Fantana’s Film Roundup – August 2018

Boxing and horror were the order of the month it seems, but the quality came from other unexpected places.

 

First Reformed (2017)

Can’t say I overly enjoyed this. As a character study, however, it’s quite engrossing, as we’re swept on this downward spiral with Ethan Hawke’s troubled pastor leading the charge. Dialogue is tight throughout and Hawke is superbly watchable in a somber and laboured affair, with a growing sense of foreboding that builds at a snail’s pace to the point of catharsis when the end finally arrives.

7

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season 2 (2018)

After a first season that was shocking but lacked a certain impetus, nothing is lacking in this second season. Each episode bears the same bleakness, desperation and a burning sadism for its protagonist, but it does so with an increased sense of urgency, most likely gifted it from a lack of having to set up this world so much. Now it can have fun with adding layers and texture and boy does it do it with a flourish! Westworld on the whole I think is a better show, but even it didn’t have me ‘turning the page’ for another episode as fast as this. Season 2 really mastered the art of giving us a shit-ton to digest but still leaving us wanting more.

9

 

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

Well shot, well played by the three central actors, and blessed with a satisfying ending, this certainly looks the part of a small, self-contained kidnap thriller, with twists galore. Unfortunately it’s more than a little predictable, uses too much heavy-handed exposition to get various plot points and set ups across, and generally isn’t wholly original. You can’t hate on it too badly, however, because original stories in this subgenre are few and far between and what it does it does pretty well. It just feels as though it could’ve given a bit more.

6.5

 

Hidden – Miniseries (2018)

Boy this was dull. Dull, dull, dull. Whole subplots flying under the radar due to how dull it was. How on earth this managed to warrant 8 episodes is beyond me as each and every one is drawn out to the point of not caring. If this had been crammed into half the space it would have made for a zippy, intense crime thriller, but no. No, no, no. This was dull.

4

Ghostland

Calibre (2018)

Funny that the Netflix Originals that are worth their salt seem to be the ones that get no hype. Look at last year’s I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore as the best example. Calibre doesn’t quite deliver to that standard but what it does it does well, with a deft tautness running throughout. The plot follows a pair of friends on a stalking trip in the Scottish Highlands, a trip that goes horribly wrong and casts permutations upon the men and their surroundings. Paranoia lies thick throughout, ramping the tension effectively to an okay conclusion, but a conclusion that feels as though the filmmakers weren’t sure where to take it. Otherwise a good exercise in quiet suspense.

7

 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Nowhere near as bad as it was described upon release, but it certainly ain’t no masterpiece either! Guy Ritchie has put his hand to some under-par work in recent times, never truly hitting the stylistic heights of Lock, Stock or Snatch, but he’s never really ‘lost it’ – his style is intact but he’s certainly a man who works better on a shoestring I would say. And I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but if Charlie Hunnum has a second dimension at all to his game, can someone please point me in the direction of it. The boy never gets out of first gear for me, never amps the emotion, barely knows how to convey the sense of conflict. I have no idea how his career has carved out this way but it reminds me of when Colin Farrell got ‘found out’ from 2003 to 2008, and spent the following few years learning to, you know, act! Christ, even Beckham threatens to out-do him! He looks the part but the guy really needs to start putting in the effort.

Despite all that there are some clever choices made in Arthur; the giant animals are great fun and even better because they are never explained; the CG is good and not as distracting as one might expect; the plot is smooth for the most part; and Jude Law makes for a capable and effectively dislikeable villain. It’s good fun, basically. The brain-off type of fun. Sunday afternoon chill out fun. Catch it in the right mood and you won’t be disappointed.

7

 

Ghostland (2018)

An atmospheric southern gothic with surprising pace and tinged with shades of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. From the director of Martyrs, the atmosphere is steady, dark and bleak, leaving you wondering if this will be a happy ending or a sad one, and the gore is suitably present for a film as dark as this is. Not likely to ever be on anyone’s radar but certainly an okay watch for horror fans and fans of darker-toned movies in general. It’s been done before, and better, but that’s not to say it fails at what it does.

