Films in October

I actually had quite a quiet month for films, the only reason this film doesn’t look quiet is that I had a day off sick and watched 7 films back to back. I think that may be a personal best.

New films
First Man
There’s a lot that is admirable about this film. The ‘story’ of the first man to walk on the moon is a fantastic one that certainly supports a film. Armstrong is simultaneously the least likely choice and the perfect choice for the history making position – a remarkable man, but also a very down to earth one (pardon the pun). The film’s writers, directors and star Ryan Gosling all fully explore the contrast – telling the story of his daughter’s death, showing everything in lingering closeup and performing everything in an very internalised way. It’s an incredible story, told well. So why didn’t I like it?
Firstly, I didn’t get on with the style. I see why they chose to film it in a period way (basic framing, lots of closeups, grainy texture, flat lighting) but I found it dull. I also often had to close my eyes when the handheld, fast motion got rather nauseating. I can see that the film isn’t about NASA, or even the moonshot itself, but is in fact about Armstrong, but I was disappointed to not get more of the ‘supporting’ characters, most of whom (even Buzz Aldrin) were reduced to single note cliches. I also understand why it played so slowly at times, but I found it boring. Maybe that was because I did already know a lot of the beats in the story and it just felt dragged out. There were a few moments scattered through that really, completely engrossed me (the footage on the moon was beautiful, and the Apollo 1 section was utterly horrific to watch). But my over-riding response for most of it was impressed but slightly bored.

Extinction (Netflix)
There were three phases to this film and I’m going to avoid spoilers, so pardon the vagueness. The first phase is well covered by the trailers – a ‘normal guy’ in a near future looking city is having recurring dreams of some sort of apocalyptic attack. It’s all very flashy, but it’s hard to make out real details. His family, friends and colleagues are noticing his distraction and want him to get treatment, but he feels that they’re not dreams but visions. Then in the second phase it looks like his visions are coming true, when an invasion starts. We start following the fairly standard steps of him trying to get his family to safety – dodging attackers and explosions. At this point I was pretty bored to be honest. While it was trying to look flashy, it felt cheap and unoriginal. Not enough was really made of the vision bit and I was feeling frustrated that the ‘unique selling point’ was being so dramatically underused.
The thing is, the final third explains what’s going on and pulls everything together. Suddenly there’s interesting depth to world and characters which I wanted to spend more time exploring… but having dedicated an hour to the boring bits, we’re now out of time. I can see that you wouldn’t be able to get to the interesting bit without the first bits, but that doesn’t change that they’re quite dull.

New to me
Crazy, Stupid Love – I wobbled about on this film. That’s not necessarily a surprise as it’s a sort of anothology film, with a few different storylines running through, either losely but obviously connected or seemingly disconnected from each other. Some of the characters are problematic, and some of the others also had some dubious moments. But, I did rather find myself charmed overall. The character development is quite sweet and the way things occasionally clicked together was incredibly satisfying.

True Romance – I just didn’t really get into this film, from the very start I found the characters irritating and frustrating. I didn’t really feel it was stylish enough to be a parody or riff, but it was a very long way from being realistic and a credible caper. There were moments that showed flair and originality, but for the most part I was bored and irritated.

The Stepford Wives (1975) – The film does suffer a bit when you know what the secret is, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people who don’t by now know it after it’s been referenced so many times. But I was actually surprised that there’s still considerable value in watching the film, the tension of suspicion and paranoia and seeing the characters work things out. It’s a heavily period piece now – not just in terms of the fashions, but also the film making style, but that just gives it another level of interest.

Panic Room – You could almost use this film as a masterclass of how to make a solid thriller. The sense of dread builds up from the very beginning, not rushed, but also not waiting so long before the drama really kicks in. The sense of claustrophobia is pitched just right – the eponymous panic room is small, but with the use of security cameras in the larger house the scale of the film isn’t too limited. There were times when I was almost shouting at the screen as characters made stupid choices, or didn’t think of obvious (to me, sitting on my sofa) options, but for the most part I think they fell just on the side of reasonable. My only real complaint is that it got a little ‘Home Alone’ at times.

Finding Your Feet – I felt really cross about this film. I put it on because I was looking for some feel good, easy entertainment. I should have known better because any film with ‘older’ characters seems to endlessly feel that they must have a death in it somewhere. So rather than smiling and tapping my foot, I’m reaching for the tissue box. The film is solidly written, the cast is superb and everything is very well delivered, so if you’re looking for a big dollop of heartbreak along with your feel good, then it’s a good film. But I do think films should come with a warning label that realistic but depressing life events may occur.

