01 Jul Fantana’s Film Roundup – June 2017
The Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) is in town and as always offering a plethora of varying quality amongst its yearly wares. As a result I barely strayed from the last year and a half this month…
It seemed a strange one for Okja to grace the EIFF mere days before its worldwide release on Netflix, however having seen it, it’s understandable why the distributors would want to allow it some big screen exposure; it looks great. After I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, this is Netflix’s next big prospect of the year and it’s very exciting to see them finally moving in the right direction (anticipation for Mute, Death Note and Bright just got a little more fervent) and, following the Host and Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong is now firmly on my must-watch directors list. When an all-powerful multi-national conglomerate takes steps to reclaim a number of genetically engineered ‘super-pigs’ they sent out into the world, a young Korean girl embarks on a quest to rescue her best friend, Okja. Pacing, plot and supporting characters are all on point, but my only wonder (note: NOT complaint) is why the filmmakers chose to instil such dark themes throughout and execute with an older audience in mind when this could easily have been the Goonies or Free Willy for its generation. A bizarre choice but one that I reap the benefits of, so my line of enquiry ends there.
Bad Day for the Cut (2017)
When poor ol’ Donal’s ma gets murdered, poor ol’ Donal goes on a revenge rampage about County Tyrone to find out why. In director Chris Baugh’s own words, if Oldboy was set in Ireland, this is how it would go. The inspiration is evident not only in the bursts of matter-of-fact violence but also in the darkly comic way poor ol’ Donal (an impressive Nigel O’Neill) lurches from one bad guy to the next. Between this and Sweet Virginia (see below) I am undecided on my EIFF highlight; the latter plays it straight while The Cut is laced with humour; Virginia is rounded out in the end while The Cut is not so clear. It is perhaps this latter point that prevents Baugh’s maiden feature from making more of a mark as, although I love an ending that leaves something to interpretation, I feel in the case of Bad Day for the Cut, this was done too soon, leaving ol’ Donal without a fully formed character arc. Definitely see this – I plan to again as I suspect my feelings might change upon second viewing.
End of the world movies all share the same constant that is the benefit of the inciting incident. It’s very tough to get the actual event wrong. After that, however, they live or die by what they do next. In the case of Bokeh, the filmmakers decide to do pretty much nothing, save for a seemingly relentless flow of existential philosophy that is neither interesting nor purposeful. Nothing drives the movie forward, the two central survivors, a young travelling couple (played competently by Maika Monroe and Matt O’Leary) stranded in Iceland when the rest of the population vanish without trace, somnambulating from one sobering conversation to the next. The only saving grace here is the backdrop that Iceland provides, which is stunning but does little to rescue this film from its own fate.
Pass. I have no idea how to think, feel or react to this film without seeing it at least a couple more times and getting my head around it. Watching Primer is like trying to consume the densest carb cake before your first marathon; there’s way too much to digest and you realise not only are you ill-prepared for the undertaking, but you might also need embark on it a couple of times or more to really gain an understanding and/or appreciation. A quartet of engineers working on a prototype invention in a garage discover that their protein incubator is in fact a time machine. Beyond that I will say nothing other than this is a super interesting take on the time travel trope and a lot of credit should be bestowed upon scribe Shane Carruth for having the courage to retain as much technical jargon and theory as he has. This movie doesn’t pander to the audience nor does it presume we are geniuses; it just goes about its business and trusts that you’ll watch again if you see fit.
I do and I will. For now though, the jury’s out.
The Red Turtle (2016)
A relatively simple story, chronicling the milestones that make up the human lifecycle by way of a series of vignettes dropped throughout the tenure of a marooned man on a desert island. Brought to us by a post-Myazaki Studio Ghibli, I wanted to get on board with the praise being heaped upon the Red Turtle. The animation is charming, the backdrops sumptuous and rich, the score sweeping and understated. I wanted to get on board… and I’ll surely be in the minority when I say this didn’t float my boat. The concept is well-trodden and the magical elements lend a fresh spin but the execution did nothing for me and came across as a bit meh. Perhaps I needed some dialogue, some conflict, some character development, but I don’t feel like I got any of that. Left me a little empty. Meh.
