Bande De Filles (Girlhood) (Sciamma, 2015): My second viewing of this excellent French film, which was one of my favourites of 2015, and it’s just as good this time round. A wonderful coming-of-age story dealing with femininity, appearances, bonding, crime, sisterhood, prospects and the different kinds of threats that are posed by some men within the banlieues of Paris. Funny at times, very moving at others, and directed with verve and confidence by Céline Sciamma.
The Mechanic (West, 2011): Bi-annual fix of The Stath, and The Mechanic is every bit as preposterous (and oddly entertaining) as his other films, with a slight amount of extra class added by Ben Foster and Donald Sutherland. I think my favourite thing about it is that Jason Statham’s hitman’s thing is to listen to classical music on vinyl, and he methodically polishes the records before the stylus hits the groove like some kind of fucking weirdo, which is supposed to let the audience know how thorough he is. It’s a remake of the Michael Winner/Charles Bronson flick from the 1970’s, which isn’t particularly great but it’s certainly superior to this.
The Last Man On The Moon (Craig, 2016): Going up into space and walking on the moon. What a trip. Can you imagine? Gene Cernan was the last person to do so, over 40 years ago, and this well-made documentary by Mark Craig examines his life and career as a pilot with the US Navy and as an astronaut with NASA. It’s insightful, and if you’ve got a soft spot for incredible feats of achievement and the wonder of exploration – which you should have, really – there’s a lot to enjoy here. The film contains some fascinating archive footage, tearjerking passages and plenty of considered reflections by Cernan himself, who acknowledges that his fantastic career has come at a price (he feels there have been times when his family have been neglected). He seems like a humble guy, and I like the fact that his first steps on the moon were not accompanied by a (subsequently iconic) rehearsed line like Neil Armstrong’s “It’s one small step for man…”, but instead a rather surprised exclamation of “Oh my golly! Unbelievable!”
Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington (Junger, 2013): Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 while reporting on the front line in Misrata, Libya, during the country’s civil war; the explosion that took Hetherington’s life also claimed that of photographer Chris Hondros and severely wounded another, Guy Martin. This documentary – made by Hetherington’s co-director on the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, Sebastian Junger – is a fitting portrait of the man which largely concentrates on his work in Liberia, Libya and Afghanistan. It offers insight into war, the desire and bravery of those who strive to document it, and it details Hetherington’s warm, compassionate and friendly personality. A sad loss.
Mad Max (Miller, 1979): George Miller’s low budget exploitation film/road movie is understandably a little rough around the edges – part of the charm for many people – but every time I’ve watched it I’ve been left frustrated by its shortcomings. Some of the editing makes the story a little incoherent – perhaps unsurprising, given that the original editor, Tony Patterson, had to leave the production before it was completed – while additionally the dialogue is often cringe-inducing and the acting throughout leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it’s a cheap B-movie, and the performances are at least entertainingly enthusiastic; you’re thrown into this post-apocalyptic landscape without much in the way of an explanation as to why it has deviated from our own recognisable status quo, but it’s fascinatingly sparse and filled with odd moments and odder characters, and the actors certainly do their bit in creating a sense of society descending into anarchy and chaos. Miller’s flair for filming car chases is also obvious in this initial chapter; we even see stuntmen leaping onto moving vehicles with the use of pole vaults, a trick that he would reprise in later Mad Max installments. The film hasn’t aged well, but if you enjoy looking at burning rubber, shots of chrome vehicle parts, crashes, leather and the like it’ll hold your interest, and the film’s more gruesome elements are fun. (Whisper it: I kind of wish I’d rewatched David Michôd’s Mad Max homage The Rover, instead, but at least this’ll lead me on to seeing Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior again.)
The Propaganda Game (Longoria, 2015): An interesting documentary about life (or the imitation of life) in North Korea, made by a Spanish filmmaker and, rather weirdly, featuring a fellow Spaniard who has denounced western imperialism and capitalism and has pledged allegiance to Kim Jong-un, effectively becoming a kind of high-profile cheerleader for the Workers’ Party and its ideology. There are some attempts to find answers to all our obvious, long-held questions about the country, but predictably director Álvaro Longoria is never left alone while he’s filming in the country and interview subjects tow the line professionally or look incredibly nervous, possibly because of the presence of watching or translating party stooges. Much of what the filmmaker sees and is shown – and in turn what we see – is staged, presumably, though some of it is so well done it’s hard to know how much of it precisely is smoke and mirrors; for example a Christian church service looks normal enough, but Longoria guesses that it’s fake because the singing by the congregation is note-perfect. There’s an interesting parallel drawn between the propaganda of the Workers’ Party and the propaganda about North Korea that exists within western media, and the film also forces you to question how readily and easily you believe the tabloid-style headlines and TV reports about the country that many of us in the west tend to see. Well-balanced and often fascinating.
