A huge month as Januarys basically always are. A pretty positive one though. Plenty of catching up on 2016 releases as well as getting a really good start on this year’s #52filmsbywomen. This update is rather epic, rather late and filled with mainly rather good flicks.
- Bastard (2010), Kirsten Dunst – This Kirsten Dunst directed short looks great, and nicely invokes the classic road movie, even when on foot. A really nicely done piece. The acting is good, the structure is intriguing without being frustrating and the twist(ish) ending turns it into a very clever take on something we’ve seen a million times before. Liked it a lot.
- Chasing Asylum (2016), Eva Orner – A chilling exploration of Australia’s heartless asylum seeker policies. Chronicles the shift from looking after people, to the lust for ‘deterrence’. The huge human cost to ‘stopping the boats’. The direction is workmanlike, especially in the first half. But the film tells a well-rounded tale. It is especially noticeable for taking the time to sketch out the Indonesian side of things too. Crushing, depressing viewing – the fact our country imprisons people who everyone agrees have committed no crime. Shameful.
- The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers – Numerous horror films attempt to weave religion into their stories. And it rarely works. This is one of the best ever examples. The beliefs of the characters are fully weaved into what is frightening in the frontier world of the film. Very scary, but in a unique way. The acting is excellent, especially from the four kids who nail tough roles. The script and the parent characters embody a great religious stoicness and suffering under the weight of this world.
- Under the Shadow (2016), Babak Anvari – An immersive war film as much as a ghost story, situated in the Iran-Iraq war. Also particularly about the societal/parental expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers (which is heightened when the father heads to the front). It’s all filtered through Iranian post-revolutionary society. Some great use of style to suggest the supernatural. A lot of it is about evoking a certain mood rather than all out horror. Talky at times in establishing mythology. And unfortunately when the supernatural elements do erupt, some of the design is sketchy.
- The Conjuring 2 (2016), James Wan – All the elements that made the first one a legit great are here – Wan’s excellence, the highly underrated core provided by Farmiga and Wilson, assured visuals, evocative period trappings, spooky sound design and a solid build to the plot. And it’s a very good horror flick, but not a great one like the first. Not as immediately engaging or utterly terrifying throughout. And it really feels overlong. The script is a touch weak too, not quite holding the film together as a coherent whole.
- Alexandra (2007), Alexandra Sokurov – Slow paced, low narrative but evocative. A stark, isolated, militaristic world. An intriguing spot for the typical dottering grandma-grandson relations to play out. Lends it a sense of almost absurdism, or at least unease. Interesting use of the colour palette, veering from often washed out to overly bright flashes. Quiet and vaguely worthwhile.
- Divines (2016), Houda Benyamina – A brilliant ode to female friendship & rebellion. Follows an inseparable daughter of an imam and teenager living in a French shanty-style town as they deal with high school with a side of drug dealing. The two lead performances are great and nuanced. Can see the less than desirous circumstances and the ‘spunk’ they have in the face of that. Stylistic moments capture their spirit in a really quite beautiful way. Also about crushing economic reality in contemporary France. Repurposes a traditional gangster arc to totally new ends.
- Triple 9 (2016), John Hillcoat – I dug this film. Some great heist/bank robbing notes. Love Hillcoat as a director. The cast here is flat out incredible. Like so many crime films the plot is unnecessarily complicated. But the motivations of the characters are really solid. Along with Winslet hamming it up as a Russian mob boss, Ejiofor and Mackie give the best performances. Interesting to consider who, if anyone, the good guys are.
- Cinderella (1950), Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske – Haven’t seen this in years and adored it. There are some beautiful themes, especially early. Mainly playing out through her really quite delightful and important affinity with animals. Clean style, both in terms of animation and storytelling. Funny, with lovely songs and a cracker of a jaunty score. In kind of the way of these films, it does wrap up startlingly fast. Charming enough you won’t mind though.
- Coin Heist (2017), Emily Hagins – Cool, classic heist stylings collide with a high school film. Hagins really captures the teen environment beautifully and the actors are very well directed. It’s a flimsy setup for them to attempt such a hugely risky crime. But you just have to put that out of your mind. A unique vibe – all the usual teen film stuff filtered through something a little different. Teen romance you’re actually invested in. And whilst the heist is pretty standard, there’s reasonable tension to it.
- Point Break (1991), Kathryn Bigelow – A goofy classic. A fun script, classily shot. The cast are great. Keanu is full of youthful charisma. Gary Busey’s presence works here. The ‘xtreme’ dialogue is adorably dated. A fucking hot central romance and a freneticism to how the plot unfurls. A real weight to the action and consequences in a way that is rare for action films. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah is my everything basically.
- The Great Mouse Detective (1991), Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener & John Musker – Thin, but fun. The villainous rat is a good presence. There’s no depth to the ripping off of Sherlock stories, but that aspect has some joy to it. Some great characters amongst the middling everything else. Story overall is pretty weak. But the character of Olivia is a great way into it for the audience.
- Krampus (2015), Michael Dougherty – A rather smart Christmas film. Takes aim at the debilitating and embarrassing consumerism of it all. Plus the horrors of family, especially those forced together despite sharing little life experience. Adam Scott is a great, charming presence. Also a good sense of fun to the horror, especially through the very cool & creative killer toy style creature design.
- Barry (2016), Vikram Gandhi – Really dig this biopic approach. Presenting the Obama of the early 80s basically just as a young man trying to find his way, as we all do. Nice, cruisy biopic writing with a cool early hip-hop soundtrack. And the casting is totally spot on too. Rapport and relationships between characters is so genuine and nicely drawn. Manages to straddle the line between not glorifying Obama and also not aiming for a shocking expose of him being a dick. Just a bloke finding his way.
- Steve Jobs (2015), Danny Boyle – One of my absolute favourite Danny Boyle films. Presents Jobs as utterly driven, but also an asshole. A total genius though. And the film is perhaps too keen to ensure you never forget that. But also paints him essentially as just a salesman, through the structure of the three press conferences. He was a complex dude and there’s an art to the way the script brings that out. Certainly shows his missteps. I found the third act to be just a smidge below the quality of the first two, with the melodrama a little strong and unbalanced. A great film though.
- Tales of Halloween (2015), Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Adam Gierasch, Andrew Kasch, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, Mike Mendez, Dave Parker, Ryan Schifrin, John Skipp, Paul Solet – A great concept for an anthology. The tales all occur in the same town on one Halloween evening. Relatively fun, brightly shot and for the most part light-heartedly gross. The quality is consistent and the efforts don’t feel repetitive. The acting never lets the stories down either. Whilst it’s a fun ride, the lesser entries are those that play it too silly.
- She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Mary Dore – Fantastic history of the women’s liberation movement. Both situates it in relation to current struggles for reproductive rights, and delves deep into the history of how it came out of anti-war efforts. Not all glossy, readily exposing the sexism of the movement and its occasional overwhelming focus on middle class issues. Also shows that the movement was not one homogenous group, but a bunch of smaller radical ones. Gets across the sense of power that the movement held, as well as the complexity of concerns involved. Inspiring and emotional.
- Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (2016), Nicholas Stoller – Really funny. Rose Byrne is an utter star. A rare comedy performer who does not rely on a certain shtick. Can play it different ways. There are bunch of hilarious female performances here. Whilst the story is a rehash, this is a better, funnier film than the first with some tops feminist messaging.
- The Meddler (2015), Lorene Scafaria – Writing is brilliant and true to life. Nails that certain kind of mother at a certain age too. Susan Sarandon manages to bring her to life without cloying. Would have liked more interactions between her and Rose Byrne in the first half. Byrne brings a world weariness to the role we’ve not seen before. Scafaria has this habit of taking you down apparently conventional paths you think you’re going to hate, but she does something so clever, you end up loving it.
- 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay – Basically a perfect piece of documentary filmmaking. Graphics, music editing are all so slick and function together so well. And the talking heads are so damn entertaining and clearly exceptionally knowledgeable in their fields. Tracks the roots of the prison boom all the way through to its explosion. Also examines the racial issues that abound in this space. There’s such a great power to the information being dispensed that it puts you on edge, like a thriller. Some of the facts are so absurd it’s hard to fathom. And at times it hits you in an actual physical way. Plus it has a fuckin incredible hip-hop soundtrack.
Not Worth Watching
- Down Under (2016), Abe Forsythe – Hands down the worst film of 2016. Makes no effort to place the toxic racist culture of the Shire at the heart of this story. Constant, utterly unnecessary homophobic writing. You can definitely make a comedy out of anything. But you have to do justice to the toxicity of the situation. Beyond awful. And not even funny. A problematic use of history.
- The Incredibles (2004), Brad Bird – Still one of Pixar’s very weakest efforts for me. It looks great, has one of my favourite designed worlds from the studio. And it has an ace heightened action/adventure score. But the story and characters just aren’t particularly memorable to me. Also, some of the messaging around exceptionalism is a little iffy. Script is really poor. And the female characters are the most disturbingly skinny I’ve seen in an animated film.
- Allegiant (2016), Robert Schwentke – Some of the younger cast – Woodley and especially Teller – bring a fair bit of charisma. The crumbling futurism visual aesthetic is intermittently cool too. The first smidge is utterly silly, schlocky sci-fi stuff. But then it comes crashing down in a wave of endless exposition and icky themes of genetic purity. Shitty world-building, really bad storytelling and muddled, dodgy thematic concerns.
- La La Land (2016), Damian Chazelle – Pretty insipid. The Gosling jazz stuff is nice and his is a great performance. The Emma Stone Hollywood dreams storyline couldn’t be more old-hat and bland. She is charming. But frankly it feels like the same performance she always gives. Forgettable songs and rubbish dancing. Chazelle seems to be a director with two or three visual ideas he just cycles through. Nothing plot. Ends beautifully though. A sequence that puts the rest of the film to shame.
- Split (2016), M. Night Shyamalan – Crap. Showcases a lot of M. Night’s eye-rolling tendencies – the unsubtlety, the attempted twists, the approach to scares. This film seems to really hate women too. The attempts to transcend a pretty tired subgenre are very uneven in terms of their success. The script is poor and the performances are only average. The use of mental illness to elicit horror is highly problematic.
- Between Cuba and Mexico, Everything is Bonito and Sabroso (2016), Idalmis Del Risco – I was really interested to understand the connections between parts of the two countries. But man this was flat and boring going. Apart from some early scenery, it’s basically all talking heads. Super unengaging for someone without a grounding in the history. Just a lot of academics sitting around talking which makes for pretty shit filmmaking to be honest. So bloody dry.
- Don’t Breathe (2016), Fede Alvarez – For me, a ho-hum, average film. Felt really conservative at times to me. It’s an inversion of the home invasion film, where we follow the intruders. Somewhere in there is an interesting idea about who the real villain is. But they do nothing with it. The style is shitty and there are simple storytelling flaws. Weighted down by logic flaws and the utterly horrific twist. Did not care for it at all.
If you only have time to watch one 13th
Avoid at all costs Down Under
Yet another huge month volume-wise for December and it turned out to be a relatively mixed bag. I’m really struggling to find the time to write at the moment, hence this being so late. But what is here is a good mix of catching up on 2016 things I had missed and a random assortment of older films.
