January Round Up

So I’ve run into a lot of the same problems as last year with just watching too many films and having too much on leading to me falling massively behind on this, like I still haven’t written about films I saw weeks ago. So, with that in mind, I’m just gonna jot down the titles of the films and maybe a few words on each and hopefully with less of a backlog I can go back to doing a film at a time

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)

I love Martin McDonagh, I think In Bruges has one of the most perfect screenplays I know and I’m a big fan of the three main cast members so this film had an easy way into my heart. I did feel however that the screenplay here was less focused than McDonagh’s other work and at points felt inconsistent, the family scenes in particular often veered a little too close to melodrama for my tastes. I also felt as though the cause and effect in this film was a little inconsistent with characters seeing little to no repercussions to their actions which should have easily landed them in prison.
With all said and done, I really did enjoy the film, it had a great concept and tackled interesting ideas with some great humour and touching moments and a really fantastic cast all round.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

I don’t have a huge amount to say about this to be honest, I watched it 3 or 4 weeks ago now and it hasn’t stuck in my mind in any meaningful way although it was great to see such an influential film. Whilst it hasn’t necessarily made a huge impact on my life, I did enjoy the film and was at no point bored even if it wasn’t half as funny as it was advertised to be, strong cast of likable characters, James Spader is a stand out.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Its a real shame that this film didn’t get more attention in the latter half of the year, I suppose it wasn’t the best film of the year but there’s a lot of great stuff in here. I was reminded of Mr Robot whilst I was watching this just in the fact that it felt so current in the way it engaged with social media in a non-condescending way. It might also be one of the most well cast films I’ve seen this year, every single actor was perfect for their part, obviously you can’t talk about the actors without talking about how Great Aubrey Plaza is in this, really proving (if her other work wasn’t enough) her worth as a dramatic actress and so separate from April Ludgate. Elizabeth Olsen has less to do but is fantastic as the valley girl insta model, ignoring her early work in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, watching this and Wind River (not necessary but its so good!) really prove her range.
It is a funny film, but the levels of cringe and just general dread suppress that side of things and make it feel as far from funny as possible but thats not a bad thing at all because the film has a lot more to offer than laughs and is just really worth watching.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

I kinda thought I knew what to expect after seeing Dogtooth and The Lobster, especially since the trailers for this film gave away a lot of the story, but still I was consistently surprised from the opening shot. What I really didn’t expect was how odd the dialogue was and the detached delivery from the actors, I suppose it is in keeping with Lanthimos’ other work but those had much more heightened settings than the fairly typical house and hospital (ignoring the events happening within). Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are predictably fantastic and continue to be a great duo on screen, Barry Keoghan is sinister in a novel way giving him an a sense of actual unpredictability and theres even a small, fun role that Alicia Silverstone is clearly enjoying.
It’s a bit of a given that the film is beautifully shot but the camera movement is super interesting, almost always moving and zooming in on actors with clever editing that keeps the same movement between separate scenes. I’m not sure how well it will hold up for repeat viewings, especially with the detached tone that meant the film relied more on its mystery to keep me engaged but I really liked it the one time I did watch it, its also a lot funnier than expected.

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore (2017)

This is the film I was writing about last year when I stopped writing this blog, I wasn’t sober enough watching the film to remember any of the details when trying to write about it the next day or week or whatever so at that point I just gave up. But this year I’ve rewatched the film and will tackle it once and for all in a small post with other films because I also find this a very hard film to pin down properly, I’ve tried a few times to write about this film but its always stumped me.
I think the main problem for me is the attempt to capture the ironic downplayed humour thats so prevalent in indie film but it lacks ta certain subtlety which just makes the jokes feel like a pale imitation of Fargo without the laughter. Melanie Lynskey’s character is pretty much the human embodiment of this sense of humour and she does a good job but the character just isn’t compelling or likable enough to care. There were hints of interesting things with the film’s antagonists, the brief view we get into their world has hints of the occult in a True Detective kind of way. Devon Graye’s character Christian is particularly interesting and could have been quite an iconic character if given a bit more depth as the rich, effeminate but incredibly violent junky, unfortunately Jane Levy doesn’t really have anything interesting to do but its nice to see her pop up any way.
Much like Jeremy Saulnier, who directed him in Blue Ruin, Macon Blair has a proclivity and an eye for violence that translates very effectively on screen.
Theres a lot to like about the film but it manages to fall short in quite a few areas, including some incredibly questionable lighting and colour grading at points, but its a good debut and watchable, though maybe more fun when not sober?

