Rapid-Fire Reviews (I)

2016 was a year where I watched more series than at any time before, so when 2017 came around, I told myself “enough with the binge-watching, it’s taking away valuable time that could be spent watching films and going to the cinema instead!” So I bought myself an unlimited access cinema card, which is probably one of the greatest perks of living in Paris. It gives me access to two major chains and a string of independent cinemas, including my favourite: La Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. Since I now watch quite a few films, I thought I might as well share a brief impression on each so that next time you’re looking for something to watch, you can turn to this list. So here goes for my first monthly recap, in rapid fire format. It was marked by a good deal of science-fiction, a couple of classics that languished far too long on my watch list, some films taken from 2016 ‘best of’ articles, plus a varied assortment to keep it funky. With 18 films now under my belt, it’s been a good start to the year.

First with the science-fiction. Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about an unmade adaptation of the classic/monolith that is Dune, kicked it all off. I also watched two of Terry Gilliam’s films, both excellent in their strangeness. Brazil was the best of the two. It is hilarious satirical story about a bureaucrat who inadvertently becomes a spanner in the works of the oppressive administrative machine. Robert de Niro appears in an unexpected comical role, the bureaucrat dreams of flying, his colleagues use torture for “information retrieval” just as we would query a search engine, and the overall absurd effect is hilarious. It was nice to see Bruce Willis in an unusually non-action oriented role in Twelve Monkeys, which is an adaptation of the classic short La Jetée (see it here), a tale about the confusion of a man sent back in time to identify the cause and potential cure of a disaster that rendered the Earth almost inhabitable. Primer is also about time travel, but is far harder to follow. I can’t help but be admiring of a micro-budget ($7000) feature that manages to captivate until the end solely based on its ideas. Problem is I had to look up an explanation after the film and I’m still not sure I fully understand. I have nothing against explanatory diagrams, but not after my evening entertainment, thank you very much.

Moon and Serenity were distinctly more classic fare, and while they were both enjoyable in their own way, I found myself somewhat less involved, often drifting away into unrelated thought. The first is about a lone man (Sam Rockwell) working the lunar station that supplies the Earth with energy from harvested helium, or something like that. He only has himself for company. Oh, and a maintenance robot voice-acted by Kevin Spacey, which is pretty uncanny. The twist of the story, revolving around a confusion of identity, had the potential to be much more interesting. It reminded me vaguely of Solaris. That is without the depth of meaning, the poetry and the dreamlike imagery. I can’t unthink the comparison but it almost makes me ashamed to put the two side by side. Tarkovsky’s is an incomparably greater film. Serenitywas a fun ride, centered around the crew of a starship as they attempt to evade an “Alliance” hitman (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after the life of the young psychic girl among them. All this because she is privy to a military secret that cannot come to light, but eventually does. It was a touch predictable but the action was exciting and the characters fleshed out enough for me to recommend it.

Attack the Block, on the other hand, really grabbed my attention. A group of boys in a London estate come across an alien creature fallen from the sky, and kill it. Mayhem ensues, as much scarier versions of the creature start piling into their estate, thirsting for blood. Inadequately equipped with a samurai sword, baseball bat, kukri knife and a stack of fireworks, they do their best to survive amidst generalized disbelief at their panicked tales, having to fend off an angry drug dealer and the police on top of the pack of monkey-wolf things. Cornish films the estate as you would an abandoned base on a faraway planet, with flickering halogen light and lifts at the end of long concrete corridors of fear. This unexpected premise is what made the film.

Hell or High Water is a macho modern western, and a quality one at that. Two brothers conduct a string of bank robberies, one motivated by the promise of a better life for his two sons, the other more for the thrill. I’d seen it all before, but it was very well executed, and Jeff Bridges is impressive as always, here in the role of the sheriff. In a completely different register, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the cheerful, no, hilarious, story about a comically delinquent “real bad egg” who is sent to live with a couple in a remote part of New Zealand after being ejected from multiple foster homes. He quickly learns to appreciate his new foster mother, although tensions run higher with her reserved and reluctant husband. An unexpected tragedy means he will have to return to the city, but he wants none of it, so escapes out into the bush. He and his adoptive uncle end up living out in the wilderness for months, to the great displeasure of his social worker, who is driven by the imperative of “no child left behind”. Also everybody has a lovely kiwi accent, so watch this one.

