Jane Got A Gun (O’Connor, 2016): A fairly poor western that never fully commits to the title’s promise of a kick-ass heroine (played by Natalie Portman), and in all honesty barely manages to crawl out from under the wreckage of its troubled production; at one point notable actors and crew members such as Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Jude Law, Lynne Ramsay and Darius Khondji were attached to the project, but all left for one reason or another. However it’s rewrites – as opposed to the recastings or the replacement director – that have really done for it: some scenes here have blatantly been crowbarred in at a later date, there are tonal inconsistencies throughout, the pacing is jittery and plot points that could have been expanded upon are dealt with far too quickly. To cap it all, it lacks energy, and verve.
Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945): I’m torn on this one. (1) I quite liked Bergman, whose character (a psychoanalyst) holds it together in the face of accusations of frigidity from male peers, leery behaviour by strangers and other incidents of sexism; but then there’s Peck and his awful “I’m in a trance, me” acting, which made me laugh during the passages that I should have been taking seriously. (2) On the one hand Spellbound is full of psychoanalytical chuff that seems ridiculous today, but then I suppose as a subject much of it was new(ish) back in 1945 – certainly in America, anyway – and Ben Hecht’s screenplay warrants a little slack-cutting as a result. (3) Then there’s Miklós Rózsa’s score: insistent, fitting, memorable… a worthy Oscar winner, perhaps, but it’s present throughout and by the end I just wanted a break from it. (4) And, finally, there are far too many scenes here that are just plain dull; however, there are also some truly excellent examples of Hitchcock’s grandstanding: the ski slope scene, the bizarre Dali-esque dream sequence, the self-opening doors, the close-up on the cutthroat razor, the shot of the gun at the end that turns toward and fires at the audience (you can just picture a 15-year-old Godard devouring that one during a matinee showing in Paris at the time). So… a few things I wasn’t keen on, but ultimately it’s always good to watch a Hitchcock film you haven’t seen before.
Where To Invade Next (Moore, 2016): Michael Moore’s latest subversive film suggests that the US could learn from different countries around the world (instead of repeatedly invading them – his cheap shot, not mine), and thus begins a tour of several nations (mainly European, with a brief stop in Tunisia) where the director and activist highlights a particular piece of policy or legislation or daily life that would improve American lifestyles if the US administration were to free up funds and try to implement it (e.g by spending less on the military). So he looks at worker’s rights and holiday/maternity leave entitlement in Italy, school dinners in France, prisons in Norway and more. There are brief glimpses of Moore’s ire but it’s mostly genial, light-hearted stuff filled with mock-surprise, all loosely tied together by a vaguely silly premise. Not his finest hour, but well-meaning and it ends on an extremely positive note, with Moore giving plenty of reasons to back up his assertion that implementing these changes isn’t an impossible task.
Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008): By the time the vampire baseball started I was really regretting my decision to watch all five Twilight Saga films, but my personality precludes me from stopping now that I have one of them in the bag. Damn… I just hope they get better. I wanted very much to like the initial entry in this teen-romance-horror-soap, and I gather lots of people do, but sadly I couldn’t get past the fact that the effects are poor, the acting is often laudible, the script is clunky as hell, the camerawork is distracting and inconsistent, the decision to film some scenes from what seems like 10 or 20 different angles is bizarre and the overall look chosen for the film – all sallow youths and washed-out colours – is way too obvious. But hey, it’s not like I’m in the target demographic or anything, so if you liked it I dare say you’ll be thinking that I can go fuck myself. We all win!
La Jetée (Marker, 1962) Why didn’t anyone tell me to watch this years and years ago / why wasn’t I listening when they did? This short (29 minutes) French film from the early 60s is rightly lauded, not least because it packs as much into its half hour as most features manage in two full ones. Mostly consisting of a series of still black-and-white photographs, it’s a superbly-crafted post-apocalyptic time travel tale about memories and the importance of images that inventively masks its presumably-tiny budget and manages to not tie itself up in knots. The (acknowledged) influence on Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is obvious, and given the shared ground it also has with The Terminator one has to assume that Cameron is or was another fan. Chris Marker’s early 60s art movie is a fine high-concept lesson in economical storytelling, pacing, use of narration and repetition; it’s also a magnificent example of the essay film.