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Somehow, I’ve managed to got seventeen years without seeing Bridget Jones’s Diary. And after all that time I find that I wasn’t really missing much. I can see that it could really speak to some people, but personally I just found Bridget incredibly irritating and the choices of men that she’s presented with deeply underwhelming.

Rewatches
Scream 1-3 – I’m not a fan of horror films, but I’ve always loved the Scream films, maybe it’s because they’re as much a film for film fans as they are for horror films. Scream is now over 20 years old but is holding up quite well, it was a new take on teen slasher movies at the time and it still feels surprisingly fresh. The self-awareness of the characters still feels appropriate and the pacing is well managed to build and release tension. I think the fact the elements of the plot are so straightforward but delivered at such speed means there’s never time to start questioning how things fit together, or even to notice aspects that are now dated (at no point did I actually even think about them using mobile phones). Sadly the next two films in the trilogy have dated less well. The second one is still delightfully self-derogatory (“by definition sequels always suck”) with the characters realising they are in a horror movie and a sequel at that. It’s not as tight as the first film, but it’s still fun, which is more than can really be said for the third film. With Neve Cambell in a reduced roll it falls to the Arquettes to carry the movie and they just can’t manage it. The cannon fodder is numerous, interchangeable, and not very good; the villain is convoluted and unpredictable and the script predictable and cheesy. I couldn’t face watching Scream 4.

The Hateful Eight
I say over and over again that I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan. I have a respect for his style, and frequently actually like it, but as a film maker I think his flaws override his strengths and I’m endlessly frustrated that he hasn’t learnt better. Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino. It’s a small (largely familiar) cast, it’s dialogue heavy, violence heavy, set slightly out of its time, with a spectacular soundtrack and some gorgeous visuals. It’s also classic Tarantino in that it’s waaaaay too long and that completely undermines the otherwise extremely good film.
I first saw this film digitally projected in a cinema and it was over 3 hours long with an intermission in it. An actual intermission! For a start, that just made the film even longer, for a second it gave you a chance to realise just how much more of the film there was to go and how much of your day was evaporating, and for a third, it completely broke the flow of the film. I next saw it on Netflix and had to watch it across two days. While every scene had something interesting in it (even if that was just Jennifer Jason Lee pulling faces in the background) as a whole it was baggy and draining.
I wish I spent longer in this review talking about how good it was, how funny it was, how original. How good the performances were. How interesting it was to have much of it set inside just one large room and be able to watch all the cast members in the background. But instead Tarantino shoots himself in the foot and all anyone talks about is how it’s too long. Learn Quentin! Learn!

Gosford Park – A great film that really benefits from multiple viewings. There’s about 30 different characters to try and track and most of the first viewing is spent trying to work out who’s who and how they relate to each other. However they are all well developed and have their own stories to tell. It’s definitely worth giving it a chance as it is a truly superb film with so many great performances and different layers to it. This is one of my top picks for a sofa day and I watch it almost annually and I never fail to be entertained and gripped.

The Woman in Black – The film is built around the scariness of long drawn out silences followed by things jumping out at you. The problem with that is, that if something goes wrong with either the tone of the movie, the casting, or just the interest level of the viewer, the long drawn out silences don’t so much build tension as just make you bored. This film was boring. Maybe it’s the relentless grey, the slight miscasting of Daniel Radcliffe (he’s good, but the character needed to be older), or just the fact that I was too easily distracted by other things… but I found this film not scary, but boring.

Before I Go to Sleep – Although I had read the book and been completely gripped by it, I couldn’t remember the details of the plot, so was equally gripped by the film (even the second time around). The story is very well told (in both book and film) with twists and turns constantly keeping the audience on edge right along with the main character. The real success of the film though is the casting which sees Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong switching back and forth between their rather typecast personas and the polar opposite. The whole thing played with audience expectations very slickly. The plot isn’t without holes and stretches, but it’s so atmospheric that you don’t really think about it while you’re watching.

Death Becomes Her – This film was a staple in my family growing up (I have no idea why!) so despite not having seen it for years, I found I could quote most of the dialogue and was laughing at things before they’d even happened. That does make it rather hard for me to objectively assess whether it’s any good, I have a suspicion it probably isn’t. But I don’t care.

Kubo and the Two Strings – Visually, this film is absolutely stunning. It’s beautiful to look at with an original and strong style to it, but throughout I had to keep reminding myself that it was stop motion, and when in the credits they show a tiny snippet of the scale and detail of the work that went into the film, it’s absolutely breath-taking. Fortunately the film is also entertaining and meaningful, taking fairly standard themes and building and twisting them. The visual style is original and gorgeous and the humour subtle but lovely.

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