Monday, March 06, 2017

Film Review: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

One of the riskier unforced errors a film can make lies in referencing a better movie, since it runs the risk of making the audience think about what they could be watching instead. Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 2 makes it twice in its first ten minutes.

First, it features a brief glimpse of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (specifically the thrilling scene of Keaton nearly being hit by a train while riding a motorcycle) projected against the side of a building during a car chase through the streets of New York in which Wick (Keanu Reeves) pursues a henchmen working for Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), the brother of the antagonist from the first movie. Stahelski certainly gets points for boldness, since not only does the scene serve as an introduction to the action, but he also has the sound of the chase sync up with Keaton's film. It's a clever distillation of the remixing and recontextualising of cinematic references that marks both John Wick movies, an ethos which extended to the film's brilliant poster, and it's hard not to admire the chutzpah.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Movie Journal: December

Hidden Figures
Unsurprisingly, since December coincides with the end of year list-making and awards-voting seasons, I spent most of the month frantically trying to catch up on films that I had missed, or which I finally had a chance to see thanks to expanded theatrical releases or screeners. I watched 28 films in December, the overwhelming majority of which were 2016 releases, with very few older films getting a look in. As a result, there's a lot of overlap between thes list and my Top 25 Films of the Year, which was radically reshaped throughout the month as I tried to see as much as possible.

The worst film I watched in December was Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. I was a big fan of Ford's A Single Man, which I found to be an aesthetically gorgeous and emotionally rich study of grief and loneliness, and while Nocturnal Animals was, if anything, an improvement in terms of achieving a better balance between story and style, the story it's telling is utter horseshit. A multi-stranded, multi-fictional narrative about an art dealer (Amy Adams) who receives a book written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), the violent plot of which she suspects is a form of revenge for past wrongdoings, it's a film whose overwrought cynicism winds up being completely laughable thanks to Ford's unceasing ponderousness. There are some good performances - Michael Shannon, unsurprisingly, is fantastic as a character in Gyllenhaal's book - but it's all in aid of a pointlessly mean movie which doesn't even find fun in its meanness.

Among the crush of new releases, work and Christmas, I found time to rewatch two Coen Brothers movies which I had underestimated on first viewing. First, Burn After Reading, which I didn't like when I saw it in the theatre back in 2008 because it felt aimless and incomplete, two of the main reasons why I liked it this time. It's not their funniest movie or their best comedy in terms of structure and intent, but it's a charming bit of nonsense filled with great actors having a lot of fun. Taken out of the original context - i.e. coming mere months after they won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for No Country For Old Men - it's much easier to enjoy as a lark, a way for the Coens to unwind after making such a heavy drama. It also felt weirdly appropriate to watch a movie in which two of the most repeated refrains were "The Russians?" and "What the fuck?!"

I also watched Hail, Caesar! which I started an hour or so before midnight on New Year's Eve, so it was the last film I watched in 2016 and the first I watched in 2017. Unlike Burn After Reading, I enjoyed Hail, Caesar! on first viewing, but came away from my second with an even greater appreciation for it. Like the earlier film, its story is pretty superfluous to the jokes, but what becomes more apparent with each viewing is how lovingly the film views its motley crew of film industry types, and the appreciation it has for their skill and craft. From Eddie Mannix's (Josh Brolin) ability to somehow keep a studio running (even if it requires threats and manipulation) to Hobie Doyle's (Alden Ehrenreich) knack for lasso tricks, it's an oddly touching tribute to people who find comfort and fulfillment in their work, even if the work itself doesn't amount to much more than gossamer.

Let's dig in to the good stuff. Here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in December of 2016.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Shot/Reverse Shot: 167 - 2017 Preview

There's a brand new year stretching out ahead of us, which means 12 months of films good and bad to sift through. To help sort the wheat from the chaff (except in the instances where the chaff sounds weirdly fascinating), I'm joined by John Hunter to discuss the films and TV shows that we're most intrigued by between now and when awards season kicks off in September.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2016

Suicide Squad, a film which will definitely not be appearing on this list
While 2016 was probably the worst year for mainstream cinema in ages, with a dearth of good, or even passable blockbusters to justify the big-budget model (and certainly nothing on par with Mad Max: Fury Road), it ended strongly thanks to a bumper crop of award season contenders. Even before that, 2016 reaffirmed my belief that every year is a good year for film if you're willing to look hard enough, and the ever increasing variety of distribution options available means that it's easier than ever to sample the best films any given year has to offer, even if you can't see many of them in a theatre.

Since it was, in my estimation, a really good year, I've expanded my usual top 20 to a top 25. As with any list, I'm already unhappy with it, and if you'd like to see what movies just missed out (and which might have been included if I had put this list together on another day) then you can see the full rankings on Letterboxd.

Now, let's begin.

What I Have Learned From #52FilmsByWomen

Chantal Akerman
I'm not one for making New Year's Resolutions. On the rare occasions that I do make them, they tend to be fairly vague like "lose weight" or "keep in touch with friends more", things that I already do, or would probably do at any time of the year, or which I can carry over from year to year, so notions of success and failure are pretty much negligible.

