Apr 8, 2017

The Month in Movies: March 2017

Film(s) of the Month
The Story of Sin / The Eyes of my Mother / Dial M For Murder
The last film I saw this month was easily the best, but of course it was, it was Hitchcock. Dial M For Murder is a brilliantly written film; intricate and thrilling, with both script and direction tipping their hand JUST enough to keep us on the edge of our seats while never giving away enough that we can see all of the twists coming. The month's other highlights are both beautifully composed films. I've fallen in love with Walerian Borowczyk's work since Arrow Academy started putting out new blu ray editions. The Story of Sin is perhaps not my favourite, but it's a stunningly photographed film that, like much of its director's work, elevates exploitation cinema to something closer to fine art. While The Story of Sin has images packed with gorgeous detail, The Eyes of my Mother takes a different approach; its frames are stark and spare, but no less dazzling to look at. Nicolas Pesce makes the most disturbing images in his film some of the most beautiful through his striking formal compositions. It can initially be alienating, especially taken alongside the detached performances, but the effect is cumulative and I found the film sunk its hooks ever deeper into me as it went on.

Worst of the Month
The New Guy / Fateful Findings
Two different kinds of terrible movie this month: The New Guy is slapdash effort from the height of the early 2000's teen movie boom. It's a charmless, witless effort, as poorly acted and shot as it is written. Then there's Fateful Findings. Neil Breen's third film is very much in the Ed Wood mould. Breen does everything; writing, directing, acting, editing and much more besides. Incoherent and laughably abysmal as it is, this is the film of someone who aspires to something. Breen clearly believes in his vague message about government corruption and in the 'romantic' 'thriller' through which he's delivering it. His incompetence as a filmmaker makes this an interesting film, even if it is truly terrible. There's something to be admired in that. It's still shit though.

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya: Get Out / Shahab Hosseini: The Salesman
Best Actress: Taraneh Alidoosti: The Salesman / Pauline Etienne: The Nun
Best Supporting Performance: AnnaLynne McCord: Trash Fire
Better Than the Film: Anya Taylor-Joy: Morgan / Juno Temple: Safelight
Best Director: Walerian Borowczyk: The Story of Sin / Alfred Hitchcock: Dial M For Murder
One to Watch: Jordan Peele / Daniel Kaluuya: Director/Actor: Get Out
Best Visuals: The Story of Sin / The Eyes of My Mother
Biggest Surprise: Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper (not so keen on the film as a whole)
Biggest Disappointment: Police Story: Lockdown / Certain Women
I'm Pretty Sure No One Else Has Seen This: The ABCs of Love and Sex
Movie I Finally Got to See: Dial M For Murder
Coolest Title: The Bloodstained Butterfly

Apr 1, 2017

Power Rangers [12A]

Dir: Dean Israelite
I was just a bit too old for Power Rangers. I remember it coming on UK TV in the mid 90's, when I was 13 or 14, and feeling that I had aged out of the audience by a few years. That said, I ended up watching quite a lot of the early series' because my brother, 4 years younger, was a huge fan of the show (and I, I confess, was quite a fan of Amy Jo Johnson's Kimberly). I didn't have much investment when approaching this reboot, but as a fan of teen movies and of martial arts films, I was hoping for something I could enjoy, even if at the purely silly and superficial level on which the show functioned. It's weird to feel disappointed by a film you went in with no real expectations for.

The film retains the basic setup of the show. Five teenagers from Angel Grove, California, discover coins that give them access to an ancient power. At a command centre Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader) inform these new Power Rangers – Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G) – that they are now tasked with protecting the universe from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who has just awakened after 65 million years and now seek the Zeo Crystal, with which she can destroy all life on Earth.

There are a couple of new ideas introduced to the backstory here. The first – That Rita was a Power Ranger who went bad – has promise. This makes the conflict between Rita and Zordon more personal, or it should, but like much of the rest of the story here it's stated rather than explored. Another new idea is connected to how the Rangers morph. The handheld morphers are gone, replaced with some vague babble about only being able to morph when they are 'thinking only of each other'. It's this second idea that I feel encapsulates what's wrong with Power Rangers 2017.