6.5

 

The Cured (2017)

The opening text describes a terrific premise, of an idea that a zombie outbreak was stemmed and quashed and the infected reintegrated back into society, but carrying the memories of what they did when zombified. What a set up! The realisation, however, is a far less exhilarating affair, relegating the zombie madness – which is designed well, particularly the sound – to flashback and presenting its case in the form of a personable drama playing on themes of racism, status and belief. As a metaphor it’s clunky and as a drama it could be more if it wasn’t so focused on preaching. About halfway through there is a scene that hints at a dark plot development, and the narrative threatens to shift in a promising way. On paper this shift should make for a pulsating second half, however what is delivered comes as more of a murmur. It’s an upgrade on 28 Weeks Later… but only by the finest of margins. Might have fared better in the long-form.

6

 

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

God this kind of horror riles me. The kind where no logical decisions are made, where killers walk faster than their sprinting prey, where dogs make no sound until they jump out on you, where the terrified teenage girl actually stops to pick a jack in the box, and where her brother inexplicably cannot shoot the woman who is attacking her. This shit drives me mad. The director has skill and the soundtrack is suitably creepy in an old-songs-are-creepy sort of way, but this shit drives. Me. Mad. No one even looks around. An hour and a half into this shit show and you don’t even look around!? The writers should hang their heads in shame; this feels like it was written in the ’60s when it was acceptable not to do sensible things like, you know, run fucking sideways! By the time any catharsis arrives, the damage is irreparably done. Pass.

4

Upgrade

Journeyman (2017)

Christ this had me on the brink all the way through! A boxing movie that focusses on the effects and trauma of head injuries and how that can impact not only the boxer but the family that supports him. Paddy Considine’s sophomore directorial feature isn’t quite is impactful thematically as his first, Tyrannosaur, but has power in its own right, acting as a platform to showcase its talents. In this case Jodie Whittaker for the first half before turning the spotlight on his own thespian skills for the second. At times heart-wrenching, at times terrifying, all the while feeling very real, this isn’t an easy watch, but it is good one.

8

 

Tag (2018)

I feel like the thing that prevented this idea from being a great one, and not just a good one, is the fact it has tried to remain too faithful to the true life story upon which it is based. From a film based on such a fast-paced and frenetic game, I expected a pacy thrill-ride that never slows down, but instead the actual games of tag last but a few minutes and don’t come anywhere near as thick and fast as hoped. The cast are all serviceable, with Isla Fisher easily stealing the show, but even individual arcs are not well-defined enough to make us care about anyone in particular. It all feels unfinished. Ideas are touched upon but never explored and it feels as though the filmmakers deliberately stood back from Hollywood conventions – even in the sub plots – out of respect for the real life taggers. If this was a tragic story, maybe I would understand, but the overriding feeling at play is fun, so I just wish they’d had a bit more fun with it.

7

 

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Really enjoyed this ’60s thriller that sees Carol Lynley’s daughter vanish on her first day at kindergarten, their first day in London having arrived from the States, begging the question of whether the titular child is really missing or a convenient figment of her mother’s imagination. The pace and photography is very reflective of the cinematic period, and there’s a HItchcockian paranoia that permeates throughout, but director Otto Preminger invokes a style and tone way ahead of its time. Lynley carries the first and second acts, with the sinister third act being owned by Keir Dullea who really flicks the switch to tremendous effect. Of course there are nit-picks where the plot or characters don’t quite add-up (probably an understatement at times; some of it is downright barmy! The landlord…. WTF?!?) and the soundtrack is a bit distracting and seems out of sync with the overall mood, trying a bit too hard to convey a light-hearted and adventurous beginning before a tumultuous and tense 2nd and 3rd acts. But overall this a cracking little thriller that would stand its ground even today.

7.5

 

Upgrade (2018)

A wild, bloody, hard sci-fi from the writer who gave us Saw and Insidious, Leigh Whannell, in his directorial debut. This doesn’t carry as much imagination as those ideas, nor does it strike as one that might franchise out the way they did, but it’s a neat – if simple – little thriller that probably needed its ideas fleshed out and executed a bit better in order to lift it to the next level. Logan Marshall Green continues, for me, to be an underrated talent, far more than a Tom Hardy-a-like and demonstrates physical and also comedic strings upon his bow as a broken man who is given a chance at vengeance by an A.I. that can assume control of his body when times get particularly aggressive. Some awesome gore to be seen here, but the characters all fall a little flat. Feels like an idea not entirely capitalised on but that no doubt comes down to budget and watch me eat my words as a half dozen sequels, with twice the budget, get their chance to fill in the blanks of this world but more likely ultimately prove to ruin a decent concept.