This year was different. After looking over the list of books I read in 2015 and realising that the majority of them were written by men (specifically straight, white men) I resolved to consume art made by more diverse voices in 2016. To that end, I decided to make two broad changes. First, I would try to read an equal number of books written by men and women, something which I more or less stuck to, though in the final count I read 22 books written by men vs. 19 books written by women. Secondly, inspired by Marya Gates' A Year With Women project, in which she only watched films directed by women for a year, I committed myself to watching more films directed or co-directed by women in 2016, using Women in Film's 52 Films By Women pledge to give myself a goal and structure.

With 2016 about to disappear into the rearview, I wanted to share what I learned from making this admittedly very small change to my viewing habits, what it has taught me about the film industry, myself, and how I'll try and carry these lessons into 2017 and beyond.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2016

Only Angels Have Wings
Over the last two years, I have been maintaining a movie journal as a way of keeping track of the best new and old films I watch in a given month. This is partly an administrative task - it's a lot easier to make end of year lists if you already have a bunch of lists to work from - but it's also part of an ongoing desire to watch more, and more varied, films. If I get to the end of a given month and I see that I've watched a lot of French or Japanese films (or not enough French and Japanese films, for that matter), or if I've watched a lot of films noir at the expense of everything else, that gives me an impetus to seek out films from other eras, countries or genres in the immediate future. It's an awkward self-correcting system, but it more or less keeps things balanced.

To put a cap on a year in which I watched around 250 older movies (i.e. ones released before 2016), I looked back and picked out the ones that have stuck with me the most over the last twelve months. Since it's hard to rank them all against each other, I have ordered them chronologically by release date (though I will call out the very best older film I watched because it also happened to be the very best thing I watched all year) to give a sense of what my film watching year looked like away from the 2016 treadmill.

In some cases these films lingered because they led me to discover others films from a specific filmmaker or movement that I hadn't considered before, in others it was because they were just great. In several cases, it was because they were among the stranger films I've ever seen, and featured images that I won't forget any time soon. For whatever reason, these are the twenty older movies that had the biggest impact on me in 2016.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ed's Top 20 TV Shows of 2016

Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum
It was a turbulent year, 2016. Lots of death. Acres of sadness. Elections that took up way too much of our time and ended badly. And while there were plenty of distractions to be found on TV - even if "escapism" in this case meant being transported to a world even more brutal and chaotic than our own - many of the best shows tried to engage with the big questions that we usually watch TV to avoid.

As you can see from this list of the twenty shows that I personally thought were the best from a dizzyingly strong and varied year, it was something of a watershed year for shows about race in America and elsewhere. A slew of shows in massively different genres tackled the history of racism, the contemporary black experience, and the friction that exists at the points where black and white America meet. It was also, in a bitterly ironic turn, all things considered, a great year for shows by and about women, with shows both new and old offering different takes on feminism, female friendships, and the challenges of being a woman.

Considering how central racism and misogyny ended up being to the Presidential election, it's appropriate that some of best shows of the year (including THE best show of the year) tackled issues of race and gender so directly. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how this most dynamic, splintered and fast-moving of art forms responds to the next few years, because those problems are not going away any time soon.

A brief note on eligibility for this list: Obviously I can't watch every show on TV (especially in a year where American networks alone produced 455 original shows) so series I didn't watch (or didn't watch enough of) were not eligible. There were several shows that I loved in the past which I didn't watch this year either due to a lack of time, availability (Rectify) or because of a lackluster previous season (Girls). I'm sure they would have been included had I seen them (the positive response to the penultimate season of Girls, in particular, had me kicking myself for letting season four put me off). Also, I'm counting O.J.: Made in America as a film, which is why it is not included here. If it were included, it would rank very highly.

Like all lists, this is a subjective selection based on an incomplete experience.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Shot/Reverse Shot: 166. 2016 Round-up

With 2016 rapidly disappearing into the review, Matt and I talk about the best and worst things that the year had to offer. The hits, the misses, the deaths. We then say goodbye to the year (and Matt, since he's going to be traveling around the Americas for much of 2017) by counting down the SRS Top Ten of 2016.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Shot/Reverse Shot: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

To mark the release of the first "standalone" Star Wars movie from Disney and LucasFilm, Matt and I watched Gareth Edwards' Rogue One, a prequel to the original Star Wars in which a ragtag group of rebels led by Felicity Jones work together to steal the plans for the Death Star. We discuss the stuff we liked about it (the action and pacing), the stuff we didn't (undead Peter Cushing) and reveal the real reason behind those pesky reshoots.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Movie Journal: November

November was another month focused primarily on catching up with 2016 releases, with all but three of the twenty-four I watched coming out in the last twelve months. As is so often the case, a year that looked like it might be barren in August looks positively flush in November, as a consensus about the best films begins to form, and seemingly every week a film comes out which seems determined to shake up any established sense of order. It's chaotic and beautiful and it's my favourite period of the film calendar.

The worst film I saw this month was Mick Jackson's Denial, a moribund courtroom drama recounting the real case of a historian (Rachel Weisz) who was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) - not to be confused with the defensive end for the Cowboys - for libel after she accurately described his beliefs and methods. It's a compelling story, but one which is retold with little drive or power, wasting a great cast on material that couldn't be more important, but which winds up feeling trivial. Not merely bad, but wholly inadequate.

Now, lets talk about that good good stuff. Here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in November of 2016.