There seems to be a feeling, especially in reboot culture, that audiences won't invest emotionally in a story unless it is dark and po-faced. Power Rangers sticks resolutely to this model for a good 80 percent of its needlessly lengthy running time. The rangers aren't friends as the film begins, instead they're all outcasts to a certain degree. Jason is a sports star who messed up his chances of playing in College with a stupid prank. Zack looks after his ailing Mother and cuts school a lot. Billy is an autistic genius with a tragic dead father backstory. Kimberly did something awful to a friend (it sounds like she shared some revenge porn, but this is a 12A, so the film never says that). Trini doesn't get on with her Mum and it's implied that might be because Trini is gay (there's a vague reference to 'girlfriend problems'). The film spends a lot of time on this teen angst bullshit, but it never does anything more than skim the surface of the issues it brings up. It puts a moody face on, but nothing more. If the film committed to these themes, if it used them, as it aspires to, to bring the Rangers closer, to make them knit together as a team and as friends, that would be something. Unfortunately it's just not well enough written or, for the most part, acted for that to work. What we get instead is a film whose storytelling is as downbeat and grey as most of its look. An hour in I wanted to yell at the screen, to grab the screenwriters and scream “have some fun, it's Power Rangers”.

The acting is as problematic as the writing when it comes to how the tone of Power Rangers fails. RJ Cyler runs away with the film, occasionally finding some levity as Billy and being the one person whose excitement at suddenly being a superhero seems real and investable. The other Rangers are stunningly dull. Writer John Gatins seems to have taken one personality type ('rebel') and handed it to both Trini and Zack. Neither Becky G nor Ludi Lin has much to do (indeed Trini isn't named until almost an hour in, so much of an afterthought is she), but they don't elevate the material either. As Jason and Kimberly, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott have bigger parts, but their personalities are just as small. The film can't decide what to do with them either, at one point it seems to imply that Billy might have a crush on Kimberly, but neither this nor the equally briefly and randomly hinted at attraction between her and Jason comes to anything. There is little to no sense of them as a group, so a would be emotional end of act 2 beat, in which they all say they would die for each other (they've known each other a week) is rendered laughable.

The supporting roles are equally mixed. Bill Hader contributes an Alpha 5 you won't want to strangle, which is progress, but Bryan Cranston can't find anything to hold on to as Zordon. On the plus side there's Elizabeth Banks. Banks seems to be in the Power Rangers movie I might have actually enjoyed watching. She chomps ever increasing amounts of scenery with a glee that seems to grow scene by scene. It was nice to see someone having fun with what should be a fun concept.

Power Rangers is ugly in the way most blockbusters are ugly now. The film it looks most like is Transformers, like that series it takes something that was bright, bold and colourful and renders it mostly in shades of grey. This is most notable the first time we see the Rangers in full costume as a group. They get a Right Stuff shot, it should be the moment all our childhoods come flooding back, but the shot is so dark that you can barely see the differences in the colours of their costumes. This is also a problem with the Zords, which look like rejected models for Bay's next Transformers movie. The action is slightly more coherent than I expected, but it's disappointing not so see more martial arts before we get to the big CGI smackdowns of the Zord vs monster fights.

In its last 20 minutes, the film changes tone quite radically. It seems to remember which TV show it's adapting and decide that, it's time to cut loose a bit. In the daytime set fight scenes there's finally a bit of colour to the Rangers' look and there's finally a sense of teamwork and of the team enjoying discovering their powers, while recognising the stakes of what they have to do. It's the best part of the film, but it sits awkwardly with the preceding 90 minutes. The last fight and, to some degree, the earlier scenes of Elizabeth Banks having a grand old time as Rita, feel like they belong to another film; one that found the sweet spot between the corny show and original film and something that brings a little more credibility to this idea, updating it for a new time. If this tone is what the whole of the inevitable sequel ends up going for then I could imagine watching it. If it's more of the Sour Rangers stuff we get here, count me out.

Mar 24, 2017

The Films of my Lifetime

Over the past week or so there has been a trend for people to put out, largely on Twitter, their lists of their favourite films for each year of their lives. I tweeted this list last week, but I felt like writing bit more about it; about how I came to these choices, about what they mean to me and about what I think they say about me as a movie fan.

The first thing to say is that these picks were made largely from the gut. I did some homework, trying to jog my memory for what came out in each of the years I didn't immediately have a go to pick for, but I tried to be guided by the principal of picking what I LOVE. This isn't about critical credibility, nor is it about developing a canon of films. For me it's about the films that, given the opportunity, I'd happily watch RIGHT NOW.

