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My Letterboxd reviews for May 2017

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Trying something a little different here, based on Khoi Vinh’s monthly movie diary roundups. Rather than clumping my Letterboxd reviews here at random, as I remember to reblog them, I’ll do a single post every month, starting with last month. Even less a couple I’ve already posted here, May 2017 was a busy one.

To Live and Die in LA:

It doesn’t have the poetry of a 1950s noir, or the visual panache of a Chinatown, but William Friedkin’s 1980s cop thriller is still one of the better glimpses into the dark side of the American dream, with its own brand of resolute but cheese-free Eighties-ness.

Before I Wake:

After the culturally insensitive Hush and the board-game cash-in Ouija: Origin of Evil, Mike Flanagan returns to form with this supernatural chiller, a riff of sorts on cult classic Paperhouse as a child’s dreams, and nightmares, manifest in the waking world. It also returns to themes covered in Flanagan’s breakthrough Oculus — of grief, mostly, and the blurred lines between perception and reality. It’s let down somewhat by reliance on formula: the third-act switch to a detective story; that one egregious shot-for-shot lift from Poltergeist. Add to that its failure to explain the things that really need explaining, and a weak lead in an emotionally distant Kate Bosworth — though Thomas Jane has plenty of scruffy folksy charm, and the main kid (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) isn’t bad. It’s got its issues, but it deserves a bigger audience than it’s probably going to get on Netflix, where it may be lost amid the constant churn of content.

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry:

Not exactly the revelatory epic expected, with the manga series nearing its end. And it suffers badly from compression sickness, squeezing enough story for a five- or six-episode mini arc into 80-odd minutes. The animation is also ropey at times, even sub-par compared to the TV anime. But there are no dull moments, that’s for sure.

The Karate Kid:

Rocky re-done with martial arts, as was the fashion of the mid-eighties. It’s more oddly constructed than you probably remember, and it leaves many threads hanging with its abrupt ending. But the engaging main cast and those memorable training scenes are what really make it.

Prohibition:

Made for TV as a three-part mini-series but it counts as a film so I’m logging it here. It’s Ken Burns’ typical blend of archival sound and pictures, oral history, and editorial context – a people’s history of the prohibition era, interpreting it as the anti-immigrant movement it was, as much as it was anti-booze. If you dig the Burns style, you’ll dig this one too.

Beyond the Gates:

This budget Jumanji for the eighties retro horror set doesn’t have the levity implied — and really required — by its preposterous gore scenes, which themselves are disappointingly thin on the ground.

Get Out:

Does Get Out live up to the hype? Of course not. People are going to read so much into a film that Jordan Peele only hints at, to show you he gets it. But a more assured directorial debut I can’t recall. Best horror since Green Room? I wouldn’t argue the point.

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Another Sion Sono film, another broad satire of the Japanese condition, this time of traditional gender roles. I think? Because it’s also a budget spin on The Matrix crossed with The Butterfly Effect, sprinkled with phantasmagoric imagery and random gory set pieces, set to a soundtrack by post-rock band Mono. Life is surreal, indeed.

Death Race 2050:

The original Death Race 2000 was just a satirical exploitation flick, par for the course for the Roger Corman stable in the mid-seventies. It didn’t have the weight of expectation that drags down this modern reboot – a live-action Wacky Races in the spirit of Troma – which is far too self-conscious for its own good. This redux also fails to commit full-bore to its ludicrous (or maybe not so ludicrous?) premise, dropping in way too many talky dramatic scenes amid the cartoonish vehicular carnage.

It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive:

‘Mutant babies’ is a premise so basic, there’s no requirement to have seen the first two instalments in Larry Cohen’s parental panic series. This one is cheap as anything but knows it’s cheap, so makes the best of it with a wackadoo plot (where the main character goes from berating customers in his shoe shop to being taken captive by the Cuban military in the space of half an hour) and some enthrallingly odd performances from the leads, a probably-actually-drunk Michael Moriarty and a hepped-up-on-goofballs Karen Black.

Christine:

This dramatisation of the story of (or rather, a significant story from) the real-life Christine Chubbock makes for an interesting companion piece to 2014’s Nightcrawler.

Both films are essentially about the thirst for sensationalism in US TV news; where they differ, apart from their respective atmospheres (crepuscular dread versus period formality), is in their main protagonists’ reactions to that insidious climate. Nightcrawler’s amoral Leo Bloom is perfectly placed to capitalise on a growing appetite for violence, while Christine’s titular lead manifests her instinctual revulsion at this downward trend firstly in physical pain, then as a psychic wound that can only be healed by the ultimate act of ratings-chasing horror.

Christine handles the story with care, both in respect for the real-life Christine Chubbuck and attention to the details of life in a mid-sized Floridian city in the mid 1970s. It only falters in that Rebecca Hall is a little too obviously tortured from the outset, telegraphing the inevitable — we know her pain before we ever know her — but that’s more about the role as written than her engrossing, sympathetic performance.

I’m curious to see how Kate Plays Christine, a meta-fictional documentary about the same life, handles that reading.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter:

Hitting Netflix in recent weeks as the generically titled February, the same name under which it premiered at TIFF 2015, the debut feature by Osgood (son of Anthony) Perkins was rechristened by its US distributor last year as The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

That’s a much more appropriate moniker for this chilling, ethereal mystery horror, in which darkness creeps up on two young women left behind at their Catholic boarding school over the late winter break.

With an extraordinary hand for a first-time director in handling the story’s slow build and agonising tension, Perkins can be forgiven for showing his cards too soon in one particularly unnecessary mid-film scene. But he clearly has plenty more to play from his deck. (I will be checking out his second film, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, very soon indeed.)

As for the performances, it’s hard to find any fault. Above all, what an incredible turn by Kiernan Shipka, only 15 when this was shot. I would say she’s a revelation as the enigmatic Kat, but that should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen her in Mad Men. It’s great to see James Remar and Lauren Holly in something new, too.

If only the film’s European distributor had the marketing nous to protect it from straight-to-video hell.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is at its worst when it turns into a generic action movie, one side running and shooting against the other. The rest of the time, it fulfils the promise of its predecessor with a plausible post-apocalyptic world, and a nuanced drama where there are no real bad guys, only bad situations. Well okay, there is one bad guy — and a real duplicitous jerk he is — and there we go back to those action movie clichés and far too sharply pointed metaphors. But its brains win out over its brawn. And the CGI is a lot better this time out, too.