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My Letterboxd reviews for July & August 2017

The Boy and the Beast

I may not have been blogging much here, but I did ramp up my movie-watching over the summer — mostly thanks to my dive into ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series (not all of which I’ve reviewed, mind).

Among the films I watched in July and August is one of the best of the year thus far in War for the Planet of the Apes. And on average the quality has been pretty good, with only a handful of duds to speak of.

Okja:

There’s real magic to Okja, when it’s just the titular CG mega-pig and her friend Mija, spending time together in their mountain forest home, or on the run from the dastardly authorities who want to carve her up for lunch. Their relationship is genuine and heartfelt, such that it even lends sweetness to a fart joke.

The problem is with the English-language sections, which drag out the pace to a crawl and fiddle needlessly with the tone, which oscillates wildly between overcooked farce and smug self-serious satire, meeting in the middle with a kind of cod Wes Anderson schtick.

For every performance that works — An Seo Hyun is the clear standout as Mija; Paul Dano brings the air of a mortician to his animal liberation activist; even Jake Gyllenhaal’s Steve Irwin-inspired TV naturalist is just ridiculous enough — there’s one that doesn’t. At all.

Tilda Swinton in particular is simply taking the piss with her amateur dramatics in not one but two roles; so shockingly bad, in fact, she almost single-handedly derails the whole thing. Leave her scenes on the cutting room floor and you’d be half-way to a classic.

Star Trek: First Contact:

Probably my third watch of this one, this time along with a Gripe Track featuring Pat and Matt from Super Best Friends Play. They’re avowed Star Trek nuts, which made for an entertaining couple of hours as they called out its many faults with the greatest affection. I can’t imagine it getting as high a rating seen in isolation.

The Purge: Election Year:

Three films into the Purge series and I’m preoccupied by the issues surrounding the Purge itself. If it’s designed to eliminate the poor, then who provides services for the classes above them? Private insurance is referenced in the story, but who pays for damage to public property? And what about personal assets? The Purge might grant immunity for murder as a felony, but civil matters are another thing; who says you get the money if you kill your parents, as is clearly implied?

Of course none of those questions are answered. There’s far too much else going on here in a film that plays like they had one last shot so threw in everything from the scrapbook. It wisely reprises the gauntlet-run plot from the second instalment — and brings back its standout anti-hero Frank Grillo — though this time it’s a far more explicit reference to Escape From New York, with a presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell) who must be escorted to safety through a city on fire.

The Carpenter homage doesn’t end there, with a mid-film siege at a deli on lockdown only the start of the insanity. Throughout, Election Year is sprinkled with nods to exploitation classics like Death Race 2000 and nutzoid video games like Saints Row and Dead Rising, while also throwing notions like ‘Purge tourism’ and drone warfare into the mix.

It’s ridiculous, yes, and it falls apart at the slightest prodding. But it’s tense as anything, and moves too fast — and escalates too wildly — to ever get boring. What’s more, it might even be more of a Trojan-horse excoriation of the white supremacy that underpins mainstream US culture than its predecessor. (That’s a reach, I’m aware; subtlety is not this franchise’s strong point.)

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter:

The yellow tint of a kwaito video was the big giveaway this one was shot in South Africa. Otherwise, I’m surprised at how much of the film just washed over me, leaving no trace of having been experienced. Did I even really watch it? I guess we’ll never know…

Incarnate:

Here’s a decent contemporary spin on The Exorcist in the vein of Insidious, which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about that series. While this one lacks in suspense, at least it has a sense of its lore that allows for suspension of disbelief, with credible performances all round.

The Love Witch:

I don’t quite know what to make of The Love Witch yet. One the one hand, it’s far too long and meandering, and its clash of sixties/seventies production values (that goes for the performances as much as the art direction) with contemporary elements takes some getting used to. But as a statement, it achieves more with pretty much the same themes than what William Oldroyd set out to do with Lady Macbeth, and without being so problematic.

The Circle:

The Circle wants to say so much about the death of privacy; the erasure of the boundary between life and work; the co-opting of the public sphere, even government, by neo-corporate interests; and so on and so forth. But it comes out as a sausage stuffed with blather, the poorest kind of blindingly obvious satire that doesn’t leave the audience with any questions to ponder, so proud it is of answering them for itself. One exception being a frustratingly stupid subplot based on the notion that people don’t realise deer shed their antlers? Oh, and its decidedly mixed messages about radical transparency. (Maybe blame Dave Eggers for that, though I haven’t read the novel.) Still, I’ll give it something: my chest tightened five minutes in at the realisation that Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly are no longer with us. They are the soul of the film that’s conspicuously absent in the eyes of fresh-faced tabula rasa Emma Watson.

Morgan:

Family connections and shared motifs make Morgan uncomfortably close to a Blade Runner backstory. Perhaps if Pere Scott weren’t so determined to explain all the mysteries in that film as well as the Alien universe, son Luke’s directorial debut might more readily stand on its own as a vaguely sci-fi, post-Bourne action thriller — and a powderkeg of one at that. Even when its big reveal is one that only the dimmest bulbs won’t see coming from the first five minutes.

