 45 minutes. Malick does a good job of somewhat grounding the film. Firstly through the voiceover addressed to “my child”, then by quickly getting to a vision of earth that is familiar to us and referring to it as “our home”. The voiceover (delivered by Brad Pitt in this cut of the film) functions as a reasonable anchor for the imagery when it is kept relatively straightforward. It does delve, less successfully, into some Malickian philosophising, but that is actually relatively rare. The visual craftsmanship is stellar. There is the incredible creativity of the universe-creating forces that we first glimpsed in The Tree of Life (2011). But there is also a lot of incredible sharp natural photography. And it is all delivered on a screen that was almost overwhelmingly large in the best way. I mentioned that this is the shorter cut (a 90 minute one also exists) and I can’t decide what I thought of the length. It does feel like it skips huge chunks of time (even huger than the concept inherently requires), but as taken as I was with the film, I had probably had enough by the time the end credits rolled. In the end, I loved this film. The visuals are quite simply beyond incredible and if you can catch it on an imax screen, I think it is a pretty essential film/festival going experience. Pint of Kilkenny
Expectations for Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck (2017) are sky high. It is hard to keep hype to a minimum when your last film was Carol (2015), one of the greatest love stories ever put on film. This film is a real struggle though, a ho-hum tale of childhood and familial mystery that neither intrigues nor entertains. The film unfolds over two timeframes (1920s and 1960s I think), with mirroring storylines of a deaf child searching for their family. And much of it unfolds as tritely as that sounds. There are small things to like in both narrative streams. There is some playful interaction with silent film culture in the earlier one and the young lead Millicent Simmonds in that section gives the film’s best performance. Whilst there is a budding friendship in the later part that provides brief glimpses of the childhood joy the film was sorely lacking. The combination of the two timeframes also lays layer upon layer of mystery on top of one another in a way that is vaguely satisfying. Interestingly the film is based on a book by the same novelist who provided the source material for Hugo (2011). Like that film, there has been mention that this is a film for kids. I can’t really imagine kids getting much out of this one though. It is dry, feels long and has precious little of the kinds of brightness and excitement that Scorsese’s film managed to do a roaring trade in. Whilst it is hard to tell, I get the impression that the film did not play particularly well with the packed festival audience either. It felt like a flat reaction to what I found to be a pretty glib and uninspired ode to childhood. Schooner of Carlton Draught
I finished off my festival with Eliza Hittman’s excellent second feature Beach Rats (2017). Hittman is able to convey a number of really specific facets of the life of the main character Frankie. He lives in a part of Brooklyn that feels a world away from the trendy depictions we are used to. He is a discovering his sexuality. Hooking up with older men online. Navigating a relatively aimless late teen/early 20s existence of drink and whatever mild drugs him and his mates can get a hold of. His crew of mates, presumably the beach rats of the title, hang out at the beach and play handball all day. Technically the film is really creative. It is really nicely shot giving a sense of life at a ground level. There is a grain at warmth to the shooting too, not sure if it was shot on film, but there are hints of that. A lot of the storytelling and internal life of Frankie comes from the editing too. Especially in the way his sex scenes with men and women are contrasted. The film is perhaps slightly overlong. But as a unique coming of age and an individual film about sexuality, this is well worth a look. Pint of Kilkenny
April was a huge #52FilmsByWomen month for me, the biggest since I started doing that last year. And female directed films provide the best (Queen of Katwe, The Edge of Seventeen) and worst (Twilight, Gang of the Jotas) of the month. Outside of that there was a bunch of excellent genre releases that are heartily recommended.
- Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller – There is such a spark here from Greta Gerwig which is very refreshing if all you’ve seen her in lately is Noah Baumbach films. The film jumps straight into the plot, with her character wanting to become a single mum. The script excellently reflects a life of parenting and academia. Though there is a jarring leap forward where it becomes a different film. One I didn’t love for much of the second half. Best when it focuses in on Gerwig’s character, her struggles and interactions.
- The Last Airbender (2010), M. Night Shyamalan – Found there was definitely more to like here than not. Dig the fantastical worldbuilding and vibe. It looks great for the most part. The performances are pretty decent overall and I particularly love Dev Patel here. He’s totally hamming it up. The fight scenes are logical and easy to follow, which is rare for a fantasy film. Look it’s clunky as all get out and thematically schmaltzy. But I had fun and am a little devastated the huge sequel setup never came to be.