7.5

 

American Animals (2018)

Quick to assert itself as a true true story and not a flimsy ‘based on’ interpretation of events, this tells the tale of a quartet of school kids who plot to heist the most valuable books in America. A really fresh take on a docu-drama, almost inter-splicing the dramatic recreation segments, which to be clear is around 85% of the movie, with the talking heads that the real-life criminals contribute, at times even merging the two completely. Very clever and well-cast, making it a must watch for anyone interested in true crime stories and/or documentaries alike.

8

American Animals

The Reef (2010)

Inspired by a thirty year-old tragedy, this fictionalised account of a group of divers marooned at sea and subsequently attacked by an aggressive great white is a solid exercise in tension. Whilst never offering anything new to the shark attack subgenre, it benefits from solid action and direction and a dark tone. Although regardless of its plus points, it doesn’t help any kind of horror movie when you’re left yelling at the characters to do the most simplest of tasks like… you know… swim!!

6

 

The Night Manager – Miniseries (2016)

Bit late to this but as it had been long enough since Gogglebox ruined the ending for us, the wife and I thought we’d have a look. And yes, we’re glad we did. This is easily up there as one of the BBC’s very best efforts. It looks great, is acted very well by all involved and even boasts some half decent effects at times. Above all there is a great sense of tension along the way and some entertaining narrative choices, but I suppose we have John Le Carre to thank for those. Of the drawbacks, I’d say I don’t quite buy Hiddlestone as a man, certainly not a night manager of a hotel, who has the innate ability to attract all and sundry.

Oh and there is the small issue of his BAFTA’s acceptance speech. Oh dear.

8

 

American Fable (2016)

A case of false advertising at play here I feel. American Fable’s trailer offers a fair amount of suggestion that this might be America’s answer to Pan’s Labyrinth: imaginative young girl in a rural setting; dark subplot permeating the reality of the storyline; fantastic imagery brought about by the girl’s imagination and the way she perceives the events going on around her. However. What is suggested and what is delivered are too starkly contracting products. For a film with the (suggestive) word ‘Fable’ in the title, there is very little fantasy on display. In fact, three or four shots (yes, shots) aside, there’s pretty much none. This detracts from the main storyline, which would have been boosted further if the fantasy elements had been removed entirely and just played out like a dark Southern gothic. Visually it’s beautiful, the photography offers a lush window into the genre, but it just never decides what it wants to be and in taking the middle ground, with its handful of fantasy elements, it ultimately suffers and comes up short.

6.5

 

Virtuosity (1995)

For a film released in 1995 Virtuosity is surprisingly on point for its time, integrating concepts such as email and emojis as seamlessly as they are accepted today. It also showcases more contemporary subcultures such as Ultimate Fighting so there is a real case for argument that – despite its dismal effects and ill-fitting clothes – it was quite ahead of its time. I suppose that amounts to nothing, however, if the film is a dud… which it sort of is. It’s a little all over the place. Plaudits could be given for treating the audience with respect, not spoon-feeding the whole way, but the film is a bit too choked with plot holes and happenstance. Russell Crowe’s villain, Sid, wanders around a city for the first time, the same way Wesley Snipes does in Demolition Man, causing general mayhem and murder with little standing in his way. Demolition Man got away with it more because of the world building inherent; Virtuosity can’t boast this excuse. Peripheral roles need to be more realistic and Sid needs more direction and impetus than being just a wild dog off the leash. He’s a super A.I. with revenge in mind – a more elaborate game might have been child’s play to him and more vibrant movie for us.

Horrifically-dated VR environments and effects aside, the set design and photography are decent enough and a tip of the hat for the balls this movie has. Children and hostages are free game, stunts are well-constructed and fun in execution, and action is brutal enough and well-depicted. There’s just an overriding feasibility issue in that it is never justified why Denzel Washington is the only man capable of taking Sid down.

6.5

 

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Evidence that even powerhouses like Ghibli don’t always get it right and it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon when a studio is riding high. Boil this down and you have a miniscule little tale of two sisters that isn’t at all interesting, benefitting from a cult favourite character in Totoro – a character that doesn’t really make much sense or serve any purpose other than to solve all the kids problems (jump the shark much!) – and a deeply more interesting subplot that involves a sick mother that unfortunately doesn’t get anywhere near the exposure it required to elevate this into something better. Just a muddled series of quirky vignettes, nothing more.

