Fantana’s Film Roundup – August 2017

A mixed bag of surprise hits and bland disappointments this month, with last month’s Strange Days kicking off an ongoing exploration of personal classics that I intend to become a new monthly feature;

The Wall (2017)

Doug Liman (of the Bourne Identity, Go and Edge of Tomorrow fame) directs this small Iraqi war thriller that pits Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s spotter, Isaac, against Laith Nakli’s sniper in a simmering and desperate standoff with nothing but a failing wall between them. On paper the Wall sounded pretty hum-drum, but I forget how much of a dark horse Liman is, crafting excellent characterisation out of Taylor-Johnson, Nakli and also John Cena (yep, him) in the supporting role, to palpable effect, so much so that the 80 minute runtime whisks by before you know it. Given the premise, there isn’t many ways this showdown can go, but Liman will keep you guessing until the very end and keep the heart rate up in the meantime.

7

 

A Wind Named Amnesia (1993)

Fantastic idea for a science fiction movie and unfortunately not one that this 90s anime takes full advantage of. Whether it comes down to the saccharine, overly obvious script (an unfortunate hallmark of the format and period) or the decision to set the titular epidemic in a mech-saturated future America is unclear but both are contributing factors. A Wind that passes over the planet and wipes the memory clean of everyone on it is an interesting concept on its own so the added convolution of failed telekinetic experiments and utopian cities is just unnecessary and distracting. That said, there is a lot to like here if you can ignore 70% of the dialogue and, funnily enough for Manga, it is the human element of the storyline that is most compelling as the two leads negotiate a North American landscape now dominated by a population reduced to the mentality of cavemen. One for anime fans to check out at some point but certainly don’t prioritise.

6

 

Sleight (2016)

After the death of his parents, Bo (Jacob Latimore) is left to support his little sister, which he does through street magic and drug dealing. Complications arise when Bo’s desire to get out of LA leads him to make some unwise decisions and his supplier, Angelo (Dulé Hill), catches wind. There’s nothing fantastic about Sleight, the street magic is annoyingly played out using special effects rather than actual illusion (I hated Now You See Me because of this), and the biggest flaw with it is that the name, which insinuates magic and misdirection might play a larger part, is greatly misleading (and here I was expecting some Prestige level complexity…!). That said, this is a confident, no frills, thriller that doesn’t overextend beyond its ambition. The acting all round is better than good, the pacing is barely at a canter but the characters keep you invested, and the final act – although a little out of leftfield and reflective of the budget – is competent and rewarding, again owing to the characters and how they are portrayed. If you go into this breezy, self-contained thriller expecting an element of science fiction and less focus on the actual fantasy of the magic, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

7

Sleight

Message from the King (2016)

Predictably, ahead of his big time outing in Marvel’s Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman gets some low-level hype from this by-the-numbers thriller, currently streaming on Netflix. Boseman plays a South African who travels to LA to avenge the death of his sister. On paper this comes across as quite a straightforward narrative, but there is something in the – albeit competent – execution that adds an element of convolution as the plot surrounding his sister’s death widens and branches elsewhere. In the end Message from the King has some decent beats and great performances, from Boseman and the ubiquitous Teresa Palmer in particular, but the storyline lacks punch and charisma so this only ever feels like an average thriller.

6

 

The Overnight (2015)

Not long after moving to LA, parents Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) meet Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) at the park and are subsequently invited to theirs for an evening play date, but once the kids are put to bed, things get increasingly (and surreally) interesting. A mixed bag of comedy and awkwardness, this, and to differing results. Whilst played straight by all involved, there is something just a little too bizarre about the more grotesque jokes in here that makes the comedy fall flat; that said, there are plenty of more obvious jokes that genuinely tickle and the resolution isn’t as ambiguous as the journey there would have you suspect. Despite actually being just okay, this will probably stand out in what seems like a virtual ocean of dreadful comedies that we have been graced with over the last few years.

