Monday, August 24, 2015

Movie Journal: July

This was another busy month for me as I watched a grand total of 43 films in July. Of those, 40 were features and 3 were shorts, and all but 3 were first-time viewings. There was no overarching theme to those viewings, though the publication of Little White Lies' list of 100 Great Movies by Female Directors (which can be seen in full on Letterboxd here, though you really should read the individual entries on the LWL site) did drive me to seek out more films directed by women than I might otherwise have done, including incredible shorts like Lois Weber's Suspense and Alice Guy's Falling Leaves. I've only seen 22 of the films on that list, so one of my aims over the next few months is to get that total up to a less mortifying number.

The best film I rewatched this month was Michael Mann's Thief, which I watched for a forthcoming episode of Shot/Reverse Shot on the work of Jerry Bruckheimer. Although I think Mann has made more enjoyable films (both Heat and Manhunter leap to mind) and more aesthetically bold ones (Collateral and Public Enemies), Thief strikes me as the sweet spot between the two. It's a pleasingly hard-nosed character study which looks beautiful, and is about as sparse an iteration of Mann's style and themes as you are likely to find. I also realised that I forget about the adoption storyline every time that I watch it, and that Jim Belushi is a pretty good actor when he needs to be (see also: his performance on HBO's great miniseries Show Me A Hero).

The worst film I watched for the first time was The Wizard of Oz. Not the classic 1939 musical version, which has been one of my favourite films since childhood, but the 1925 silent version directed by and starring Larry Semon. Despite some pretty good slapstick, some of which verges on Looney Toons levels of sheer visual lunacy, the pacing is really slow, the romance is dull and, oh yeah, it is horrendously racist. Like, "introduce the only black character by having them sit on the floor eating watermelon" racist. Obviously you have to grade older films on a curve when it comes to their social views, but no film is that good.

Anyway, we'll leave that unpleasantness behind and get to the top ten.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Film Review: Trainwreck (2015)

While a lot of romantic comedies are about the battle of the sexes, Trainwreck is a battle of sensibilities. Written by its star, Amy Schumer, its script bears the hallmark of her work as a standup and on her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. It's incisive in its understanding of the (often sexist) ideas and tropes underlying a lot of popular media, and it seeks to subvert them in ways which are clever, funny and, where possible, dirty. An early scene, in which Schumer's character, also called Amy, has a one-night stand then pretends to fall asleep after receiving cunnilingus, leaving her partner to complain about his needs not being met, is a typical example of something Trainwreck does very well. It takes an established trope - i.e. men are inherently selfish when it comes to sex - then turns it on its head.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Film Review: Spy (2015)

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is an analyst working for the CIA. She's good at her job, but that job mainly consists of providing support to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a stereotypically brilliant and dashing field agent who Susan not so secretly pines for. When a mission goes awry, Cooper volunteers to leave her desk and go after Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the one person who knows the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon which will be auctioned off to the highest bidder in a matter of days. As she travels across Europe, Cooper has to contend with hordes of assassins who are after Rayna, but also her colleague Rick Ford (Jason Statham) who has gone rogue in pursuit of the same mission.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Review: Love & Mercy (2014)

The biopic genre is so weighed down by so many mediocre attempts to recreate well-trodden stories that when a film like Love & Mercy comes along, it's enough to make you angry. You come away thinking "Why did they get it so right when everyone else gets it wrong?" Even if the expectations for this type of film are admittedly low, it's still invigorating seeing director Bill Pohlad and writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman bring real vision to a story that could easily have been nothing but a staid retelling.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sitcoms and Sadness: A Conversation About BoJack Horseman

In anticipation of the second season of Netflix's BoJack Horseman, a previously unheralded animated series about a washed up sitcom actor who also happens to be a horse (Will Arnett) that became something of a word-of-mouth hit during its first season, I sat down with my friend and fellow pop culture addict Lewis Davies (@LewisKernow) to discuss the show and why it struck a chord with audiences. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Half-Time Top Ten

I promise that this is the last picture of Inside Out I'll use for a while. Probably.
2015 is halfway done, so what better time to look back on the year so far and ponder how things are going, cinematically. Blockbuster season is throwing up its usual grab bag of interesting and terrible movies, with a handful of brilliant films in there for good measure, while even the early spring dumping ground had something to offer. It doesn't feel as strong as last year did through the same point - I have to admit that I'd be pretty disappointed if this ended up being my Top Ten for the year - but it's a solid start.