5

Beast

A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)

A quietly frightening true story of a Liverpool lad who is jailed in Thailand for drug-related charges and has to fight for place and peace in an environment without empathy. Utilising his boxing background, he fights to carve out an existence of respect behind closed walls. Joe Cole’s central performance is completely real and believably reflective of the working class, it’s a great demonstration in restraint until utterly necessary to let loose and it is Cole who anchors the whole thing, keeps us magnetised to the screen. With so little dialogue and diversity in characterisation, the film needed him to succeed and he does.

7

 

The Killing (1956)

Kubrick uses a lot of outdated and distracting conventions in this crime thriller that follows a plan to rob a horse racing ground, while a double-cross plot also plays out. Overly-expositional narration and piss poor stunt work doesn’t even come across as endearing unfortunately, but the acting is swell, even if the writing isn’t all that, and the tone is darker than you would expect from the era. And, gee whizz, what a satisfying vision that third act shot is! Could watch that all day.

6

 

Beast (2017)

Really enjoyed this story of a cloistered girl who meets an outcast boy, who may or may not be a killer. The tone and photography are great and most of the casting is spot on. It does however suffer from a protagonist who isn’t sympathetic, comes across annoying and seems to make every event in the movie about her. I kept thinking if I lived in the same town, she’d drive me nuts! The good thing is I’m sure this is what the director was going for, however when those events are funerals and murder scenes, something’s got to give. She also felt like the only character greatly miscast. The direction on the other hand was terrific and the final act is ever so satisfying following a tumultuous and stressful build up.

7

 

Hereditary (2018)

So first off, this isn’t a horror. Not until we’re about 20 minutes to the end does anything remotely resembling horror rear itself. Next up, the resolution is not a resolution, the ending not an ending, in fact it makes what came before only feel like a beginning. But for a film that evokes so many questions and criticisms… it still manages to impress. Rarely does a horror/thriller look so good and deliver so much threat whilst remaining so quiet and still – these are the best kind. The gore, when there is gore to see, is visceral and well handled, and the acting is off the charts at times. Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne deliver equal-yet-contrasting performances as an emotional mother and brooding father, both being slowly destroyed by various tragedies. Alex Wolff feels miscast but does well in the scenes he is called upon for. Tension is rife throughout but it could have been 20 minutes shorter and all the better for it.

8

 

GLOW – Season 2 (2018)

The Glamourous Ladies of Wrestling continues to be likeable and not without charm, but as a comedy it manages about to LOLs a season, which isn’t great. What the show needs is one really well-written, well-cast character, the kind that steals the show, every scene, and elevates the series in the process. Entourage had Ari Gold, Deadwood had Al Swearengen, Game of Thrones has Tyrion Lannister. GLOW needs an Ari or a Tyrion as a dozen women sharing the limelight doesn’t get any one of them enough time to shine. Alison Brie comes closest as Ruth Wilder and character-within-a-character, Zoya the Destroyer, but the drama element always outweighs the comedy here, perhaps deliberately so, in respect to the source story, but it means a lot of the jokes come over as silly rather than sassy. Maybe it’s just not what I expected. The series finale and where it looked to be leading will keep me on board for another season, but it better deliver on its promises.

6.5

 

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

And what an interesting documentary this turned out to be, not only for its incredible story and soundtrack, but in its evidence of just how weird rumours can be and how ‘word gets around’ in the strangest of ways. Telling the tale of two men’s quest to discover the truth behind elusive musician, Rodriguez, who never amounted to anything in his home of Detroit but amassed a following of millions in South Africa of all places. Perhaps resonating more with me than it would with others was the additional appreciation for Detroit City, brought incredibly to life by these filmmakers and really makes the fallen city stand out as a place I’d love to visit and see with my own eyes.