6

 

Cub (2014)

A group of Belgian scouts head into the woods for a camping weekend, one of whom is troubled and imaginative youngster, Sam, who very much believes in the local legend, a spritely entity named ‘Kai’. When he comes face to face with the seemingly fictional character, the truth is a little darker than expected. As a horror movie this offers things both predictable and unexpected, doesn’t clobber you with a raft of obvious logical pitfalls, and offers up a cluster of sharp and interesting characters, both fodder and not. There are also a number of creative (and actually quite funny) deaths, but there are also a number of unflinchingly sinister beats that offer a flurry of eyebrow-raising surprise and the ending is not something we often get to see so is a welcome change. Successfully straddles the line between overt gore and implicative horror, providing a welcome respite from the usual epidemic of found footage and anthology horrors that Just. Won’t. Stop.

7

 

Man Down (2015)

Straddling three timelines, Shia LaBeouf’s marine searches a post-apocalyptic America for his family with the aid of best friend, Jai Courtney. While in a series of flashbacks we experience his gruelling progression from cadet to touring marine and into therapy following an ‘incident’. If this were merely shining a spotlight on PTSD (it is) in a straight forward manner (it isn’t), this would be a much more palatable and contemplative affair, however the post-apocalypse sequences are affected to the point of grating and really detract from the points the movie is trying to make. With effects that make most of today’s TV shows look like the work of Weta, and a twist that is telegraphable from about 30 minutes in, and director Dito Montiel really should have just focussed on the drama.

6

Cub

Mimic (Director’s Cut) (1997)

Classic of the month and classic Guillermo del Toro, dishing up a dark and interesting creature feature before he got caught up in the franchise circuit, and of all his ‘Hollywood’ movies, Mimic comes the closest to the bravery and bittersweetness of his more personal Spanish language catalogue; the only gripe there is that, in the end, it chickens out. Three years after genetically engineering an insect that would eradicate a virulent strain of cockroach, Mira Sorvino’s etymologist is made aware of a string of events that threaten to enforce upon her a reaping of what she has sown. With the exception of the miscast and uncharismatic Jeremy Northam, all the players involved bring something of value to the proceedings, not least of whom is Alien 3’s Charles S. Dutton. It’s criminal that the man doesn’t do more prominent character work today. The effects, although dated, still hold up against some of today’s lesser efforts (see: Man Down, above, or Bushwick, below) and the pacing of the script is effective in prolonging the big reveal as long as possible. Although Del Toro does pull the final punch, there are a couple of jaw drops throughout that, for its time especially, truly surprise in their bravery; the only thing Mimic lacks, that would have earned it another mark here and propelled it into proper cult status, is a more quotable script. Regardless, this is a competent B-movie with a script and finish that still holds up after 20 years.

7.5

 

Wakefield (2016)

Overstressed husband and father, Bryan Cranston, goes off the deep end in the most passive way imaginable, hiding himself away in the family loft, unbeknownst to his wife and kids, and from there observing their reaction to his ‘disappearance’ as hours turn into days turn into months in this overly wordy drama. As the timeline progresses, Cranston allows us into the family history by way of flashbacks that reveal snippets of the domestic relationships and their strains, which have ultimately led to this snap decision. Meanwhile in the present we observe as his Cranston lauds, rues and hypothesises over his fateful decision as he watches his family evolve in his absence. Had the narration not been present this might have gained an extra point or so, however it is constant – constant – and only really serves to add unnecessary exposition to what is being conveyed on screen successfully. Couple that with an ending that will surely infuriate, the verdict here is don’t bother.

5.5

 

Boys in the Trees (2016)

Two estranged friends – one who grew big and fell in with the tough kids in his senior school years; the other, a smaller boy who got left behind – reunite at Halloween and embark upon a trip down memory lane, through the innocence and imagination of childhood and the choices we make to ultimately lead us away from that and into young adulthood, even if that means leaving old friends behind. Set in the 90’s and charged with a rock soundtrack of the period, this is yet another small, well-handled film to come out of Australia over the last few years. The two lead boys are terrific and play off each other very well and the general ethereal edge that permeates every frame is steeped in nostalgia. There is just something very watchable about Boys in the Trees, despite its surreal qualities, because beyond the darkness-tinged setting and supernatural tropes, at its centre are very real and relatable themes to which anyone who has survived high school can attest.

