Recent Viewing #14

Nerve (Schulman, Joost, 2016): It’s a throwaway piece of genre fluff, sure, but I’m still perplexed as to how Nerve received plenty of positive reviews upon its release earlier in 2016. To me it looks, sounds and feels like a cheap Black Mirror knock-off that lacks any of the edge, wit or playfulness of Charlie Brooker’s TV show, but perhaps more importantly for a film that places technology and social media front and centre it already feels dated, with the in-film, on-screen design unforgivably bringing to mind mid-90s techno-thrillers like The Net and Hackers. The entirely forgettable story is largely concerned with the players and spectators of an imaginary online game – a popularity contest in which daredevils can win money while being filmed. Cue a slightly stupid teenager (Emma Roberts) getting in over her head and taking on a series of progressively more dangerous dares for cash rewards while ‘watchers’ glued to their phones record her and egg her on. Roberts is an energetic, likeable lead, at least, but she was much better in Palo Alto, a film that allowed her to play a more interesting character; opposite her Dave Franco attempts to walk the fine line between charm and smarm and ends up displaying way too much of the latter. (*)

As Mil E Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto (Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One) (Gomes, 2016): I’ve been looking forward to watching Miguel Gomes’ mammoth, widely-celebrated six-hour take on Arabian Nights (or One Thousand And One Nights, to give the ‘source material’ its proper title) for some time. The Portuguese director has been inspired by the stories of the original and has refashioned a few of them into a series of fables about modern day Portugal; each of them is, to some extent, a reflection on the way that the economic downturn or austerity measures have affected the country and its inhabitants, and the style Gomes employs veers from self-reflexive docudrama to satirical fantasy and even to broad farce. I must admit I didn’t know where I was during the opening 20 minutes: here, Gomes details the problems of a struggling shipyard and the issues faced by its workers, before subsequently entering into an artistic hand-wringing session while considering his duties as a director at this moment in time, and the risks inherent when making a piece of entertainment dealing with poverty and other very real problems facing the country’s citizens. (So, basically, he’s addressing criticisms of the film before they’ve even been made.) After that, though, Volume 1 settles down into several more digestible stories which, I presume, is how it’ll continue in Volumes 2 and 3. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s an interesting and playful film with a freewheeling spirit, and surprisingly unencumbered by the dourness of the subject matter. (***½)

meddler_unit_0028.CR2The Meddler (Scafaria, 2016): This is the kind of easygoing movie that slips under the radar each year. It’s a gentle comedy drama from Lorene Scafaria, and although I’ve only seen one of her films before that does at least allow me to say that it’s much better than her earlier, oh-so-cutesy Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Susan Sarandon is on really good form here as Marnie, a widowed New Yorker ‘meddling’ in the life of her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a newly-single writer based in LA. Marnie is a warm, generous and well-meaning person, and spending an hour and a half in her company is quite a pleasant experience – it’s just one of those stories where you want good things to happen to her and by proxy everyone else that she knows and loves. I suppose if anything The Meddler seems unsure of its audience, or at least unwilling to commit fully to the one Scafaria presumably hoped to attract: her screenplay doesn’t sustain the smart, nippy humour contained within the first 30 minutes or so, and the writer-director reverts to sugary, rom-commy passages that are more likely to please the crowds, which is a bit of a shame. But I liked it, overall, and any film that casts JK Simmons as a man named Zipper is going to get a pass from me. (***)

Supersonic (Whitecross, 2016): I was a fan, back in the early days, and followed the Manchester band Oasis as they went from miniscule venues on the toilet circuit to massive stadium gigs in the space of a couple of years, so I guess I’m somewhat predisposed to liking Mat Whitecross’s documentary Supersonic. It may tread over familiar rock biopic ground as it charts the band’s rise, but it’s always entertaining, and Liam and Noel Gallagher – the sparring, comical brothers at the heart of the band – quickly became well-oiled quote machines while enjoying their time in the eye of the storm: they were a pair of utterly absurd cartoon characters, despite (or perhaps because of) all their macho bravado and bickering, and some of the things we hear them say in this documentary are quite funny. The laddishness and cocky swagger of the band seems completely ridiculous now, and it’s all somewhat embarrassing in hindsight – one can only imagine how unfortnate fellow hotel residents or ferry passengers felt as rooms were trashed and fights broke out in the name of ‘aving it. At least if you were around at the time you may well have as many fond memories of their music as I do – be it as a result of their incendiary live performances, the era-defining early albums or those sublime, reflective b-sides. There’s plenty of that here, and I like the fact that the film ignores their weaker period and eventual break-up, ending instead with the triumphant Knebworth gigs which saw the band play to hundreds of thousands of fans. Anyone wanting a more complete story might feel a little short-changed, but the director has chosen the most interesting period of the band’s history to focus on, and the era in which they recorded their best material, and I think the decision is a good one. My only other gripe is that I’d have liked a few more interviews with fans from the early-to-mid 90s. (***)

