My Scientology Movie (Dower, 2016): I like Louis Theroux and have watched his TV shows for years, but despite some weird passive-aggressive behaviour by Scientologists there isn’t much in this documentary that gets near the quality of his Weird Weekends, and there’s very little material that sheds new light on the movement. It’s hardly surprising given the lack of access Theroux and his crew are granted; once their film is underway they receive threatening letters from lawyers acting on behalf of the Church, as you’d expect, and as soon as they go near any Scientology-owned land or property they’re asked to leave by law enforcement officers, so aside from a disgruntled former member or two there’s no-one in this film providing any kind of insight. There are a few entertaining scenes with actors who have been employed to participate in reconstructions of Scientology events and supposed common practices, but the decision to incorporate a Tom Cruise lookalike into as many of these as possible sucks all the credibility from an exercise that was barely credible in the first place. A bit of a let-down, so I’ve made a mental note to check out Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
The Piano (Campion, 1993): This was my ‘Blind Spot’ pick for November, but I wasn’t able to write a full review. The Piano is a well-crafted and well-acted tale of white settlers in New Zealand, and it’s no surprise to me that the performances by Holly Hunter and a young Anna Paquin won awards (Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel are also excellent). The film has a muted, downbeat feel that reflects and is informed by its main character – a mute Scottish woman who is sold into marriage by her father – while the story transpires to be about forms of communication, or rather the events that can happen when lines of communication break down or are misinterpreted. A very impressive drama, and with a wonderful score by Michael Nyman, though oddly I can’t imagine rushing to see it again any time soon.
My Blueberry Nights (Wong, 2007): A beautifully-shot and colourful film by Wong Kar-Wai that’s hampered from start to finish by a ropey script and average (or downright poor) acting. Jude Law – playing an Englishman in New York who runs a cafe despite being afflicted with a risible ‘Ay oop’ Yorkshire accent – is the principal transgressor, but other reliable types also disappoint, such as Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn; Norah Jones is the lead, and while she’s better than the aforementioned it’s no surprise that her acting career failed to take off in the wake of this. Not the director’s best effort by a long stretch, but Wong’s impressionist style is so strong, and such a feast for the eyes, that it just about makes My Blueberry Nights worth watching.
Now You See Me 2 (Chu, 2016): I can’t think of many films that make a more spectacular waste of an expensively-assembled and reasonably talented cast than this one (although hey, somewhat unsurprisingly the original Now You See Me runs it close). This magic-related sequel coughs and splutters its way towards (and then through) three barely-explainable, ultra-flashy showpieces, with a garbled revenge plot doing little other than irritating this weary viewer. ‘Tis hard to give even as much as a miniscule modicum of a shit about any of the characters; writer Ed Solomon seems uninterested in giving any of them any depth at all, so it’s almost impossible to care about anything that happens. My advice is that you should avoid this turkey at all cost and spend two hours watching The Great Soprendo on YouTube instead.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Ficarra, Requa, 2016): There are a few problematic elements here, such as the fact that white western actors have been cast as Afghans (casting agent: “Uh…what’s Alfred Molina got on next month?”); plus, for a film that’s largely set in Afghanistan, there’s a distinct lack of focus on the locals (as per A Hologram For The King, the American on foreign soil here forms a temporary bond with a fixer/driver, but even his character is barely-developed; other than that Afghan people are portrayed in a fairly negative light). Nevertheless, despite these gripes I actually found this quite a likeable, entertaining film, and was won over by it fairly quickly – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a sharp script (Robert Carlock’s screenplay adapts The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a memoir by journalist Kim Barker) There’s an engaging central performance by Tina Fey as Barker, too, even if she’s really just fine-tuning her old Liz Lemon shtick. Elsewhere there are good, vaguely-comic supporting turns by Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. The film is on sure footing when dealing with relationships and the hard-partying lifestyles of foreign correspondents, but less convincing when addressing the agendas of TV news channels and the actual war in Afghanistan; it’s better than I thought it’d be, though.
