Fantana’s Film Roundup – June 2018

A fairly decent month sees a focus on more recent offerings. I must confess, though, I have missed the classics this roundup so will likely cram a few more than usual in throughout July to compensate.

 

The Split – Miniseries (2018)

Yet another affluent family template drama from the BBC, where everyone lives in the centre of London in luxurious townhouses with kitchens dominated by mega-islands and pristine gardens nestled amongst the density of the city yet somehow still completely private. On this occasion the family are a matriarchal law firm that are shaken up by the return of the estranged patriarch, which seems to cause ripples across mother, her three daughters, and their respective families. At times predictable, at times brave, at times okay but never great. There are few characters to root for on hand here as the wave of disruption spreads across them. The ending will be divisive, and I would have liked it had it been more committed to the direction it takes. Alas even the ending leaves a little disinterest in the mouth.

6

 

In Darkness (2018)

A blind pianist overhears the murder of her upstairs neighbour and in doing so entangles herself in a criminal underworld conspiracy drama. Natalie Dormer takes the lead in this Game of Thrones cast-led thriller (look out for Lord Mormont and Daario Nahaaris I) and certainly takes a step up from the initial wave of shite she found herself in post-Thrones (see: the Forest, Patient Zero et al). In Darkness is a surprisingly serviceable thriller, with a nice sense of style all its own and a breezy narrative unencumbered by too many subplots. It’s almost a pity to mention the detractors – feasibility issues about when we encounter action scenes involving car crashes, stabbings and shootings play out against an observant yet completely ignorant London market is a rare bit of gaping nonsense – as these are all budget-related and completely out of the film makers’ hands, who do a great job of working on the shoestring and delivering a stylish, if destined to be forgotten, neo-noir.

7

 

Journey’s End (2017)

Admittedly I haven’t seen many WWI films. The Trench is the only one that springs to mind, but it pales mercilessly in comparison to Journey’s End, a masterful character study and depiction of life on the front line, of the claustrophobia and lethargy of the trenches, of shifts that last only 6 days but feel like lifetimes. Asa Butterfield is our eyes as young officer, Raleigh, as he goes to the front lines in Aisne to fight alongside Stanhope, a childhood friend whom he idolises played by an outstanding Sam Claflin and supported by fellow officers Paul Bettany, Toby Jones and the ever-watchable Stephen Graham. All play it well and lend a different attitude and viewpoint to an impossible situation. A very sobering watch but effective and impressive.

8

 

Blood Simple (1984)

An early Coen effort that hints at the theme of happenstance that has become one of their penchants. For the early ‘80s this looks surprisingly un-dated, it’s quite impressive, and it’s quite a pleasure to see a young Frances McDormand before she became the acting powerhouse she is today. McDormand features as the skirt of a shady, rough-handed bar-owner, who puts out a contract on her head and the head of the barman she’s been sleeping with. In typical Coen fashion, the facts are not always present on screen, the characters motives, intentions or actions are never entirely what they say, and the end result is most definitely going to come about with the help of a little bit of coincidence. It’s entertaining if a bit plodding. But for me they’ve never really got the consistency right anyway. After all for every Big Lebowski there’s a Ladykillers!

7

Journey’s End

They Remain (2018)

Two scientists are tasked with investigating the woodland where a cult once dwelled and murdered many victims whilst dancing naked around their entrails. However that’s not what this story is about, no, this is a pretentious, meandering bout of talkety-talk-talk between two individuals who like to say things and respond calmly to compelling and often worrying circumstances. It’s all a bit odd but at times can build quite an air of menace that has you hoping it will finally go somewhere or deliver something… anything! The score is what it is because this a film that looks and feels gorgeous. The cinematographer and curator are excellent in their craft and the actors are pretty solid too. It’s just a shame the director decided to make a film that is all mouth and no trousers, that can’t decide what side of reality or delusion it wants to fall. Annoying as this could have been much, much more.

6

 

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Before Nicolas Winding Refn brought us Drive he applied his particular brand of still and quiet violence to this brooding Viking drama. Mads Mikkelsen stars as One Eye, an enslaved and mute warrior who accompanies a band of Christian crusaders into an unknown land. As you can expect from Winding Refn, dialogue here is sparse and violence always near. And also as you can expect from Winding Refn, this works some of the time and some of the time it doesn’t. Shots and montages can go on for minutes too long, conveying impressions and messages that were delivered far quicker than the duration of their stay on screen. The setting is beautifully bleak and the cast peppered with some great talent – particularly thrilled to see Jory Cassell himself, Jamie Sives, in this motley crew. The narrative, when it presents itself, is compelling, but the journey between each plot progression can seem an arduous ask; aptly much like the second act boat trip the characters endure.