Suffragette (Gavron, 2015): Sarah Gavron’s film is a well-intended and long overdue dramatisation of the women’s suffrage movement within the UK, and it’s a movie that by and large seems to handle the weight of expectation placed upon it, as well as the need to do justice to those who campaigned for the right to vote (particularly Emily Davison, who gave her life for the cause by running in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby). A classy cast has been assembled, with Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Meryl Streep and Ben Whishaw all providing support to star Carey Mulligan, who anchors the film with a strong performance as a politicised working class washer woman, wife and mother; Mulligan is very good (as always), as are the cast generally, though as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst Streep just seems to be carrying on from where she left off in The Iron Lady (in which she played Margaret Thatcher). The scenes of police and prison worker brutality are quite heavy, and the scenes of protest and action taken by the suffragettes ring true, but sadly the film also has several flaws. First, how on earth does Brendan Gleeson’s character know in advance where every single protest or act of civil disobedience is going to take place, for example, unless he’s operating with the help of Ye Olde GCHQ? Secondly, the incesseant camera shake is needlessly distracting. And thirdly, considering this is such an important political story in terms of the UK’s recent history, the film’s actually very light on high-level politics (come on, audiences aren’t that scared of a little Houses-of-Parliament discourse). That all said, I thought the decision to show the relationships that various female characters endure with the men they live with and work with was a good one, and it’s a decent watch, when all is said and done, with plenty of attention to period detail.
James White (Mond, 2015): Intense indie by Josh Mond about a young guy whose life goes off the rails as he deals with his father’s death and his mother’s cancer. It’s depressing, as that synopsis suggests, and I dare say any cynics out there who have seen their share of indie dramas will be rolling their eyes, but this is heartfelt, intelligently-scripted and Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon are both excellent in the two main roles. A very promising debut by Mond, who previously produced Martha Marcy May Marlene, and a fine showcase for Abbott, who goes from bruised vulnerability and compassion to coiled-spring aggression in a believable and smooth manner.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981): The best entry in the Mad Max franchise, and another slice of Ozsploitation that takes the successful elements of the first film – the campness of the villains, the steampunk/dieselpunk look (before that was a thing), car chases, boggle-eyed supporting actors, stunts, schlock, silly humour – and ramps it all up tenfold. It also makes full use of a coherent (and simple) story, which is a bonus after the messy first act of the original, while simply reducing the hero’s personality to badass loner was a good move, and a clever way of linking back to the events of Mad Max. Obviously it isn’t intended to be taken seriously – the chief bad guy wears a hockey mask and a studded leather mankini, after all – and if you’re in the right frame of mind this is a lot of fun, right down to the long, thrilling multi-vehicle chase at the end, in which director George Miller finds time for sporadic moments of humour (there’s slapstick when the gunner on Max’s truck sets his own hands on fire, and there’s lots of exagerrated, barbaric yawping and quipping from the antagonist gang members). It’s the closest of the original trilogy in spirit to Miller’s more recent offering Mad Max: Fury Road, though a far better and more engaging movie for my money; its just a shame that Miller failed to develop the Furiosa-style character here (Warrior Woman, as played by Virginia Hey), who is killed off during the final act. But at least that wrong was eventually set right.
Dope (Famuyiwa, 2015): Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is at its best when its three leads – playing a trio of 90’s hip-hop-obsessed, pop culture-savvy geeks – are together on screen and trading lines; it’s a little less successful as a drug-dealing caper, but it certainly maintains a feeling of freshness and a strong, freewheeling sense of style throughout. It’s unusual to see a ghetto setting for a coming-of-age high school film, although for all its gang-related violence and threats this is still recognisable first and foremost as one of those films, with all the usual familiar scenes and characters: the misfits, the encounter with a bully by the lockers, the college application, the main character’s disastrous attempts at losing his virginity and the senior prom as a backdrop for the ending. Yet if you take it as a ghetto crime movie it’s also a very different kind of film to other crime-related films that we’ve seen over the years, particularly those that are also set in LA, simply because of the mix of types of people featured in the story. There’s a great soundtrack too, if you’re into the golden age of hip-hop.