 

Sorry these are all rushed and haphazardly written, its been a while since I’ve watched most of these and I’m almost certain there’ve been more films I’ve watched for the first time but already forgotten somehow, I’ll try to do better!

 

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Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

This takes the crown from Lady Macbeth as the most unpleasant film I’ve seen so far this year, however, Todd Solondz uses this unpleasantness to more compelling ends. The film is very much like a typical American teen high-school comedy, except its not particularly funny and literally everyone in the film is a total dick, creating a bleak portrait of middle America and a girl who’s fallen through the cracks. The film is classified as a dark comedy, and whilst certainly dark, to me, calling it a comedy feels reminiscent of Synecdoche New York‘s branding as ‘the smash hit comedy of the year’, when in actuality it feels about as far from a comedy as possible. Welcome to the Dollhouse does have a definite comedic tone throughout, in the form of the same incongruous, disaffected, ironic humour that was prevalent in the 90s, but the themes were too dark and I felt too bad for the protagonist Dawn to find any of it funny.

Solondz’s take on junior high is ultimately pretty nihilistic, definitely more so than any other high school films I can think of, he plays on audience expectations of these types of films and subverts them, keeping his characters in stasis. There’s a sense of momentum in the film that is never fulfilled, transitions between scenes are scored with jaunty rock and roll music that builds and then kind of just stops. The first time this music comes in is over a shot of Dawn sat on her bed, the music creates the impression that she’s going to spring up and enact some sort of plan, but she doesn’t, the music ends and the scene cuts. This feels fairly emblematic of the film as a whole, throughout, the audience expects some character journey or growth, or some change in status, I was personally hoping for a Carrie moment where she flips and kills everyone but none of this ever comes to fruition. This nihilistic world view is best articulated by Dawn’s brother who when asked if the next grade is better replies saying it sucks too, as does the year after, as does Junior High as a whole.

I said earlier that everyone in this film was horrible, that was no exaggeration, literally everyone is just the worst, even Dawn isn’t particularly likable. This portrayal of Dawn is really interesting as a typical high school movie would almost certainly try harder to make her sympathetic and likable but that wouldn’t be true to life. Dawn is a product of a family who consistently put her down and openly favour her siblings and a school environment where she is incessantly bullied and has one student frequently telling her he’s going to rape her. Its no surprise she has a hard shell and is seen using some of the same bullying techniques that are used on her on others though to little success. The other characters in the film all fit into archetypal roles, including one of the worst mothers I’ve ever seen on film, but these stereotypes work due to the film’s tone and the fact that it’s being shown through the eyes of a young teen in a community where popularity is key.

The characters might not be innately believable in a real world context and some of the events that occur are hopefully far from the norm, but despite these heightened aspects and offbeat tone, it feels bleakly realistic. I can’t say I enjoyed this film nor would I go around recommending it to people, but its very interesting on a number of levels ultimately a great and subversive look in to high school life.

NW (2016)

I’ve not read Zadie Smith’s original novel that this is based on, but I really enjoyed Saul Dibb’s take on it in this TV film adaptation. The film follows two women who grew up together in a tower block in Northwest London, charting their relationship and the tensions that have arisen as they’ve got older, and as one of the women strives to leave the past behind.

The film raises a lot of questions about identity with a three part structure, each following a new character. The first follows Phoebe Fox’s Leah, a woman who’s held on to her past and allows it to inform her identity but she’s resistant to change and motherhood as her husband and peer group apply pressure to have a child. This strand of the story didn’t work so well for me, it seemed like almost every conversation revolved around or included the discussion of motherhood and how rewarding it is which just came off as very heavy handed. Leah’s best friend Natalie is the focus of the last third of the film and a more interesting focus as the film tracks her journey from childhood to where she is now and how she has to grapple with her identity as a black woman. Natalie has adopted an identity to fit in with the dominant white culture that surrounds her, going so far as to change her name, her original name being Keisha. Throughout she is told by her mother and an older black woman in her profession telling her that she must tone down her identity and that passion from a black woman reads as ‘hysterical aggression’. Her suppression of identity is the main point of tension between her and Leah and also the cause of her own inner turmoil which results in a slightly under-cooked sexual infidelity story line. Ultimately the relationship between the two women is interesting and believable regardless of some elements that work less well.

