Sunday, 31 December 2017

Notes on 2017 cinema visits

I think this year I prefer to ramble about highlights rather than make a list of the best. There really wasn’t many lowlights – only ‘Attack of the Adult Babies’ was horrible – so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for that.

My first trip to the cinema in 2017 was a double-bill of Kenneth Lonergan’s  ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and J.A. Bayona’s ‘A Monster Calls’ which proved a real emotional work-out. The first was an excellent portrayal of how adult trauma is challenged if not overcome by everyday drama, about how some people may not be able to move on; this is a nice shrug and rare sober corrective at the positivism of the typical overcoming-trauma narratives. I thought ‘A Monster Calls’ was going to be worthy and maudlin, but I found it much less typical than that, treating rage as a wing-man to grief as our young protagonist learns nothing more than that narratives are not always what they seem, and that maybe what you are thinking and feeling are not quite as clear cut as you believe. Both are considerable evocations of male grief and anger. And both prove clear-eyed tear-jerkers.  

I went to see Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ before it became a phenomena and there was barely a seat available in the theatre. When it was announced as an Oscar contender I was surprised because it seemed so much to me to be one of those exceptional indie films that gets its worth outside the mainstream. But don’t be put off by the Oscar win: it’s every bit as touching and as great as they say. The final segment where they meet again is exceptional.

Mike Mills’ ‘20th Century Women’ was a delightful but generally neglected drama about various women influencing one teenager at a crucial time of development that deserved more recognition, centred by Annette Benning’s wonderful, slippery performance. The moment where the culture war origins of graffiti written on a car has to be explained is a highlight and, if it’s your thing, you’ll immediately speed off home to listen to early Talking Heads.

James Franco’s ‘Disaster Artist’ emerged as one of the year’s best comedies and character studies of the mystery that is Tommy Wisseau. An essential drama on anti-heroes and the film industry.

Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ was another great film. I did encounter a response of “yeah not sure I want to see a three hour German comedy” which seemed to fall into the preconceptions of what German comedy is (shall we say) – not as if we would see many in the UK – but I wasn’t expecting it to be more dramatically grounded and prone to surrealism. The themes of social anxiety, farce and surrealism culminates in the naked party with a full-blown absurdist monster-suit wandering around, topping several preceding moments that pushed just that little bit more. If it was founded on the comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness, the achievement is surely in  how it never indulges in cruelty. And Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek were just two of the many exceptional performances this year.

Musicals are not so much my thing – I love ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘The 5000 Fingers or Dr T’, if that’s any help – so if the full-throttle love for Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Landeluded me, I enjoyed it well enough. I am probably going to forgive Ryan Gosling anything because of Dead Man’s Bones, but it’s the coda where the film shows how songs can create other histories and realities in our minds, just for a moment, that made it all the more credible for me.

James Gray’s ‘The Lost City of Z’ had much of the worthy epic about it, and although there were visuals and moments to make it vivid, it was also a film where the flaws come with equal weight so that there was a feeling that it was never quite as good as it ought to be. A common refrain was that people would have preferred it to be about the Robert Pattinson character, which surely points to a major mistep when people think a secondary character would have been more interesting (as well as pointing to Pattinson’s seemingly effortlessly intriguing qualities). 

‘Free Fire’ took the cool affectations out of the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ gangsters-in-a-warehouse scenario and replaced it with scuzzy humour. It proved to be entertaining but arguably lesser Ben Wheatley – but why shouldn’t he have fun too? And it certainly didn’t hold the same disappointment as Edgar Write’s ‘Baby Driver’, whose car chase musical started well but couldn’t disguise that it ultimately offered slim pickings, even with Jamie Foxx eating up all the scenery in sight. Most of the general comments I heard were of indifference.

Takashi Miike’s ‘Blade of the Immortal’ was straightforward
gungo-ho Miike bookended by two exceptional fight scenes. Despite how many corpses and limbs just laid around – hey, isn’t that a stream running red in the middle-distance? – it was surely the constant slicing and squelching on the soundtrack that upped the super-violence. A simple tale of an immortal assassin getting caught up in one annoying/sympathetic young girl’s confused thirst for vengeance, the pile up of massacres was given texture with a little politicking and immortals constantly bemoaning their deathless existence. The flip side of the studied intent of ’13 Warriors’ and ‘Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’. Miike fans will be satisfied right from the start when a blood-spray splashes over the opening text.

