07 Feb Fantana’s Film Roundup – January 2018
Happy New Year everyone! I’d like to say the festive break was used more constructively, however I’m happy to report there was little more activity than the occasional reach for the mobile to order a JustEat while I overindulged on mediocre cinema and some decent television shows. But it wasn’t all below par – caught a few treats along the way so look out for them below.
I, Tonya (2017)
A great watch for the performances. Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan are all great in their respective roles and it’s quite horrifying to think of this as a true (?) story. But all a bit dry, a bit ambiguous and a bit long. Tonya Harding and her mother are both interesting characters if this interpretation is to be believed and one can’t help but feel for her in the end, but the film does a good job of delivering sympathy then taking it away a minute later. If you find yourself watching the clock, though, probably not the best.
The One I Love (2014)
Playing like an extended episode of Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not when you have Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in the lead roles as a couple who are referred to an idyllic country retreat to isolate and address their ailing marriage. To say any more would be to give away the twist, that gives itself up about 20 minutes in, and this is best viewed knowing nothing. Both Moss and Duplass give great performances in a good-looking, and quick-hitting romantic drama with a difference. Very palatable, interesting and surprisingly watchable take on the dissection of a relationship.
The Marker (2017)
A quiet, brooding brit-flick that tries to evoke dark tones akin to Kill List or Hyena, but doesn’t quite achieve it. After inadvertently killing a young mother, a small time crook, haunted by guilt, seeks out her daughter in a bid to redeem himself after he is released from prison for the crime. Quiet it is, brooding it is… the problem is it just does too much of both. Too many pensive stares into the middle distance and not enough plot development to make this an overly engrossing watch. It’s a pity as the premise sounded like a good ‘un.
The Lure (2015)
So… this is a musical, comedy, fairy tale about two mermaids who join a cabaret-karaoke-strip club… in the ‘80’s… in Warsaw…
And it kinda works….?!
Okay, okay, in fairness there is little story to it, and what little story there is isn’t moved forward in a clear or efficient manner, but while it’s on screen there is something magnetic about this most bizarre musical, not least of which the cabaret numbers themselves. Very fun and lively. It’s only a pity that the story is very lacking and ill-defined, perhaps a little over-simplified that you wonder how they filled the runtime. Then you realise not a lot happens for much of it, but then you wonder why you couldn’t look away. Bizarre one, this.
Don’t Fuck in the Woods (2016)
Yes, you read that right. Spawned from Kickstarter, and watched for that reason (!), this sad effort at a monster B-movie shows us exactly why you should keep your money in your pocket when it comes to crowd funding. Blighted by bad press in the making – the director apparently spent much of the funding on non-filmmaking spoils – I can’t see how this soft porn wannabe could have been improved had the budget been double. Just amateur from top to bottom; script, acting, effects, direction, even the sound… you know you’re on to a loser when the mics are picking up planes flying overhead. I won’t even bother with explaining the plot. Just avoid. Laughable.
After delivering critical and commercial successes in the French Connection and the Exorcist, William Friedkin was given free rein on his next piece of work, remaking the Wages of Fear, itself an adaptation of George Arnaud’s similarly-named novel. Friedkin takes his time telling the story, following four men’s task of transporting unstable dynamite across the South American jungle to an oil field in flame, delivering it in three parts; the first a summary of these men and their crimes; the second the establishment of their new home and the predicament they find themselves in; the third the perilous journey they undertake. Sorcerer, named after one of the couriering trucks, is a real exercise in tension. Some of the obstacles they encounter – in particular a rickety rope bridge over a roaring river in the midst of a torrential storm – are rife with peril. Also, the stakes are at a constant high throughout their journey; conceptually it would be difficult to put a foot wrong, and for the most part Friedkin doesn’t.
There are a couple of issues. Contrary to the praise at the time, there is very little interaction between the men as they travel across country, just lots of macho bravado, which, for me, doesn’t count as characterisation; if it does then they’re all a little thin without the first act set ups. The other thing is Friedkin’s editing, which seems choppy at best, cutting scenes short far too often and usually before the appropriate tension has been built. He’s in too much of a rush to get to the next shot that he doesn’t allow us the time to appreciate, or even recognise at times, the various nuances of every dramatic beat, every furtive glance, every new curveball thrown at these protagonists. It feels as if all his love went into the high tension scenes and everything else was secondary. In fairness, to an extent, this works – it’s certainly hasn’t been beaten for pure tension all too often.