The film, whilst focusing its narrative on these women is just as much about the area they come from and the class struggles in London. The middle section follows a young wheeler-dealer type called Felix in an affecting story which, whilst only tangentially related to the two lead women, does a great job in painting a broader image of this community. The wider community is shown in the women’s sections as well through their interactions with people they used to go to school with who haven’t managed to escape their past.

NW may not do anything extraordinary in terms of film making techniques but its very proficiently made and highlights and explores a range of interesting themes and ideas without being weighed down.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth is one of those films where I just feel like I must not be seeing something which everyone else seems to be seeing in it. Oldroyd does a lot well in his directorial debut but ultimately the whole exercise felt rather pointless and empty. The film touches briefly, and in a way typical of a male director*, on the hardships of life for a woman of the time, although using the same tropes seen in countless other films including Pirates of the Caribbean such the painful corset tightening scene. Beyond scenes like this and some scenes of Katherine’s husband and father in law mistreating her, Oldroyd seems disinterested in exploring mush else of note instead focusing on the plot of sex and murder. This isn’t to say that all films or even this film should be stuffed with themes and explorations of topics but when a film takes itself so seriously and has such a languid pace its nice to have a little more to retain interest.

The plot focuses on the relationship between Katherine, the lady of the house and Sebastian one of the men who works the land. This is a case of a relationship with literally no substance beyond sex, which does fit Katherine’s character but doesn’t make for an engaging way to use the majority of the screen time. The characters are so unlikable and, particularly in Sebastian’s case, lacking in depth, that it’s difficult to see why you should care, especially when they continuously make stupid decisions and act so brazenly that it’s hard to believe they belong to the film’s period. The cast do a good job and Florence Pugh is a commanding presence on screen although her characterization feels a little school play still particularly in regards to the accent and modern feeling mannerisms. Regardless, she stays truthful throughout and acts well, especially considering that she was only 19 in this. Its also nice to see such an out and out unlikable female character with no redeeming qualities, its just a shame she’s not a more interesting character.

The film is quite nicely shot with soft, natural looking light and some strong colours, especially in Katherine’s outfits, however there are a lot of scenes where the camera is shaking despite being stationary for seemingly no other reason than maybe they forgot to buy a tripod. I’m not sure how much of an issue this is for others, I’m sure most people don’t mind, I just personally hate shaky cam unless justified and done well, in this case it really just seems like laziness. The framing is pretty and engaging but nothing revolutionary as it sticks religiously to the rule of thirds and central framing.

This actually ended up taking a lot longer than I thought it would because, for one thing its been about 2 weeks since I watched it and I found it quite hard to put into words what I disliked about it. That said, I don’t regret watching it, its not a bad film, just not a particularly noteworthy one.

 

Inland Empire (2006)

This one really is going to be a short post because I have honestly no idea what to say about this film. I watched it in hopes that it would be a good companion to Mulholland Drive for an essay I was writing on Lynch but I found this film so entire bewildering that from about 40 minutes in I was so lost I couldn’t even make notes on it. The very basic set up is that Laura Dern plays an actress called Nikki Grace who gets a role in a strange film and during the process of shooting her life and the film start to blend. Well thats a paraphrasing of the DVD blurb and maybe is accurate to like, a fifth of the overall film, but if there’s anything I managed to take away from this, is that maybe its not something to be understood in a conventional way. This is the most balls to the wall surrealist piece of work that I’ve seen of Lynch’s (admittedly I’ve only seen Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks S1, Blue Velvet and Eraserhead) and the root of surrealism is Dadaism which had the slogan ‘DADA doesn’t mean anything’. Whereas films like Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are mostly surrealist due to their narratives and Lynch’s formation of space, Inland Empire uses an arsenal of surrealist film-making techniques without the strongly grounded narrative throughline of the other films I mentioned.

Because of the ambiguity of literally everything in the film and its lengthy run time, it really is an endeavor to watch this, and you have to really let yourself go with it and try your best not to get frustrated. Theres a lot of rewarding material in here with a great performance from Laura Dern to carry you through most of it, as usual Lynch has a way of making everything terrifying even if it really shouldn’t be, I audibly screamed at one point and was just generally on edge throughout. What I took from the film was that it was a comment on the experience of watching something (films/tv) and the ownership that audiences often feel over actors, I honestly cant say if thats right at all, but similarly I don’t think it’d be easy to tell me I was wrong which is always nice. Just to round it out a little, I should say that I did enjoy this film a lot, I really want to watch it again and see if I can figure it out a little more, but in my (very non-expert) opinion, if you’re a fan of Lynch and the way Mulholland Drive is structured, then this is definitely worth a watch, if for nothing else to see how Lynch builds a palpable sense of dread throughout every frame of this absolutely bizarre film.