The Boy:

I was hoping The Boy wouldn’t go the way it looked from its first act, and it doesn’t: patience pays off with a thrilling final act that also turns out to share a key plot point with another recent indie horror, but thankfully not its tone.

Weirdo little psychological chillers like this were de rigueur for the 1970s. They seem to have fallen out of fashion since, so it’s welcome to see a contemporary example that’s so well crafted, with its forbidding gothic flourishes, even if it loses marks for daytime TV drama performances.

John Wick: Chapter 2:

Keanu Reeves finally found the perfect role in John Wick. That he’s a cool-as-fuck assassin who kills a lot of people probably isn’t what he had in mind, but here we are. His second outing turns all the dials into the red for a relentless two-hour opera of violence — fitting given its part Italian setting, and utterly preposterous in all the right ways.

Wishmaster:

Scary it isn’t, but there’s plenty of entertainment value in an inventive story with a unique boogeyman (at least when he’s doing that voice), some primo gross-out practical effects, ridiculous jump scares and copious cameos for horror fans to pick out.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape/Draconian Days:

A timely re-watch for this and its predecessor, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, as both that and the moral panic over ‘video nasties’ and film censorship in the Eighties and Nineties are symptomatic of the utter disregard of the working class by ‘proper’ Britons. Not to say that video nasties compare to the horror of Grenfell, though that older controversy did ultimately sacrifice the lives of two working class youths – while prostituting the tragic death of a child – on the altar of fear-driven moral respectability, and has since been virtually disavowed by a culture that won’t come to terms with its culpability. Jake West’s films underplay that anti-working-class aspect, allowing a few of the talking heads to make their own arguments, but it’s really central to the whole thing and needs to be understood as such.

Ace Attorney:

What is this, exactly? Yes, it’s based on the Nintendo DS game series, however it’s no straight adaptation. Its twisted sense of justice; heightened, stylised design; and occasional surreal moments signal satire all the way (and all par for the course for Takashi Miike). But that clashes hard with its deadly serious dramatic elements. If it jettisoned the latter, and were half an hour shorter, it might work a lot better as a more focused send-up of American courtroom dramas.

Branded to Kill:

A contract killer with hamster cheeks and a fetish for boiled rice scores his marks in increasingly inventive ways, before he’s forced to run a gauntlet of fellow gangsters — and his fragile emotions — when a fatal error breaks the Yakuza code. And unfortunately for him, his final opponent has even stranger methods… Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 gonzo noir gets bonus points for sheer originality, that’s for sure. But it loses a bunch for its ridiculous sexism, which even given the culture and era comes over a bit too raw to get a pass for irony.

American Grindhouse:

Ten minutes into this, I realised I’d seen it already, and not too long ago either. Shows how much of an impression it made, I guess: we’re talking paint-by-numbers documentary here, with a rogue’s gallery of talking heads and a bounty of clips but little in the way of analysis or new insights for those already au fait with genre cinema.

Red State:

Kevin Smith sure has a lot to say about the weaponised hate spewed by the religious right, going by the reams of opinionated verbiage he stuffs into the mouths of his cast in Red State. But he also has a problem, apparently, with the media’s demand for conflict in light of the fate of the Branch Davidians, among other issues (latent homophobia included) that muddy his message, if he has one. It’s about as confused as the film itself is unfocused. Here’s a backwoods siege drama, more or less, but styled as an Eli-Roth-esque torture porn horror, and it segues uneasily between the two whenever Smith sees fit, not when or if it works for the story.

Assassin’s Creed:

It takes some effort to make a time-travel sci-fi about killer parkour enthusiasts so dull as they’ve done with Assassin’s Creed. The film fails stupendously in its primary task of conveying the game series’ key wall-scaling, roof-hopping mechanic by rendering those scenes, few as they are, with smooth, sweeping camera angles absent any sense of kinetic thrill to the movement. It’s a failure, too, in its secondary task of adapting the plot (as convoluted as it’s grown from game to game) into a 100-minute movie, such that the poorly paced info-dumps it lumbers on its obviously nonplussed heavyweight cast are no doubt impenetrable to anyone not already familiar with the franchise. To be fair, though, even to anyone else, the story is at once too simplistic and completely nonsensical.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry:

For a car chase flick, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry really drags in places, whether it’s the tiger kidnapping that gets things off to a snail-slow start or the interminable pit stops to randomly philosophise in that post-sixties manner.

The Five Venoms:

There’s no time wasted getting down to the action in this blend of small-town political intrigue and expertly choreographed chop-socky. Cult status well deserved.

Muhammad and Larry:

Of all of Ali’s remarkable qualities, I hadn’t seen anyone mention, before watching this, that he was a fairly decent magician too.

The Emoji Movie:

Not as aggressively awful as feared, but nevertheless a cynical attempt to capture the zeitgeist with an unnecessary brand-filled cash grab. I take note that the makers tried to get ahead of their critics by making their main protagonist a ‘meh’ face; nice try. (Also, it should be titled The Emoticon Movie; emoji and emoticons are two different things.)