Videodrome [1983]

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
1983: Videodrome
1984: Ghostbusters
1985: Back to the Future
1986: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
1987: Robocop
1988: Die Hard
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I don't remember the 80's that well, being only 8 by the time they finished, so I'm not guided as much by nostalgia in these choices as I might have thought I'd be. I loved some of these films - Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future - when I was young, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade may be the single most important film in my life, as it's the film that seeded my obsession. However, I've not chosen those films through rose tinted glasses, every one of them holds up for me today, indeed my understanding of how and why they work for me has only deepened, and along with that understanding my affection for them has also deepened.

My other 80's choices are films I discovered after the fact, as I grew up. I believe a strong argument could be made for 1982 being among the greatest years in American cinema. My choice of Fast Times at Ridgemont High doesn't so much signal its superiority over the likes of Blade Runner, The Thing, The Last American Virgin, First Blood, Poltergeist, Diner, Missing or the many other great and important films of that year as much as it does my love of that film and its importance to me as a viewer and as a critic. Fast Times is for me the keystone of the American teen movie; the film that almost every high school movie after it owes a debt to, and as that genre is one of my main critical interests, it's a film of huge significance to me. It's also significant in my appreciation of Jennifer Jason Leigh, who I consider the best American actress of, at least, her generation. My head could have picked a lot of films from 1982, my heart could only pick Fast Times.

The rest of the decade is represented by the first entry on the list for David Cronenberg and three films which, for me, number among the greatest works in their respective genres. In 1986 one of the great horror films in the chillingly credible Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, surely among the bleakest films ever made. In 1987 one of the great Sci-fi films, one of the great satires and Paul Verhoeven's best film in Robocop, which only seems to get more relevant as time goes on. Then, in 1988, what is surely the very best American action film ever made in Die Hard, that rare movie in which everything – EVERYTHING – works in harmony. I'm not sure popular American cinema was ever better than it was in the 80's

Jackie Brown [1997]

1990: Gremlins 2: The New Batch
1991: Terminator 2: Judgement Day
1992: Candyman
1993: Matinee
1994: Heavenly Creatures
1995: Before Sunrise
1996: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
1997: Jackie Brown
1998: Fucking Amal [Show Me Love]
1999: eXistenZ

So, I should probably explain my first pick of the 90's, shouldn't I? Yes, I'm aware that Goodfellas came out in 1990. Yes, like all right thinking people I think Goodfellas is a masterpiece, but give me the choice of which to watch and, sorry, I'll pick Gremlins 2 every day. Joe Dante has two films in the 90's section of my list. Matinee; his heartfelt love letter to cinema and exploration of what it means to those who love it is his best film, but Gremlins 2 is his most Joe Dante film. It is a joyously irreverent sequel that mocks, among many other things, its own existence. Dante throws every idea, every joke at the screen and practically all of them hit. The first film is wonderful; charming, funny and hugely entertaining, but the second betters it on every count. I love it.

If the 80's section of my list is very heavily mainstream, this is where we begin to see my picks go a little more off the beaten track. The 90's were when I was first growing up as a film lover and beginning to branch out in my viewing. Of these picks, I think only Terminator 2 (Die Hard's only true challenger for the title of the greatest American action film), Candyman and perhaps Jackie Brown. could truly be called mainstream films. As a teenager I was a bigger fan of Quentin Tarantino than I am now and Jackie Brown probably then stood as my least favourite of his films. Today I consider it far and away his best. I don't think it's a coincidence that Tarantino's best work is an adaptation. In this film I hear all his characters speaking as individuals, while in his others I often find I can hear Tarantino's voice speaking through all of them.

Outside of those we have the first film on the list from outside the US, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. For me it remains Jackson's best film. Like Henry, it's a film that continues to unnerve and scare me because it tells its story with total credibility (both are based on real stories, more loosely in Henry's case) and thanks to stunningly impressive leading performances that launched the careers of Kate Winslet and Meanie Lynskey. It's also a film I have an attachment to, as it's one that I remember taking to show my friend Guy that made a huge impression on both of us and continues to be favourite for him as well. 

Heavenly Creatures [1994]
There's also the first foreign language film on the list, Lukas Moodysson's début, Fucking Amal. Like Fast Times, this is one of the cornerstones of my love of teen and coming of age movies and, while my experiences aren't the same (given that I'm neither gay nor female), I find myself identifying deeply with the characters, especially Agnes. For me it's a great example of the way storytelling connects with me; the specifics are different, but I know the feelings and the film puts me right back in that place.