7

 

What Happened to Monday (2017)

A really interesting take on dystopian science fiction. In a future Authoritarian regime, in order to combat an over-inflated population, families are restricted to producing only one offspring; if any siblings are born they will be forcibly removed from society and sent to a cryo-sleep facility until the crisis is abated. In the midst of this world, Willem Dafoe hides away his septuplet granddaughters, naming them after the days of the week and gradually training them to collectively assume a singular identity, which will allow them the day of the week that is their namesake to go out into the world. This plan succeeds into adulthood, only falling down when Monday doesn’t come home one evening, sparking a frenetic search on the part of her siblings. With a typically dystopian palette of greys and browns, this is nothing special to look at, in the same way that impressive sci-fi such as Equilibrium never really looked any great shakes beyond its gun-kata, however Noomi Rapace grips, providing performances for all seven sisters and the pace, although a little clunky and formulaic, is competent enough to never feel dull. Plot holes are few and far between but the biggest flaw on hand here is predictability, both in individual story beats and the overarching plotline reveals. That said, there is enough in the direction, action and acting to keep you enthused to the end.

7

Boys in the Trees

The Monster Project (2017)

Found footage horror. This is only ever going to succeed so far. In fairness, the premise here was enough to lure me in; a pair of filmmakers who spend their time creating fake monster siting videos for YouTube (or more accurately the we-don’t-have-the-budget equivalent) come up with the ingenious idea for a show called… yep. They then compile a rag-tag film crew, including the stellar decision to rope in the producer’s ex-girlfriend as director and her current romantic prospect as general dogsbody, and put out a call for ‘monsters’. The positives are in the handling here – the filmmakers do not display the expected naiveté in the face of their endeavours. There are stupid decisions, there has to be, otherwise we wouldn’t have the found footage genre (hmm….), but character motivations ring true in the human moments. The cast are fine, with the glaring exception of black stereotype cameraman (“aw hell no!”; “bitch, you be trippin’!” — no even joking!), Jamal, whose acting does him no favours. Effects are capable but flawed, the skinwalker being the only real achievement, but when you have a found footage horror that also incorporates atmospheric music… you really should know you’re in trouble…! Still better than the main crop of the last year or so. Not saying much, though, is it?

6

 

This is 40 (2012)

From the nothing-if-not-consistent Judd Apatow, and centralising the marital bliss between Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) that threatened to steal the limelight in Apatow’s previous deliverable, Knocked Up, This is 40 takes these characters and grounds them rather than opting to blow them into larger than life caricatures of themselves. To their husband and wife duo are added daughters and parental units, all with their own angst to add to the melting pot. The result is a very funny series of vignettes that amplify the foibles of marriage and parenting. The only problem is that a series of vignettes is all it ever becomes and what should be an overarching plotline never seems to materialise. Yes, the characters have their individual flaws and obstacles, and yes, they interact and overlap and resolve by the time the credits appear, but never does it feel like an A Plot is evident other than this husband and this wife getting along or not. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does prevent This is 40 from elevating to the same standard as one of the greats.

7

 

Some Freaks (2016)

Teen angst drama, usually served up with a side of comedy, can sometimes surprise with a hidden gem (The Spectacular Now), an unexpected performance (Paper Towns), or a genuinely touching premise (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Some Freaks attempts to achieve all three, but despite a standout performance by female lead, Lily Mae Harrington, she alone is not enough to elevate a promising premise beyond the average. Harrington plays Jill, a witty, overweight student in her final year at a new school who strikes up a budding romance with fellow outcast, Matt, a kid with one eye, however their relationship is put under strain when Jill heads off to college and Matt joins her several months later only to find she has lost weight and, inevitably, started to garner more confidence and attention. These two form the central arc of the narrative, however by the end we understand they are not the only outsiders the title refers to. Freaks works far better at drama than it does at comedy. The comedy aspect is very low key, burgeoning by the end into non-existent, as the characters’ individual plotlines begin to spiral out of their own control. The problem is it doesn’t possess any of that charm we need to really invest in something so unfamiliar to us (if it is indeed alien) and the majority of the characters don’t really appear to better themselves by the time the credits roll, and in fact this may be a rare case whereby they actually get less sympathetic as time goes on. Interesting but flawed.

