Thoughts on Films (and other things I watched in January)

So far in making my thoughts about film public I’ve been sticking to my favourites. Nice and safe and friendly. Now I’m going to broaden things out by including some not-so-favourites too. I’m sure I’ll offend lots of people (particularly fans of The Avengers). Reading back through it, there does seem to be a definite pattern emerging as to how I feel about the mainstream. Anyway, without further ado here are the things that I watched in January that I had something to say about:

Kingsman has its tongue in cheek throughout but still somehow suffers from thinking it’s cooler than it is, trying to be James Bond just as often as it parodies it. It was all very watchable but I can’t really say I like all this CG-enhanced ultraviolence (I like good old fashioned ultraviolence) and it didn’t really get the silliness balance right. It sits somewhere uncomfortably between Lock Stock and Austin Powers, but it’s still not silly enough allay my annoyance at Eggsy’s sudden development of almost super-human powers towards the end.

I’m not sure why I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron, I wasn’t a big fan of the first one. Peer pressure I guess. This one is worse. Not bad exactly, just overstuffed. Dull. It’s interesting that so much carnage can be dull. But then it’s all just pixels. There’s no blood. No one dies except when the filmmakers want to squeeze a few tears from you. Surely tens of thousands of people would have been killed in collateral damage? We don’t see any of that. I must admit, these films are still among the best coming out of Hollywood. That isn’t exactly promising. The cynical wit brought by Tony Stark et al does elevate it a little, but at the same time it’s all so juvenile. There’s no real filmmaking vision here, that’s what makes it bland. Ultron slots perfectly into that recent tradition of forgettable CG monster/villians (I am Legend? Cloverfield? Everything else released in the last few years?) It’s also extremely disconcerting seeing The Avengers in Norwich. Especially when they stand in almost the exact same spot as I’ve filmed in myself – it kind of breaks the illusion. But not to be completely negative – I did love Paul Bettany’s weird perfect purple thing. It’s really fucking weird.  I’ll probably watch the next one and complain that it’s not very good.

Over the last several months I’ve slow-dripped Band of Brothers. I admit I was skeptical of the hype. I was expecting Hollywood gloss and Hollywood sentiment. And indeed it is that glossy, sentimental show every now and again but it’s so good in all other areas that I didn’t really care. The opening interviews are great touch, grounding it in the real people and events. The whole thing feels genuine, authentic. All the awful aspects of war, the fighting, the dying, is done so convincingly that it took me on the journey with Easy Company. So I didn’t mind the occasional cliched voiceover and a bit of soppy underscoring. Instead I got the sense that what I was seeing was not far off what actually happened.

I’ll give the next season of Doctor Who a miss. I meant to do it with the last one but the the season started off well again. At least I’m glad I did watch, just for that one great episode Heaven Sent. But otherwise, it doesn’t really seem like a good use of my time, the shows aren’t strong enough. Which is sad in a way because Capaldi is great. That’s probably why Heaven Sent was so good – it was a Capaldi one man show.

Watching Master of None on Netflix was the opposite experience. When I saw it advertised it didn’t appeal to me at all but I have been so pleasantly surprised by this series, it’s one of the best things in ages. The idea of Parks&Rec’s Tom having his own show sounded kind of exhausting. He is still a little Tom-like in Master of None, but toned down, more realistic. And that sums up the whole show. It’s just about life, and it’s hugely relatable. It’s the kind of material that could be completely mediocre but they pull it off with such an easy charm that makes it quite lovely to watch. That’s one of the few ways in which it is similar to Parks&Rec, it creates a world that is just pleasant to spend time in. It’s also got a cheeky creative streak that’s obviously inspired by Louie. Louis C.K. has really paved the way to a more creative, experimental kind of comedy series. Having just finished Master of None I can say I loved every episode, but I’m not sure why. It somehow perfectly evokes various feelings and situations that life throws at you. But it never quite goes so far as to be too sentimental or preachy. A fantastically catchy soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.