the-beatles-pr-topline-bb23-2016-billboard-1548The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years (Howard, 2016): Before watching this I wondered if we really needed another Beatles documentary – especially given how exhaustive some of the previous ones have been – and almost considered rewatching The Rutles – All You Need Is Cash instead (because, let’s face it, it’s a masterpiece). However I’m glad I gave Ron Howard’s new documentary a go, after all. As the title suggests he concentrates on the Fab Four’s years as a touring band, which mainly equates to the full-on Beatlemania period between 1963 and 1966, with only a small amount of time devoted to thei origins and the studio-based years towards the end of the 1960s. There’s plenty of excellent live footage even if some of it is overfamiliar – The Hollywood Bowl, Shea Stadium, their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, etc – and lots of archive material such as photographs (which are uniformly excellent, it has to be said), press conferences, home video footage and clips from news and movies (such as A Hard Day’s Night). There aren’t too many new contributions from Ringo or Macca, and I don’t really think Howard himeslf has anything fresh to say about The Beatles, but one or two of the people he interviews, such as Whoopi Goldberg and Elvis Costello, offer interesting personal views. And the footage of screaming crowds from the early 60s is always great to see; music had such power over people back then, and there’s an electricity to those early Beatles gigs and public appearances that is still exciting to watch today. However, where I said above that Mat Whitecross has focused on the most interesting / only interesting period of Oasis’s career, I can’t really let this short review pass without registering my disappointment that this film peters out just as The Beatles are becoming really interesting, as if Howard doesn’t want to go near the drugs, funny clothes, studio experimentation, appropriation of Indian culture and music or later financial wrangling and bitterness, and instead just wants his own time capsule of early 60s America, in which the Beatles preserved forever as suited and booted head-nodding pop fodder. Maybe the filmmaker will attempt a follow-up addressing the later period, or even one that looks back a little more thoroughly at their early, rougher days in Liverpool and Hamburg. Until then, as enjoyable as Eight Days A Week is, I have a feeling there could be a better Beatles documentary to come from Howard. (***½)

As Mil E Uma Noites: Volume 2, O Desolado (Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One) (Gomes, 2016): The second part of Miguel Gomes’s trilogy (see above) is more straightforward than the first, in the sense that this portmanteau does not include anything like the opening sequence of the first film; there are three sections here that reinterpret Scheherazade’s tales, and the mood – as the title suggests – is darker, slightly naughtier (writhing naked bodies…hurrah!) and suffused with melancholy. Long periods of silence inform the first story, about an elderly killer on the run from police (to bring it bang up to date the cops are using a drone to find him), while the second is the complete opposite: a dialogue-heavy ramble about a judge who is presiding over a number of different (and bizarre) court cases at night in a village. I just didn’t have the patience for that bit, but the film improves with a more conventional final act about various people living in and near a tower block whose lives are linked together by a small dog. I’m hoping the third film is an improvement; this one is patchy and lacks much of the playfulness of Volume 1. (**½)

chevalierChevalier (Tsangari, 2016): Set almost exclusively onboard a luxury yacht, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s droll dramedy examines masculinity and the competitive male nature in a brilliantly acerbic fashion, and it benefits a lot from one of the year’s most well-observed screenplays. The yacht in question is owned by a Greek doctor, and joining him on a fishing/diving/bonding trip are several friends, colleagues and acquaintances, plus a few crew members; they are all men, and all are eventually shown to be – in one way or another – absolutely ridiculous. One night a rather silly argument causes the group to hold a competition to find out who among them is the best at ‘being a man’. This involves lots of mini tasks and games – during which they all publically judge and privately grade one another – ranging from ‘who has the lowest cholesterol level’ to ‘who sleeps the most comfortably’ and ‘who can build an IKEA bookcase the fastest’. The eventual winner, to be announced at the end of their trip, will be crowned ‘the best in general’ and will get to wear a chevalier ring until they all reconvene for another short break (the ultimate worthlessness of both the title and the trinket serving to highlight just how pathetic the actions of this group are). As the inner competitiveness of the men increases, certain dynamics and alliances form between them (or rather they become more apparent), while other pre-existing relationships change, and individuals are singled out for subtle undermining or outright humiliation, with the greatest male pride weak spot – virility – discussed on more than one occasion. Other private conversations between the men are always loaded, the competition at hand completely dominating the trip and all its interactions. The thought of losing becomes all too much for one or two, and not necessarily the people who are shown to be mentally or physically weaker by Tsangari during the film’s early scenes. Naturally it eventually boils down to one alpha versus another, but my word getting to that point is an entertaining 90 minutes, with the writer-director milking the ridiculousness of the situation for all it’s worth and having plenty of fun at the expense of men more generally: below deck even the boat’s captain and cook, who aren’t even taking part in the competition, bicker constantly. The script is terrific, the cast is excellent and I urge you to check this one out: it’s one of the highlights of 2016. (****)