Brigsby Bear (2017)
This one has to be seen because its description on paper does not do it enough justice and the premise needs to be viewed first-hand in order to appreciate the early plot developments. Blending genres capably and bolstered by a charming central performance by Kyle Mooney, at times hilarious, naïve, and touching, this is an affecting character study but nowhere near as dry as that sounds. The comedy is subtle but offsets the more sombre themes ever so well. Don’t let the description fool you, don’t let the poster fool you; Brigsby is an absolute treat.
Pixar’s latest should be applauded for its cultural awareness, shining a light on the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, however in terms of creativity and originality it is nothing we haven’t seen before. Personally I’m used to Pixar breaking down new barriers in the world of animation, but, much in the same way the Cars and Planes franchise hasn’t, I don’t think they’ve done that with Coco. Some of the textures – the spirit animals in particular – looks as though they’ve taken a backwards step, and the sentiment doesn’t tug at you the same way Inside Out or Toy Story 3 managed. Getting a lot of plaudits for all the right reasons I think, however in a similar vein to A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, I can see this one becoming a forgotten gem a few years down the line.
The Shape of Water
Undoubtedly laden with saccharine touches, there is something brutal and unsafe permeating through Scott Cooper’s western that sees Christian Bale’s haunted army captain charged with escorting a sworn Native American enemy back to his reservation to die in peace, traversing the dangerous Montana frontier to do so. The supporting cast is one of the most impressively understated of the year (Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster and Timothée Chalamet) and all put in decent performances. It’s also refreshing to see themes such as PTSD being dealt with in this setting; something I haven’t seen before. Besides the occasional bout of cheese, my only criticism is that there are two significant action sequences that take place entirely off-screen, which I’m struggling to understand the decision-making process for. That said, there is plenty other shoot outs and tension to satisfy.
Insidious: the Last Key (2018)
Somewhat surprisingly this is the fourth film in the Insidious series and I can safely say now that enough is enough. Sure, it brings us the creepiest creatures since the first film, but deary me the story is flat, the acting over-charged and the comedy elements (that are admittedly commonplace) often awkward. With the clear exception of the original, which stands head, shoulders and waistband above, the rest of this series has been very blah. This instalment takes it to new lows. And they still managed to fit in a set-up to yet another chapter.
Kids, just say “no” to franchises.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
With Ladybird currently in the public eye owing to an attentive awards season, I must confess I find it unusual that this little film from the previous year did not garner the same response. The themes, the beats, the quirky assortment of supporting cast are all similar enough, Hailey Steinfeld puts in an equal, if not better, performance to Saoirse Ronan, and the message is just as spirited and uplifting. A sorely underseen teen dramedy that possesses a surprising amount of heart and charm.
The Shape of Water (2017)
As beautiful as we are used to from Guillermo del Toro, but there is something lacking here that bemuses me as to how fourteen Oscar nominations have been accumulated. The tale is unusual and a bit creepy but the theme is clear, very good, however, as with del Toro’s last couple of efforts (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak) the dialogue isn’t always as sophisticated as the visuals might lead you into thinking – it’s downright stereotypical at times (looking at you, Octavia Spencer’s banter). The narrative is nothing special either, with familiar beats almost every step of the way. I like the idea of del Toro going back to something akin to his Spanish language films, but I think now it’s time to one more without Hollywood in mind.
Hard Sun – Season 1 (2018)
After suggesting a gritty science-fiction conspiracy thriller early on, episode 2 of this BBC mini-series quickly vanquishes that promise by delivering just another Luther rip-off, each episode housing a new challenge for our mismatched pair of lead detectives, who attempt to resolve these violent crimes meanwhile juggling the usual collection of personal drama. The central idea presented at the culmination of the first episode feels like an afterthought, barely present as a C plot. While it is made capably, one can’t help but feel a little short changed and, if there is to be a second series (the finale would suggest as much), here’s hoping that idea is given more room to breathe.