The Pawnbroker is an excellent film in that classic Lumet way, illuminated by great acting from Rod Steiger as well as many memorable character actors. The shop’s customer’s are heartbreaking, vulnerable and delusional. The quick-cut flashbacks are stylistically bold and extremely effective. The only issue is the consistency of the acting, which often swings the other way, pushing the film further and further into melodrama as it progresses. Despite its problems it remains an intense and affecting film. My first favourite of the year.

The Fireman’s Ball is less a dark comedy and more a dark absurdity. In this respect it couldn’t feel more Czech. As in A Blonde in Love, Milos Forman displays a fascination with drunken behaviour and squeezes a lot of humour out of it too. It also evokes Jan Svankmajer and early Roman Polanski. That mischievous, transgressive streak, the compulsion for the surreal, the consolation of humour to tackle the darkest aspects of human nature. A ramshackle beauty contest becomes uncomfortably creepy, finally bursting this tension with a descent into all-out farce, before switching gears again, and again. The attention to detail is a joy – a firefighter back from fighting a fire, in the changing room taking off his clothes, skin indentations from sock elastic, scratching the back of his ankle with the other foot. I should also take a moment to acknowledge the Masters of Cinema Blu Ray, which just full justice to some utterly ravishing cinematography. It is a film about bumbling, incompetent old men, and all that’s awful about that.

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An early D.W. Griffith short A Corner in Wheat was fine but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. It’s more of a message than a film (Greed = bad things for poor people). But it’s a worthy enough message and we do get to see a rich man drown in wheat. Small pleasures, etc.

 

The Boat isn’t one of Keaton’s best but it’s still hugely enjoyable, a testament to just how great his best work is. Some of the earlier jokes fall flat by his standards but many are as funny and inventive as ever. If for no other reason it deserves watching just for the bath-plug joke, which made me hoot. It ends with a fantastically corny punchline – most filmmakers would have ruined this with a title card but Keaton was smart enough to know that it’s only genuinely funny without. We know exactly what he’s saying.

If you’ve ever wanted to see Buster Keaton in drag, blackface or dressed as a monkey, Play House is the film for you. The opening dream sequence is a lot of fun, playing out something like Alec Guinness’s multi-role fun in Kind Hearts and Coronets crossed with that scene from Being John Malkovich. In the 1920s this must have been all the more impressive. In fact I’m still impressed – the effects are seamless. Keaton rarely varied his on-screen persona, so it’s fascinating to see him doing some ‘acting’. The rest of the film is Keaton as usual, working in a theatre, with plenty of good gags.

Keaton is well remembered for his insane stunt-work but another common motif is the inventive and outlandish use of sets. One Week has plenty of both, to an extent that is still impressive today. Keaton plays with his trademark mix of spectacle and silliness á la The General with a simple but effective train gag. And there’s a cheeky little shot where the cameraman puts his hand over the lens just as Keaton’s wife leans out of the bath to pick up the soap…

“I no longer fall in love with rocks.” World of Tomorrow caught in my throat. It’s a lovely film that understands the complexity of simplicity. Don Hertzfeldt dominates the short film form and almost makes me feel like there’s no point trying to make them myself because they will never be as good as his. Luckily I’m not an animator; if i was I’d probably just give up. On the other hand he makes me want to be an animator, because it’s such a good medium for the kind of work that I want to do – something precisely like this. Something funny and simple and affecting, without showing off.

“Keep off the dirigible plums”. This was the highlight of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Oddly I had seen Part 2 without having seen Part 1, so thought I’d fix that. This one wasn’t received particularly well so I didn’t bother at the time. Having now seen them both, the reception was accurate – Part 2 is easily the best in the series. Part 1 is middling, fine but forgettable. I don’t know what magic makes Part 2 as electric as I remember it being but I’m going to watch it again soon to try to find out. Admittedly I should have watched them in the proper order, but I was aware of the main plot points. I already knew about Dobby’s death, but this wasn’t much of a spoiler – frankly it’s just annoying. Because Dobby is annoying. Because CG characters in live action films are nearly always annoying. Because they’re not convincing enough. Is being away from the school for the whole film a problem? Perhaps, but then the rigid school-year structure got quite monotonous in the previous films. Part 2 successfully stays away for much of it, so there’s something else going on here. I think it’s just down to the filmmaking. Both parts were directed by David Yates, so the massive difference between them is interesting. I’ll have to comment further once I’ve watched Part 2 again.