The Boy and the Beast:

A tremendously entertaining yet dark-edged action adventure, crossing over between equally believable real world and fantasy settings, with fleshed-out, complicated characters and a message that pulls back from that slide into mawkish sentimentality. Highly recommended.

Red Pier:

Run-of-the-mill yakuza flicks don’t need to be as well composed as this.

Ghost:

Three things. One, now I remember where Katherine Waterston swiped her style. Two, there’s no reason for this film to be two hours long. And three, it’s surprisingly racist for a mainstream picture from 1990.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks:

There’s a fine line between trash talk and common or garden bullying, and Reggie Miller crossed it on the court more often than not. That being said, not all the targets of his abuse were undeserving: Spike Lee, as depicted here, is every asshole at a wrestling card, being a total mark for himself as he forcibly ingratiated himself into the show. Indeed, he (and to a lesser extent, Reggie) takes up far more of this film than he deserves, as it’s really about the rivalry between a big city club and their small-town rivals — even though Indianapolis is hardly some single-street hamlet amid the cornrows.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson:

Want to know why race is still such an issue in the United States? Well besides asking any of a million persons of colour on Twitter, you could watch this and see how depressingly little has changed.

Silly Little Game:

Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen have quite a bit of fun with their depiction of the birth and eventual explosion of fantasy baseball.

Run Ricky Run:

Who is the owner of one’s destiny? Is it the individual, who puts in the effort and dedication to reach their full potential, whatever that may be? Or the others who rely on those results to support their own well-being, without putting in that same hard work? That’s pretty much the story of Ricky Williams: a phenomenally gifted athlete who couldn’t possibly handle the expectations weighing upon him, especially when dealing with social anxiety at the very least, but who faced up to the conflict between these contrasting paths — and chose the one less travelled by. The problem with that, however, is that in going his own way, he shirked his very personal responsibilities, which are quite different from others’ expectations: that runs from his connections with friends and lovers to his relationships with his children. A rounded, sympathetic picture of a complicated man (though not one particularly well-made from a technical point of view).

The 16th Man:

The history lesson deserves some nitpicking (The whole of the Afrikaans population created apartheid? Really?) but overall it’s a succinct primer for a joyous moment in South African history, as depicted in 2009’s Invictus — that film’s star Morgan Freeman narrates here — and one that, sadly, the Rainbow Nation has so far failed to expand upon 22 years on.

June 17th, 1994:

An overbearing soundtrack takes away from this most experimental 30 for 30 documentary so far, comprising TV clips, off-camera remarks and outtakes from what turned out to be an unusual day on any number of sporting fronts — in spite of that infamous White Bronco chase.

The Dark Tower:

Didn’t have the time to write a full review of this, though I’m not sure I could have mustered the enthusiasm in any case. But I can say this much: I was under the impression Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus was a more serious endeavour than this YA adaptation-styled interpretation (far more Neverending Story than Lord of the Rings), that at once streamlines entire books worth of plot into 90 minutes – rendering the titular Dark Tower as a barely explained or even referenced McGuffin – and yet stuffs in so many references to the series’ lore that the viewer is left behind well before the climax. Ultimately no one is left pleased: fans of the books surely won’t see the same spirit in this infantilised rendition, while the younger audiences to which it skews will likely find it too drab and visually uninspiring.

The Invasion:

Some sweet stunt work aside, this fourth adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a bit of a mess, both in plot and philosophy.

Spontaneous Combustion:

At once cheesy as anything and surprisingly well done for its era, and its budget, this pyromaniac shocker from Tobe Hooper (RIP) brings out Brad Dourif’s neurotic, ghoulish best.

Death Note:

I’m starting to think Adam Wingard pulled the wool over our eyes, and his breakthrough critical hits You’re Next and The Guest need some serious reassessment, because since then it’s been one dud after another. First was his ‘stealth’ sequel to The Blair Witch Project which I still haven’t mustered the enthusiasm to see. The latest is a US adaptation of the popular Japanese manga Death Note, which has already been translated into a decent anime (of what I can judge by seeing one episode so far) and a piss-poor live-action version (I switched it off after five minutes).

The usual caveats with compressing a long-running story into 90 minutes apply, but there’s something especially hamfisted about this one, and it’s not just the colander plot, which adds a twist of Macbeth to take the anti edge off the anti-hero. It’s style over substance, for sure, but not nearly stylish enough; the lunacy of the premise requires a kind of hyper-realism that Wingard at best only hints at, when it should be plastered all over the screen in the way Takashi Miike might do it. The slapped-on synthwave soundtrack is entirely misplaced, the film not having any other substantial retro referencing, and smacks of Wingard simply not knowing any other way to do it. One can’t rate the performances too poorly, though; the cast simply have little good to work with.

Jumanji:

Apparently I watched this before, about five years ago, though I have zero recollection of having done so. No matter, I liked it better this time regardless. Just a solid, rollicking Spielbergian action flick for kids who don’t mind a bit of ‘mild peril’. Plus it’s the only film we got with both Kirsten Dunst and Robin Williams, which feels like a combo that could have been money in the succeeding years.