Sully (Eastwood, 2016): For years now I’ve found Clint’s films to be hit and miss; for every Letters From Iwo Jima or Mystic River there’s a maddeningly-slow, ponderous dud, which is frustrating, though I also have a suspicion my appreciation for one or two of these will grow as I myself get older, assuming that my tastes continue to change in later life as they have done during the past 20 or 30 years. Sully – which deals with the so-called 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ plane landing and the subsequent investigation into the decisions made by pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) is a remarkably brisk and enjoyable old school drama, and it’s as confidently-made as you’d expect an Eastwood/Hanks joint to be in 2016: one has made a number of films about reluctant heros who are thrust into the spotlight, while the other has played the American everyman who steps up to the plate at a time of crisis so often he makes it look utterly effortless. The actual landing on the river – which, as we know, all passengers and crew survived – is shown a couple of times (with the director subtly shifting the perspective), and it’s a testament to Eastwood’s skill that it makes for gripping, big-screen drama each time, despite the fact the outcome is well known (and I think plenty of kudos is due to editor Blu Murray for helping to make these sequences so thrilling). This being Clint, he (rightly) celebrates the quick response by those working in the emergency services and others in New York that day, and then maddeningly sets up the government’s NTSB investigation panel as villains, which hasn’t gone down too well with anyone concerned with factual accuracy (or indeed the real-life investigators themselves). Overall, though, it’s a very solid piece and – as with last year’s Bridge Of Spies – sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy a couple of old hands drawing on every bit of their experience and making it all look so damn easy. (****)

img_9328Life, Animated (Williams, 2016): A heartwarming and fascinating documentary about Owen Suskind, who, as a child, struggled to communicate verbally and non-verbally with his parents as a result of his autism; those parents eventually managed a breakthrough with the help of Disney’s extensive back catalogue of films, using Owen’s love for and encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid – as well as several older classics – to encourage him to speak and make more eye contact. Owen’s early years are represented here through home video footage and simple but effective animations, while the modern footage follows him as he seeks to establish himself independently in a new condo; he has developed into a friendly young man, which must be such a relief for his parents. I wiped away the occasional tear, particularly during Owen’s screenings of Disney classics for friends; during these scenes it’s clear that this is a beautiful, life-affirming gem, and the general air of cynicism that I carry with me everywhere temporarily buggered off. (****)

Desdé Alla (From Afar) (Vigas, 2016): This Venezuelan drama, set on the busy streets of Caracas, is an unconventional romance, in that its central love story is defined partly by incidents of violent behaviour and perhaps shaped by earlier, unseen abuse. A wealthy, middle class single man named Armando (Alfredo Castro) cruises bus stops for younger men, who he then pays to strip off while he masturbates nearby… though technically for a sexual act he is distant despite being in the same room, which is one of the few reasons for the film’s title. Armando accosts a street thug named Élder (Luis Silva), who turns on the older man and severely beats him, so it’s a surprise when they become close afterwards, and that their affair becomes quite full-on. It’s a well-played, well-acted drama, though unfortunately the sub-plot involving Élder’s girlfriend and her brother, who is part of a rival gang, is by-the-numbers and – in a fairly short film – takes valuable time away from the central, more intriguing love story, despite its relevance to the overall piece. (***)

Comments 8

    • Stu December 26, 2016

      Thanks Cindy – and a belated Merry Christmas to you too. I am sorry I haven’t responded to your email but will do so shortly! I enjoyed Sully a lot, and wasn’t expecting to at all… I’m not sure why!

      • Cindy Bruchman December 26, 2016

        Hi Stu. No worries, write when you can. 🙂 I like it when I go in without expecting much and being delightfully surprised. Maybe when we relax and try not to analyze the hell out of it, we find we enjoy more movies. That’s me, anyway. 😉

        • Stu December 27, 2016

          Yes, and for similar reasons I am going to try to start avoiding trailers in 2017!

  1. Todd B December 22, 2016

    Hey, comments! Hi Stu, hope things are going well with the youngster. Like Cindy, ‘Sully’ is the only one from your list I’ve seen, and I agree with your review; it’s my favorite of the year so far. I’m interested in seeing the Beatles doc as well, and ‘Life, Animated’ sounds like one I’d like to search out. And just think: when your kid gets older, there’s going to be nothing but Disney reviews on your site!

    • Stu December 27, 2016

      Thanks Todd. I’m actually looking forward to watching some more films by the Sinister Disney Corporation. There are actually quite a few (classic and modern) that I’ve never seen, but once we get past about 7pm I’ll hopefully have violence and gore and stuff on the TV to stop me from going crazy.
      I liked Sully a lot more than I was expecting to…very impressed.

    • Stu December 27, 2016

      All good thanks mate, but busy and unable to write long reviews any more! Thanks for the Xmas wishes and all the best for 2017.
      As for Arabian Nights, by the third one I was finding it a bit of a slog, but you might well get more out of it than me. I was a bit disappointed by it overall, given the critical praise heaped upon it.

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