6.5

 

Fear the Walking Dead – Season 3 (2018)

As the groups Mexican exploits continue, Madison and family find themselves on the Ranch, a seemingly blissful community with a shady past. Meanwhile Strand and Daniel carve out their own paths. So far the narrative still seems very zombie light, however there’s no shaking the fact Fear has certainly been more effective in the character-building stakes, Madison, Troy and co. coming across much more fleshed out and realistic than their stereotype caricature counterparts on the east coast. The scenario also feels more realistic, with Mexico clearly having fared much better in the apocalypse than the States has, with communities and order (without megalomania commonplace) much more prevalent. That said Fear still suffers from its own problems. For starters the WD franchise MUST do away with the split season format immediately. There is far too much meandering on hand and ten episode seasons would deliver more punch and quality should AMC go that route. Just like their east coast cousins, FtWD has a bad habit of offing their more interesting characters, as we’ll see particularly in this season’s finale, which leads to my next point… Madison is also a very poor leader of this group, to the point other characters seem to be re-written on the spot to enable the charismatic properties her character apparently possesses. She isn’t likeable or believable and if any character has outstayed their welcome on this show, it’s her. Alicia would be a far better protagonist, backed up by the outstanding characters of Nick, Strand and Daniel. They can keep this boat afloat. Next season they need to bring in some better ideas though – much like Rick’s lot seemingly incapable for leaving Georgia, the Mexican landscape is getting a little old…

7

 

Unsane (2018)

If we hadn’t already had Tangerine a few years back, maybe Unsane – shot entirely on an iPhone – might have benefitted. Instead it feels like a poor attempt by Steven Soderbergh to promote the form and/or improve upon it. The experiment didn’t work. The story is neither interesting nor original enough to lift the cheap production method, which also prevents any sense of peril or tension feeling at all tangible. Claire Foy is good but not showcased well enough, another restriction ultimately owing to the form. Although it gives me promise that I could have a hack at making a short using just my phone, it also shows me the limitations of such an endeavour. It’s a harmless watch but all mystery is quashed around the midway point, which doesn’t leave much to really wonder about.

6

Valhalla Rising

The Life of David Gale (2003)

Classic of the Month Doesn’t quite fit the criteria of a Fantana Classic (ie. a ‘90s movie), but it’s all I got this month, and it’s quite a beaut. It was interesting to learn that director Alan Parker took early retirement from his craft following unfavourable reviews upon Gale’s release; perhaps a bit of an overreaction given his previous accomplishments with films like The Commitments, Mississippi Burning, and the outstanding Angel Heart. It might be a few years deep into the noughties but Parker captures all the stylistic and photographic hallmarks of my favourite decade of cinema. On the other side of the camera, Spacey and Winslet are outstanding. On paper the story reads like it might be true, but with a resolution such as this that would be quite the tale. Like Primal Fear, it’s one of those ones that has you wishing you paid a little more attention first time round – always a great sign.

7.5

 

ManHunt (2017)

John Woo used to be a talent, right? I’m not making that up, am I? He put out good films once upon a time? Face/Off? Broken Arrow? Hard Boiled?

Actually when you look back through the catalogue, you don’t realise just how much crap there is on there (Windtalkers, Paycheck, even M:I-2 is the worst of the franchise), so in that respect I really shouldn’t be surprised that this latest effort, ManHunt, an over-complicated fugitive thriller, looks and feels nothing like the couple of hits he managed to pull off. The dialogue is some of the worst I’ve seen committed to a film involving such talent (at one point a character collapses during a workout, stating, “I want to get off these drugs, such a miserable life!” and again 20 minutes later, “I just want to be normal”), at times evoking outright laughter; the opposite effect as intended. Delivering this nonsense are a mish-mash of Asian cinemas most decorated actors and a bunch of talentless hacks that wouldn’t get on a daytime soap in any other part of the world. Honestly even the physical acting is like something out of a children’s live audience stage show. It beggars belief! Of all the actions sequences only one is of any great shakes – the rest you wouldn’t believe it was Woo behind the camera. The pacing, the tone, the choreography, the score, it’s all off. If I hadn’t already delivered my Worst of 2017 list, this would be sitting around 3rd or 4th place comfortably.