Sweet Virginia (2017)
The one I was most looking forward to at the EIFF, this little noir focuses on the small Alaskan town that surrounds the titular motel, zeroing in on its proprietor, ex-rodeo champ, Sam (played by Jon Bernthal), who strikes up an unexpected friendship with temporary resident, Elwood (Christopher Abbot), who is more than a little unhinged. Steeped in quiet violence, the building sense of dread is magnetic at times, yet not nearly as much as the surrounding vistas on offer that are just stunning. In the central roles Bernthal and Abbot parry and joust with electric results, supported capably by the likes of Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt and Odessa Young. Where Sweet Virginia stumbles, however, is in the final act, specifically the climactic finale, which is unfortunately quite anti-climactic. After such a taut build up, the culmination is all over a little too soon and a little too blandly. If you see Sweet Virginia and feel the same, I’d recommend Christian Bale’s Out of the Furnace for something with a bit more punch in the tail.
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Packing in a joke nigh on every 30 seconds, this was entertaining and should be commended for such an effort, but unfortunately a lot of jokes come across quite samey and fall flat as a result and overall the Batman instalment doesn’t quite pack the punch the original LEGO effort did. That said this is a decent way to pass 100 or so minutes if you’re out of inspiration. And for Bat-fans everywhere there are particular treats in seeing how much of the comic lore depths the filmmakers manage to plumb, revealing little-known rogues such as Eraser or Zebra Man for example, clearly harking back to camper times long lost. Fun but forgettable.
Going in I had the hope that this might hit the comedic heights of 21 Jump Street; the trailer suggested as much with its poke-fun-at-itself tone and style, Dwayne Johnson is always a draw and the support cast seemed an eclectic bunch of watchable rising stars. However Baywatch doesn’t quite possess the courage of its convictions and, despite boasting The Rock, comes out looking like a bit of a wet blanket <cough>pun<cough>. For me, I’d really like to see Johnson stop playing it so safe and really get involved in some real acting. Ballers is a great example of what he’s capable of without endangering his family-friendly image, but he’s really gotten into a habit of playing the same character over and over again, the only difference between whom seems to be the level of profanity his rating restricts him to, and it’s all becoming more than a little trite. As a result the film depends on the support staff – Jon Bass particularly shines as a comic relief that actually works – a little more than it should and if there is to be any success in sequels/franchise, Baywatch needs to push the boundaries a little more.
Operation Mekong (2016)
Part of the EIFF’s World Perspectives strand, the film is based on the Mekong River massacre that saw two Chinese commercial cargo ships attacked, and all crew executed, on the Golden Triangle region of the Mekong River in 2011. Mekong has been received very well in its home region of China, no doubt due to the very sensitive nature of its subject matter. On this side of the globe, however, the reception is only lukewarm, despite the EIFF’s best efforts to convince us otherwise. No doubt the premise is compelling enough as a result of the truths within, but the pacing and script are both off by some way and, as a result, this results in a protracted first act that takes too long to identify A) a clear protagonist, and B) a clear goal. Of the script it is difficult to pinpoint whether this is down to poor writing or lazy translation, but the characters feel underdeveloped and their relationships with one another – most notably amongst the various law enforcement agents – doesn’t feel natural or realistic. Also touted for its action sequences, but these never hit the frenetic heights of say The Raid movies, or even Headshot; Editing is choppy and sequences are often a chore to follow, uncreative and over too soon. Still an interesting watch, if only for its true story elements and not so much for its creativity or talent.
Wonder Woman (2017)
In receipt of a lot of hype and deservedly so, Wonder Woman represents a turning point in the DCEU’s less than earth-shattering run so far. Patty Jenkins as director was an acquisition and a half, managing to out-Snyder (Zack) Snyder with much cleaner, more coherent choreography and photography throughout each of the three main battle sequences and peppering of smaller frays in between, unhampered by needless, messy effects and overuse of speed-ramping cluttering the battlefield. The score also lends clout, harking back to better days when themes were at their most distinct. Despite a couple of instances of shit-just-happening-without-warning-or-explanation (that just prevents WW from achieving true comic book movie greatness), a climax that delivers some real moments of emotional heft elevates this little victory for the DCEU.