6

 

ID2: Shadwell Army (2016)

The original I.D. was a defining contribution to my teenage years and one of the reasons I am in love with film as much as I am today. It had tension, violence, bravery, a compelling narrative and cast of characters to match. So it is with a sad heart that I deliver the verdict on a sequel that comes two decades later yet manages to feel fifty years more tired, naive and clueless. The story is somewhat identical, only set today, which beggars the question, if you aren’t going to update the storyline for a modern world, why bother? Comparisons to the original can’t help but be made and Shadwell Army falls short in all departments, not least of which is in richness of character. Lead, Mo, we are led to believe is a fast riser within the police force, but to watch him bumble about with no apparent clue how to act in the ever intensifying underworld he has now become part of, you would be forgiven for thinking it was his first day. Incompetent and soft beyond forgiveness, at one point, when a yob from the gang he is infiltrating guesses he’s old bill, his response isn’t denial but a nervous “shhh, that’s our little secret”….. are you joking!!?

That pretty much sums this up and I feel hard done by having written even this much about it.

4.5

The Garden of Words

Shimmer Lake (2017)

A very quick hit, this. A small town police chief investigates a bank heist involving his brother, but rather than a straight, linear tale, the proceedings are laid out in reverse, tracking back through the week that followed the crime, ultimately ending up at the heist itself. Fans of Fargo will certainly find appeal in the blatant tonal borrowing at play here – in truth the ‘homage’ is pulled off well, ably balancing the drama and comedy equally. Acting is solid throughout and care is taken in the various reveals, as we track back to the night in question, to keep us guessing and interested. The only faults at play here are a lack of originality and inciting incidents, a runtime that needed more time to breathe, and an ending that comes a few scenes too soon. I respect the movie is respecting its own structural rules by doing so, but it wouldn’t have hurt to switch it up in the dying embers for the sake of resolution.

7

 

Death Note (2017)

Not quite as charming as Shimmer Lake is this manga/anime adaptation that – given the backlash to various choices made prior to even being completed – never really stood a chance. Light Turner comes into possession of a mysterious journal that manipulates the death of anyone whose name is written in its pages. Under the tutelage of death god, Ryuk, he sets about using the journal to rid the world of overt evils. On paper, and we have this on paper in the phenomenally successful manga, this should be a winner – such a compelling idea combined with some supernatural and violent imagery should generate a profuse amount of saliva. So why so hum-drum? Personally the ‘whitewashing’ of central lead, Light, does not bother me in the way it has rattled the Death Note faithful, however Nat Wolff in the role does – as an actor he does not have the edge nor the depth to carry off such a rich character, he just doesn’t. The same could be said for Margaret Qualley as the love interest. Willem Dafoe and Lakeith Stanfield are standouts in an otherwise forgettable cast and in the case of the former, we do not get nearly enough Ryuk gracing our screens. Opportunity missed entirely. The narrative as well was rushed, watered down and devoid of complexity – it all felt like the pilot for a mediocre television show. There are some decent visuals, Ryuk steals every scene, but overall this fails to capture or compel. In fact the only success this movie will have is in pushing ever more viewers to the infinitely superior source material.