I didn’t know the plot of Sarah Waters book ‘Fingersmith’, so the twists of Park Chan-Wook’s adaption ‘The Handmaiden’ came as a surprise and an absolute delight to me. Handsomely and sumptuously mounted and, like many films listed here, boasting great central performances and as brilliantly executed as you would expect from Chan-Wook. 

Wildfred Oldroyds ‘Lady Macbeth’ moves its protagonist (Florence Pugh) from victim, to defiant heroine, to anti-hero to villain with such fluidity that it’s hard to see where the progressions come. With precision and sparse framing, the film exerts a cold chill that you don’t really feel creeping up on you. 

As women were trying to get in on the superhero game with ‘Wonder Woman’, they were also finely represented not only by ‘20th Century Women’ and ‘mother!’ but also by ‘In Between’ which ended on a note that female resilience would win out, no matter what. But female stories were also well-served by oddities such as Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘Colossal’ where the rampaging monster Id was also clearly owned by girl’s too. There were a lot of crappy men around for an excellent Anne Hathaway to contend with, but this crappiness was often also subtle and complex, which is another benefit from a narrative taken from a feminine viewpoint. But for balance, one of the biggest female arseholes was surely Bria Vinaite’s mum in Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’; but, boy, she felt real and somewhat heroic in her stubborn refusal or inability to just play nice. And Willem Defoe has never been so "ordinary" and charming.

Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’ was diverting and solid enough until you thought of how a white man defined so much of a tale that was meant to be about a murder of a Native American woman on a reservation. Elsewhere, other minorities were vigorously and splendidly represented, not only the gay black community through Oscar Winners like ‘Moonlight’, but in the gay narratives of the grubby but ultimately tender ‘God’s Own Country’ – which seemed to me something like what if Bill Douglas has turned his hand to the genre – and ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Rupert Sanders’Ghost in the Shell’ showed that CGI with live action can now match anything animation might think up: it was a reasonable adaption but the much beloved original was always lacking a magic ingredient for me and this remake did nothing to fill that. A lot of bluster with very little to warrant the call on emotions it seemed to want, but this is all in line with its source. Traditional animation was represented gloriously by the sublimely serene ‘The Red Turtle’ and by Michael Dudok de Wit and Claude Barras’ ‘My Life as a Courgette’. Both were exceptionally visually striking and full of dense emotional pay-offs.

Although Gore Verbinski’s ‘A Cure for Wellness’ was lush and intriguingly elusive for the most part, but surely too long. In the end I was amused and enjoyed at its full-throttle plunge into the Gothic. It was only the very final moments that I thought were truly terrible.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘King Kong: Skull Island’ is indeed a film about a giant ape hitting things, so smarts aren’t really expected, but even if it offered several striking visuals – Kong against the sun; people hiding out in a giant skull, etc – the script was just the wrong side of stupid.

On the other hand, ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ proved a lot of fun. Its central gag of a bunch of high school archetypes sucked into a game as the avatar’s they have chosen was one to carry the whole film: so the nerd finds himself personified as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the whinging alpha male jock finds himself as a diminutive sidekick, the nervey shy girl becomes a kick-ass Lara Croft type – and just as ridiculously dressed – and, best of all, the popular girl who can’t get off her phone becomes Jack Black. Of course, through their avatar, they learn to be better people. Considering how contrived this is, that they will learn to overcome their weaknesses (not just cake), it perhaps earned more emotional resonance than expected. 

Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Life’ showed how passable coasting derivative genre b-movie conventions can be whilst Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ showed how those conventions can be given new life by being placed in a different culture and tapping into the zeitgeist. The latter is certainly of the moment and is surely to go on to be one of those genre films that defines its decade. It’s funny, well-played and creepy.

Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ was one of the essential horrors of the year, with cannibalism and coming-of-age melding to deliver a neat slice of French family drama and extremism.

