Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Movie Journal: June

It was a real "best of times/worst of times" situation for me this month, as not only did I see my new favourite film of the year, I also saw my new least favourite film of the year, all within the same 24 hours. It was a bit of a roller coaster. Fortunately I saw the awful one first, so the waves of Joy from the good one really helped cleanse the palate.

In total, I watched 29 films this month, only one of which was a rewatch. Fortunately, that film was Jaws, which I watched in preparation for this episode of Shot/Reverse Shot commemorating the film's fortieth anniversary. There's not much new that anyone can say about Jaws at this point, but my main takeaway from this viewing was how much it feels like a film from the New Hollywood, even as it pointed the way to a model of filmmaking which would supplant that movement. It's often written about as the film, along with Star Wars, which helped kill off that era of filmmaking, but the loose, improvisational feel to the dialogue and the subtle ways in which it reflects what was going on in the culture - the Mayor's willingness to risk lives to bring money into the town is a very post-Watergate depiction of authority, while it's significant that Brody left New York to escape the violence and crime for the supposed safety of Amity - place it as a film that emerged from the counterculture, even if its descendants would eventually consume it.

The worst film I watched for the first time this month, and the worst film of 2015 so far, was Kingsman: The Secret Service. I don't particularly care for Matthew Vaughn's work in general, though I do like Stardust for the most part and think that Layer Cake is one of the better post-Guy Ritchie gangster films, but usually his stuff just washes over me. Kingsman, however, actively angered me. The action is pretty well-staged and there are some funny moments, but the film's attitude, which could best be summed up as someone (i.e. Vaughn) smugly saying "ooh, aren't I transgressive!" while going after incredibly easy targets, was really repellant to me. It's the sort of film which thinks that repeatedly playing "Bonkers" by Dizzee Rascal is a substitute for character development, and uses its sleek professionalism to hide the fact it is almost completely without value.

Towards the end of the month, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of watching a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. Initially this was because MUBI had a handful of them streaming, which then prompted me to track down other shorts on Hulu, YouTube etc. Despite liking most of Chaplin's feature films (particularly Limelight, which I think is his most moving), I'd only watched one Chaplin short previously, and even that was only to find some silent film-style music to rip for a scene in a ramshackle short film I made at uni. After watching several in a short space of time - with the highlight being Easy Street, which ends with Chaplin beating up a bunch of hoodlums after being pricked with a syringe full of liquid cocaine, like Popeye if he had been created by Hunter S. Thompson - I've come to the realisation that I generally prefer his short films to his features.

The features are a greater achievement, both artistically and historically, but there's something about the shorter running time which really focuses Chaplin. You're only ever seconds away from another inspired bit of slapstick, and the romantic subplots, which can drag down his feature films, are kept to a minimum. They have the balance between the chaotic and romantic sides of The Tramp just right, at least for my tastes as someone who grew up mainlining Looney Toons shorts, which clearly owe something to Chaplin's work.

Anyway, without any further ado: here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in June.

1. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, 2015)

I'll write more about this in the coming days when I finally put my thoughts down in a review, but suffice it to say that if Inside Out isn't my favourite Pixar film, it certainly comes very, very close. Breathlessly inventive in how it reconstructs (and deconstructs) human consciousness as an adventure story, it's one of the studio's funniest films and also one of their most moving. I particularly loved the world building of it all, and how Docter and Del Carmen came up with rules that made sense of what could be a (pardon the pun) heady concept, going so far as to create a facsimile of death for the thoughts in Riley's head. I also liked that it's a fundamental small-scale story, since it's just about the well-being of one adolescent girl, but treats that as the most important story imaginable, which it is for Riley, her family, and her emotions.

2. Z (dir. Costa-Gavras, 1969)

I've been meaning to see this ever since I saw Costa-Gavras' later film Missing, a great and chilling drama in which Jack Lemmon tries to find his missing journalist son in the wake of the Chilean military coup of 1973. Z feels like a natural predecessor to Missing in a lot of ways: both are dramas based on real-life events, in this case the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, and both are largely concerned with the journeys of characters who only gradually realise how corrupt the system around them is. The big difference between the two is that Z is a much funnier film than Missing. It treats elements of Greek society and the various factions as farcical, and structures some sequences with a manic energy that makes it hard not to laugh, even as you know that you're only ever minutes away from a gut punch as more details of its conspiracy come to light.

3. Chimes at Midnight (dir. Orson Welles, 1965)

Welles' Shakespeare adaptations are some of my favourite versions of the plays, with his Othello being a particular highlight, but this may be his best and most ambitious. Assembled from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, with a bit of The Merry Wives of Windsor thrown in for good measure, Welles tells the story of John Falstaff, the large and buffoonish knight who pals around with Prince Hal up until the point where destiny, and the restrictions of kingship, force them apart. As well as being very entertaining, thanks largely to Welles' avuncular performance as Falstaff, it also has an impressive scale to it, represented by some surprisingly large battle sequences, and a core of deep sadness that comes to a head when Falstaff and Hal (now Henry V) part ways. It didn't displace F For Fake as my favourite Welles film, but I could easily see it settling in at number two.