Let’s just hope Justice League doesn’t go and bring the house of cards down again…!
A class of budding vets are hazed in the most visceral of rituals, dowsed in animal blood and ‘encouraged’ to eat raw animal organs and it is the latter that impinges upon vegetarian Justine in the most unexpected of ways. Part feminist drama, part cannibal horror, Raw is very watchable in both respects, tinged with dark humour along the way that both tickles and unsettles. Small, unassuming and laced with a sense of quiet dread… much like its protagonist.
The Belko Experiment (2016)
An office in Columbia comes under siege from within when the 80-odd workers are trapped inside and forced to take part in a Darwinian game of death. Leaving a reasonable amount of time since the Battle Royale duology, this might seem a fresh idea… unless you’ve seen Battle Royale, in which case this will always stick in the craw. Even if just a little. Admittedly the result isn’t that bad, setting up a number of sympathetic and easy-to-follow characters and setting them off on different paths as the blood begins to flow/spray/insert verb at your pleasure, however, in a similar vein to The Purge series of films, the fundamental issue with Belko is that it is a great idea not capitalised on properly. The wide array of characters are never explored or developed; decisions are typically questionable from top to bottom; deaths aren’t creative enough given the scope set at the outset; and the motivation for the premise of the entire movie, when it is finally revealed, is pretty weak. Worth a look, but be prepared to spend an hour and a half thinking up better death ideas than the writer (surprisingly Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn!) could muster.
Personal Shopper (2016)
Most bizarre movie of the month award goes to Olivier Assayas’ Paris-set psychological thriller. Kristen Stewart stars as Maureen, the titular purchaser who travels the continent’s major cities, sampling and buying outfits and bling for her celebrity employer. Maureen is also a medium, as was her brother who was also based in Paris when he passed away from a heart defect she shares, and her being in Paris also gravitates around that as she drifts through his empty home, trying to make contact with him and clear the premises of evil spirits for potential buyers. That’s as much as I’ll give away but this is certainly one to watch and I’m sure will benefit from repeat viewings as the story, albeit slowly, unfolds and the various facets of Maureen’s existence begin to overlap. Undeniably creepy and an ending that will certainly split the room, anyone who has written off Stewart should give her another chance as she delivers a career best performance here and reminds us that she actually had a career before Twilight came along.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
20 years after stitching up his mates and running off with their cut of a £16,000 take, Renton returns to Edinburgh to reconcile with family and friends. Controversially I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the original overmuch. Even more controversially (?) I must add that I think I preferred this follow-up such is my predilection for a straightforward, linear tale. A narrative that spends less time meandering through the nastiness of narcotics and applying focus to the re-establishment of old faces, friendships and feuds is a much more desirable prospect and Danny Boyle crafts a solid sequel that adds further substance to almost all the old characters (sorry Kelly MacDonald!) we know and love and it’s evident the cast enjoyed revisiting them. Plus it’s always fun to see your home town looking lovely on celluloid too.
Bad Kids of Crestview Academy (2017)
A warning to Edinburgh International Film Festival attendees everywhere that just because a film is included in the programme is not a confirmation of its quality. This is actually a sequel to little known (and rightfully so!) 2012 indie thriller, Bad Kids Go to Hell, however the filmmakers seem to acknowledge their lack of success by including some sort of animated recap credit sequence, the animation a tedious gimmick that pops up throughout the duration where the budget and/or creativity clearly couldn’t stretch to certain sequences. A handful of chortles (intentional? Hmm….) saves the below score from being worse, slightly softening the flow but there is no denying the lack of quality throughout; a badly written script, delivered and photographed badly suggests they’re going for cult status here. Don’t waste your time hunting it down to find out whether they achieved as much.