8

Se7en

Se7en (1995)

Classic of the Month So Morgan Freeman adopts Brad Pitt and takes him on a never-ending journey through the darker than dark underbelly of a nameless city (correct, it’s not New York so don’t think it is!) that doesn’t know how to forgive. Where to start with the perfection of this film… they just aren’t made with this care and attention anymore. That’s not true, of course they are, of course there are movies coming out still where every sequence, every shot, every frame is a meticulously-crafted work of art – take Blade Runner 2049 for example, Children of Men or the Revenant. The creation of Fincher’s scenes are gloriously dark and urban; a nameless city drenched in perpetual rain, gothic architecture, black fire escapes, alleyways laden with telephone wires, decrepit apartments more akin to a horror movie – the homes of Sloth and Gluttony. It’s gorgeously captured.

The script is memorable but not packed to the gills with quotable nuggets. In any other movie this might be a detriment, but nothing – nothing! – is wasted in Se7en and that includes the dialogue, which, as methodically as its enigmatic serial killer, serves to progress the plot, simultaneously adding texture to this horrible, horrible world. Even the dead, these tortured victims of John Doe, although they have no lines, feel like characters, such is the detail of their design, on the page and in the flesh. Incredibly meticulous.

And then there’s the end game, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it, but wow. Just wow. The script in the build-up, that fateful car journey; the transition from rainy metropolis to sun-dried desert, expertly visualised; the box, oh the box!

Infinitely inspirational. I could watch it all over again right now.

Best. Film. Ever.

10

 

Summer of 84 (2018)

An above average thriller that spends a little too long trying to channel the ‘80s that, for the first 80 minutes or so it forgets it’s supposed to be a thriller, but takes an interestingly dark turn towards the end of the second act that manages to turn the whole thing on its head, in a good way. This would have been a real contender for dark horse of the year had the tone been more consistent throughout, and perhaps cast a few key roles a little better. At times the charisma was sorely lacking, which had me looking at the phone a few times, but as a spin on Stranger Things meets Disturbia, it ain’t half bad.

7.5

 

Satan’s Slaves (2017)

It isn’t without cliché but this Indonesian horror is crammed with atmosphere and utilise tried and tested tropes to full effect. Nothing original to be seen here but a deft touch has been used and the end result is a very watchable, atmospheric horror with a bleak outlook from the start.

7

 

Black Death (2010)

Now here’s a horror to talk about. Setting itself apart by taking place in the dark ages, around the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague, a small company of knights are tasked with locating and ending the necromancy of a small village that has been untouched by the death sweeping the land. The great thing about this is it could have been set anywhere, the formula works in any environment, but putting against this scenario, this age, and these characters is a canny stroke. It also helps that this cast has largely gone on to good things so it is always great to catch an ensemble before they were an ensemble – faces like Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, Andy Nyman and Johnny Harris are all welcome faces, playing parts they might pass up nowadays. The horror element itself is a long and drawn out entity that follows them across harsh lands and ultimately to a fate that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones!

8

 

Mississippi Grind (2015)

A dark horse of a drama, this, with Ben Mendelsohn replaying a character we have seen from him several times before, opposite Ryan Reynolds who delivers an out-of-the-skin performance, the kind we seldom see from him. As road-tripping gamblers, their contrasting outlooks play well off one another and make for some interesting interactions along the way. It’s all been seen before that’s for sure, but Mendelsohn and Reynolds are a good double act and they have some interesting adventures – they alone keep this from being a dull affair, filling every scene with awesome presence. Elsewhere the photography is decent and the character arcs rewarding. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this so watchable… for some reason I just wanted to see how these two grifters turned out.

7

Lowlife

Top of the Class

Lowlife (2017)

Like a love letter to every film that came out in the ‘90s that was shamelessly inspired by what Tarantino was putting out at the time, this quietly-driven, self-contained, non-linear crime caper is a real shot of nostalgia without feeling nostalgic. Three intersecting crime stories that involve human trafficking, organ smuggling and revenge are made supremely watchable thanks to an outstanding array of characters, including an ex-con with a swastika tattooed across his face and a luchadore cartel enforcer who believes he is the embodiment of a Mexican legend, El Monstruo, himself. The comedy/drama balance is finely-weighted and if this film could have made me happier it would have been with more violence in action, as much of the violence carried out throughout is only implied at with impressive viscera visuals. Still it’s zippy and quippy and entertaining with a style all its own.

8

 

On the Horizon: Detour, Princess Mononoke, Snake Eyes, Australia Day, North by Northwest, Romanzo Criminale, the Last Seduction, Barton Fink, Bomb City, Victoria, Tales of Earthsea…

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