The 90s also contain the first and only documentary on the list (though Hoop Dreams would be my second choice for 1994). It is probably no exaggeration to say that Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its two sequels saved the life of Damien Echols who, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, was convicted of the murder of three eight year old boys. It's one of the most extraordinary and disturbing true crime stories you'll hear and a brilliant piece of documentary craftsmanship.

Rounding out the 90s are Bernard Rose's terrifying and beautiful horror Candyman, the first chapter of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy (more on that later) and David Cronenberg's spiritual sequel to Videodrome and last great body horror, eXistenZ (which also happens to have one of Jennifer Jason Leigh's best performances). I think, overall, it's a diverse list for a great decade of cinema.

Dogtooth [2009]
2000: Almost Famous [Untitled]
2001: The Piano Teacher
2002: Punch Drunk Love
2003: May
2004: Before Sunset
2005: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
2006: The Page Turner
2007: Zodiac
2008: Martyrs
2009: Dogtooth

The end of my teenage years and time spent living away from home made this period the time when I was first able to spend the kind of time I wanted to watching films. I was studying them at college, renting piles of VHS and DVD and going to the cinema at least two or three nights a week (there was one at the end of my road and another next to my college). This meant that I really started to explore less mainstream films. It was also around this time that I became a big fan of horror and exploitation cinema as, looking young, I'd not been able to rent those kind of movies, or get into them at the cinema, when I was younger.

Almost Famous, my 2000 pick, was hugely significant in my life. It's the first film I remember seeing with my music nerd friend David, and the film that prompted him to start giving me albums (Led Zeppelin's Remasters was among the first) and me to get into music in a big way. Almost 20 years on, that screening continues to influence my day to day life. As a sidenote, I've not seen the theatrical version since I first got the Untitled Director's Cut, I imagine the theatrical would now feel incomplete, so it's Untitled that I'm choosing here.

There are a great deal more foreign language films on this section of the list. I think this is a combination of the fact that I was by now casting the net wider in what I watched and that, as a whole, my interest in American mainstream cinema and, at least as general trend, its quality, seems to me to have dipped in recent years. I also notice that all of my foreign picks for this decade feature fascinating and brilliantly performed female characters as the leads. For instance there's Lee Young-ae in Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance; a film I wasn't won over by at the first time of asking, but which grew and grew on me with every viewing. I think I had expected something more like Oldboy, but for me Lady Vengeance grew to eclipse that film and continues to stand as Park's finest hour.

For my money, the best film in this section of the list is Pascal Laugier's astonishing Martyrs. In fact, since I saw it in early 2009, I'd be hard pressed to say I'd seen a single better new film. After at least a dozen viewings the film continues to raise new questions and provoke new ideas on every watch but more than that, it's a film that made me think deeply about how I watch horror films, about what they mean and about the relationship of a viewer to a final girl figure. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Martyrs redefined how I see horror, that's why it beats, by a hair, Sion Sono's Love Exposure to the 2008 spot.

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance [2005]
The chilly French thriller The Page Turner reminds me a great deal of La Ceremonie, which was my runner up for 1995 and of a film that also features on this section of the list. This is true of Denis Dercourt's direction, which draws explicitly on both Claude Chabrol and his great inspiration Alfred Hitchcock and of Deborah Francois, whose leading performance draws on much of Isabelle Huppert's chilly screen persona. However, The Page Turner is no mere copycat, Dercourt's brilliantly controlled direction and Francois' emotionally distant performance set you on edge from start to finish. I think the Huppert performance that Francois draws most heavily on is from The Piano Teacher, which may well be Huppert's greatest. I believe this was the first of Michael Haneke's films that I saw, and it remains my favourite. I find the film and Huppert's performance so raw that it's almost difficult to watch at times, but it pulls me in over and over again.

The last foreign language film on this part of the list is Dogtooth, which I saw and was blown away by at the London Film Festival. This was my introduction to Greek cinema and to Yorgos Lanthimos. It's one of the few times I can recall seeing a film and feeling that I was witnessing the start of something, not just a career, but a distinct tone and take on cinema. The wave that Dogtooth brought to prominence has been of mixed quality, but it still stands out as a truly singular film.