- Finding Traction (2014), Jaime Jacobsen & Charles Dye – 55 minutes is really not enough time to capture the scope of an ultramarathon record attempt. This is ok and inspirational, but probably one only for runners. The filmmaking is workmanlike and any attempts at style flounder. But it does capture the mental aspect (i.e. trauma), of ultrarunning quite well.
- Tehran Taxi (2015), Jafar Panahi – High concept, yet organic feeling structure bears out the issues and differing viewpoints in contemporary Iran. Basically a dash-cam and Panahi talking to his passengers. Almost a strange car-bound melodrama at times, with some notes of farce too. Is meta in a way that I really dug. An ode to classic film in a very reserved, technically constrained way. A film about filmmaking from someone not allowed to make films. But more playful than you’d expect, and pulls no punches politically.
- Arena Azteca Budokan (2014), Orlando Jimenez Ruiz – Punk style doco about a specific wrestling gym in Mexico. Huge family dynasty, all living in apartments at the gym. Rambunctious – both the low-fi filmmaking and the atmosphere there. Also some great insight into Japanese wrestling culture. Very much focused on the female elements of this family, their worldwide achievements and legacy.
- Into the Inferno (2016), Werner Herzog – Immediately feels totally Herzog at his best. Though there are less of his interjections overall than I perhaps would have liked. Totally fearless, a little unhinged at its best. Stunning natural imagery, including some heart stopping historical imagery. A globetrotting volcanic adventure of Werner and his volcanologist mate Clive Oppenheimer. He doesn’t do it a lot here, but he is a master of combining imagery & voiceover in a poetic way. Unsurprisingly given the director, the mythical connotations of volcanoes are much more interesting than the scientific study of them.
- Green Room (2015), Jeremy Saulnier – The first half is perhaps a little stronger than the second. Mainly due to its depiction of band life on the road and the feeling of being steeped in a particular muso culture. Beautifully shot. It’s a great genre setup – cash strapped band take a gig at a skinhead bar. There’s a coarseness to the film that works but also makes it an at times tough watch. We’ve all had nights that get a little out of hand and this amplifies the shit out of that idea. Tense, nasty and brutal. Perhaps even a little too much so at times because it overwhelms some of that earlier texture.
- Arq (2016), Tony Elliott – I usually hate the time-loop plot conceit, but it’s built organically here. And it throws in a cool early twist which I’m always quite fond of. Solid sci-fi actioner that does a lot well – the production design is tops, I like both leads (Rachel Taylor & Robbie Amell) and they do good work here, and the machinations and shifting alliances are relatively enthralling to watch. It’s a nice slow burn that was not as schlocky as expected. Really tense by the end too.
- Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Steve Box & Nick Park – You can see there is so much love and care in every frame of this film. It’s completely disposable, with no thematic concerns. But there’s something almost refreshing about that these days, where every film feels like it is meant to mean something deeper. Love the classic riffing on classic horror films and the visual approach is as grand as you’d expect from Aardman. A surprisingly excellent score too.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone – Hilarious music mockumentary, led by the unstoppable Andy Samberg. Inclusion of big name, real life musos is inspired. I just had a smile the whole time. Samberg is this totally unassuming dude who is doing the greatest comedy out there at the moment. Quality of writing in general, but particularly the songs is brilliant. Does lose a little momentum in the second half, but there are lots of big laughs.
- Scouting in Palestine (1965), Pier Paolo Pasolini – Great insight into Pasolini’s headspace prior to the making of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). Can see his perceptions of the Middle East being changed the more he experiences it, his frustration apparent at the modernity which doesn’t gel with his needs. Also a view into his artistic process, assessing everything for its filmic worth. Though Pasolini does sort of ‘other’ the locals in a way that’s problematic, talking of “savage, pre-Christian faces”.
- Forty Guns (1957), Samuel Fuller – There’s a really cool suaveness to the whole thing that you don’t expect from a Western of this vintage. The dialogue utterly snaps. Really creatively shot with a focus on the body, close-ups of eyes and hands etc. Stanwyck is great as you would expect, playing a really strong character. I like the construction of the story too –keeping the leads apart for such a long time, then when they finally meet they crackle. Interesting themes of the pressure for people to settle down as the frontier is finished. Any sense the central romantic intrigue is perfunctory is so well performed you’ll get over it quickly.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Gareth Edwards – Decent rather than amazing. Feels like Edwards’ film which is good. Storytelling is solid, especially the pretty ballsy ending and the dogfighting action is great to take in as always. The phenomenal cast is the main attraction. Felicity Jones convinces and inspires, Diego Luna is an able assistant and folks like Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads and Mendo do a great job at rounding it out. But it’s for sure the weakest score in the franchise’s history. The universe is starting to feel a little tired. And to me this sits unsteadily to the side of the main franchise.
- A Teacher (2013), Hannah Fidell – An immediately discomforting situation as a female teacher undertakes a relationship with a male student. Plenty of style here. The use of music is amazing and the shooting lends everyday sequences a heightened sensibility. The lead performance from Lindsay Burdge is very good, capturing someone who is naïve and out of their depth. An illicit affair as an outlet for fucked up shit in her life, a distancing thing. Like the running we see in interludes. Builds up the deep sadness of her character as someone who really does not have it together. The inevitable fractures do come, but in a very realistic way from both parties.
- Viva (2007), Anna Biller – Totally commits to its conceit – music, shooting, stylings. Awesomely, intentionally laboured. Riffs on TV/film of the period and classical advertising. Wholly unique and kinda audacious. There are so many ways this over-stylisation could be fumbled, but it’s well brought to life and never becomes too self-aware. There’s a real dark edge to the film too. The performances are great. Focusses on gender attitudes and skewering them. A pastiche both of genre (musical, farce), as well as style.
- Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), Rick Morales – Basically 70 mins of shtick. Which eventually runs out of charm. But it is still just worthwhile because it’s good fun for a while. The silly, pithy dialogue transports to the 60s, while the music and gadgets are brilliant. Cutely plays on technical differences between then and now. But the fight scenes really go on and are bland. The inconsequential nature of the plot really tells as it goes along too. As does the fact it’s a little painful in its self-awareness.
- Miss Stevens (2016), Julia Hart – There’s an America singalong, so that’s an automatic thumbs up from me. Another portrait of a person in a role of responsibility struggling. Good characters, with the teens instantly recognisable to us all. Lily Rabe lands the tricky performance of a teacher very much inside her own head. Occasionally becomes too trite and the film stumbles when examining relationship grey areas. But there is some really solid examination of mental illness here and lots to like.
- Salut Les Cubains (1971), Agnes Varda – A quite incredible mix pf photography and film. A mix of Varda’s personal history/reflections, with a more objective overarching history of the revolution. Smartly delivered with two separate voiceovers. Incredible use of photos and beautiful craft to it all. The soundtrack is really great too.
- The Finest Hours (2016), Craig Gillespie – A Disney film that feels almost painfully wholesome at times. Effects are incredible, there’s an epic scale to the waves and boats, with none of the shittiness that generally comes with generating that kind of scope. It’s good, though you get the feeling it’s aiming for something a little more epic/great. There is a nice romance at the heart of it, well brought to life by Chris Pine and Holliday Grainger. Casey Affleck is a little over-actey though. Whilst it never threatens to raise the tension at all high, this is perfectly passable stuff.
- Vagabond (1985), Agnes Varda – Opens with the death of the ‘vagrant’ main character, which lends a sad inevitability to it all. Very little care shown throughout as she is basically dismissed by though around her. Structurally a touch cluttered. But the lead performance from Sandrine Bonnaire is dynamic and just the right amount of enigmatic. About loneliness and the necessary, or otherwise, nature of societal interactions. Love how her idealism is challenged or played on as she moves through the film. Due to her status, people see her as a novelty rather than a complete person. Also, all elements of society feel able to proffer some judgement on her. Really great stuff
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Taika Waititi – Wry kiwi humour. A much more poignant setup than I was expecting. Film is quite grounded in the character of Ricky and what he has lived through. Charming and really sharply written, mixing in a lot of heart nicely. Waititi has a real eye for a shot or sequence, often combined with music (for example one of my favourite ever car chases which occurs late on). And both the lead performances are great and complement each other perfectly.
Not Worth Watching
- Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), Jake Szymanski – A hard one for me. There were lots of laughs and some good performances. Aubrey Plaza & Anna Kendrick are super good and their characters bring a lot, whilst Zac Efron & Adam Devine have a good rapport. But it’s really aggressively hetero-normative at times, which definitely lessens the appeal. A bit one-note too.
- Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), Werner Herzog – Perhaps my least favourite Herzog doco. Siberia such an intriguing place, but this is very specific but also very quiet and reserved. Also this is totally focused on hunting and that really ain’t my thing. None of his usual insight. The happiness of the title is very much a form of back to basics freedom Herzog is advocating. Though of course there are some spectacular pieces of nature photography throughout.
- Red Dawn (1984), John Milius – This is such a totally over the top conservative piece of work. Some nice scenery is brutally and frequently interrupted by really gross violence. Silly plot as you flick a montage switch and some kids are suddenly amazing guerrilla bandits changing the face of World War III with farcical effectiveness. Zero character development which particularly hurts the female characters, meaning Jennifer Grey & Lea Thompson are wasted. And the storytelling of a war within a war is poor, with no sense of the scope as to where it fits in.
- Gods of Egypt (2016), Alex Proyas – No weight to it at all. Looks cheap and awful. And there is no faster way to get me offside than to kill Bryan Brown, who is totally hamming it up, in the first 10 minutes. The action is a cartoony mess and the performances range from a totally lifeless Gerard Butler to the moderately ok Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Awful, but too shoddy and especially charmless to be a good bad movie.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016), Dave Green – Equally as awful as the first. Action is a too fast, cartoony mess while the voice work of the turtles is really poor. These films have completely sidelined and ruined the character of Splinter. Because everything feels so light and weightless, nothing means anything, even on a simple plot level. Stephen Amell is at least some fun as Casey Jones. Legit one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen.
- Man vs Snake (2015), Tim Kinzy & Andrew Seklir – Sick of these boringass docos. Someone does something vaguely interesting or impressive. Then someone puts together a bog standard doco on it. There is potential to do something different here – explore the hold video game arcades still have on small-town America. But nope. The incredible endurance aspect of the feat is never conveyed, even if you do get invested in his quest by the end.
- Anomalisa (2015), Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman – A visually interesting film about an entitled white guy is still a film about an entitled white guy. About a yearning for a stage in one’s life with a much greater intensity. Occasionally works as a collection of themes but never as an interesting narrative. Bella is a much more interesting character than the direly bland male lead who has a hugely inflated view of his own self-worth. More than a bit gross. Plies a woman with so many mojitos she can’t stand, before having sex with her.
- Nerve (2016), Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman – Like ‘truth or dare’ for the social media generation… but more obvious and crap than that premise suggests. Awful dialogue. Emma Roberts and Dave Franco work relatively well together. But the film is really poorly plotted with no balance to how it flows. And some woeful, tacked on attacks at anonymous internet culture.