The Handmaiden (2016)

I went into The Handmaiden knowing next to nothing about it other than it was meant to be amazing and there was a lot of graphic sex which seems like the right amount of information to have leading into this film. I’ll try and keep details sparse in case, god forbid, someone else reads this and they haven’t seen it because the lack of knowledge going in really let me sink into the mystery and allure of this film.

Normally I find that if a film relies to heavily on a big twist at the end, the body of the film is fairly lackluster. The Handmaiden has a lot of twists though, for the most part, they aren’t saved til the end of the film and they inform the narrative in ways that should reward multiple rewatches. One of the central themes of the film is the construction of identity which is beautifully demonstrated through its three part structure each from the view point of another character, allowing you to see a character you were previously aligned with from an outside perspective of vice versa. This and the non-linear structure of the film allow for some rewarding script writing with clever lines peppered throughout that will cause you to reevaluate prior scenes and character motivations as you go along. Granted this isn’t some groundbreaking structure, and to be fair the film never really does anything particularly groundbreaking, but everything it does, it does just so damn well.

The film is just BEAUTIFUL from start to finish, set in Korea under Japanese occupation in the 1930s, the bulk of the action takes place in a large mansion, split with one half in Japanese style, the other English. The production design, from the sets, to the costumes and props and really just anything that might be on screen is intricately designed, presenting an impossibly perfect image of the era and the fashions of the time (although probably modernised). Everything in this film feels deliberate, especially in regards to the cinematography, almost every image is framed perfectly and the camera glides precisely without a single moment of shakiness.

Anchored by two fantastic performances from the lead actresses, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, the film goes to some pretty extreme places but rather than walking away feeling disturbed as you might from Oldboy, I ended up feeling quite empowered and positive. Despite the content of my little write up, the film isn’t perfect, I found the last third less gripping than the two leading up to it but thats really not saying much, it was over 2 weeks ago that I saw this so exact details are hazy. But in short, this is a beautiful film (in every respect) which I could happily write essays on the themes of, but unlike many thematically dense films it manages to stay fun and engaging whilst also being something of a film-making masterpiece.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

This was the first film I watched in the new year (not including La La Land on NYE), and so far it’s probably my favourite film I’ve seen in 2018 and one of my favourite 2017 releases. It tells the story of Emily Dickinson, an American poet in the mid 1800s who I knew absolutely nothing about before watching this, I just knew that Cynthia Nixon was meant to be very good in this (spoilers, she’s phenomenal!).

I wasn’t a huge fan of the actress playing young Emily Dickinson or, at first the way that the characters spoke only in witticisms as if they were in an Oscar Wilde play. That kind of dialogue soon filtered off or became less noticeable and on reflection (probably totally wrong), I started thinking about how people spoke so differently from us not so long ago, people didn’t um and ah or say like for a start. I considered that, especially for a woman of the time, you’d have to be much more considered in what you were going to say before you said it, and that that way of speaking would start to become second nature (again, this is all baseless speculation).

It can’t be easy to make a compelling film about a woman who famously locked herself away in her house for much of her life, and it also must be difficult to make such a film without portraying her quite negatively, especially as she starts to get more judgmental. But what stood out for me so much in this film and what I loved so much about it was how tender and kind it was, not just in the portrayal of Emily Dickinson but the relationships with her various family members. I felt like I really understood Nixon’s Emily the whole way through the film and her relationship with her sister was particularly refreshing in how openly and honestly they spoke to each other and took in what the other was saying. Its small but so nice.

I’m gonna wrap this up here because I said my posts would be shorter and also this one has ended up being total dogshit, but the main thing is, this film is amazing and you should totally just watch it! I feel as though I haven’t quite done it justice, it could well end up being one of my favourite films regardless of year, it really is just wonderful, it also has a cracking time jump scene so if nothing else can entice you, maybe that can.

At the time of writing, it can be viewed on UK Netflix so really theres no excuse not to see it!