The Founders (Fisk, Schrader, 2016): Charlene Fisk and Carrie Schrader’s documentary about thirteen American women who battled sexism and other obstacles at the start of the 1950s to become the first professional female golfers is, sadly, a little on the dry side. I suppose if you’re interested in the history of golf – or the history of professional sports in the US more generally – then you may well get more out of it than I did. Oh well.
Trumbo (Roach, 2016): I suppose the main reason for watching this biopic of the famous (and once blacklisted / imprisoned) screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is the performance by Bryan Cranston in the title role; old Heisenberg was nominated for an Oscar and plenty of other awards to boot. He is very good, and the script by John McNamara is occasionally worthy of Trumbo himself – the dialogue sparkles during one early scene in which Trumbo puts an aggressive John Wayne (David James Elliott) in his place, for example, and there are choice lines scattered throughout the movie. Yet the tone is mixed: its often light and frothy, with game turns by the likes of Helen Mirren, Louis CK, Michael Stuhlbarg and John Goodman (who is typecast here, playing a big, violent brute-of-a-man), while simultaneously asking us to grasp the severity of the anti-Communist witch hunts and the life- and career-destroying actions of the HUAC. It ain’t a classic but I found myself enjoying most of it, especially the various depictions of Old Hollywood names (Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Otto Preminger, Louis B. Mayer, etc.)
Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1975): Clearly a beautiful and thought-provoking film, though one that I struggled to follow due to its non-linear nature and all the cutting between different periods that Tarkovsky employs. I feel like a second viewing is required at some stage before I’ll really be able to get my head around it. (And all this is despite the fact that I cheated and started consulting Wikipedia after 15 minutes or so to help me through it.) I can’t think of a time that I’ve been more impressed by the movement of the camera – it serves as a guide throughout, drawing you in to scenes, taking you out of them, constantly offering new perspectives, introducing rooms and people, and providing information that may or may not be valuable to you. That’s the sign of a director who is fascinated by the world and everything in it.
Touch Of Evil (Welles, 1958): Hey, so I might well have found my favourite noir, even though it’s an obvious choice and there are certain noir staples missing (not least a femme fatale, unless you count Marlene Dietrich’s rather incidental bordello madam, which I don’t). The idea that Welles was a spent force by the late 50s is ludicrous, as this is one of his best and most enjoyable films; in all honesty I’d sooner watch it again than Citizen Kane, even though I don’t think Touch Of Evil is better than or as important as that earlier sacred cow. Anyway, what we have here is a Mexico/US border murder-mystery, at the heart of which we find Charlton Heston as Mexican investigator Vargas (oh dear), Janet Leigh as Susie, the wife he leaves alone to deal with various local hoods, and Welles himself as monstrous, gammy-legged American police captain Quinlan. The opening 200-second tracking shot tells you you’re in for something special, while the use of dutch angles and frames that are crammed with starkly-lit faces by Welles and his DP Russell Metty is just fantastic. It’s a masterpiece.
Boulevard (Montiel, 2016): Dito Montiel’s fifth film was overlooked upon release; its perhaps most notable for being Robin Williams’ final appearance, and he is quite good as a married bank clerk whose long-term suppression of his sexual identity ends as he enters into a platonic relationship with a male prostitute (even though it isn’t quite up there with his finest performances). Kathy Baker is very good as his wife. It’s fairly short, low-key, and worth a look if you’re a fan of Williams’s serious performances, though I can’t really say that Boulevard made a great impression on me.
