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My Letterboxd reviews for June-September 2018

Jeffrey Wright in Hold the Dark

Those weird few months I was talking about meant a significant drop-off in my movie watching habits. That goes for press screenings, too. I was only able to make it to a handful of those, and review (in long form, at least) even fewer (Leave No Trace is great; Incredibles 2 not so much).

The rest of the 24 films scratched off between June and September comprise a mix of streaming fare, a blockbuster or two, a few critical darlings and a couple of purported modern classics — neither of which are quite as good as people say.

I’m talking about you, Hereditary and Mandy. Both are films leaning heavily on references, both direct and indirect, to a corpus of genre cinema for their intended holistic impression — the former to a peerless era of horror cinema, the other to nostalgia for a general milieu of underground culture both vague and very specific. That both are blindingly obvious dulls the desired effects, though it must be said that I’m still liking Hereditary that little bit more as the months have passed, while Mandy has only sunk in my estimation over the few weeks since I’ve seen it.

Anyway, here’s what I had to think about the rest.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

‘Phenomenal’ is the only word for it. What a treat witnessing this classic in full for the first time (I’ve seen it in various chunks on TV over the years). And in my local cinema that’s seen better days, likely how most would have experienced it on its original release.

Stealth:

If Chris Evans (or any other of the Chrises) were the lead, were it half an hour shorter (the Bat*21 subplot is an idea too many), and a central character weren’t erased from the story as soon as they’re killed off (seriously, when the lead becomes buds with the killer not 15 minutes later, that’s a problem), I think I would’ve enjoyed this hokum a lot more than I did.

Sleepwalkers:

Three stars for a delightfully stupid third act — and Clovis the Attack Cat.

The Babadook:

My expectations were maybe a little too high for this one. It’s a nicely crafted, vaguely spooky chamber piece, with a charismatic, sympathetic lead in Essie Davis. And it’s got some subtle other-worldly touches, like the women at the kids’ birthday party dressed as mourners. Yet it all feels a bit lacking in something. The atmosphere is thinner than it should be; the denouement a bit of a cheat considering all that’s built up before. And most of all, it’s not a million miles away from the rightly pilloried Lights Out in its problematic conflation of supernatural shenanigans and mental illness.

Hereditary:

I liked Hereditary more a few hours after seeing it than I did on leaving the cinema, which is a good thing. It’s one to make you ponder over its more astute qualities: that first-act swerve, the clever reframing of exposition, its nods to genre tropes without bursting its own bubble universe. It has problems, of course; it’s very long, and its slightly suggestive scene-setting and cinematography grow far too noticeable; that crescendo of a final act gets more predicable than what it credits the audience with knowing, and tries to explain everything without explaining some things enough. It’s also not nearly as loopy as the trailer would have you believe; there’s nothing here to match, say, a David Cronenberg film. But on balance, I think it works.

Sicario 2: Soldado:

It wears the same suit as its predecessor, but it’s an ill fit. Most of that’s down to Taylor Sheridan’s script, which comes off like ideas cast off from the first go-around, haphazardly sewn together, and with a depressingly facile right-wing bent. A red herring set-up involving Daesh-esque suicide bombers is a desperate appeal to Trump-voting racists in a way the original’s all-out bleakness never went.

Meanwhile, in the absence of Emily Blunt’s character, or someone like her, our sympathies are expected to lie with Josh Brolin’s amoral agent of chaos, and Benicio del Toro’s grief-warped death dealer. The latter’s reinvention as the hero of the piece – not even the anti-hero – is particularly hard to stomach when his presence in the original was so monstrous. File under ‘could have done better’.

Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation:

Three movies into the Hotel Transylvania series and like a vampire’s trouble with mirrors, it’s in no way reflective of director Genndy Tartakovsky’s TV work. Where Samurai Jack is sublime, this is just ridiculous.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette:

What can I say about this other than it’s funny, it’s moving and it deserves your attention.

The Equalizer 2:

I missed the last 15 minutes of this one, as the preview I attended started late (and without the promised snacks, either) and I had somewhere else to be. But upon reviewing the plot on Wikipedia later, I saw that my guesses (A retread of the conclusion of Magnificent Seven? The old man gets his painting back?) were more or less spot-on. That’s one big problem with The Equalizer 2: what plot exists could be extrapolated by a child. Another is that there really is no plot to what’s more of a hodge-podge of storylines in search of a movie. Improved pacing and some thrilling action can’t make up for that lack of focus.

How It Ends:

How it ends? Not great, when it comes to this post-apocalyptic shaggy dog story that’s as watchable (for the most part) as it is painfully clichéd.

Extinction:

Lizzy Caplan’s striking resemblance to Sean Young isn’t the only Blade Runner reference in a sci-fi action film that’s surprisingly philosophical for a B-picture (even if all its ideas have been nicked from the PKD bibliography).