McCabe and Mrs Miller
The End of the F***ing World – Season 1 (2018)
Made up of eight 20-minute episodes, it’s a mystery as to why this wasn’t simply made into a movie – the results would still have been as effective. An offbeat, romantic, dark comedy in a similar vein to the works of Alice Lowe (Prevenge, Sightseers) involving two somewhat annoying teens who unfathomably manage to grow on you as their wacky road trip rolls on. The characters are written like Chuck Palahniuk for young adults, as are their various encounters as they run away from home into a mish mash of dastardly deeds and characters as mental as themselves. A decent fix if you have 20 minutes to spare before hitting the sack.
Drawing parallels with the likes of Raw and Carrie, Thelma goes about the exploration of a young woman’s coming of age with real confidence and magnetism, as the titular teenager leaves the over-protective cocoon of her country home to the more cosmopolitan setting of university. Thelma is a fine example of how to build towards something and how to build well. It’s surprising there hasn’t been more chat about this movie this year, apparently overshadowed by its cannibalistic cousin above maybe, but make no mistake this is a thriller both horrific and not, supernatural and not, almost certainly tragic but layered with so many human elements as we watch the titular young woman enter an adulthood she neither expected nor is prepared for. The results are gorgeous and terrifying.
McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Sure, the sound hasn’t held up well over the years, with the levels seemingly all over the place even for a ‘remastered’ edition. Sure, the soundtrack, although apt for the period, is pretty abysmal. Sure, the Vaseline-tinged filters are distracting. But despite all that there is some charm to be found in this western, which manages to feel sweeping even though it is confined to one location. Perhaps it is the staging, with some of the best sets put to film (especially considering the age of it). Perhaps it is in the simmering sense of dread that arrives with a cluster of newcomers to the town. Perhaps it is in one of the tensest, most protracted and – albeit uncredited – influential western shootouts of the golden age. Certainly worth a look if all you know of the genre’s early days is John Wayne and Clint Eastwood; it certainly feels more authentic than their early stuff.
Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade (1999)
There’s not a lot more frustrating than putting off a film for months on end only to find out its stone cold dull when you finally do. Such a non-event was this, its title promising some alternate-present super police force, with massive guns and Third Reich-esque body armour, going into battle against some freedom force domestic terrorism cell, and in reality delivering a bland and depressing love story, the centrepieces of which being grief and regret, all wrapped up around a much-less-than-subtle Little Red Riding Hood metaphor. Sad. Sad and slow. Anime shouldn’t be this way. Certainly not anime this good looking.
American Assassin (2017)
‘Unremarkable’ would be doing it a kindness.
If you’ve seen ANY action movie featuring a young-upstart-cum-unexpected-prodigy who unfathomably joins an elite agency with no real training and rebels against his bosses because he’s too focused on the personal bits, then you don’t need to see this. The end.
The Age of Shadows
The Open House (2018)
Netflix’s first offering of the new year is an atmospheric ‘real-threat’ horror that sees 13 Reasons Why’s Dylan Minette and his mother fearing that, following an open viewing of their relative’s up-for-sale house that they are staying in, someone might have stayed behind when the doors were closed. Although the atmosphere and the writing are fairly tight, there are too many red herrings strewn along the way to deem almost any characters’ behaviour as realistic and this is where Open House suffers unfortunately. Dark and foreboding but a little too flawed.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)
Conceptually this is quite attractive with a lot of interesting tech, but it is 30 boring minutes before the story gets going. Characters are dull and unoriginal, the usual collection of anime archetypes with no individual voice to pick out of the pack, no thanks to an over-expositional script with nothing to say beyond laying out actions and thoughts for all to see. The monsters too feel lazy and rushed out. When the big man finally makes an appearance the reveal is somewhat underwhelming and it becomes a wonder how the use of such an overwhelming character can be squandered under a medium with no limit in scope.
Planet of the Monsters really should’ve showed the various live action iterations what Godzilla could be, alas the mission is a failure. When the animation is called upon for more than simple talking heads, the result is sumptuous and only begs the question why there wasn’t a better script to showcase these visuals more favourably. One can only hope this being the first of a trilogy has laid the boring groundwork allowing the next two instalments to flourish.