Film Review: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

It wouldn't be going too far to say that Jurassic Park was one of the most important films for me growing up. There were a lot of other contenders, most of them Disney animations, but Jurassic Park was the first film I remember being completely floored by. It helped that I was obsessed with dinosaurs, as most six year olds were at the time and, it seems, still are, but the way that Steven Spielberg blended special effects with a lean story to create a sense of wonder and magic really captivated my little, still-forming imagination. It probably didn't hurt that it was one of the first examples I had encountered of a film being everywhere thanks to a huge marketing campaign, so even if I hadn't loved it, I would not have been able to escape it. Watching it (not to mention rewatching it) was a formative experience, to say the least, and while I wouldn't put it as my favourite film ever now (I'm not sure if it would even crack the top 100, assuming that I was crazy enough to make one), its importance in shaping me as a film lover is immeasurable.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Film Review: Inside Out (2015)

Joy (Amy Poehler) is the dominant emotion in the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl who loves hockey, being a goofball, and her family. Alongside Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader), Joy is responsible for guiding Riley through her life in Minnesota. When Riley and her family up sticks and move to San Francisco, Joy finds herself unable to control the wave of negativity stemming from Riley's sense of dislocation and loneliness. When Joy's attempts to control the situation result in her and Sadness being inadvertently locked out of the mind's command centre with no easy way back, Riley's emotional well-being starts to become dangerously fraught, and Joy and Sadness need to figure out a way back before any permanent damage is done.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Movie Journal: June

It was a real "best of times/worst of times" situation for me this month, as not only did I see my new favourite film of the year, I also saw my new least favourite film of the year, all within the same 24 hours. It was a bit of a roller coaster. Fortunately I saw the awful one first, so the waves of Joy from the good one really helped cleanse the palate.

In total, I watched 29 films this month, only one of which was a rewatch. Fortunately, that film was Jaws, which I watched in preparation for this episode of Shot/Reverse Shot commemorating the film's fortieth anniversary. There's not much new that anyone can say about Jaws at this point, but my main takeaway from this viewing was how much it feels like a film from the New Hollywood, even as it pointed the way to a model of filmmaking which would supplant that movement. It's often written about as the film, along with Star Wars, which helped kill off that era of filmmaking, but the loose, improvisational feel to the dialogue and the subtle ways in which it reflects what was going on in the culture - the Mayor's willingness to risk lives to bring money into the town is a very post-Watergate depiction of authority, while it's significant that Brody left New York to escape the violence and crime for the supposed safety of Amity - place it as a film that emerged from the counterculture, even if its descendants would eventually consume it.

The worst film I watched for the first time this month, and the worst film of 2015 so far, was Kingsman: The Secret Service. I don't particularly care for Matthew Vaughn's work in general, though I do like Stardust for the most part and think that Layer Cake is one of the better post-Guy Ritchie gangster films, but usually his stuff just washes over me. Kingsman, however, actively angered me. The action is pretty well-staged and there are some funny moments, but the film's attitude, which could best be summed up as someone (i.e. Vaughn) smugly saying "ooh, aren't I transgressive!" while going after incredibly easy targets, was really repellant to me. It's the sort of film which thinks that repeatedly playing "Bonkers" by Dizzee Rascal is a substitute for character development, and uses its sleek professionalism to hide the fact it is almost completely without value.

Towards the end of the month, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of watching a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. Initially this was because MUBI had a handful of them streaming, which then prompted me to track down other shorts on Hulu, YouTube etc. Despite liking most of Chaplin's feature films (particularly Limelight, which I think is his most moving), I'd only watched one Chaplin short previously, and even that was only to find some silent film-style music to rip for a scene in a ramshackle short film I made at uni. After watching several in a short space of time - with the highlight being Easy Street, which ends with Chaplin beating up a bunch of hoodlums after being pricked with a syringe full of liquid cocaine, like Popeye if he had been created by Hunter S. Thompson - I've come to the realisation that I generally prefer his short films to his features.

The features are a greater achievement, both artistically and historically, but there's something about the shorter running time which really focuses Chaplin. You're only ever seconds away from another inspired bit of slapstick, and the romantic subplots, which can drag down his feature films, are kept to a minimum. They have the balance between the chaotic and romantic sides of The Tramp just right, at least for my tastes as someone who grew up mainlining Looney Toons shorts, which clearly owe something to Chaplin's work.

Anyway, without any further ado: here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in June.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Film Review: Jurassic World (2015)

Twenty-two years ago, a man named John Hammond had a dream. A dream of opening a park filled with dinosaurs, resurrected by the wonders of science, and open for all the world to see. That dream went tragically sour when the actions of a rogue employee led to the park's security measures failing, several deaths, and the apparent abandonment of Isla Nublar to its prehistoric inhabitants. Yet the magic of Hammond's vision - and its undeniable potential for huge profits - meant that people would try again, so now his park - renamed Jurassic World, no doubt as a canny bit of rebranding to move away from that whole rampaging dinosaurs thing - is a glistening hybrid of Disney World and SeaWorld.