The Meg:

So yeah, the gore is conspicuous by its absence. Its plot is the mother of all clichés. And yes, it falls between two stools in being neither completely self-lampooning nor utterly po-faced. But it’s an easy watch, a perfectly serviceable blockbuster and another entry in the ‘Jason Statham is actually deadly’ canon. What can I say? I enjoyed it.

Power of Grayskull:

One for nerds only. As a documentary, it’s perfunctory at best, and it doesn’t add anything new to the story if you’ve already read all the articles and whatnot that it’s presumably based on. But if you haven’t been privy to those, and have any interested in the subject, it’s worth a watch.

Star Trek Beyond:

To my surprise, this turns out to be the best of the three ‘new Trek’ movies. That’s mostly down to Justin Lin’s energetic direction, with some original action set-pieces that distract from the hoary script and a flat villain with unclear motivations. It’s not particularly good, so, but it’s exceedingly more watchable than the overwrought Into Darkness – and it’s a damn sight better than the trailer suggests.

RoboCop 2:

Time has been kind to RoboCop 2, a film that maintains hints of its lauded predecessor’s satirical edge (in some cases even doubling down) while adapting to more mass-market tastes (hence the absence of gore, for that lower rating, not to mention a plot optimised for the video game adaptation). It’s still half an hour too long, mind.

BlacKkKlansman:

It’s a Spike Lee joint, that’s for sure. For better and for worse. Mostly for better; he’s unlikely to ever make another film as singular as Do The Right Thing, but this is about as close as it comes. That’s even accounting for its unsubtle allegory for America’s contemporary far-right problem. And the fact that its plot, on closer inspection, doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Heat:

There’s a lot going on here, so much so that a mini-series format would’ve better suited the material. As it is, so much of it hangs on that big shootout in the middle, a grand operatic gesture that feels at odds with the kitchen-sink dramas in its orbit. Stellar performances all round, yadda yadda, but I’m left wanting, and I can’t quite put my finger on it yet. (I write many of my thoughts here minutes after watching a given film, and this one is no different.)

Upgrade:

Leans a little too hard on the self-serious to make it a classic, but as cult sci-fi/grindsploitation tributes go, this one’s in the upper echelon.

Mom and Dad:

I dunno. I expected more from the premise, given the pedigree of the writer/director (Brian Taylor, one half of the duo who made Crank) and the presence of Nicolas Cage, being Nicolas Cage. But after a promising, unsettling start (and there are quite a few moments that will linger), it all slows to a crawl when the titular parents and their kids, running for their lives, get bottled up in the family home. Taylor has no idea what to do with them as he runs out the clock to a final twist that doesn’t set up much of a conclusion. Paucity of budget, or paucity of ideas?

Central Intelligence:

There’s too much ‘gay panic’ for comfort, but there’s no denying the comedic chemistry between Kevin Hart and The Rock – nor the depth of their characters’ reckoning with their lot in life, something to set it apart from the usual mainstream chuckle flick fare.

Mandy:

Mandy wears its influences like one of those metal long-sleeves tattooed with logos and slogans: too distracting to suspend disbelief (even the fat jokes are retro) and get wrapped up in a phantasmagoric, Faustian revenge fantasy that would be a damn sight more powerful with a swifter pace, and without the reflex to play those hits, even when some are smarter than others (the ‘Cheddar Goblin’ commercial, the Heavy Metal animated interludes). It’s definitely style over substance, much like Panos Cosmatos’ previous feature Beyond the Black Rainbow, though its ridiculously unhinged moments make this one more fun to watch.

Hold the Dark:

Jeremy Saulnier’s first film from a script he didn’t write himself (Macon Blair adapted William Giraldi’s 2014 novel) doesn’t have the white-knuckle thrills of Green Room, nor the existential claustrophobia of Blue Ruin. But Hold the Dark still fits with his running them of pursuit.

In this case, a wolf tracker (Jeffrey Wright) running from his own personal fears is tasked by a lonely mother (Riley Keough) with finding and killing the beasts that she claims took her son from their isolated Alaskan settlement. But all is not what it seems, and the plot thickens when the boy’s inscrutable father (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from a tour of Iraq to light the wick of a veritable powderkeg of violence.

Others have bemoaned this film’s absence of a proper protagonist. Where Blue Ruin had the traumatised Dwight, and Green Room the scared but resourceful Pat (Anton Yelchin), both people to empathise with and get behind to different degrees, Hold the Dark’s audience surrogate Russell gives cold comfort; as much as he tries to affect change in his predicament, ultimately he’s beholden to his environment, literally and figuratively.

The way that plays out can seem shaky and directionless on first appraisal. It’s particularly weak in the first act, with the kind of purple dialogue best left to student theatre. There’s also more than one character whose narrative arc is cut stone dead for no particular reason. But that might be the point.