Mom and Dad (2017)
A mysterious bug sees parents everywhere attacking their children in violent abandon. A fun concept not completely capitalised on in this case. For all its inherent violence, there isn’t very much shown on screen. Certainly there are falls and gunshots and gashes and bloody hands, but the most extreme stuff is all off screen when the shit first goes down; couple that with the nonchalant reactions of some kids to this uber-mayhem and it all falls a little too fantastic and flat. The direction is frenetic and the central antagonists of Selma Blair and Nicholas Cage have some good moments, particularly in flashback form, but this is nowhere near as maniacal as its concept makes out. It’s also devoid of an ending, which is just not on.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Sometimes it’s difficult to see why certain awards-friendly films come to be, but in this case the mystery isn’t so. Call Me By Your Name is a well-written romantic drama, galvanised by an abundance of magnetic performances, in particular the central duo of Armie Hammer and the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet, and the overshadowing Michael Stuhlbarg. This is simply peppered with engrossing exchanges and well-crafted scenes, capturing the period and the setting perfectly. Delivered with swagger and every confidence, it’s a difficult one to ignore.
The Age of Shadows (2016)
There are a couple of Korean directors doing the rounds that have a real eye all their own and Kim Jee-woon is certainly one of the frontrunners, first catching my eye with I Saw the Devil (see that if you haven’t!) and now turning my head with this ‘20s-set spy thriller. Based loosely on true historic events, this is mainly artistic license that, although convoluted (I won’t try to paraphrase the plot without butchering it!), doesn’t let its misgivings encumber it. Chock full of riveting sequences (look out for a suspense-fuelled train ride at the halfway mark that delivers and then some) and emotional gravitas, it’s not easy to look away without feeling like you might have missed a key detail. This plays out like a periodic Departed, which is only ever a good thing. Despite so much going on it is the central partnership of Lee Jung-chool (Memories of Murder’s Song Kang-ho) and Kim Woo-jin (Train to Busan’s Gong Yoo) that it always comes back to and it is in the former’s everlasting conflict that keeps us guessing as to how it will go.
Classic of the Month Looks and feels a little dated now. Lots of blinking lights in an otherwise barren control room just isn’t very engineering-friendly, coming off like a Lost in Space reboot, and weak-willed women are definitely a thing of the past. Despite these negatives, Supernova boasts a competent cast, headed up by Angela Bassett and a ripped James Spader, who throw themselves into the unabashed and surprisingly tense script. The dated qualities aside, directors Walter Hill and Jack Sholder handle things as capably as their cast and in the end this is a pleasantly serviceable science fiction thriller; if it had been lauded as better it might have been acknowledged as an influence on more modern entries to the genre.
Fargo – Season 3 (2017)
It still one of the greatest shows ever, but the third season of Fargo doesn’t quite carry the torch of its ancestry the whole way without a couple of stumbles. That said, it is still greatly enjoyable, littered with the type of characters, exchanges and otherworldly goings on that make seasons 1 and 2 so amazing. One of the fun things about Fargo is it tells you things are gonna get nasty in every episode, when the text superimposes itself across the screen and says “out of respect for the survivors…”, so there is enjoyment to be had guessing who will make it to the final scenes. Episode 8 is a stand out, demonstrating all the things that I love about the show in 55 minutes, but the season stands up ably on its own and, although there are a couple of missteps, it doesn’t show signs of tiring just yet.
Beyond Skyline (2017)
Never thought I’d see myself watching the sequel to 2010’s woeful Skyline, this was surprisingly bearable. That’s not to say it isn’t a mess; Beyond Skyline is about four different sci-fi movies rolled into one, such is the sheer amount of ideas being packed into its 105 minutes (it feels so much longer)…. (that’s what she said!). Two of those four movies are dross and two of those movies are B-movie contenders, especially with the grossly underappreciated Frank Grillo and Bojana Novaković at the heart of it, joined by the amazing Iko Uwais (The Raid movies) about halfway through. Certainly much better than expected and graced with effects and acting talent way above its station, and a plot so mental it must have been a hoot to have been on set every day. Just nonsense; enjoyable, enjoyable nonsense.