Mystery Train (Jarmusch, 1989): I love Jim Jarmusch’s films, from his more recent genre experiments all the way back to his earlier, awkward indie portmanteaus. This trio of loosely-connected stories from 1989 is set in Memphis, and all three feature foreign protagonists who end up staying at the same run-down flophouse on the same evening (where the receptionist is played by no less a man than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins). First up are two young Japanese tourists, Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and her boyfriend Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), in town to soak up the city’s rich musical history. He’s a Carl Perkins fan while her preference is for Elvis, and The King becomes one of the main unifying threads across the movie: Preseley’s version of Blue Moon is repeatedly heard on the radio, each one of the three hotel rooms that feature has a picture of Elvis in it and he even appears as a ghost at one point. The first story is the standout, but the second (starring Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco) isn’t too bad and much of the comedy is reserved for the third (in which Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles hide out after a shooting). It’s typically quirky and beautifully-lensed by Jarmusch/Wim Wenders regular Robby Müller – his take on run-down, overgrown Memphis really is special.
Green Room (Saulnier, 2016): Jeremy Saulnier follows up 2014’s minor breakthrough hit Blue Ruin with this small-scale, tense backwoods thriller starring the late Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Macon Blair and Patrick Stewart, among others. In Green Room a left-wing punk band called The Ain’t Rights find themselves playing to a crowd of neo-nazi skinheads and white supremacists in the middle of nowhere, and things start off badly when the band chooses to open its set with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off by The Dead Kennedys. Due to other, more serious events occurring around the band it quickly goes downhill from there, and soon enough the musicians find themselves locked in the titutlar backstage area while Stewart’s ferocious gang leader paces around outside, planning to kill them. It’s fairly frenetic, with the odd spot of gruesome violence, and it’s as thrilling as it is tense. It’s also a lot of fun as a result, and although it’s not quite in the same class as Saulnier’s previous film, I enjoyed it.
La Pointe Courte (Varda, 1955): Agnès Varda’s low-budget debut is a new wave forerunner, starkly shot in black and white using a camera that endlessly wanders around a small fishing village in the south of France. Varda has as much interest in the private and public lives of the village’s families, and their struggle to make a living, as she has in the young-ish couple at the heart of the film, who are going through marriage difficulties (Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret). It’s an assured, good-looking debut, but I can’t say I was grabbed by the subject matter.
Du côté de la côte (Varda, 1958): This is a witty short travelogue about the French Riviera by Varda; it’s quite amusing and I’m glad to discover I share with the director a dislike of overcrowded beaches. Also interesting to watch from a historical point of view, with all the old style bathing costumes, cars, etc.
13th (DuVernay, 2016): A potent, timely documentary by Ava DuVernay that addresses the current state of the penal/criminal justice systems in the US, arguing that both of these over time have been manipulated by political powers and others in order to facilitate the large-scale incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. (Despite the US only having 5% of the world’s population a shocking 25% of all the world’s prisoners are in US jails.) 13th – named after the amendment – looks at the history of 20th century attitudes to race in the US, tracing a line from DW Griffith’s propaganda piece The Birth Of A Nation all the way through to the modern day, taking in Donald Trump’s hate-mongering and the Black Lives Matter movement along the way. It also sheds light on some inherently dodgy legislative practices and administrative policies. It’s hard not to feel anything other than anger while watching the film, and in its aftermath, and I’d say that this is essential viewing for anyone (it’s available on Netflix). DuVernay’s documentary is very well put together, too; as well as the (mostly) intelligent and illuminating interviews with talking heads, there’s a sense of urgency created from the way that certain phrases appear on screen in block capital letters, and a rousing use of key hip-hop tracks from the past 30 or so years. The style doesn’t detract from the substance, though.