Queen Of Earth (Perry, 2016): Alex Ross Perry seems to enjoy creating unlikeable characters. I found the Philip of last year’s Listen Up Philip completely insufferable, though thankfully the two main figures here (a pair of bickering friends played by Elisabeth Moss – who is excellent – and Katherine Waterston) aren’t anywhere near as bad; both are presented as being in circumstances that elicit sympathy, and which make their cruel, snippy behaviour toward one another understandable, to a certain degree. (The real asshole here is played by a smirking Patrick Fugit, though as the film progresses one begins to wonder just how ‘real’ his character actually is.) The two women are staying at a lakeside house; Moss’s character (an artist) is recovering from the death of her father (also an artist, and a successful one to boot), and she is seen breaking-up with a partner in the opening scene. She requires the sympathy of her friend, though through flashbacks we see that their roles have kinda/sorta reversed from a holiday at the same house a year before, and that a streak of self-centred unpleasantness was also present during the earlier vacation. The scenario serves as a solid and intriguing foundation, on which Perry builds a tightly-wound, Persona-esque psychological drama, hinting at fluid identities, schizophrenia, breakdowns and mirrored reality (not least via the constant and slightly unnerving shots of watery reflections). Strangeness seeps into the film as it progresses and the soundtrack constantly forewarns of trouble to come, but the true nature of the movie isn’t fully revealed until the final scene (and indeed the haunting, creepy final shot, when Perry freezes the action on the face of one of the characters). Grainy, slightly de-saturated film stock helps to cement the links to Bergman’s most productive period, and there’s some lovely photography of the location, mainly in terms of the exterior shots. I much prefer it to the director’s previous film, and Moss continues to impress; this is the best cinematic performance I’ve seen by her yet, and the best she has been since her long-running turn as Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.
The Finest Hours (Gillespie, 2016): An undemanding and reassuringly old-fashioned disaster/rescue tale from Disney. It’s based on the true story of the US Coast Guard’s daring rescue of the men of the SS Pendleton in 1952, which was carried out in the midst of a terrible storm off the New England coast. Chris Pine (stoic, slightly doubtful but ultimately heroic) and Ben Foster (fairly silent, in the passenger seat throughout, no dramatic soundtrack during any of his bits) play two of the rescuers, while Casey Affleck is the calm engineer on board the Pendleton whose quick thinking saved everyone on board from certain death. The special effects looked pretty good on the small screen, while there are some exciting and realistic-looking sequences on board the floundering ship and on the smaller rescue boat as mighty, massive waves toss everything and everyone around. Not a bad film, and exciting at times, though it has been Disneyfied in extremis: the coastal town where worried relatives and locals gather has a fake, idyllic, Bedford Falls-esque look about it, and despite the terrible conditions there never seems to be any sign of the wind…and no-one seems to actually feel the cold, which obviously suggests studio green screen and undermines the effects. That’s a bit weird.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (Hill, 1969): There seems little point in writing about this one. You’ve probably seen it, you know it starts off jokey and optimistic and that our heroes are seemingly invincible, before everything starts to unravel. You know the iconic freeze-frame ending – which basically almost seemed to serve as an abrupt full-stop for the western genre. You know the Raindrops… scene. And you know that it’s really a love story between Butch and Sundance, right? Right? Look, it’s an excellent (and important) film for so many reasons, but that extended fucking “ba-ba-ba” montage in Bolivia isn’t one of them.
River (Dagg, 2016): A low budget but reasonably entertaining chase movie, in which an American doctor working in Laos accidentally kills an Australian man who has sexually assaulted a Laotian woman, and subsequently goes on the run from the authorities. It suggests that foreign nationals sometimes receive preferential treatment at the hands of Thai authorities (the final act is set over the border), which is partly due to a desire to keep backpackers and other tourists flowing into the area; there are also hints at poor decision-making and corruption within the Laos health system. It moves at quite a lick, like its on-the-run protagonist, and the beautiful Laos karst formations and river views that appear regularly provide a stunning backdrop. Not bad.
Sausage Party (Vernon, Tiernan): Oh dear me. Sausages…they’re a bit like penises. Geddit? Penises! And they can be put in buns! Uh huh huh huh. Huh. I just need to forget everything about Sausage Party as quickly as possible. Honestly…this is what some people are celebrating as the comedic pinnacle of 2016? I guess it’s an attempted spoof of Pixar’s movies with a message – there’s loads of unsubtle, kindergarten-level material about religious and racial (in)tolerance here, but it’s really just an excuse for everyone to partake in racist cariacatures and jokes. It tries way too hard to offend in a world where nothing in movie comedies really offends any more, and it has got this vaguely sneery air about it, like everyone involved knows they’re intellectually far above the lowest common denominator they’re pitching at, but carries on doing so regardless. I’ve long realised that I like very little where at least three our four members of the Frat Pack are involved (Franco, Rogen, Goldberg, Hill, Cera, Rudd, McBride, et al), but this is a new low. My overall disappointment is compounded by the recurring presence of people that I really do like in these fuckawful, smug, self-congratulatory comedies, such as Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. And Edward Norton is dead to me now… at least for four or five weeks.