Most Beautiful Island (2017)
An effectively tense dramatic thriller from directorial debutant Ana Asensio that spotlights the hardships of immigrant life in the Big Apple in two contrasting ways. The first a very realistic depiction of day-to-day struggles living on less than a shoestring; the second a much more terrifying and fantastic imagining of the city’s seedy underbelly. Asensio is excellent in the lead role and behind the camera, never giving more than she has to to keep the story moving forward, and balancing the transition from the realistic to the nightmarish seamlessly. The 80 minute duration is admittedly short already but it seems to whizz by once we pass the halfway mark, the second half an exercise in taut, slow burning tension. Not a lot happens in the last 40 minutes but the waiting is a palpable experience. The only obstacle is in the meandering first half that might lose some viewers who have less patience to make it to the nervy third act.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
Chronicling the life of Dr. William Moulton Marston and his polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, and their lover, Olive Byrne; the women who would inspire him to create the comic superhero, Wonder Woman. Moulton is also credited with inventing the lie detector but this story is all about their relationship, with even the Wonder Woman aspects only coming into play in the latter half. That isn’t a criticism, however, as watching the relationship between these three makes for compelling viewing, particularly the part of Elizabeth, played by Rebecca Hall, who is at times mesmerising. A little dry at times and lacking in pace, but all in all an interesting true tale.
Small Town Crime
A based-on-true-events movie with a difference, Veronica is based on the only police report in Madrid’s history to include details of paranormal activity. True events or no, this is a competently atmospheric and well shot film that isn’t completely horror nor drama but an able-bodied mix of the two, performed impressively by debutante Sandra Escacena as the titular 15 year-old and also the actors who play her younger siblings, whom she makes it her mission to protect from the otherworldly presence that comes calling after an unfortunate experience with a Ouija board. Much better than 90% of the possession horrors still spilling out of Hollywood like a haemorrhage.
Never capitalises on its own concept, showing no more invention than Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – or arguably less; they don’t even have an ant! Almost every ‘tiny’ scene is static with little to no integration with the larger world around them. As if budget was constantly at the forefront of the filmmakers minds. Furthermore the comedic aspects miss almost every mark, to the point the comedy kind of just goes away by the half hour mark, transitioning instead into some kind of satirical commentary on class, immigration and humanitarianism. So what you have here is a neat idea for a science fiction comedy packaged into a dry and humourless non-comedy.
A little all over the place, to downsize the above.
Big Little Lies – Season 1 (2017)
Reaping all the plaudits and doing pretty well at the awards but for me this is a competent, watchable effort that never really does anything to push the envelope. Shailene Woodley also seems to have been grossly misrepresented here, as she is every bit as strong as Witherspoon and Kidman, as is Laura Dern. Funny how these things work. Particularly impressive here are the various kids in the frame, but yet again it’s all about the performances rather than the creativity. There’s nothing original on hand, but that said, at 8 episodes it makes for quick and breezy viewing… until the second season comes along.
Molly’s Game (2017)
An interesting biopic, told in similar style to the Social Network, which would make sense given this is Sorkin. The story is quite an interesting one so you never feel bored as Molly’s Game unfolds and I’m sure this will appeal more to the poker players out there, but still manages, in a similar vein to the Big Short, to make the layman feel informed. Don’t let the dry subject matter put you off. Worth a look.
Top of the Class
Small Town Crime (2017)
No sooner do I deliver my Top 10 Films of the Year does a dark horse come prancing in and nestle down right in the middle of it all! Not a complaint of course as I’m very glad I found this gritty wee gem. An offbeat neo-noir laced with dark humour, as a disgraced police officer goes about finding redemption by investigating the death of a girl he happens across, a girl linked to some shady figures and the more sinister side of the small town in which he resides. Small Town Crime bears similarities to I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore in that it balances a sardonic comedic element with the obviously more serious undertones perfectly, at times obliterating anything on screen in a sudden outburst of visceral violence. What they also share in common is a diverse cast of interesting characters, that all lend layers to the world (or underworld) created here. John Hawkes is on some of his finest form at the head of the cast, supported ably by all and sundry, including some new faces to keep an eye out for down the road. All the above blends to a crime thriller that comes along most seldom, yet, between this and I Don’t Feel at Home, 2017 saw us lucky to get two in the same year.
On the Horizon: the Keeper of Lost Causes, Coraline, City of God, In this Corner of the World, Black Panther, Den of Thieves, the Ritual, Mute, Wonder, Icarus, Darkest Hour, the Post…