“He’ll know what it means”

As I said in this longer review, Nocturnal Animals was enjoyable if clearly too stylish for its own good. Ford’s previous film A Single Man further emphasized this. While his esthetic focus and flair are still on show here – the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw likened it to “a 100-minute commercial for men’s cologne: Bereavement by Dior” – this gentle portrait of a man grieving the loss of his partner was not as lacking in sentiment as Nocturnal Animals. It was also a wonderful talent vehicle for Colin Firth, who has never seemed so English. Also very English is Gosford Park, a crime mystery set at a country house during the interwar period. It’s all very Agatha Christie-esque and will seem familiar to anybody who has seen Downtown Abbey. I intermittently had that peculiar feeling of having seen it already – and am now convinced that I had – but could not remember the ending for the life of me. I guess that’s for the best when re-watching a whodunit.

American Psycho probably doesn’t need an introduction. I’d meant to watch it for years and finally did. Christian Bale incarnates a deranged Wall Street trader who assuages his inner emptiness with serial murder. To summarize: it’s an indictment of all that is wrong with the world of finance and its inherent psychopathy. It’s also the only film I’ve seen this month that was directed by a woman, which makes me realise I need to do better on that front.

Your Name is a Japanese animation about two teenagers exchanging bodies (think Freaky Friday, but with a boy and a girl. It had its funny moments, and there was probably some thinking to do about the oppositions between tradition and modernity in Japan, about the apocalyptic events that have wracked the island, but I was not convinced. It got rave reviews. Someone even called it coherent, but I thought the ending was definitely the opposite. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, and I was definitely feeling a bit faint for having given blood an hour before, so don’t take my word for it. The story of Kubo and the two strings, about a young boy on a quest for a magic armor that will allow him to vanquish his grandfather, an evil god, is cute and amusing, but failed to pull me in fully. Still, it was worth seeing just for the quality and ambition of its stop-motion animation, a dying art.

Neruda is an example of how to go about making a biopic. It’s a difficult genre to pull off, what with the temptation to tick off major life events like a Wikipedia page and call that a scenario. Pablo Larrain does none of that. I’m no closer to knowing where exactly Neruda was born or where he died, and a lot of the in-between remains unclear. Taking a poetic approach (fittingly enough) to what occurs in a man’s life can tell us a lot more about a man’s soul. What I take away is that Neruda was defiant, never broken by fear. He chose to be the author of his own story, despite those who wished him dead.

To top it all off was Lumière! L’aventure commence, a short documentary about the early days of cinema which will leave no cinephile unmoved. This documentary showcases 108 of the Lumière brothers’ films, all made between 1895 and 1905. Organising them by theme, the narrator takes us through the famous (L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) to more rarely seen reels. In this series of 50-second clips – the cinématographe could film no longer than that – we discover a snapshot of an era that no one else recorded in this way, and see the very beginnings of experimentation with composition, with documentary film-making, with comedy, all in a rigid format that required inventiveness and artistic talent. I think the narrator ran out of synonyms for “admirable” about halfway through, and I don’t blame him.  

Here’s the full list for January:

  • Kubo and the two strings, by Travis Knight (01/01)
  • Nocturnal Animals, by Tom Ford (02/01 – in the cinema)
  • Neruda, by Pablo Larraín (06/01 – in the cinema)
  • Your Name, by Makoto Shinkai (06/01 – in the cinema)
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune, by Frank Pavich (07/01)
  • Harmonium, by Kōji Fukada (14/01 – in the cinema)
  • Hell or High Water, by David McKenzie (14/01)
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople, by Taika Waititi (15/01)
  • A Single Man, by Tom Ford (16/01)
  • Gosford Park, by Robert Altman (16/01)
  • Primer, by Shane Carruth (17/01)
  • Attack the Block, by Joe Cornish (20/01)
  • Twelve Monkeys, by Terry Gilliam (21/01)
  • Moon, by Duncan Jones (21/01)
  • American Psycho, by Mary Harron (21/01)
  • Brazil, by Terry Gilliam (22/01)
  • Lumière! L’aventure Commence, by Thierry Frémaux (27/01 – in the cinema)
  • Serenity, by Joss Whedon (30/01)