In the past, there has usually been one particular trait that defines the overall FrightFest festival every year (i.e., rape; found footage; etc) and this year it was humour. Comedy-horror and satire was on top form and the one that I have come away with thinking that it’s subversive traits are much under-noted is Chris Peckover’s ‘Better Watch Out’. Perhaps we are just too used to American precocious brats that many couldn’t see the woods for the trees and just treated it solely as a romp (and the majority of comments on twitter, including mine, say “don’t watch the trailers”)?

I was made aware of a lot of hate for Olivier Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’ but it seemed to me an intriguing piece of work that mined not only indie drama but both thriller and horror techniques to create chills and suspense without ever truly verifying outright the supernatural. I am all for pushing at the edges of ghost stories and David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ did that too, although I venture I found it more agreeably goofy than moving. 

Trey Edward Shults’s ‘It Comes at Night’ also proved a winner and much maligned for not quite being perhaps what such a title promises. But horror again proved that locked doors are slabs of paranoia and people are their own worst enemies.

Perhaps aside from ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, nothing proved as divisive and ladled with audience outrage and disgust as Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ But upon reflection I can see it treading much of the black humour, gleeful provocation and indulgent flourishes that Peter Greenaway used to trade in. And that’s no bad thing.

Horror was much more conventionally covered by Juan Carlos Medina’s ‘The Limehouse Golem’, filling in the Gothic delights unironically with a heap of social commentary on the side to give it gristle. 

For super-powered blockbusters:

James Mangold’s ‘Logan’ was a winner because it added a bit of post-‘Deadpool’ grit and grue to the super-hero formula, but with a straight face. Its riding on more adult themes of mortality was welcome and surely accounts for its popularity over much else. And the edge of nastiness was a much needed colour for Wolverine, whose character was well-fitted for more Western genre tropes.

James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2’ continued to show the others how superheroes should/could be fun and offered up a sequel that – despite the element of surprise being gone – proved the equal of the original. Probably guilty, like most of these things, of being too long and a bit bloated, but it’s consistently amusing and probably turns being overstuffed into an asset. And it wins alone for the opening with baby Groot dancing to E.L.O.

Whilst Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman’ proved that a female director could deliver just as good and problematic a superhero film as any male, it was Jon Watts’ ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ that proved the real surprise. ‘Thor: Ragnorok’ was agreeably amusing, which was only to be expected from Taiki Waititi, and showed again that, post-‘Guardians’, the powers that be saw money in adding humour to their properties, but Peter Parker proved the real surprise. ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ was probably the way I felt Peter Parker ought to be done (although it’s a given that Sam Raimi’s first two ‘Spider-man’ films were good-to-great), mixing a real high-school comedy-drama with super-powered tropes. Yes, it stole Miles Moran’s storyline – and there are proper problems with that – but Tom Holland proved an excellent version of Parker and I and the audience I was with laughed all the way through. That such a big property could get a laugh from the simple line “Chess?” instead of heavy wisecracking zingers proves that the genre was learning to be defter with appeal, concentrating on the tiny stuff as well as the big explosions.

Like ‘Wonder Woman’, Matt Reeves’ ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ wasn’t quite as exceptional as it ought to have been. It hadn’t quite overcome the problem that anytime a human is on screen it isn’t particularly good. Was that a meagre if not bad performance from Woody Harrelson? (Go see ‘Edge of Seventeen’  to see him firing on all smouldering canons) But the apes and the motion capture and all that were as breathtaking as you would want.

And then there was Denis Velleneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for which the main criticism seemed to be style-over-content, but it seemed a much tricksier and more slippery product than Ridley Scott’s original (which, seminal as it is, is surely style-over-content). It was visually stunning, of course, but what impressed more was that it maintained an air of abstractness whilst simultaneously seemingly filling in some blanks.

The other big film was Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’: although it was inevitable that it would take severe wounding from people calling doubts on its veracity and accuracy, but what made it win for me was that rather than the large heroic sweeps, it cast war mostly as the individual’s race to survive. 

And in terms of classics I saw at the cinema, there was David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ – as unnerving as ever – and then William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ whose rope-bridge scene proved one of the most jaw-dropping scenes I saw this year. And all without CGI.

Maybe I'm easily amused, but it was a good year with so many great performances and much agreeable quirkiness in general and blockbusters delivering a lot of funny. 

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