Pet Semetary – The big surprise is the actually-quite-decent acting. It’s a proper corny horror, except that everything is slightly higher quality than you would expect. But then it’s also very silly and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not quite in the glorious way of something like Re-animator, but it’s fun nevertheless.

It took me a while to figure out what I thought of Ex Machina. Eventually I added it to my favourites list but it took a lot of umming and ahhing. Oscar Isaac is great, especially when he’s dancing. The other performances are strong, and there are interesting questions explored relating to AI. At times it does feel like it thinks it’s cleverer than it is, but actually it’s a smarter film that I expected. It’s let down slightly by the ending, but it’s hard to put my finger on why. I simply can’t shake the feeling of deja vu, of having seen these things before in various episodes of Black Mirror. Perhaps they cast Domhnall because of his role on the other side of the equation in Be Right Back. The boundaries between mediums are blurring. Ex-machina would be an amazing episode of Black Mirror, but what do I think of it as a film? I’m still deciding. Either way, I’ll watch anything with Oscar Isaac.

Creepshow is trashy portmanteau horror. A mediocre opening, but it gets progressively better with each story. Ted Danson buried up to his neck on a beach by a psychotic Leslie Nielson is a highlight. Nice Tom Savini cameo at the end to accompany his fun effects. Not amazing, but decent enough.

Intouchables is not a film that appealed to me at all based on the marketing but it quickly made it’s way onto lots of lists, and being a listwhore I thought I’d give it a go. All my concerns – that it would be sentimental, clichéd, unoriginal, formulaic – turned out to be completely justified. It was also actually quite enjoyable. I was never going to love it, but the performances did invest me against my will. I wanted to hate it but I just couldn’t, it has too much charm. It’s also pretty funny at times. Specifically the interactions between the rich white quadriplegic and the poor black reluctant carer (sound awful doesn’t it, but the chemistry is great). A very funny scene where they get high and talk about the erogenous zone of the ears: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and they’re hard”. I reluctantly like it.

Sherlock Holmes was entertaining at the same time as being not-very-good. The action is more than serviceable and is buoyed by Holmes’ intelligence, but that intelligence only ever seems to manifest itself through action set-pieces. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, this is a Hollywood Blockbuster after all. Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes is what makes it entertaining and what makes it unconvincing. I can’t quite decide if his accent is bad or if it just doesn’t suit his face but I do not buy him as an Englishman, let alone an intelligent one. Perhaps I have just been spoiled by Bucket Crunderdunder’s* effortless embodiment of the role on TV. The BBC series also beats this version in most other departments. Downey Jr and Law might have the action down, but is that really what Sherlock should be about? As a result, the fact that this is a Sherlock Holmes film feels kind of redundant, a brand to boost box office. That said, it’s not half bad as blockbusters go. Accent aside, RDJ is seldom not entertaining.

I am a fan of Aardman so I was looking forward to Shaun the Sheep. It’s amusing, but it’s not amazing. As with the series it does seem to have a younger target audience and maybe because of that it’s just not as sharp, clever or funny as the early Aardman – Wallace and Gromit, Creature Comfits, the earlier features. I liked Pirates/Scientists a lot, but their decline started long before then. It’s nice that they are still making me laugh but I can’t help but mourn missed opportunities. The silent comedy approach could have been a masterstroke but they only really made the most of in a few scenes – the restaurant is good, but it had the potential to be better. It’s a pleasant film to watch and I’m sure I’ll see it again but it doesn’t match up to Shaun’s debut. Wallace and Gromit are a hard act to follow.