If you only have time to watch one Tehran Taxi
Avoid at all costs Anomalisa
You know how last month I mentioned personal stuff going on that made that piece so late? Well the same personal stuff has left me with a lot of time to watch movies, mainly in chunks around 3:30am, which means this month’s effort is a monster. Heavy on light viewing fare though, so expect loads of action flicks and a really surprising number of sequels too.
- The Good Wife Season 7 (2015), Michelle & Robert King – An up and down, but worthwhile close to The Good Wife It’s basically back to the same old firm, abandoning the charm the smaller Florrick Argos had brought. And the constant dropping of characters with no mention is deeply frustrating. But Lucca is a great addition to the cast. Pays off big emotional setups from seasons earlier with devastating effectiveness. The courtroom storytelling aspect has gone downhill a fair bit this season though, in no small part due to the continued sidelining of the character of Cary. But despite frustrations, this season satisfies and even delivers a monologue moment that’s one of the show’s finest.
- Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3 (2015), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Continues to be a truly great TV comedy. More of the same this season. But when the same is hilariously silly writing and an ensemble cast of incredible characters, that isn’t a bad thing. The surprising depth to the characters is the show’s secret strength I think. And the cast which seems it throws up a new MVP each season. Here it is Melissa Fumero as the hilarious ‘straightwoman’ Amy Santiago.
- Black Mass (2015), Scott Cooper – Takes a lot of inspiration stylistically from Goodfellas (1990). But based on an even more incredible true story. I really like the score and how much it is used. The script it not the best, though the performances minimise the impact of that. Depp is really good. He reigns in his bullshit and brings a fierce, quiet menace that is amplified by his wasted, cruel appearance. Sketches out the hero to worship on the part of Edgerton’s deluded bum of an FBI agent. Depp’s vicious character, with him embodying the required demeanour and physicality, is very much the focus of this violent film.
- FE26 (2014), Kevin Jerome Everson – Dynamic short documentary portraiture of two guys stealing unused copper to sell. Pained as a bit of a victimless crime (which it probably is) to get by. Two really interesting dudes and you get a sense of why they do this and how. As well as illustrating the financial crisis as the cause of all the empty houses, but through the perspective of these two guys.
- Semi-Pro (2008), Kent Alterman – Better than I recall, one of the best uses of Ferrell in full blow silly mode. Helps that Woody Harrelson is playing it pretty straight, functioning as a perfect foil. Cast is all good, Andre 3000 and Maura Tierney bring a lot too. Riffs on, but is not beholden to the sports film structure. Also does some fun stuff with the period setting. Has perhaps a lower jokes per minute count than a lot of Ferrell’s films, but some of the laughs are huge.
- Elle (2016), Paul Verhoeven – Totally challenging filmmaking. Storytelling in a way that I think our brains are not programmed to comfortably deal with. A horror film. Adapts many facets of the genre – basements, score, jump scares, horrific childhood events – to say something about sexual assault. A lot of the film chronicles someone working through the trauma of rape. But it’s not only about that. Isabelle Huppert is otherworldly good here and it’s difficult to imagine the film working as well with another actress. Amongst everything else, the best directed film I’ve seen this year. Verhoeven has his audience on a string.
- Eldridge Cleaver (1970), William Klein – Portrait of a Black Panther leader in exile. An incredible talker, impassioned and confrontational about the process of the American system. Has deep ideas and the words to engage you with them. Openly militant in his desired approach. Also functions well as a potted history of Afro-liberation struggles, told by those doing the struggling. Relevant too as we can see the U.S. establishment using the same tactics of propaganda against supposed Islamic extremism as they did against the Panthers. A rumination on the connections between violence and policy.
- Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni – Looks great. A creative, if not totally innovative, visual approach. These films are good at nailing that theme of being totally out of one’s depth. But there’s some super unnecessary stuff in here about beauty standards. The action is so well choreographed and animated though. And all the voice cast are really solid.
- Zoolander 2 (2016), Ben Stiller – Feels like it slips smoothly into that same comedic groove as the first. Quite funny and there are lots of cameos done with great spirit (Kiefer Sutherland just pips Sting for my favourite of the film). The performances are really strong and it is sharply written. Rehashes beats from the first film sparingly and when it does, they’re fresh and funny. I laughed a lot.
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), David Yates – Like most middle films, this one meanders a lot. And it struggles to feel anything but perfunctory and make the plot meaningful. I think that’s a lot easier to do at this stage of a franchise in book form. But there’s some really strong thematic attacks on conservatism I loved. And some nice casting, especially Imelda Staunton playing against type, Gary Oldman being damn good and Radcliffe & Watson just having their roles downpat at this point.
- F/X (1986), Robert Mandel – Very 80s. Nice, clean action film setup. Bryan Brown has real leading man charisma. Some of the effects plotting is fun, if a little silly. It’s a touch unremarkable, but the acting puts it over the top. The villains are all good and Brian Dennehy has a really great presence.
- F/X2 (1991), Richard Franklin – Very 90s. Really follows on from the ramifications of the first which I like in a sequel. Brown’s Rollie now makes toys, which is nowhere near as cool as doing movie special effects let’s face it. Has some really tense moments, almost in a horror style. But also has a man fighting an animatronic clown suit. Return of Dennehy as Leo is an awesome addition. Plotwise, it’s basically a remake, but with the job change making it a little sillier. And with a lot more Home Alone (1990) overtones. There is also a real nasty, brutal side to this one.
- Bad Moms (2016), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore – Such a winning cast. Kunis is really good as the lead. Pinkett-Smith and especially Applegate, nailing the uppity PTA president, are great in supporting roles. And Kathryn Hahn is a pitch-perfect piece of casting. The soundtrack really pops. There is so much to like about this film. Open and unembarrassed in its raunchiness, riffing on white dude entitlement and the struggles of parenting. Not at all mean spirited which feels so nice. An inclusive, funarse film.
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt – A lot of biblical stuff – landscapes, direct references in speech, search for a new promised land and the placing of faith in divine providence. Michelle Williams plays a very good character, she sees through the idiotic Meek much more astutely than the others. Film delineates the genders in a strange, interesting way. Characters are basically all sketches which works for this film. The character of Stephen Meek seems out of place though, an almost comical note to him. Film as a journey. Starts out as a quite ethereal one. Then very much a real one. Those two intermingle.
- Amanda Knox (2016), Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn – Really well constructed and broad ranging true-crime storytelling. All talking heads means the lack of authorial intervention does allow some claims to go un-interrogated. But it really sketches out (in their own words often) the sense of ego on the part of the local police force, and their shameful rush to arrest because the eyes of the world are on them.
- The Equalizer (2014), Antoine Fuqua – It’s a slow start. But Denzel’s presence and Fuqua’s visual style lift it. The early interactions between Denzel and Moretz crackle. So it’s a shame she disappears from the film for so long. It meanders too much from what should be the core story. Loses that heart. But individual scenes are really well paced and there’s great style to it all, especially the extended action sequences. Exceedingly, incredibly violent though.
- Tallulah (2016), Sian Heder – The main attractions here are Ellen Page being excellent and some really well drawn themes on the struggles of being a new parent (including the emotional brutality of post-natal depression). Page has a really personable screen presence and that comes through here, even when playing a drifter who steals a neglected baby. Her interactions with Allison Janney’s disapproving kinda mother in law provide both the film’s best parts and its most trite. Slight, but good.
Not Worth Watching
- Raiders (2015), Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen – Such a rich story for any film lover, but they don’t do much with it. Filming of the final scene decades on feels like a vanity project and it’s hard to get invested in it. There’s also something quite upsetting about the dude getting hurt in the explosion they put on to complete the film. Cowboy filmmaking. The storytelling is slipshod, even if the historical stuff is of more interest. Which is a bummer because things like how they all bonded over their similar tough upbringings is really interesting.
- Robocop 2 (1990), Irvin Kershner – Certainly not a bastion of subtlety. But also scarily relevant – privatisation and treatment of public servants core concerns. Robocop is comically slow and clunky. Doesn’t stop him unleashing loads and loads of really over the top, indiscriminate violence. Effects work is totally shoddy. The script makes very little sense and the politics around the nature of police work are pretty chilling given where we find ourselves now. And the use of the kid is totally disquieting. Not just bad, but really nasty as well.
- Into the Storm (2014), Steven Quale – It starts totally underwhelming with no exhilaration to the opening action sequence. And that’s basically where it stays. There are some great storm special effects that deserve a lot better than to be attached to this dud, which is really just a wannabe Twister (1996). Not wholly awful I guess, but damn close. Nothing lands with the impact you suspect the filmmakers were hoping for.
- Jenny’s Wedding (2015), Mary Agnes Donoghue – ‘Seems like an interesting premise for a Katherine Heigl film’ was a thought I would come to regret. So chaste, afraid to realistically present the lesbian relationship that should be the film’s focal point. The script is awfully clunky too. For all its faults, it does some stuff well. Tom Wilkinson is incredibly good, but it’s glaring how much he stands out in a mediocre cast. And some of the big emotional moments late on do land quite well.
- Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015), Wes Ball – Really kinda awful. Just a lifeless zombie flick with nary a maze to be found. The sexual politics are shitty too, with the minuscule number of female characters being constantly rescued by the dudes. Direction and storytelling are inept, whilst they really don’t bother with characterisation at all. Middle films are tough, but this is a monumentally bad piece of franchise storytelling, that barely progresses the overall arc in 2 hours.
If you only have time to watch one Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3
Avoid at all costs Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
Later than usual this time around as has been an exceptionally busy time for me personally. A vast majority of positive experiences here, the standouts being a surprisingly excellent remake and a few docos. However I continue to get less and less out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, films I have for the most part loved over the past decade-ish.
- The Secret Life of Pets (2016), Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud – Accusation of this being Toy Story (1995) with pets are (slightly) harsh. Above average fun, mainly due to the quality of the writing. There were some clever flourishes that got some hearty laughs out of me. The visual approach, especially the characters design, is really fun. And the simple adventure plot is enough to serve the joyful turns of phrase and charming characters.
- The Magnificent Seven (2016), Antoine Fuqua – Hell of a nice surprise. Looks great and is suitably epic. Unashamedly a Western, embracing the tropes and traditions of the genre in a way that is nicely familiar but not tired. The cast is exceptional and so diverse. Denzel is great and leads with movie-star magnetism. Haley Bennett provides a simple but effective emotional hook for the film. And Chris Pratt is here doing his thing where it probably shouldn’t work, but does. Everyone else brings a lot and creates a good sense of character with the screen time they get. A light, but never silly joy.
- Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Mike Flanagan – Flanagan is a really sharp filmmaker and it shows. Less a Ouija film and more a general love letter to classic horror – mirrors, creepy kids, priests etc. The period elements add a lot, the settings and production design are really great. It does get a touch silly with some unnecessary CGI and attempts to ramp up the scares. But it is nice to see a filmmaker clearly given huge amount of freedom with this kind of property.
- A Lego Brickumentary (2014), Kief Davidson & Daniel Junge – Feels like a doco for kids. In a good way. Thought on occasion it feels a fair bit like an ad. All quite creatively presented. It’s a fun film and conveys a good sense of the intense passion of people who work there and fandom of convention goers. There are some nicely drawn connections of projects on different scales and examination of the changes the company need to make to survive. A little fractured at times, but worthwhile for fans.