On the plus side, this has reminded me just how few turkeys I’ve seen this year so far.

3

 

Gemini (2017)

Less said is certainly more in this review as the plot developments come from the off. Gemini rewards attention-payers with great performances, a stylish-looking neo-noir that traverses the Hollywood Hills as Lola Kirke’s PA goes on a dark investigation into a mystery both physical and instilled within her own ideas of friendship and status. It looks great, Kirke is one to watch and Zoe Kravitz’s star continues to ascend as an unsung support. Definitely one of 2017’s dark horses to seek out.

7.5

 

Rampage (2018)

For a twenty minute pay off, the build-up has to be more engaging than what Rampage delivers. That happens and you can forgive the factual inaccuracies, the wafer thin characterisation, and the made-up science. That happens and you can forgive the Scooby Doo villains and the same character that the Rock delivers to every one of his protagonists (you used to be the best damn heel in town, man. Remember that!). That happens and you might consider this a fairly amazing video game adaptation.

Otherwise you’re just short changed.

And I am.

6.5

 

Death Wish (2018)

Gah! Another turkey so soon after watching ManHunt, although granted this isn’t anywhere near as bad. Death Wish’s only problem is it’s another remake that needn’t have happened. Honestly, why bother tagging on the Death Wish title? This could easily have been called… Vengeful Vigilante Brain Surgeon and been better for not being associated with an original version. When there’s action and violence, it’s actually great, but the bits in between are a badly-scripted rabble. The kind that Bruce Willis badly needs to get himself away from, but much like Morgan Freeman, Nicholas Cage and even Robert DeNiro, he just keeps saying yes to mediocre projects.

5.5

Sweet Country

Dumbo (1941)

Still one of Disney’s greatest classics, with a memorable and surprisingly emotional soundtrack, decidedly dark themes, characters and imagery, and yes, the ravens have not aged well (<cough>racist<cough>)…! It’s funny that I only now realise it’s only an hour and four minutes long…

Why aren’t ALL kids’ movies an hour and four minutes long!?

Oh and my two-month old daughter already loves it.

8

 

13 Reasons Why – Season 2 (2018)

Season 2 was never going to be the emotional sledgehammer that its predecessor was, but going in with that expectation makes it much more appetising in the end. Hannah takes a backseat narratively, larger present as a motivator for Dylan Minnette’s Clay, but even he feels peripheral in this largely courtroom-based follow-up, and that is maybe it’s main deriding factor – there is no clear protagonist or journey this time around. This is a hunt to punish the rapist Bryce. Season 2 is nowehere near as punchy and suffers from being a bit all over the place, seemingly shoehorning characters like Ryan, Tony and Zach; the latter two are criminally underused and, in Tony’s case, come with new backstory that was inexplicably not touched upon in the previous season. The links between seasons aren’t handled with any finesse either. The last we see of Tyler in Season 1 he is clearly preparing for some kind of assassination of his fellow reason-bearers, but when we join Season 2 he hasn’t even begun the journey to that decision.

It all smacks a little of a show that left itself a lead-in to a second – unnecessary – season but had no idea at that point how the season would go.

Negatives aside there is plenty to enjoy here and the second half certainly sees a pick-up in pace and interest, as these characters hurtle towards expected and unexpected fates. Having come to the end, I could go another round with these guys, but maybe only one more. And I maintain that a follow up was never needed in the first place.

7

 

Sweet Country (2017)

I’ve been interested in Australian cinema since travelling and living there in 2010 and their industry has gotten progressively better over the last decade, however there seemed to be a bit of a lull in 2017 with not much to note coming forth. Sweet Country was top of my anticipated viewing from the continent 12 months ago but, like many antipodean offerings, it was hit with lengthy release delays this side of the globe. But now it’s here and it doesn’t disappoint.

There’s something inherently distinctive about an Aussie western when compared to its American counterpart, something ingrained in the people and the land that is still today so embedded in their make-up. A self-awareness of one’s own mortality and desperation and an acceptance of the same. One might argue that, with so many poisonous spiders and snakes and big fat crocs going round that mind-set is necessary to thrive, but it’s an intriguing distinction regardless and it permeates through Sweet Country like a lifeblood, a burning reminder of the hardship and toil suffered and the atrocities inflicted upon the land and its people in order to make it their own.