6

 

Bushwick (2017)

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) strive to survive this cross between Red Dawn and Children of Men. Snow disembarks a subway train in the Bushwick district of Brooklyn only to find a lot has gone down while she’s been underground. Emerging into a war zone where masked men, akin to Bond villain henchmen, lay siege to the neighbourhood with military-like efficiency. She falls in with ex-marine, Bautista, and begins a perilous journey through familiar neighbourhoods as they try to survive long enough to make it to a DMZ (de-militarised zone). Conceptually this sounds wonderful and Bushwick starts off very well. The director opts for a series of unbroken takes to tell the story, which also work well in the early stages, however there is a something severely lacking technically that detracts from the film as a whole. The cut points are in no way subtle and you can spot a feint of the camera or an unnatural shadow as we pass through a doorway a mile off. On top of that I’ve seen better CGI in an episode of Charmed. These failures shouldn’t really get in the way of good storytelling, however, so it is down to a rushed and unrewarding ending to really take the sheen off an otherwise watchable actioner.

6.5

 

The Garden of Words (2013)

At a very palatable 45 minute runtime, this is a quick hit and a highly recommended one at that. 15-year-old boy Takao spends his rainy days at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden designing shoes and dreaming of a career in the profession, he is joined one day by Yukari, a 27-year-old woman who keeps herself shrouded in mystery. A friendship between the two blossoms and Takao finds himself falling for this much older woman. The story here is very succinct, straightforward and surprisingly realistic, but what really makes The Garden of Words a standout is the animation – with the exception of Akira, this might just be the most beautifully animated film I have ever seen, from the tranquil fluttering of willow branches above a lake to the reflection of footfalls and sunlight in the rain-sodden pathways, every frame is a sumptuous painting that never fails to mesmerise. The drama unfolds in a compelling way all by itself but the visuals ensure you remain glued to the screen from start to finish.

8

It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night (2017)

First a WARNING: If you have seen the trailers or even the poster for It Comes at Night, you should know that the final product rings nowhere close to the type of horror the marketing implies (to put into context; I expected It Comes to leap to the top of my list of yearly favourites based on the trailer alone… it didn’t even make the top ten. Such is the power of false advertising). This is a much quieter, dread-filled thriller that plays on themes of trust, family and survival, rather than creatures in the woods. What should first be mentioned is how beautiful this film is, the framing and photography is stunning and I am excited to see what director Trey Edward Shults does next. Acting is equally as impressive, with the constant force of Joel Edgerton paired with the rising embodiment of intensity that is Christopher Abbott (see Sweet Virginia for more of him) a masterstroke. But expect frustration, expect unanswered questions and expect subtlety over the obvious. If you go in knowing this, you might get more out of it than I did. There is much to be admired here, but there is a lot that can be taken away from a trailer that promises many things but an end product that delivers very little.

7

 

Top of the Class

The Pianist (2002)

If you visit the Schindler Museum in Krakow, there is a reproduction of the infamous ghetto wall, laden in photos from the time and notes written by its walled-in residents. One of these belonged to an 8 year-old Roman Polanski, who somehow survived the experience whilst his mother perished at Auschwitz, and it is in this knowledge that makes the atrocities depicted in The Pianist all the more affecting. The first hour of this biographical account of Wladyslaw Szpilman is a series of increasingly harrowing transactions, following the Nazi regime as they occupied Warsaw, gradually moved the Jews into the ghetto, and proceeded to systematically wipe them out in the most brutal and unmerciful of ways. The rest of the film follows Szpilman’s fight for survival following his escape to the other side of the wall, witnessing, amongst other things, the Jewish uprising and the destruction of Warsaw. It’s difficult to think of a more disturbing depiction of the Invasion of Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto or the exterminations that took place and, although the result is a deeply involving and stellar movie that hammers home the durability of the human spirit, it can’t help but leave a bile-like burn in the pit of the stomach and, no matter how bad we think we have it today… nothing compares to what humans were capable of just 60 years ago. The Pianist is a must, not just for film fans, but for everyone. I loved it, but some part of me hopes I never have to watch it again.

8

 

On the Horizon: the Assassin, Synecdoche, New York, Atomic Blonde, Fallen, Creative Control, Gleason, Spider, Loving, Backcountry, In the Shadow of Iris, High Plains Drifter, Wind River, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Sukiyaki Western Django, Evolution, The Lure, L’amant Double, It…

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