- La Paz in Buenos Aires (2013), Marcelo Charras – Wrestling documentary with a quiet, process focussed start. Making ring attire, creating posters on a home computer, the very grassroots marketing approach. Insight into the science and technique of telling stories in the ring is great. Nice portal into a world of a backyard wrestling ring that doubles as a clothesline. There’s also an interesting father/son dynamic with the dad offended his son would even consider working as a heel (bad guy). A nice film that may have been better with a stronger focus on a particular narrative.
- The Seahorse (1934), Jean Painleve – Very scientific study that voices broader themes and connections. A little shabbily shot. And contrived. But there are some genuinely stunning pieces of footage such as the male seahorse in labour. Worth it solely for those images. Which is a good thing cause it peters out. Saved by a cool montage with race horses. Although one of Painleve’s signature totally unnecessary and gross dissection scenes makes an appearance. Yuck.
- A United Kingdom (2016), Amma Asante – Good, but a little stuffy in the telling and workmanlike in terms of craft. Gets by though. The real life story is stunning and emotive which helps. Well cast too. Pike is excellent despite murmurings from some she is miscast, whilst Oyelowo is a standout. Especially in the delivery of one crushing monologue. He also really helps to envelop the audience in real life emotion of the story. Which is at times hampered by a rushed approach to narrative and character. But as a portrait of the petty meddling destructiveness of 40s-50s British Empire, it’s an effective & great one to see onscreen.
- Tig (2015), Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York – A film about Stuff, but perhaps not the stuff you were expecting. Tig Notaro sees the stand-up set where she announced she had cancer explode. And much of this is about the weight of attempting to follow up a truly great, transcendent piece of art. A remarkable love story here too as she explores new love and attempts to start a family. A wonderful doco, maybe the best I’ve seen all year.
- The Barkley Marathons (2014), Annika Iltis & Timothy James Kane – An examination of the infamous, borderline mythical ultra-marathon. Even how to enter is a secret. That desire for secrecy does mean that it is hard to give a sense of the course and how the race is progressing. But you still get enough to understand why it took 10 years for someone to even finish. The storytelling gets really good toward the end when it comes down to the last few competitors.
- Julieta (2016), Pedrot Almodovar – Does a lot of things I loved. And a lot I hated. But that makes for interesting viewing. Too arch and meandering at times. But the central relationship, which takes maybe three quarters of the film to coalesce, is rich, meaningful and complex. Actually there are a series of relationships throughout the film with complexities running underneath them. Awesomely performed, especially by the two titular performers.
- Broadway By Light (1958), William Klein – Experimental short with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker involved. Americans invented Broadway to “make up for nightfall”. A garish and striking montage barrage of branding and yellow neon light. Some interesting examination of light, both the neon and natural varieties.
- The Good Wife Season 6 (2014), Robert King & Michelle King – This is just so well acted. Matthew Goode, Michael J. Fox and Mike Colter are the regular guest stars. Not to mention Alan Cumming just doing stunning work. The political aspects of the show, in the past some of the weakest, are really good here as Alicia attempts to enter public life. Though that does mean the characters are split, so we see less of Diane and Cary than I would have liked. It’s a little unfocused, with a number of characters just disappearing. Still, worthwhile for the ensemble.
Not Worth Watching:
- Meet the Patels (2014), Geeta & Ravi Patel – Found this far more cynical than I was expecting. Chronicles the very specific pressures of a certain culture with its insistence on marriage and annual trips to India. Felt flat. The animated interludes are annoying and unnecessary. The character at the centre is also not a particularly interesting or likeable dude. Occasional examination of generational differences are the best parts. Film boils down to a guy being too scared to tell his parents about his girlfriend… but then he does.
- Doctor Strange (2016), Scott Derrickson – This sees Marvel try something new. Unfortunately it’s really bad. The storytelling is flat and uninteresting, even for a Marvel flick. And it’s basically one we’ve seen countless times before. The script does nothing to elevate the thrust of the narrative and the decently written spiritual elements toward the start disappear fast. The only real achievement is it opens up the MCU to a more mystical realm pretty well. None of the characters are well developed, aside from Strange. And it’s a weird turn from Cumberbatch, seemingly not knowing how to play it tone-wise. The visuals and some of the creative chase scenes feel original and fun though.
If you only have time to watch one Tig
Avoid at all costs Meet the Patels
Bit of a mixed bag for September. A couple of new releases were duds, but overall the year continues to improve with a bunch more excellent new releases. I also dug further into the filmographies of a couple of directors I really like, such as Spike Lee, Herzog and a few more, which yielded really good results.
- Grace and Frankie Season 1 (2015), Marta Kauffman & Howard J. Morris – Four great characters at the core. They are a touch broad at least initially, but they have a lot of texture to them by the end. Not simplistic in what it’s saying. The two men coming off as assholes at times is a good approach. Very funny, but never neglects the complexity of the situation – the sense of loss that abounds basically everywhere. Not all quirky old lady buddy comedy. The performances are all good, though Lily Tomlin is the clear MVP bringing a hilarious spark to Frankie, a character that could have been a caricature. Late in the season, it really gets its patter, timing and extended cast of characters down.
- Perfect Strangers (2016), Paolo Genovese – An interesting enough twist on the dinner party where secrets are exposed subgenre. A smartphone based plot makes it a modern feeling update. A charmingly performed avalanche of characters, though most of the performers are excelling at being distinctly unlikable. Even when it goes some obvious places, it does so with charm. Has a mix of poignancy and silly comedy that works pretty well. Takes a bold choice on the ending that initially frustrated me, but really made the film linger in my mind.
- Heart of Glass(1976), Werner Herzog – This very early Herzog feature screams 70s Euro arthouse with long dialogue free stretches, opera etc. But it’s also distinctly Herzogy with the oblique voiceover referencing both apocalypse and renewal, and the kinetic stock footage of nature cut in. A world of superstitious villagers, a soothsayer and a lost glass recipe. At times hard to take in, but the sense of chaotic confusion and desperation amongst the villagers is well conveyed. Also some really good sequences of artisans at work. Liked it a lot, though its ethereal notions may frustrate.
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans(2009), Werner Herzog – I loved this. Perhaps the best distillation of Herzog’s unique worldview in a fictional film. Follows Nicolas Cage’s broken, desperate, corrupt, addict of a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage is excellent, bringing an appropriately grotesque physical presence, lumbering and hunched. His performance is all tics, wild eyes and comedic timing, which is exactly what the film calls for. You really ride with the character the whole time, all the ups and downs. The supports in Val Kilmer, Xzibit and Eva Mendes are also really good. The score is great too, enhancing the dirtiness and atmosphere of the film. But amidst all the randomness is a simple crime story structure – cops running down leads, interviewing suspects. The dark descent of a man is a common theme of Herzog’s. This film tracks it better than his more lauded efforts.
- My Soul to Take(2010), Wes Craven – Certainly lesser Craven, but the man just knows how to make an interesting slasher. A split personality killer returns 16 years after his apparent death, slaying kids born on the day he died. Craven always subtly tweaks the genre. Here the film toys nicely with the notion of whodunit, which is not really a slasher hallmark. Frank Grillo has a good presence for a cop whilst the teens are all good cipher characters. One of a few late films where Craven started to mix in elements of the teen film, relatively well too.
- Misery (1990), Rob Reiner – A fantastic, contained psychological thriller. In some ways a preview of where obsessive fandom would be 25 years later with an author held hostage by a super fan. There are great performances. Obviously from Kathy Bates, but Caan works off her in a really great duo. It’s awesome to see Lauren Bacall pop up too. The film escalates really well, as Bates’ character reveals herself. There’s some very dark humour and the darkness spills over early in a great scene where she finds out he killed her favourite character. It’s a cerebral game, as he starts to toy with her. And it gets vicious toward the end. Even though it mostly takes place in a single room, it’s interestingly shot with care given to camera placement and big moments punctuated by zooms on to character’s faces. Annie Wilkes is a great character and Bates brings her to life strikingly.
- Tunnel (2016), Seong-hun Kim – Tense Korean genre effort with a deliciously simple premise – dude gets stuck in a tunnel is basically it. The film has some great special effects. The outside/inside structure works really well. Interestingly it is the big, effects laden set pieces that work the best, as opposed to the quieter character moments. It perhaps doesn’t all quite come together. On a plot level all of the characters and institutions make too many unrealistically dopey decisions, and it foreshadows the shit outta some stuff. The soundtrack is distracting and used at a lot of unnecessary moments too. And it never really captures the claustrophobia of the situation. But there is one exceptionally emotional moment, carried by Doona Bae in the lead female role. A few of them hit hard late in the film actually, which meant I found myself utterly invested towards the end.
- The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015), Steve Yu -Taps into the psychology that made him so great as a wrestler. Gives you an early, very emotional, glimpse of his fall. Also gets to the fundamental lifestyle/career of a pro-wrestler that makes them addicts of all kinds. A dark fuckin life has left Jake Roberts a broken down dude. At times it does feel a little like an infomercial for DDP Yoga and it gets a little repetitive. But more of it is a really great portrait of an addict and addiction. Moments like seeing a man realise he’s been a really shit father, just like he always promised himself he wouldn’t be, are powerful to watch.
- Crooklyn (1994), Spike Lee – A great portrait of an African American neighbourhood, accompanied by a perfectly selected soundtrack. The kind of film that reminds you why Lee is such an important director. Generally never see neighbourhoods like this onscreen. Focuses in part on the struggle of artistic pursuit in the face of brutal societal monetary pressure. But is more just a collection of one family’s tales over time, rather than anything particularly plot-focused. There are some very emotional beats toward the end though. The characters grow on you. No clumsy setup, is just that by the end you are totally on board with them.
- Girl Asleep (2015), Rosemary Myers – Great to see films like this being made in Australia. Stylish as fuck. Shot in 4:3 and delightfully framed. Just the right side of Wes Andersony, aka not annoying. Performances are all good but Bethany Whitmore is exceptional. The whole film perfectly captures that time of life, of being 14 going on 15. Such a charming film, I can’t really imagine people not loving it. There is a long fantastical detour, which could jar or feel like a throwaway. But here it amplifies the themes of the film really nicely.
- Cigarette Burns (2005), John Carpenter – A ‘Masters of Horror’ entry. Interestingly written by film critic Drew McWeeny. The loving film nerd touches in the script are one of the major positives in this pretty minor, albeit scary and fun, effort from a legend. A film about film, the opening line referring to the magic of the medium, the threat coming from a mythical haunted film as well as various references to festivals and archives. Also considers the lasting effect that a film can have on people, as well as the form and practice of horror filmmaking. All of which is in the script, not necessarily the filmmaking. The conclusion goes some schlocky, gross places, perhaps struggling to pay off what has been set up.
- Midnight Special (2016), Jeff Nichols – A sci-fi road film erupting out of a Texas of cult-like conservative Christianity. There is a great sense of mystery as a kid deity is kidnapped by his dad and they race down highways with both the church and the feds in pursuit. It is really well performed. Child lead Jaeden Liebherher, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and Adam Driver in what I think is his best performance yet. It’s not a story dripping in originality. But it takes sci-fi tropes and turns them into a mediation on the nature of being a parent. The film also ponders unconventional forms of parenting, such as fostering, and the struggle of sending your child out into their own world. It is rare to see these themes examined through a unique prism such as this. Nicholls brings a lot of craft to the film, and the score is incredible. Spooky, melodic and driving. One of the year’s best.