And Then There Were None – I had half a mind to skip this 3-parter altogether as I’ve got far too much to watch right now and BBC drama hasn’t been particularly promising in recent years. But on Jenny’s recommendation I didn’t let it slip through iPlayer’s 30 days and I’m glad of it. While it’s not the most revelatory or original drama, it kept me watching and got stronger as it went, resulting in a rather satisfying conclusion. I’m pleased that I had forgotten the ending from the old 40s adaptation Ten Little Indians (understandbley neither takes the original title of the book…) because it still took me unawares despite half-memories and suspicions. Crucially, unlike many ‘twist’ films the storytelling itself never lies to us, the characters simply lie to each other. The clues to figure it out are all there for the taking, I suppose I just wasn’t smart enough to take them. In retrospect, its the only conclusion that would make any sense, which is why it works. The storytelling is often effective, if frequently over-manipulated. Part of me hankers for a more simplistic telling without all the flashbacks, but then I suppose we’ve got the old film for that, and besides the flashbacks are handled pretty well considering. My usual gripes about contemporary filmmaking aside, it’s a surprising effective adaptation and I’m glad I watched it.

The Dante Quartet – One of the better shorts I’ve watched recently, it’s typical Brackhage. Individually painted frames of film flashing past, vivid colours, the imagery is often ravishing. I imagine it would be great to see on celluloid but less so on a compressed youtube stream (so I won’t bother to link to it).

 

Beautiful birthday breakfast-in-bed with Bottle Rocket. Wes’s first film was the only one I hadn’t seen but I was expecting something lesser than his later films, reasoning that he needed some time to find his feet. His style may have grown more exacting over the years but this is as fun and as funny as any of them. Indeed much of his style and obsessions are already present, in looser ways, and personally I like his looser work as much as his pretty-perfect-pristine work. The Darjeeling Limited is loose and location-based but it’s perhaps his best. For The Grand Budapest Hotel he was in control freak mode, but it’s great for reasons both the same and different. As with any of them, it’s hard to sum up what’s great about Bottle Rocket. It is very funny but that’s mostly down to execution, not the jokes themselves. Which sums up Wes’s entire career – it shouldn’t work but it does. What should end up as annoying, over-produced, hipsterish self-indulgence somehow works beautifully. Because he executes it all so well and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

In PTA’s debut Hard Eight, John C Reilly is perhaps the best I’ve seen him, a great dopey Everyman lead. The old fella (Phillip Baker Hall, after a google search) is the perfect washed up noir protagonist, like he could have been the young lead in some 50s heist movie (he wasn’t, but should have been). As PTA goes, this is probably his least complex film, but as usual it’s more about character than the plot. In this respect it works well, but on a more thoughtful, contemplative level it’s a little glib compared to his later work. Nevertheless it’s strong, accomplished and enjoyable. If  it’s ultimately slightly shallow by PTA’s standards, it’s actually pretty smart as crime films go.

I don’t normally write about music videos (I don’t normally watch many) but I thought Bowie’s last two are worth mentioning. Before his death I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Blackstar. Lots of potent imagery but some of it felt arbitrary and it didn’t quite gel for me, I preferred the song to the video. Watching it after his death, it makes much more sense, and the reference to his son’s first film at the beginning is appropriate and touching, as well as echoing his own beginnings and endings (the death of Major Tom?). Lazarus is the best music video I have seen in a long time, and possibly my favourite song from an album of great songs. Continuing the narrative and imagery from the first video, but more contained, more direct, as Lazarus is to Blackstar’s sprawling ambition. Ominous imagery against ominous sound, marinated in cinema. Brilliant use of a coffin-like square ratio (of course, widescreen is technically more coffin-shaped but the square format looks more narrow to us than it is, and it’s boxy unfamiliarity lends a certain unease). Lazarus is simple and honest and heartbreaking. With a killer bass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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