It’s really quite disgusting when viewed in this way, but that makes it all the more engrossing, as we follow Sam, an Indigenous station hand, who goes on the run with his wife after defending himself violently against a madman, yet fears for his fate as he is pursued by a pack of white lawmen and their varying beliefs as to his guilt. Like many westerns the pace is deliberate and requires patience, but no scene feels tacked on, each one beautifully shot (I’m yet to see the outback depicted badly!) and magnetic in its contrast of bleakness and energy.

As an allegory it is quite heavy handed, but why not use a sledgehammer to address the most ignored zeitgeist in the country’s history?

Top, top viewing.

8

The Endless

The Endless (2017)

When two brothers return to the suicide cult they fled several years earlier, a series of unusual interactions lead them to believe there may have been more to their idyllic commune than first feared. Speckled with some really creative ideas and all overarched by the same Lovecraftian concept, it’s a very interesting watch, however one can’t help but feel, if there had been a little more money to play with, this could have been so much more. Greater attention to the brothers’ individual reactions to the film’s events might have fleshed them out and drawn us into their individual plights better. More funding might have made for more vivid and clear effects and a greater finale. More time given to the script might have led to a better ending, something less cut and try and more ambiguous – in the vein of Inception – which this concept seemed to be built for. It’s a shame they missed the opportunity to make this one of the unsung greats, but as it is it’s still very much worth a watch.

7.5

 

Sherlock – Season 1 (2010)

The first series of this seminal BBC drama makes for predominantly interesting viewing as the Holmes mythos are realised in modern day London. At a digestible 3 episodes – albeit each one feature length – even if the first series fails to draw you into what is considered one of BBC’s flagship shows, you never feel like the end isn’t nigh. That said the first story arc, ‘A Study in Pink’ is a tremendous introduction to the characters as they in turn are introduced to one another in the midst of what seems to be a serial suicide epidemic. Episode 2, ‘The Blind Banker’ is a bit forgettable, and rounding it out, ‘The Great Game’ sits somewhere in between until the third act when it delivers Holmes’ antithesis, Moriarty and one hell of a cliffhanger. A study in Pink is the star of the season, being the only episode that feels like a detective mystery and less a race against time thriller, however the one constant negative that niggles throughout is within Cumberbatch’s detective and his method. In the same way that Luther relies on an indescribable gut instinct that leads him to the ultimate clue, Sherlock, the world’s greatest detective, is only that way because the show writes him as a one-man walking encyclopaedia. This starts gradually but seeps in more and more as the series progresses. Detection is detection – it’s not constant referrals to Mayan mythology or the intricate knowledge of all brands of luggage or lipstick. It’s the only real sticking point but it does pull you out of their made-up reality a little bit.

7

 

Hector (2015)

Peter Mullen takes the lead as the titular homeless man who embarks on a journey from Scotland to London in a bid to reconcile with old family after disappearing from their lives 15 years previous. It’s possible Hector fell into a bit of a void as I, Daniel Blake, released in the same year, took all the plaudits despite similar themes. However that would be to suggest that Hector (and Blake for that matter) is better than it is. Despite a narrative that draws you in and a subject matter that feels very relevant in the UK right now, Hector doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should. The lack of an emotive score or even just one monologue or performance that obliterates the heart strings this could have been elevated to whole new levels, but those things are missing, which leaves Hector in the ‘it’s all right’ bracket.

6

 

Bernie (2011)

Coming from Richard Linklater, and also making up the wee spate of films that brought Matthew McConaughey back from the dead, I expected to like this more. However, despite an awesome performance from Jack Black and a decent heaping of laughs, the talking head format has limited appeal and the linear narrative feels padded with excess character-establishing scenes that do little to progress the story. That said, it’s one hell of an interesting true story.

6.5

The Yellow Birds

Top of the Class

The Yellow Birds (2017)

When I was in my latter high school years, my friends and I would get together every week, we’d gather at one of our houses, have a couple of underage drinks and watch a movie. We didn’t have many DVDs between us so the viewing got pretty repetitive. But these films became our own personal classics; Dazed and Confused, I.D…. and Dead Presidents was another. A war movie that is at times brutal, at times sad and in no way glamourises the nature of war or the stresses it puts on young bodies and minds. Looking back now, none of these films by any means were or are my favourite film, but they were our films and we still worship them today for shaping that time in our lives.

The Yellow Birds has all the makings of being another generation’s Dead Presidents.

8

 

On the Horizon: the Cured, To Live and Die in LA, Tomb Raider, Carlito’s Way, Isle of Dogs, Detour, Miller’s Crossing, Princess Mononoke…

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