- Sisters (2015), Jason Moore – A patchy effort. But especially in the first half there is some very funny scripting, not hurt at all by the fact it is Amy Poehler and Tina Fey delivering it. Taps into nostalgia for childhood, for your stuff and formative experiences. Their connection from years working together means you buy them as sisters. There are some great comedic performers in supporting roles, such as Kate McKinnon and Maya Rudolph, though they are a little wasted. The second half is very, very rough. Nowhere near the charm of the first not to mention Fey’s usual racial blindspots really come out.
- The Red Turtle (2016), Michael Dudok de Wit – You won’t see anything else like this bold film in cinemas this year. An essentially wordless shipwreck film with some of the fantastical mixed in. Those fantastical elements are a sightly mixed bag and they contribute to the film dragging a little through the middle. But they also provide some of the film’s most poignant moments. The soundtrack is great, particularly in the way it interacts with the very old school textural animation. The storytelling is a little off at times, particularly the second half where it meanders and goes some strange places. That is definitely a minor quibble though.
- Life Happens (2011), Kat Coiro – Chose this because I dig the cast, in particular Krysten Ritter and Rachel Bilson. The latter is ok, but doesn’t have all that much to do. But Ritter (also on co-writing duties) is one of the chief reasons to tune in. She really convinces and helps the film to convey just how fuckin hard it is to be a parent. Cool to see a single mum as the lead in a rom-com. Some of those more straightforward rom-com elements are a little cloying, with male lead Geoff Stults not able to match Ritter’s charisma. But the astute consideration of being a parent and how that changes you, makes this different enough from the norm to be worth recommending.
- Finder’s Keepers (2015), Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel – An absurdist documentary that starts hilarious and gives way to a portrait of sadness. Set in a very southern, ‘redneck’ world, where everyone in town knows the fourth generation mortician. The ‘man finds a severed leg in a bbq he buys’ pitch gives way to an examination of guilt and family issues at the heart of the story. There is some nice examination of how class issues play out in small towns and the film comes with a readymade villain in the deluded and greedy Shannon (who finds the leg and sees that as his big break into stardom). It feels stretched at times, but there is enough thematic weight here to maintain interest.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), Travis Knight – Ethereal yet tactile, both in looks and plot. There are some straight up horror elements to darken the fantasy tropes. The voice cast is over-familiar in a distracting way. But this is a rip-roaring and funny adventure film. Combines the jokiness of a Western style animated film, with the quest based structure of fantasy fiction. Love the ending too, taking a totally different tact to the big battle. A film full of incredible craft.
Not Worth Watching
- High-Rise(2015), Ben Wheatley – Rubbed me up the wrong way from the very beginning. Feels far too deliberate, as well as visually uninteresting. Actually as far as I can tell, Wheatley brings very little to this at all. Takes Ballard’s already unsubtle piece and makes it blunter. Though managing to have less to say at the same time. Luke Evans is woefully miscast, Hiddleston is decent whilst Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss give the film’s best performances. Narrative doesn’t build and surge as it should. Rather it clunks and lurches, which is a large part of the reason it’s essentially toothless. Takes the more (potentially) schlocky elements of the book and makes them surrealist instead. A choice that doesn’t work.
- Bernard-l’hermite (1930), Jean Painleve – Can tell this is an early work of his. No real connections between the footage and any thematic consideration. Using stark imagery to suggest something monstrous. There is manipulation in all documentaries. The issue is that with Painleve it often, for example here, feels exploitative.
- Sully (2016), Clint Eastwood – This is a totally flat effort. Plainest possible telling of a story that is unexceptional, at least in Eastwood’s hands. The director is not able to articulate onscreen what makes the actions of these people at all remarkable. The approach gives no thrill, no sense of the terror. All we get are these strangely evil, and inept investigators culminating in a comical public hearing where the reveals are meant to take our breath away. But they barely elicit a shrug. The awful fuckin dad joke the film ends on sums up the movie really.
- Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Lauren Montgomery – These films have a strong sense of assuredness and this one is no different. That is coupled with a good sense of place, the working class docks of Gotham for example. However a lot of that disappears when the film heads off-world for a lot of the run time. These less grounded sequences feel rushed and the fantasy moments don’t feel anywhere near as weighty as they should. The film also only works so-so as an intro for Supergirl. There is much to like, the dichotomy of the two titular characters is really strong and some of the action is really clearly & physically conveyed. But the issues outweigh the good unfortunately.
If you only have time to watch one Girl Asleep
Avoid at all costs High-Rise
August turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive month, with only one dud among the whole lot. In fact there are a few of my absolute favourites of the year in here, probably all of them from quite unlikely sources.
- Lights Out (2016), David F. Sandberg – Has its issues but I liked this. Terrifying, though the scares are gimmicky and repetitive. Well performed, especially by Teresa Palmer who carries the film. The attempted mythos is a little silly but there are more original things here than average. The film gives the audience enough credit to do something really bold and shocking with the ending too. It also retrospectively gives the rest of the film more meaning and emotion.
- Point Break (2015), Ericson Core – In time this film will rightfully claim its place in the canon of good-bad movies. The dialogue is otherworldly in its awfulness. You will laugh a lot. None of that was intended by the filmmakers, but it is absolutely hilarious. It’s gloriously dumb. Extreme sports action sequences linked together with grizzled Ray Winstone mugging. You can’t get better than that. There’s also a healthy dash of spirituality seemingly mined from the depths of high school instagram accounts. Perhaps the worst dialogue ever. Iconic.
- Train to Busan (2016), Sang-ho Yeon- Stunning. One of the films of the year and perhaps my favourite zombie film ever. Creepily performed and well brought to life. The plotting is pitch-perfect. The way the events of the film rise and fall, escalating really nicely. Some of the character stuff early does not sit quite right. But over time that becomes as great a part of the film as any. Fuckin emotional too. Meaningful character arcs carved out in the midst of the zombie induced chaos. And that chaos is full of really awesome action set pieces that never lack clarity.
- The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Ida Lupino – Opening title card is super modern. Sucks the audience in, warning that the facts are real and someone in the audience could be behind it. Dripping in style from the credits on, creative about what the frame encompasses, use of shadow and constrained location of a car. Film brings a pretty terrifying serial killer hitch-hiker to life through simple, clean and dark storytelling. The psychology of the villain, his exercising of what he considers to be masculine power and the thrill of control is reminiscent of trends in crime fiction that would follow many decades later. Taut filmmaking with great performances, especially from William Talman as the villain.
- Spotlight (2015), Tom McCarthy – I wasn’t sure how I would go with this, but it is as good a straight up drama that I have seen in a few years. Tells a story quite specific to Boston and the very deep, problematic ties between the church and numerous aspects of the community (police, lawyers, media). Is also an excellent portrait of investigative journalism. The swirling build of an investigation, the process that has to be stepped through and devotion of those inspired by it. The huge ensemble cast is really exceptional and like he always seems to, Mark Ruffalo stands out. But they are all brilliant. Feels like a very true to life film. There’s a sense of timing to the film, the way the editing, dialogue and score all work together. Pretty much as good as pure storytelling on film gets.
- Women He’s Undressed (2015), Gillian Armstrong – This tale of an underappreciated (at least these days) early Aussie costume designer is a mixed bag. The treating of the identity of his male lover as some great mystery, or the use of a stand-in for unnecessary commentary from the subject were both unwelcome. But the straighter talking heads stuff, focusing on his career and adventurous life, is great and informative. For film fans there’s also some really good delineation of the differences between the classic studios. Also the history of homophobia in Hollywood is examined. Ends up being a portrait of a life in Hollywood vaguely filtered through Orry Kelly’s life, but capturing the up and down of his career quite well.
- Penguins of Madagascar (2014), Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith – Totally disposable, but a lot less annoying than plenty of other animated efforts these days. Starts off with a cameo by Werner Herzog playing himself which is as awesome as it sounds. Also a film where I suspect a lot of this stuff would be going over kids’ heads. Not all that original, but has a nice anarchic spirit to it. Randomness to the humour lifts the stock standard plot. And there are plenty of chuckles to be had.
- Justice League: Doom (2012), Lauren Montgomery – Certainly not a hand-holding origin story as we are used to from superhero films. Though all the characters, especially Cyborg, get nice character moments toward the start. The scripting is quite funny, heavy on the cheesy wisecracks (which are mainly endearing). The story structure is simple but inspired, with one baddie pairing off with each goody. It’s well pieced together too, there are heaps of story strands but the storytelling is really clear. The visuals are great too, action sequences and shape-shifting creatures.
- How to be Single (2016), Christian Ditter – I like both Alison Brie and Rebel Wilson onscreen, especially the former. Watched this whilst sick and it was the perfect soothing film for that. Plus the female to male character ration is like 4:1. Which is always a good start in a comedy. There’s no real sense of story, but all of the cast are pretty charming. Forgettable, but totally fine.
- Suicide Squad (2016), David Ayer – This is not a well made film. It’s a mess. Almost an absurd one. I liked it though. Enough of the characters are fun. It’s really well performed by basically everyone. Though Leto’s Joker is essentially unwatchable. Does some interesting things with the villain. Interesting that both the big bad and the main hero who makes the decisive action are female. But the use of soundtrack is a major misstep, even if you can see what they are going for. And the central mission of the film is too long and often dreary. This is not good work by Ayer. But others make it worthwhile. Though it does have some legit problematic elements.
- National Gallery (2014), Frederick Wiseman – Opening (and closing) on silent shots of paintings, essentially recreating the experience of the gallery. A wonder of editing, moulding footage together. Not as stagnant as I expected, the camera dynamic in conversations. The combination of minutiae and story means it’s not at all boring. Storytelling comes both in how the film uses images to convey meaning and how the paintings do the same. A great window behind the scenes of an institution like this.
- Parks and Recreation Season 6 (2013), Greg Daniels & Michael Schur – Haven’t watched the show for a few years, but within literally 3 minutes I felt right at home. A hilarious show, with some of the best comedy characters ever. So many of them too, Ron Swanson, the incredible Leslie Knope and Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford who really shines this season. Also great guest stars such as Tatiana Maslany and Kristen Bell. Perfectly written – silly, cutting and damn funny.
Not Worth Watching
- Eddie the Eagle (2016), Dexter Fletcher – I was in the mood for something light, but this was very plain. The trailers that made it feel like a remake of Cool Runnings (1993) did not lie, because it hits a lot of the exact same story beats. Egerton is hammy, not helped by constant close-ups of his face mugging being the main storytelling technique. Nothing is really great, the script and score both average whilst the use of CGI on the jumps should have been avoided. Aiming for a trumped up version of 80s sports films but it’s just a bit annoying. Even Hugh Jackman is muted. Never involves you in the main character’s journey or taps into the inherent tension of the sport.
If you only have time to watch one Train to Busan
Avoid at all costs Eddie the Eagle
July was a mixed month. There were a couple of recent hyped genre releases that I was really excited for which underwhelmed. But on the positive side of things, there was a really good variety of stuff worth my time including recent big releases, docos and a few of my favourite 2016 releases so far.