- Scream 2 (1997), Wes Craven – Opens with a brilliant super bloody and brutal sequence in a cinema. Even if the rest of the film never reaches those heights, this is still a Craven film well worth your time. It also has one of cinema’s most iconic final girls in Sydney. The acting is really solid, especially from Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell who conveys the trauma she’s going through really well. The script is funny and smart, managing to still create real tension despite the humour. Thankfully the meta engaging with the concept of a sequel stuff is nice and doesn’t grate. Great long sequences of characters being stalked and preyed upon.
- Barbershop (2002), Tim Story – Loved this film. Essentially plotless for the first half hour, but the riffing and setting up the vibe of the neighbourhood and the place the barbershop has in it is great. A place of community and learning. Neatly shot with some cool use of close-ups. The performances are excellent. Cedric the Entertainer, so often annoying, gives such a fun and deep turn. And Eve should be in everything.
- Green Lantern: First Flight (2009), Lauren Montgomery – Doesn’t fuck around. Has the ring within three minutes. Plays like an absurd cop film – Sinestro the crooked hardass and Hal the bewildered rookie. Pretty basic plot. But despite the general crappiness of the Green Lantern gimmick, the action is pretty solid. Though the end sequence is a bit of a mess.
- Almost Adults (2016), Sarah Rotella – Starts a little rough, the script especially and the acting is a touch patchy. But after a little while it finds its groove and tone. Pretty funny in a well observed early-20s kind of way. Also good on the process of coming out and how hard that is, even if it goes ‘smooth’. Pretty fun this film. Really good comedy. Winning performance by Elise Bauman.
- Witness (1985), Peter Weir – The Amish connection sounds daft on paper. But actually provides an interesting cultural clash, particularly in their lack of interest/desire to be involved in laws. Weir really directs the shit out of this in a visual sense. Has a great score too. Also this Harrison Ford may be the best Harrison Ford and the supports are all really excellent too. A cracking, simple crime film with some great texture overlaid from the Amish/cultural clash stuff. And whilst the love story is a little forced. It handles the ‘from two different worlds stuff well. A seriously great crime film.
- The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Kelly Fremon Craig – This film reminded me how great teen films can be. The fun voiceover and charismatic performances from Hailee Steinfeld (who is simply amazing here) and Woody Harrelson help to give the film a charming teen vibe. Fuckin funny. Nails the awkwardness and doubt of being a teenager. This is really good. A fuckin great script. Very, very funny. Awesome soundtrack that complements the film without being forced. So damn watchable too. I loved it.
- Tank Girl (1995), Rachel Talalay – Immediately sets up a very unique tone – cheeky voiceover, animated interludes and the like. Love the performances here. Lori Petty’s slightly off-kilter look and delivery. Malcolm McDowell doing hammy, OTT menacing better than basically anyone else. The sci-fi visuals have a low-budget charm and bring a light post-apocalyptic aesthetic to the screen. The buddy dynamic between the boisterous Petty and the geeky pragmatic Watts is fun. Trippy as fuck too.
- Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (2017), Sydney Freeland – A really fun mix. Two put upon female teens as the leads, surrounded by comedic parents, cops and teachers. Asleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are excellent as the train robbing sisters of the title. Playful turns, but ones that make their plight realistic. It’s a little light on plot and tension. But there is a unique and quirky, though not overdone style that makes this a great watch.
- Barbershop 2 (2004), Kevin Rodney Sullivan – It starts with some of the best opening credits I’ve seen in a long time. Overall it perhaps lacks some of the spirit of the original, hamstrung by a too similar plot. And the humour is not as fresh, feeling a touch forced. But it also has its own charms. There are some looser, sillier bits of humour that land. Plus the characters are great and the relationships develop from the first film.
- Queen of Katwe (2016), Mira Nair – The performances suck you in early. Oyewelo, N’Yongo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga are all excellent. As does the sense of place (Kampala Uganda). Film has all the sports film beats, but because it is an individual sport, they organically form a character study. Her self-doubt, her overconfidence. That up and down journey rings true. Also sketches out some nice gender, and especially class, issues. The film is happy to meander occasionally too. Not subservient to plot. I really dug this one.
- Namour (2016), Heidi Saman – A touch unfocused, most of it feels like set-up. But in a kind of nice way. A sketch if you will. Portrait of an Arab-American family, and by extension that segment of society. A complex, somewhat untrustworthy character at the centre of things which maintains interest, even when there are some noticeable story holes.