The rest of this decade's list is American. Like Lady Vengeance, Zodiac was a grower for me. I'm not sure why, but I didn't like it at the cinema. I did a U turn on the film when I saw the Director's Cut on DVD. Now I consider it not just Fincher's best film but likely the finest police procedural ever made.  2002 and 2003 were tough choices, not because I had many contenders, but because in each year I found plenty of films I liked, even liked a great deal, but few that leapt out at me as being truly great. Still, I'm happy with the picks. Punch Drunk Love is another film that only grows in my estimation each time I watch it. I love the way that Paul Thomas Anderson manages both to exemplify and subvert Adam Sandler's screen persona, while drawing out a performance that makes his lazy comedies even more embarrassing than they'd otherwise be, because we know he can do THIS. It's also notably rare as a romantic comedy, in that it is both romantic and funny, often in the same moment.  My 2003 pick, May, like many of my favourite horror films, isn't always about the scares. Yes, Angela Bettis is unnerving in the title role, but it's the sadness of the film, the way May reaches out, desperate for companionship, that gets to me about it and makes it richer than most horror films. The final shot does this especially well; it's horrifying and heartbreaking, encapsulating the film in an instant.

Last, but certainly not least, there is Before Sunset. The Before Trilogy share a single spot in my Top 10 films, but were I forced to choose one, it would be this one. Initially I had no desire to know what happened after the ellipsis of Before Sunrise's ending, but Linklater, Hawke and Delpy came up with the perfect way to continue the story. The real time structure works beautifully, making the whole film feel like a precious moment, captured for just a short time. There are so many great moments within the film, but the one that gets me every time is Celine reaching out to Jesse in the back of a cab, but pulling away before he sees. Like the looks between them in the record booth in the first film, it's a tiny gesture that speaks volumes.

The Neon Demon [2016]

2010: Love Like Poison

2011: Alps
2012: In The House
2013: Stoker
2014: The New Girlfriend
2015: Evolution
2016: The Neon Demon

In these seven years my choices have become more diverse, but also less diverse. There are more foreign films than ever, and even the two in English are made by foreign directors, but there are names repeating here: second entries on the list for Park Chan-wook and Yorgos Lanthimos, and two in the space of three years for Francois Ozon (whose 5 X 2 would be my second pick for 2005).

Francois Ozon has been, for my money, one of the best and most consistent filmmakers working, but the last few years have seen a dip in his consistency. Since 2012 he's made two of his very best films and perhaps his two worst, but the two that work are sublime. Typically of Ozon, the  impeccably acted and directed films are wildly different from each other - a class obsessed comedy thriller about storytelling in In The House and a gender fluid romantic drama in The New Girlfriend - but also both instantly identifiable as Ozon films. Both combine the severe and playful modes that Ozon's films used to alternate between to fine and surprising effect. The combination of the severe and the playful (though leaning more towards the former) is also found in Yorgos Lanthimos' Alps; his almost equally brilliant follow up to Dogtooth. Lanthimos fractures the relationships and personalities in the film so much that everything is up for debate (for instance, is the man the Nurse calls her Father actually her Father?). I love the way the film carries through its premise all the way into absurdity, while never losing that disturbing undertone that was so present in Dogtooth, whether it comes from the events of the film or from the striking, stark, frames that Lanthimos uses to tell the story.

There is a possibility that when I update this list for 2017, Love Like Poison director Kattell Quillevere will have her own second entry, with Heal The Living, but whether or not that happens her début - one of the two best coming of age films of the past decade, along with The Spectacular Now - absolutely earns its spot. Crafting a clearly personal story of a young girl discovering her sexuality, coming to terms with the fact her grandfather is dying, and approaching her confirmation in the church, Quillevere digs into complex emotions at many levels and allows her main character to grow and change through and affecting and beautifully told narrative.

Love Like Poison [2010]
Some incredibly visually striking films round out this part of the list; Nicolas Winding Refn's Argento channelling The Neon Demon, suffused with the titular light to give us an almost surreally seedy LA that proceeds to consume the film's main character.  Lucille Hadzihalilovic's Evolution invites us into a less familliar but no less surreal world; an island where pre-teen boys appear to be used as vessels for breeding in a matriarchal society. It's a world steeped in Cronenberg, DelToro and Zulawski which remixes those influences into something as beguiling as it is troubling. Finally there is Park Chan-wook's Stoker, which takes the precision framing and cutting of his earlier works to the nth degree. I remember seeing it for the first time and gasping at several of the compositions and cuts, especially at the way Park uses match cuts (Nicole Kidman's hair and a field of grass) and recurring imagery (the importance of Mia Wasikowska's shoes) to force us to look deeply at every frame.

I had some trouble choosing this list, but ultimately I think it's ended up as an interesting reflection of my taste and my relationship with film and how it's developed. If you've any questions or comments, either on the films themselves or on what you think this list says, I welcome them here or on Twitter (@24FPSUK).