- Inside Amy Schumer Season 1 (2013), Amy Schumer & Daniel Powell – I quite liked this, but it took me a while to get through. Struggled with the standup interludes which are much more miss than hit. But laughed a hell of a lot at some sketches. Schumer is working through her politics through the season and some of that is a little misjudged. Unrelentingly crass which may work or not, depending on your mood.
- The BFG (2016), Steven Spielberg – Plenty of the storytelling magic possessed by Dahl and Spielberg is on the screen here. Utterly charming from the very first appearance of the titular giant. Rylance’s performance is quite incredible. Has a great physicality and presence. Film looks wonderful, especially the main giant and there is also a nice fantastical bent to the rest of the environments too. The John Williams score provides an ideal accompaniment. A perfect family friendly sensibility.
- Chocolat (1988), Claire Denis – Denis is excellent at conveying a sense of place, specifically Africa, in the films I have seen. A slow film about the journey of colonialism. Told mainly through the relationship between the youngish male servant and the white French family. There are some weird vibes between some of the characters, and I’m not sure how on top of that at all times the script and performances are. The film is almost too subtle. But worthwhile in the way it captures the attitudes of day to day colonialism, rather than any attempt to chronicle the broad sweep of colonial rule. Notions of the ‘motherland’ in relation to colonialism a constant theme.
- Unbroken (2014), Angelina Jolie – So much of this threatened to be stock standard WWII fare. And plenty of the story is. But Jolie has an interesting visual style and brings a unique viewpoint to the character moments. The uneasy mixture of bravado and trepidation of young man at war is captured well. There are some really well and clearly staged dogfights early on. The conventional second half is still rendered in an engaging way. And it has one of the best of those ‘real people’ codas that are so infuriatingly popular.
- Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro – After watching this I realised I really haven’t seen much of Del Toro’s work. And I need to. A visually arresting gothic tale. So much focus on sets, costumes and use of colour like we never see. The story is a touch slight. But it ends well, with an incredible sequence. And there is just so much really creative stuff you won’t mind. The score is grand and lush. The film melds the drama, romance and horror genres in a way that’s creative yet familiar. The performances from Wasikowska and Hiddleston are really excellent. Chastain gives a strange turn, but the bloody drawn out knife fight between her and Wasikowska is the highlight of the film.
- The Walk (2015), Robert Zemeckis – Something about Zemeckis and his (naïve, schmaltzy) storytelling just works for me. Can tell this has been wholly designed for a big, 3D screen. But it still did enough for me on 2D blu-ray. It’s an interesting mix of elements that work and that really don’t. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a good performance. The stepping through of the processes behind the stunt are strangely engaging. The romance is undercooked though and it really meanders. But then it delivers poetry in the big climax. There is too little conflict or tension for the relationships between the characters to really engage at all. A unique effort from Zemeckis.
- Goldstone (2016), Ivan Sen – Sen’s follow up to the incredible Mystery Road (2013) is another thoughtful, complex and violent effort. He is making detective stories like no one else right now. This film has so much to say about the state of our country. Perhaps it has always been like this, but the forces that keep it this way are constantly changing. The director has also composed one of the scores of the year here. Aaron Pederson brings a different Jay Swan to the screen and its fucking badarse. Sen may well be the best crafter of 3rd acts in world cinema. Here is another crushing, pitch perfect crescendo of violence and thematic resolution.
- The Mermaid (2016), Stephen Chow – Delightfully weird. Images of environmental destruction, pollution, deforestation and dolphin massacres give way to an awful special effects laden something or other. There is more visual ambition here than any other film you’ll see this year, even if not always executed well. I struggled with the storytelling sensibility for quite a while, but all of a sudden the absurdism becomes quite winning. It’s really funny too, with a very silly brand of humour. It’s very well written, laugh out loud stuff with a solid note of grand romance toward the end.
- Ukraine is not a Brothel (2013), Kitty Green – A punk vibe is brought to the very specific story of feminism in Ukraine and a societal lack of awareness of it there. A fight against the post-soviet conception of all Ukrainian women throughout the world being sex-workers. And the overriding patriarchy of the society. The film also examines the performative dimensions of protest and the intersectionality or otherwise of this particular feminist group. The complexity of the ideas are allowed to come out. Though there is a late twist of sorts that whilst shocking, is a bit contrived and risks turning it into a conspiracy film.
- Smokin’ Aces (2006), Joe Carnahan – One of the more underrated crime films of recent times. If I was going to be a smartarse I would say it’s the type of film Tarantino wishes he could make. Good patter to the dialogue. Dodges exposition with a succession of super-fast snappily written scenes of blokes in the pub or FBI meetings. Delightful hints of the absurd and black comedy impinge on the central narrative. It’s the best Jeremy Piven has ever been whilst Alicia Keys and especially Common are really great. Violent, stylish and does some interesting things with time, folding it in on itself, overlapping it. But in really clear ways. Classy schlock.
- The Handmaiden (2016), Chan-wook Park – A wild, at times silly film. But once it establishes the actual plot through-line I kinda loved it, despite the structural shenanigans that annoyed me along the way. One of the most erotic, explicit films I’ve seen in a mainstream cinema. It looks lush and artful whilst the two female leads Min-hee Kim and Kim Tae-ri deliver two totally different characters. They suck you into the mental space of the characters superbly. There’s a lot going on and a lot to take in. You can easily forgive the imperfections because it’s a singular, bold take.
- Love & Friendship (2016), Whit Stillman – Kate Beckinsale steals the show here. She connects with the rapid patter of the script and makes it sing. It’s slight, in an Austen way. And both wryly amusing in an Austen way and rambunctiously hilarious in a non-Austen way. A lot of the latter comes from Tom Bennett who basically crashes into scenes doing a stand-up routine and makes it work within the world of the film. Performances all round in addition to Beckinsale are really excellent. Hers is the most interesting character though, chasing and attaining a lot of men and sex. And ‘gets away with it’ in a way you would perhaps not expect from the source material.
- Yakuza Apocalypse (2015), Takashi Miike – Drenched in blood from the start. Some pretty shocking stuff in here at least early on when the tone is quite serious. At their best, the fight sequences function effectively as storytelling. Then after about 30 minutes the el cheapo costumes and absurdity start. At which point it’s a very different, but totally acceptable film. The storytelling is poor, but they do some interesting stuff with the mashup of the Yakuza and zombie genres.
- Star Trek Beyond (2016), Justin Lin – Lots of fun. I liked it. I wrote a full review for An Online Universe which you can check out here.
- Tickled (2016), David Farrier & Dylan Reeve – Much hyped. But this is a not very good film about a moderately interesting story. Feels like it is a building to a monumental crescendo. But it just lands a bit flat. Never landed the big gotcha moment it was angling for. Also feels like there are so many missed opportunities in terms of story, motivation and theme here. States toward the end that this has been a film about power. But that is never really interrogated through the film. Which is a shame, because there is much potential here for that. Bland filmmaking, but potentially still worth a look if you know nothing of the story.
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), Burr Steers – The first line of the whole film made me laugh. And that was the biggest highlight of the film by a mile. Nowhere near as fun as I’d hoped. Quite heavy on the gross violence, but totally bloodless. The effects tap into the fun horror vibe the rest of the film should have nicely though. In fact a lot of the composite parts are serviceable in a comedy-horror way – design, costumes and soundtrack. And the lead performance from Lily James brings a good sassy presence and comedic timing. But the tensionless storytelling and script is woeful as are the slow, undercooked and ugly action scenes.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), Dan Trachtenberg – This was a real let down. The logic of it all feels awry early and never really straightens out. The plotting and script feel underdone in the way it attempts to evoke real life events, and to an extent the first film. There is very little atmosphere created from situations that should be dripping with it. I do love the final reveal and setup for the sequel (which most seem to hate). But the journey there is laborious and just feels dreary. Hard to explain. Almost feels as if you can see the director’s brain ticking over onscreen and the whole feels over-contrived as a result.
- The Big Short (2015), Adam McKay – Wooh boy I hated this film. The styling is overbearing. Just no subtlety to anything. The OTT costumes, talking straight to the camera, music and editing are all far too blunt. Simply making bullshit finance twaddle understandable does not make a good film. The film feels like a pile of exposition as a result of this approach. Wilfully anti-humanist or interested in the plight pf people. Essentially the only thing that stands out in a positive way is Carrell’s performance. A preachy film which I think may have negative levels of people of colour or women. I expected to hate the characters in this. Did not expect to hate the filmmaking equally so though.
- Bone Tomahawk (2015), S. Craig Zahler – This favourite from last year does not fuck about with its truly gruesome opening. Really well acted, especially from Matthew Fox and a wounded, emotional Patrick Wilson who is especially good. But the script is only ok and the ‘evil Indians’ plot is one that I am pretty over. Perhaps I found the plot to be overly simplistic. Makes a late shift into horror territory, but it feels meaningless as the shift is not really earned. And it turns into gross torture porn too, with the vilest kill I’ve ever seen onscreen.
If you only have time to watch one Goldstone
Avoid at all costs The Big Short
I didn’t realise how heavy a viewing month this was for me til I sat down to write this. Wildly mixed in terms of enjoyment too, though overall a rough month. There was a heavy focus from me on the #52filmsbywomen challenge, with 11 of these fitting that bill.
- Echo Park (2014), Amanda Marsalis – Refreshing to see a love story that does not pander to the audience, glibly giving them what they want. Begins with Sophie, a very unhappy party to a very affluent relationship, fleeing. A little of the scripting is a touch forced early on as new relationships are established. But that fades away. There are plenty of interesting characters, in particular Sophia who could have so easily been an over-entitled cliché. The soundtrack is really nicely used, unconventional choices accompanying the action. Feels very true to life. The way people act, undermining themselves and their relationships.
- The Bling Ring (2013), Sofia Coppola – Celebrity in the Facebook age is immediately established. Characters are wallowing in a world of insufferable entitlement. Privilege and shallowness coming out in their actions. Sort of formless. Which I would so often find infuriating but didn’t bother me. Film also works really well as a portrait of Los Angeles. Both the physical place and its collective psyche. Some of the acting is a little patchy, though not from Emma Watson who is outstanding. The film gives a really good insight into the inexplicable mindset of these teens.
- The Rage – Carrie 2 (1999), Katt Shea – This film manages to simultaneously be the most 90s thing ever (it even has one of the kids from Home Improvement), and a blistering still relevant take down of jock-led rape culture. Not everything totally works. But there is just so much interesting shit going on here. Theme wise and stylistically – it’s interestingly shot, with quick cuts whilst the plot utilises flashbacks really well. It’s very surprising how well the flashbacks to the first film work actually. And the stark presentation of the horrific nature of jock culture was much more shocking than I was expecting. On the pure horror front, it definitely retains the spirit of King’s original character, whilst there is some great gore toward the end. Quite powerful at times.
- Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), Liz Garbus – A portrait of the certain kind of genius it takes to become a chess grandmaster. The first half makes you care deeply about a chess match, even if you don’t play the game (like me). It also envelops you in the sheer history of the game, making notions such as the fact Fischer may have been the greatest player since the 6th Century wondrous. Garbus is a very astute filmmaker, the way she weaves documentary techniques together. Occasionally personalities transcend niche sports and Fischer did that for chess. But if the first half of the film is about a unique dude and great sporting theatre, the second is a turn into the darker side of that genius required. The paranoia, madness (and again here we see the historical precedence) and utter single-minded obsession is stark. In the end, the final feeling is of overwhelming sadness as the unique Fischer descends into an anti-Semitic shell of the person he once was.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 2 (2014), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Whilst a lot of the laughs come from well crafted silliness, the real reason the show stands out is the ensemble character development. Almost every character changes in an interesting way and interacts with the other characters in fun ways. And ways that change what you think of them. It is so well performed, as well as any drama. Plus this show makes me laugh a fuckload. So easy to watch, but doesn’t feel like a throwaway.
- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg – In mainstream circles, Joan Rivers has oft been reduced to a figure of ridicule. So it is great to see a film that establishes the foul mouthed comedian side of her. Obsessed with work, with being booked. Both due to passion and her expensive lifestyle. Also thoughtfully shows a performer who’s been passed by but doesn’t realise it. Not in a nasty way though. Doesn’t negate the fact she was still a pioneer and a trailblazer. The film nicely draws out her contradictions. A little sad. Way she is disrespected by the industry, down on her luck.In mainstream circles, Joan Rivers has oft been reduced to a figure of ridicule. So it is great to see a film that establishes the foul mouthed comedian side of her. Obsessed with work, with being booked. Both due to passion and her expensive lifestyle. Also thoughtfully shows a performer who’s been passed by but doesn’t realise it. Not in a nasty way though. Doesn’t negate the fact she was still a pioneer and a trailblazer. The film nicely draws out her contradictions. A little sad. Way she is disrespected by the industry, down on her luck.
- The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven – Given the film’s reputation, it’s hard not to start it with a pit of anticipation in your stomach. Reminiscent of Craven’s other early work though perhaps not quite as assured. The juxtaposition of horror with domestic bliss & slapstick comedy is clumsy and the soundtrack is truly awful. A raw film by an at the time raw filmmaker. But it’s an incredibly uncomfortable portrayal of control and particularly the revelling in it. The film assumes the male gaze in an intimidating way. Deeply troubling film, even today. The shift in the middle works well. The methodical preparation for revenge. The film grows increasingly darker throughout, all the way to the end.
- Hush (2016), Mike Flanagan – This is one of the best home invasion films I’ve ever seen. A deaf and mute woman is alone in her house in the woods when she comes under attack. Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, sound design is a very big and very clever focus. The sensation of deafness is effectively conveyed through the combination of sound and her imperviousness to it. Film has a great soundtrack too. Very cool to see subtitled sign-language on screen. The film explores interesting notions about inner spaces whilst progressing the narrative. Certainly toys with convention and expectation in very clever ways and the result is super terrifying. A creatively executed horror film with a lead character who is a badass (but not in a fantastical way) deaf women.
- Queen of the Desert (2015), Werner Herzog – It’s a bit of a trainwreck but an interesting one. Many will disagree but it’s well performed. Nicole Kidman especially I think avoids mawkish parody on two fronts: as a white privileged woman exploring the Middle East, and one ‘unlucky in love’. It has some interesting things to say about colonialism (some intentional, some not). The soundtrack is interesting too, mixing Middle Eastern sounds with traditional ‘epic’ scoring. Herzog is clearly someone who still wants to tell unique stories. Definitely goes on too long. The last half hour is a slog and the chronology of the ending is muddled.
Not Worth Watching
- The Moth Diaries (2011), Mary Harron – Horror film that very much captures a girly boarding school vibe early on. It’s a little contrived and rushed. The plot is where it falls down in the end, far too thin even for the very short running time. It looks pretty sharp though. I like the use of colour and also the use of the lack of it. Also suggests classic gothic literature in some interesting ways, though in the end not as much as it could have. The tone is too light for it to have the impact it should.
- Deep Impact (1998), Mimi Leder – I was hoping for some really stupid fun. Didn’t get any of the latter unfortunately. It is very low key at the start. We seem to spend a surprising amount of time with Tea Leoni’s journalist character running down stories. Any positives are well and truly hamstrung by a truly dumb script. One that manages to squeeze minimal tension out of the impending end of the human race. The personal emotional beats feel really out of whack too which makes it feel emotionless. The effects are pretty rubbish as well.
- The Look (2011), Angelina Maccarone – This is a film that never manages to penetrate the pretentious artifice it is built on. So arty man. But also so distant and ponderous. There are occasional flashes of insight or interest that punch through – for me personally it was mainly the novelty of seeing Paul Auster my favourite author onscreen. But it is mainly just Charlotte Rampling sitting around chatting with some mates about the philosophy of performance or love or death. There is the occasional interesting and very human piece of insight and reflection. But it’s more often contrived and also too often feels like a first year philosophy class from hell.
- The Abyss (1989), James Cameron – This was a major disappointment. Too slow to start and the storytelling is unnecessarily muddled. There’s some nice technical work, as you would expect from the director. The sound design is incredible and that sense of underwater claustrophobia is well communicated. But plotwise, none of the character machinations are particularly interesting whilst he nature of what the crew are up against is simultaneously too unclear and uninteresting. No pop to the storytelling, with two narrative threads that don’t really sit well together and sorely lacking in logic.
- The To-Do List (2013), Maggie Carey – Such a killer cast. When it does get by it’s ultimately on their charm, because the scripting is very rough. Rachel Bilson steals the show as a ditzy big sister. But this is definitely not Aubrey Plaza’s best work. There is not a shred of believability to her character. And disappointingly the film really has nothing to say about sex. It’s also more than a little gross and much lower in laughs than you would expect with the cast.
- The Good German (2006), Steven Soderbergh – There are certainly things to not only appreciate but outright love here. The retro styling and black & white cinematography that is exceptionally sharp. Toby Maguire does menacing very well too. But that style sort of overwhelms everything else. The story is pretty standard immediate post-wartime fare. Which whilst occasionally touching on an interesting nerve, such as the notions of survivor’s guilt, ultimately falls victim from being Le Carre-lite oblique and shadowy espionage stuff. Deliciously beautiful, but ultimately lacking in weight.
- The Fog (1980), John Carpenter – Far from my favourite from this horror great. Hammy framing device gives way to a slow start. Really lacks the thematic interest of Carpenter’s best stuff. The plotting is a little vague as well. Supernatural elements essentially bringing slasher villains to town. But there is no real clarity to the menace. It’s not a write off. The score is amazing as his all are, though there is not enough of it. Jaime-Lee Curtis is so fucking charming in this and Janet Leigh is here yo! Feels like a tired effort from a maestro, a supernatural hodgepodge that feels too small scale.
- The Descent (2005), Neil Marshall – Bit miffed as to why this is such a beloved modern horror classic. It starts off iffy. By the numbers character intros and overbearing style. The script is poor throughout. I found the scares really cheap too, never bothering to tap into the inherently terrifying nature of caves. Despite the potential offered by the location, it looks really average. Relies too heavily on the stupidity of its characters to drive the plot. It doesn’t improve once the shit hits the fan either. The geography of the caves is muddled and the action is impossible to follow. A dreary disappointment.
- Finding Dory (2016), Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane – Weak stuff. Feels more like a remake of the first than a sequel. Beats are lifted straight from the first film. Has a risible, repetitive narrative structure. There’s some cute moments and characters. But nowhere near enough to make this cynical exercise worthwhile. Rests more heavily on nostalgia than any film of the last five years. Splitting up of the main characters for much of the run time is a mistake. And I think that based on this evidence Dory as a character is better suited for a (large) support role as in the first. With so much time here the shtick quite quickly becomes tiresome.
- Life Partners (2014), Susanna Fogel – An up and down film, with maybe the clunky script being the element that tips it over the edge. The acting is good. The two leads Gillian Jacobs and especially Leighton Meester, carry the up and downs of a friendship well, whilst the supporting cast led by Gabby Sidibe all have a great presence. But the Adam Brody character, a major one, is insufferable. The plot is shorthand, way too rushed and the script never establishes the attraction of Brody’s romantic lead which is something the film rests heavily on.
- Vacation (2015), John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein – The awkward family photos style opening is a deeply unoriginal start and a solid harbinger of things to come. A rubbish, unintelligent script does not help. The little bro character is one of the most obnoxious characters I can recall. Helms and especially Applegate are pretty good performers. But their energies don’t fit well with this film. A lot of the incidents are actually quite nasty when you think about them. Chris Hemsworth and Leslie Mann in a small sequence really bring something lacking from the leads. Energy I guess. Bad even as far as modern comedies go.
If you only have time to watch one Hush
Avoid at all costs The Descent
Overall this was an excellent month, with only a crappy new release horror spoiling things. A couple of really good, lesser known Craven and Carpenter films, two hilarious TV shows and some excellent recent arthouse releases provided the highlights.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 1 (2013), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Breezy as fuck. Andy Samberg has the right mix of goofball and charm. This is the ideal show to dip in and out of. So bloody well cast. Terry Crews is a great comedic performer. And I love the character of Raymond Holt. Plus there is some really good exploration of themes through that character. The homophobia and racism against him. The entire cast of characters is great. Best, pure laugh out loud comedy I’ve seen for a while.
- Prince of Darkness (1978), John Carpenter – A classic, perhaps my second favourite Carpenter film. Utilises music in a totally unique way. A guttural, driving score that is over most of the film. It’s an exceptional piece of artistry. A textural and interesting film where physics is melded in with superstition on the story front, and horror in with sci-fi on the genre front. Otherworldly, despite the contemporary setting. Also wholly engages with the very traditional evil concepts at its core. Fantastic.
- Wayne’s World (1992), Penelope Spheeris – Certainly not a timeless comedy. But the talent of the performers means it’s still decent. Dana Carvey really stands out. Other aspects such as the talking to the camera and engagement with popular tunes still hold up quite well. On the supporting front, Tia Carrera is super talented and Rob Lowe does smarmy very well. Fun breezy viewing with some genuine laughs.
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Wes Craven – This is quite ambitious from Craven, which delivers mixed results. The vision for the film doesn’t have a lot of clarity. But it’s interesting to see him playing with a story and aesthetic steeped in voodoo imagery. There’s also a sense of Indy globetrotting adventure, the exotica of Haiti. Craven always strikes me as someone interested in the world outside him which comes through in his work. Bill Pullman is decent, though it’s not the best written character. Cathy Tyson is excellent as the female lead. A lot of great, ominous imagery. The end result is kinda great. A mystical style creepiness not found in the director’s other work.
- Iverson (2014), Zatella Beatty – Doco about a singular basketball player that also functions as microcosm of America. An African-American player who embraced hip-hop lifestyle and aesthetic and refused to apologise for it or polish it. Hell of an athlete, a game changing presence. The ending is a little rushed. Doesn’t really delve into his later career well. But hard to cover everything in 90 minutes I guess.
- Deep Blue Sea (1999), Renny Harlin – Rushes totally headlong to embrace creature feature clichés. Not just the shark, everything has a fakey sheen. Rough script unabashedly steals from better films. Has all the B-movie staples – endearingly shit effects, genetic modification, Samuel L. Jackson. There’s some nice surprises tacked onto the formulaic plot. Makes you smile as all films like this should and features a contender for greatest cinematic death ever.