- Embrace (2016), Taryn Brumfitt – You can tell that Brumfitt is not a filmmaker by training. But she is fuckin inspirational which overcomes that. Quite confronting in its own way – laying bare how so many people think of themselves. She also speaks to a really great range of people. The film does a good job of giving those stories room to breathe too, not editorialising too much.
- Bridget Jones Diary (2001), Sharon Maguire – A really sharply written and funny script. Almost a touch heightened or surreal. Zellweger is perfect. Fully formed character. Film makes some good points on the societal expectations placed on women. Thankfully this is a film that never forgets to be fun. Some of the romance elements are a touch undercooked. But the characters and performances (including a great Hugh Grant one) carry that.
- Jason Bourne (2016) Paul Greengrass – Feel that I like this series less than most, but this film more than most. This has the clearest storytelling in a series that’s the perfect example of getting way overcomplicated. I’m a big Greengrass fan too. He is great at constructing these long, multifaceted chase sequences. A really nice piece of the characters arc brought to life, with the thematically resonant decisions he’s making. And Matt Damon is really good at drawing all that out.
- The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Tran Anh Hung – Delightfully shot with a smoothness to the visuals. Music plays a big part in the characters’ lives which is a point of difference. Quite gentle, at times cute storytelling. Sweet and true to life in its own way. Not all that much is the love story I was expecting. Notions of servitude and some very gentle touching on class issues more of a focus.
Not Worth Watching
- In a Valley of Violence (2016), Ti West – I’m a fan of both modern westerns and the films of Ti West I’ve seen, so this was a big disappointment. Starts pedestrian and really never elevates beyond that. The dialogue is bad, feeling like people are speaking as they do in 2017, while the stakes feel too low. The performances are also weak with only John Travolta really revelling. Ethan Hawke is ok but his character is averagely defined. Hollow. Feels like kids mucking around on some abandoned Western sets.
- Ratchet & Clank (2016), Jericca Cleland & Kevin Munroe – Maybe slightly less annoying than anticipated, but still pretty annoying. Looks ugly. Like a PlayStation game funnily enough. Quite charmless and there is nothing to the sci-fi elements aside from parroting much better sources. The characters grate badly too.
- Money Monster (2016), Jodie Foster – A disappointment. Clooney playing a bro-ey, no-substance host of a money show is a great fit. And there is some really nice patter with Julia Roberts. But the hostage situation on live TV thing feels a little contrived. And the ‘99%’ themes play tired. It’s not a total write-off. Jack O’Connell is really good, as he seems to be in everything. And when it trends a little absurd it works better. But the characters don’t stack up and the messaging becomes a little silly.
- I Spy (2002), Betty Thomas – There is decent chemistry between Eddy Murphy and Owen Wilson here, though neither of them are stretching themselves whatsoever. But the vibe of the whole thing is a little cheap and shoddy. Also goes some off-colour places with some jokes about mental illness, sexual assault etc. More dumb than mean spirited I guess.
- Red Riding Hood (2011), Catherine Hardwicke – Woah this is bad. Cheaparse lookin medieval sets. A weird sheen to everything. Gary Oldman delivers a mess of a performance. Truly craptastic allusions to whether torture is moral etc. Seyfried naturally has some spark and presence to her. But all that does is make everyone else look even more shit in comparison. The incorporation of the fairy tale it is named after is tame and adds nothing. There’s something that stops it from being totally awful. But not by much.
- Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke – As clunky as filmmaking gets. Voiceover exposition and Instagram teen emotion bullshit. Shoddily done. Ugly editing and shooting, plus a poor script. A couple of performances (Stewart and Kendrick) rise to the heights of being ok. But Robert Pattinson who is generally very good, plays this role terribly. The execution of the vampires and the level of connection in the main romance is utterly stupid. Really really bad.
- Gang of the Jotas (2012), Marjane Satrapi – Very low budget. Stilted to the point of being amateurish. Aiming for this madcap, fish outta water escalation vibe. With the mafia involved of course. But it’s just silly. Lacking setup or story or something. Script is horrid. Notion that these guys would go to any trouble to help this woman, is silly as presented by the script. An unwieldly attempt to combining serious drama and caper shenanigans.
If you only have time to watch one The Edge of Seventeen
Avoid at all costs Twilight