4. The Devil and Daniel Webster (dir. William Dierterle, 1941)

I've been meaning to see this spin on the Faust story ever since I caught a documentary on Bernard Hermann which talked about how innovative his (Oscar-winning) score for the film was, and how he created the hellish, multi-layered fiddle music played during a key scene. The music alone makes the film worth a watch, but what really elevates it is Walter Huston's performance as Scratch, a.k.a. The Devil. A lot of actors have played Satan over the years, but I can't think of anyone who is quite as much fun to watch as Huston, in part because he plays Scratch as someone who legitimately enjoys messing with humans, and who isn't really that fazed about whether or not he wins. When he (spoiler, I guess) loses the trial for Jabez Stone's (James Craig) soul, the first thing he does is rush over to congratulate his opponents on a case well fought, because he's The Devil, and there will always be more souls up for grabs. He's just having fun, and it's hugely enjoyable watching Huston tear up the screen.

5. Brute Force (dir. Jules Dassin, 1947)

If you want a sense of how hard-nosed and unsentimental this prison break movie is, consider this: at one point, the corrupt captain (Hume Cronyn) beats the hero (Burt Lancaster) with a belt of machine gun rounds because it's the only thing he has to hand. The rest of the film is equally brutal within the limits of what could be shown at the time. As is often the case with Hays Code-era movies, the decision to cut away just before, for example, a man is crushed to death by an industrial press only makes the suggested violence all the more disturbing. If you've ever wondered what Oz would look like if they couldn't show too much violence, Brute Force is a pretty good equivalent.

6. Loving Couples (dir. Mai Zetterling, 1964)

Reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's work (and not merely because it was shot by Sven Nykvist and features a cast composed almost entirely of actors who worked with Bergman), Zetterling's drama is a by turns sexy and austere account of the sexual histories of three women who, at the beginning of the film, are all in the same hospital for various gynecological reasons. The film explores the ins and outs of the characters' sexuality in a way which is both playful and serious when it needs to be, and uses it to make sharp satirical jabs at Swedish mores on the eve of World War II. It's a sultry and inviting watch which cleverly masks its seriousness beneath an air of woozy sensuality.

7. What We Do in the Shadows (dirs. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, 2014)

You would think at this point that the mockumentary sub-genre would be well and truly dead, considering just how many permutations (terrible, terrible permutations) of the form there have been. Turns out that it's merely un-dead, since this vampire comedy from two of the key creative forces behind Flight of the Conchords is an absolute delight. Fans of that show will recognise the dry wit and deadpan delivery (and no doubt welcome the presence of Rhys Darby, who steals the film as an aggressively positive werewolf) inherent to its story of four vampires who share at flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Waititi and Clement blend together well-observed character comedy with a smart mocking of the vampire mythos (along with way more blood than I was expecting) to create something which is consistently surprising, and which manages to reinvigorate its premise often enough that it rarely feels strained or tired. It also features the funniest line about a ham sandwich that you are ever likely to hear.

8. The Rink (dir. Charles Chaplin, 1916)

In watching Chaplin's short films, one aspect which keeps tripping them up, for me, is the way that he will occasionally stop the comedy to focus on a romantic subplot. It's often very sweet, but you almost invariably end up with a situation where the start of the short is very strong, because Chaplin is barreling through the setup, and the ending is very strong, because Chaplin has to get to the big finale and then exit the film, with a lull in the middle. The Rink is the first example I've seen of a film in which he integrates the romance into the comedy seamlessly, so the sweetness is allowed to play out against the backdrop of some impressively dextrous rollerskating, as well as Chaplin's customary love of making life as difficult as possible for people in authority, especially those who have the temerity to offer him a job.

9. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015)

Finally, a film which makes good on my long-held belief that all films could be improved by adding in a spurious dance number. While Oscar Isaac's silky moves have been one of the main talking points about Ex Machina - they're certainly the most fun elements - the film around them is a meticulously worked out piece of science fiction which explores the point at which human and artificial intelligence meet with great subtly and complexity. Isaac is superb as the reclusive billionaire who has devoted his life to creating artificial consciousness, while Domhnall Gleeson is a good foil as the man brought in to administer a kind of Turing Test for his creation, played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander. It's a terrific sci-fi movie, but also a wonderful chamber piece in which the interplay between the characters subtly ratchets up the tension through little more than stray conversations and pointed body language.

10. Top Five (dir. Chris Rock, 2014)

It seems that Chris Rock picked up a few tricks from working with Julie Delpy on 2 Days in New York, since Top Five feels like a companion piece of sorts to that film. Rock plays Andre Allen, the kind of comedian he might have become if he had given up on standup and committed to making wildly successful high-concept comedies. As he prepares to get married to his reality show star fiance, Allen agrees to take part in an interview with a reporter (Rosario Dawson), which then becomes a film-long conversation on relationships, race, and comedy.

This is probably the best realisation of Rock's persona on film, with his insights and comedic instincts on full display in a story that feels pretty reflective. Some elements don't quite gel: the brief clips we see of Allen's films, both the cop movies in which he plays a talking bear and a serious movie dramatising a slave revolt in Haiti, look really cheap, which in turn punctures the illusion of him as a big movie star, while a subplot involving hot sauce goes in some very odd directions for not much of a payoff. However, for the most part it's a very funny and incisive examination of fame which makes good use of its copious cameos.