Cell (Williams, 2016): A terrible Stephen King adaptation in which mobile phone users turn into marauding zombie-like crazies. It’s full of horror clichés, the script is abysmal, the direction is ropey at best, the score is bland, and much of it plays out like an amateurish take on The Walking Dead. Both Samuel L Jackson and John Cusack – two actors who usually exude plenty of charisma – listlessly phone in their performances.
Journey To The Shore (Kurosawa, 2016): This was my first taste of Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (insert obligatory ‘no relation’ comment here), and from what I can gather it’s reflective of his recent move away from terrifying J-horror to calmer, much less unsettling stories. It is a ghost tale, but it shares more common ground with the slow, character-focused cinema of fellow successful exports Kawase and Koreeda than it does with your typical scary movie. The story follows Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) as she deals with the death of her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), but the grieving process is made easier by his sudden reappearance in her life and the subsequent journey that they undertake together. It’s almost like a second honeymoon, though the good times are laced with bitterness and regret; along the way they meet other people, all of whom can see Yusuke, as well as touch or talk to him. This extra time together gives Mizuki the chance to say things that were left unsaid and to address problems they had as a couple, and as such it’s a moving story that benefits from the almost total focus on the two main characters. If you like the strand of slow, intimate Japanese cinema that clearly has its roots in the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi then you’ll probably enjoy this.
Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986): Of all the films by Jim Jarmusch – even the episodic ones – this black and white tail of three men undertaking a jailbreak is the one I’ve always found the most disjointed and uneven; it loses all of its momentum when the action shifts from the streets of New Orleans to the prison, and I don’t think it ever fully recovers from that elongated passage afterwards. Still, the unlikely central trio – Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits and John Lurie – are watchable and Robby Müller’s cinematography is typically excellent, particularly when his camera is allowed to roam outside; in particular I like his smooth, serene tracking shots through swamps and along rows of city houses. The director’s usual idiosyncrasies and interests are all evident here, and I like all of that, but over the years I’ve just grown less and less fond of this one.
Julieta (Almodóvar, 2016): I’ve never seen a Pedro Almodóvar film that I didn’t like (even if some of them are flawed). I would put this year’s Julieta in the upper elechon of his movies – perhaps not quite up there with Talk To Her, All About My Mother or Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, but it’s certainly one of my favourite dramas of 2016. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play older and younger versions of the title character respectively, and part of the joy of the film is seeing how their two performances blend together so seamlessly; the back-and-forth tranisitions between the character at different stages of her life are also helped no end by the editor José Salcedo, the cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu and some creative touches that I must assume came from the director himself. As an older woman Madridista Julieta reflects on a non-existent relationship with daughter Antía; and through flashbacks we see how this has come to pass. The screenplay is first-rate, I was hooked throughout and the main performances are excellent; the two leads do particularly good work, and it’s nice to see Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma on form, here going completely against her real-life public image by playing an unglamorous cleaner.
Ich Seh, Ich Seh (Goodnight Mommy) (Fiala, Franz 2016): The debut feature film by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy is an assured and extremely creepy European arthouse horror that owes a debt of sorts to Michael Haneke – there’s more than just one nod to his Funny Games here. The story is deceptively simple: two nine-year-old twin boys suspect that their mother – who has returned home following plastic surgery – isn’t who she says she is, and gradually they begin to undermine and question her. The joint directors create an unsettling atmosphere for the first couple of acts, confining the action to the family’s large lakeside house and a small amount of surrounding countryside, and there’s a certain sense of building claustrophobia as the story pans out, which pressure occasionally alleviated by some gorgeous, lighter pastoral interludes. Gradually things get weirder and weirder until a slightly overcooked third act undoes some of the preceding good work; the nastiness during the last half-an-hour is a little gratuitous for my liking, but I dare say anyone who usually watches torture porn without flinching will lap it up.