Black Butterfly (2017)
Antonio Banderas is a struggling screenwriter, engulfed in the worst bout of writer’s block ever captured on screen and, after a near miss with a trucker at a diner, he offers the clearly psychotic drifter who saved his skin, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, a bed for the night. What follows is a slow mounting tension as Meyers attempts to ‘inspire’ Banderas by enforcing some very real situations upon him, including holding a knife to his throat in the middle of the night and taking his girlfriend hostage. If you can get past the ridiculously 101 writers advice Meyers often imparts upon his learned host and lower your plausibility tolerances, Black Butterfly is in okay watch. There are however not one but two twists; the first is okay, again if you can allow for a heavy heaping of disbelief suspension; the second, however, is a flat-out rug-pull and lowers the overall standard of the movie a point or so.
Be it on your head.
A Cure for Wellness (2017)
Many will balk at the duration of Gore Verbinski’s latest effort but its 146 minute runtime is well worth the investment. What begins as a straight-up comparison to Shutter Island soon enough forges its own path and identity as Dane Dehaan’s young exec attempts to retrieve his company’s CEO, and subsequently himself, from a seemingly less than kosher wellness centre. Frequently delivering scenes of grandeur (the surrounding alpine panoramas are stunning), tension and genuine discomfort, this is a contrasting departure from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for Verbinski but no doubt a forward step as he effectively forces us to dance from foot to foot as the line between reality and delusion grow increasingly blurred.
Early reviews of this depress-a-thon purported a return to form for Schwarzenegger. I don’t see it. Certainly later on, when things get grim, he improves, but the early scenes where he is informed of the plane crash that ended the lives of his wife, daughter and unborn grandchild are verging on amateur. I mean really amateur. Naiveté and shock are not at all in his range and it really pulls you out of what could have been some incredibly powerful moments. Of course that is just a small part of what blights Aftermath; the rest of it boils down to a compelling subject matter depicted in an un-compelling way. The ubiquitous Scoot McNairy leads the parallel plotline, following the air traffic controller at fault for the aforementioned disaster and almost balances the lack of skill his co-star uses to almost derail this effort completely, but neither can rescue this movie from what it is; dull and predictable.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Continues the wholesome family fun where the original volume left off, but unfortunately never surpasses or builds on it, consistently subpar to the first movie on all fronts. In part this is obviously owed to the lack of mystique only an origin story can benefit from, but there seems to be something else in the way here. The characters are as sharp and charming as ever but the main drawback was in the plot, which has been regurgitated trope across all Disney formats over the years and just doesn’t pack any surprises. Action and laughs are on point and there’s no denying the charm of the cast and their continued development, the fleshing out of Yondu and Gamora is particularly impressive, but Kurt Russell and Sly Stallone’s contributions are mediocre at best, breeding disinterest, and unless the story is directly linked to the main road to Infinity War, Marvel seems to lose control of the wheel a little, veering the audience down a road less creative. Bonus half point for the stinger that sets up the third instalment – come on, Adam!
Top of the Class
Written and starring the underrated Johnny Harris as a washed up, former ABA pugilist prodigy, now a sorry, alcoholic shadow of his former glory, it’s hard to remember a self-penned vehicle that showcased its central actor more effectively (although Brit Marling definitely challenges based on consistency). Harris delivers a powerhouse performance as a broken, tortured soul, wrestling with repent and the temptation as he struggles to re-immerse himself in an existence he once cherished, including surrounding himself with old boxing coaches, Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley, both also incredibly well-cast. At a very palatable 90mins, there isn’t a scene wasted and you won’t want to miss a one, from the opening Job Centre altercation to quite possibly the most visceral and watchable boxing sequence ever committed to film (I defy you to look away for a second) and evocative closing scenes. A small masterpiece and an undeniable argument as to why Harris – the UK’s answer to Jon Bernthal – should be seen much more often.
Didn’t Finish: The Dark Tapes (2017; 2/10)
On the Horizon: the Godfather Pt. II, Elle, Mr. Nobody, Memories of Murder, Strange Days, the Assassin, Synecdoche, New York, Baby Driver, Golgo 13: The Professional, Dunkirk, In This Corner of the World.