- Broad City Season 2 (2015), Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson – Starts rough, but the first season did too. Characters don’t immediately mesh with how they were set up in the first season. Such a great portrayal of friendship though. Also really lands the examination of the millennial experience. Influence of social media. Requisite mundane day jobs and the impact of them on how people experience the world.
- Leviathan (2014), Andrey Zvagintsev – Opens with incredible, wide scenery but quickly brings the focus much narrower. Both the scripting and acting are a little up and down. The thematic concerns around contemporary Russia, close ties between the Orthodox Church & state apparatus, pervasive dis-empowering role of bureaucracy and the powerlessness of ‘the people’ are where it excels. Also a portrait of a hyper-masculine, totally male dominated society that lends itself to ugliness. Pretty horrific stuff.
- The Invitation (2015), Karyn Kusama – The filmmaking arrests from the start, even if the plot is a touch predictable. It’s really stylishly shot and the music interacts with the visuals in a way that creates such an unsettling atmosphere. The least interesting elements are those that fit into the cult subgenre of horror. It’s not all there as a genre exercise, you’ve probably seen it all before. But along with the filmmaking, Logan Marshall-Green is fantastic, finally getting a vehicle for his talents. Kusama controls the atmosphere really well, invoking other films and real-life circumstances to toy with the tension. A fantastically constructed conclusion too.
- Duke of Burgundy (2014), Peter Strickland – This is a great love story that considers the suppression by one party of being in an unhappy relationship. The S & M elements add an extra layer of complexity on a usual relationship. Everything becomes so meaningful. Who does what and when? What is rigid what is contestable? Strickland’s bold use of sound design carries over to this film and it is beautifully lit. Also feels out of time a little. No cars, typewriters. Portrayal of sexual ritual and routine also fascinate. Is there an inherent risk that will grow stale? Become too practiced?
- Cooties (2014), Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion – A horror-comedy with a tone so light it barely counts as the former. The characterisation is a little silly early on. But there is some fun scripting courtesy of Leigh Whannell who also has a fun presence onscreen. Despite the huge doses of violence, there is certain charm to it. Cool practical effects and a really fun & playful score. Though it does drift from its solid, clean premise toward the end.
- The Nice Guys (2016), Shane Black – It’s a nothing story, but that doesn’t really matter with a script this good. There’s some really interesting shit going on here. Plus it’s legit laugh out loud funny too. Love the ethics around what makes someone good or bad, though they could have dug into that more. Crowe and Gosling are totally great. Black balances them perfectly in a comedic sense. But Angourie Rice is the standout. Most of the interesting things in the film are filtered through her character.
Not Worth Watching
- The Boy (2016), William Brent Bell – It’s lovingly made and classically pieced together. The acting is really average though and it looks butt ugly. Scares are totally standard and cheap, whilst the script delivers none of the requisite tension. Never establishes the characters or the rules of the universe. Though there is a pretty decent depiction of domestic control. And there is a late-ish twist that I’m a really big fan of. It’s well earned by the rest of the film.
If you only have time to watch one Prince of Darkness
Avoid at all costs The Boy
You know I always claim that there are no bad years in film. But I’m beginning to think 2016 may be the year that changes all of that. Again in April there were a couple of critically lauded new releases that I just did not think much of. It was a mixed month overall actually, with nothing reaching great heights, though I did discover some lesser known gems from favourite directors.
- Swamp Thing (1982), Wes Craven – From the outset, feels like a southern bayou set 60s B-movie. Everything contributes to that end – swish pan heavy editing, grouse practical effects, action that looks like it’s from The Power Rangers, schlocky dialogue, POV shots. I love the style of it all, the shooting approach is really varied. Enjoyment of the film does require an acceptance that it’s being deliberately schlocky. And also that this is not Craven’s usual horror fare, but rather a comedy-fantasy hybrid. It’s a totally strange film. A former Bond villain appears, essentially playing a Bond villain. It veers into a pretty philosophical closing section. A fever dream of a film.
- Secret Agent (1936), Alfred Hitchcock– ever wanted to know what a low-budget, Hitchcock James Bond film would look like? This provides the answer. High espionage, faked deaths and all. All those espionage moments are the highlights too as the character beats are not the best. But as with all Hitch films, there are some great stylistic flourishes. Close-ups of mouths, talking into ears, bold & aggressive sound design I like this a lot and it grows on you. Peter Lorre’s performance gains more subtly as the film progresses. Classic Hitchcock themes prevail as well.
- Please Give (2010), Nicole Holofcener – Mr Noah Baumbach seems to have made the privileged ‘New Yorker whining’ subgenre rather popular. This is probably my favourite of those kind of films, which I generally have derision for. It is helped by an excellent cast. Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet reminds you she should be in more, Catherine Keener is excellent in a tough role whilst Oliver Platt is just so damn talented. There is some tiresome dialogue, but it is balanced by other parts which are really sharp. Characters start out as caricatures and I guess they kind of are. But they develop to an extent and the film says some interesting enough things with them. It’s not the most exciting film, more observational than narrative driven. But the cast makes it worth your while.
- A Thousand Acres (1997), Jocelyn Moorhouse – There are some very old fashioned feeling elements – Midwest farming imagery, awful voiceover, motivations so patriarchal they struggle to be believable. But under that surface there is some interesting stuff bubbling away. The film gets a lot darker than I was expecting. The intrigue of the relationships develops nicely which is the main area that the Shakespearean source material comes through, along with the melodramatic moments. So too in scenes where the action and atmosphere is really ramped up – an extended storm sequence especially. Jessica Lange is exceptional as a survivor of sexual abuse, her crushing recollections will make your skin crawl. Pfeiffer is great too. A real shaggy dog of a film.
- In A World (2013), Lake Bell – Takes place in a very niche world – film trailer voiceover work, which gives the background to the occurrences a unique feeling. Great cast. Nick Offerman, Demetri Martin and Bell are all great while Rob Cordry dials his usual schtick down in an interesting, successful way. It’s fun and smart, and Lake Bell is clearly a very talented writer and director, in particular the former. There are some really powerfully written moments, especially in the subplot focusing on the marriage between Cordry and Michaela Watkins. Balances dialogue and narrative well. Also shows that Bell is equally adept at writing genuine laugh out loud comedy and meaningful drama. It’s a really nice film and the later plot developments make it one of the better rom-coms I’ve seen in a while.
- Scrotal Recall (2014), Tom Edge – Has a lo-fi feel to it. Hops straight into the framework of the series, which involves a bloke diagnosed with a STD tracking down former flames to inform them. It also, really satisfyingly, weaves in a broader story. This is a fun, really well written show. I found the male lead a little lacking in charisma. But the two other main performances are really excellent. It’s a decently diverse show that sets up the broader emotional stakes really well. They totally crush the last episode too. One of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly was not expecting to shed tears watching a show with this title.
- The Boss (2016), Ben Falcone – On the surface barely noteworthy. It’s only an ok script and the filmmaking is stock standard. But McCarthy is the best cinematic comedian going and she is wonderful as always. Her and Kirsten Bell work really well together and the supports are all quite excellent. Noticeable too that there are barely any dudes in this film which is great. Has some things to say about the selfishness of wealth and showcases some character types that feel new. But most importantly it’s just a really funny comedy.
- Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), Christopher Landon – This is patchy, as so many horror-comedy films are. There are some fantastically bloody, practical zombie effects. At times laugh out loud funny in either an absurd, or more commonly, crass way. Conforms to a pretty standard teen film template actually. Despite digging the gore, the horror elements are the weakest aspect of the film, in part due to the total lack of mythos.
- Escape from L.A. (1996), John Carpenter – It has some great, simple sci-fi worldbuilding and also a really interesting conclusion that plays into that genre. In the middle is an oh so 90s action flick, but one starring Kurt Russel as one of cinema’s all-time great badasses and directed by an on form Carpenter. The effects veer wildly from those that hold up nicely to the laughably awful. Darkly prophetic of 2016 America – moral crimes, the outlawing of certain religions and voluntary executions. It’s episodic, but full of interesting story choices, like Plissken’s fame preceding him.
Not Worth Watching
- The Ward (2010), John Carpenter – Has a real Horror 101 feel to it. Group of disturbed women in a psychiatric hospital, flickering lights etc. It’s not all bad, but it certainly mostly is. Amber Heard is not the worst, it at some point conveys the fear of unknown of someone in an institution and it looks cool on occasion. But the writing really does not evoke the 60s setting and it has a very cheap feel to it. Certainly lesser Carpenter, with his jump scares and ghostly imagery not having any fright factor to them at all. They fall very flat. I also have a broader issue with the use of electroshock therapy and the like in film’s set in these places, due to their troubling basis in fact. I think that takes the viewer out of the film rather than boosts the horror. Very predictable, derivative and lacking of weight of any kind.
- Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola – So much potential to examine a foreigner (or two), adrift in a place totally alien. I dunno though. Jokes about the the lengthiness of Japanese language just seen out of place in this kind of film. Actually the interaction with Japanese culture and society is rough throughout. Feel like Coppola has worked through a lot of these same themes later in her career in a much more interesting and succesful way. Though the low-key friendship between the leads is much more satisfying and nuanced than the rest of the film. Scarlett Johannsson is excellent though. She makes you buy into her lonely situation. Murray is good too, but it feels like he is acting in a much sillier film. The tone is all over the shop. Certainly a filmmaker still finding their way.
- The Jungle Book (2016), John Favreau – A real mixed back. It looks totally wondrous, the 3D is immersive and adds a lot. And I think that photorealistic animals not only look great here, but are a really exciting development for a number of reasons. It’s shot quite interestingly as well, though that is really only apparent early in the film and the score is great. But the story is anaemic. There is no epic scale to it and it just feels like a succession of beats being ticked off. The lead kid gives a really spirited performance. It is especially impressive given he’s surrounded by CGI. But the whole film is soulless, lacking any true heart.
- Mr Holmes (2015), Bill Condon – There are occasional moments of brilliance. Old Sherlock Holmes seeing the impact of the Hiroshma atomic blast cuts right through. Impactful. Especially so in light of the fact that this is a character who worships only logic. But moments of inspiration are too far in between, or this may even be the only one. This film is beyond quiet and reserved. So much so that it legitimately barely functiond in being a film. Though Holmes becoming senile is an interesting enough choice. And I’m sure there are themes to dig into. But I’m struggling to stay interested enough to care. Or perhaps it was just a mood thing. The stuff around ageing for example simply did not grab me.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016), The Russo Brothers – First things first, this is an Avengers film not a Captain America one. Seems trivial but speaks to issues around narrative identify I think. This is the film where Marvel’s storytelling approach finally ate itself. It is so totally bloated and none of it means a thing. Notion of a civil war is totally facile. No battle of ideals as there should be. Just an excuse to have a quip-laden 5 on 5 battle that goes on forever. Boseman’s Black Panther is a huge highlight though. If Marvel get out of Ryan Coogler’s way, they are going to crush that film.
If you only have time to watch one Scrotal Recall
Avoid at all costs The Ward