Wanna hear my New Year’s Resolution? It’s been such a long time since I’ve had a breather that I never really shared it. My goal entering into the New Year was to review every new film I saw in 2015. That didn’t work out quite as smoothly as I imagined. Finishing my crucial last semester of college came first, and I actually had some incredible memories in finishing this term of my life. I may argue it’s been better than any of the new films I’ve caught up to in 2015, a year whose most intriguing gems, Amour Fou and White God among them, continue to elude me. Consider this my breakneck attempt to remedy that, or rather part one of my attempt, covering the cinematic media I saw from January to March.
Paddington (Dir. Paul King)
A lovingly crafted antidote to the regressive, obnoxiously funny kid rearing fare of Dreamworks’ Home, Paddington builds its tender family connection with enthusiasm as well as intelligence. The way the titular immigrant bear saves the Brown family from their disingenuously performed domestic roles is as jovially enjoyable as the wayward philanthropic escapades he initiates. Paul King has a beautiful grasp on both anarchic humor and design both lively and alive, literally shifting to reflect the rising and falling spirits of the Brown household. It’s a film that realizes we owe kids better, and reflects that in plot and playfulness.
The Last Five Years (Dir. Richard LaGravenese)
The promise of this chamber musical’s adaptation to the screen felt promising after Richard LaGravenese proved he could make something exceedingly charming with Beautiful Creatures. Jeremy Jordan, though, is no Alden Ehrenreich, and even with Anna Kendrick selling the heartache and bliss of her side of the story, Jordan feels all too smug and irritable to be as endearing as he is conceited. The direction of each narrative, also, is difficult to manage without hinting at strange gender politics. It’s tough to tell if Cathy’s backwards direction is meant to preserve a happy vision of a relationship, or to embitter us at the false confidence Jamie unwittingly used to bring her down and deprive her of her own. That said, the music is mad enthusiastic, and while LaGravenese’s staging is stifled by being held too closely to reality – the long take approach is more disorienting than immersing – there are moments of brightness and indomitability carrying us strongly throughout, nearly all of which come from Kendrick.
The Voices (Dir. Marjane Satrapi)
I don’t know which feat is more unlikely: making us sympathize with a psychotic murderer or making us sympathize with Ryan Reynolds. It’s true, Reynolds genial oafishness has been misused by the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, The Change-Up, Safe House, Turbo, R.I.P.D., and the list achingly goes on. It’s time for some career rehab, and while The Voices may embellish Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi’s directorial voice as still a bit garish, her marrying of senses of glee and horror opens up charming opportunities for Reynolds’ capacity for sweetness. It’s an endearing start, for Satrapi and Reynolds alike, to return to more challenging territory.
Faults (Dir. Riley Stearns)
I understood this movie straight through and it didn’t thrill me. Despite Riley Stearns’ arch comic sensibilities, this felt like an often predictable, surprisingly unmoving thematic exercise on unwitting cult indoctrination. Rarely did I feel immersed in or blindsided by its twists, which feel all too expected. The control Mary Elizabeth Winstead exerts over the whole film undercuts her moments of necessary erratic crisis. So it is with cults, it is with films. This film did not make me believe.
Chappie (Dir. Neill Blomkamp)
Like any of Neill Blomkamp’s works to date, Chappie begins as an admirable oddity, its most peculiar decisions marking it as distinct from the rest of the blockbuster environment. Its impoverished Johannesburg setting, unconventional and amusing casting of Die Antwoord, and ostensible focus on A.I. as the newest minority to preyed on for the presumptions made upon it, all gradually peel away the further we get away from the film. What remains is the sloppily constructed, carelessly crass and needlessly violent exoskeleton, too poorly constructed to appropriately convey the ideas under its shell. As beguiling as the worlds Neill Blomkamp imagines are, he’s not skilled enough as a dramatist to infect us with the exciting unusualness of that world.
Cymbeline (Dir. Michael Almereyda)
Adapting Shakespeare to the screen is about finding a distinct interpretation of his prose, fluid enough to apply to multiple interpretations or settings, but it’s also about coherently conveying his ideas visually. Shakespeare was a delicate wordsmith, and it’s no misstep to adhere strictly to his script – Romeo + Juliet was an uncommon joy for how it gleefully subverted Shakespeare’s prose – but he requires a director capable of conveying his word’s referential meaning, along with his own implicit symbolic one. That’s where ‘Cymbeline’ falters greatly. Often too labored in parsing through the words to understand what’s happening, the dialogue comes across as inaccessibly stilted when characters aren’t firing off delicate soliloquies. The crime war parallel, too, feels at once symbolically oversimplified and narratively convoluted. Actors can only play as far as their directors push them, and Almereyda feels very limited in his sensory provocation. The cast often fails to convincingly inhabit their characters. Dakota Johnson felt most like she was navigating a character’s complex internal arc, though the film’s masculine gaze feels frequently like it’s affronting her character. The play’s whole arc is set in motion by a man’s bet that a girl’s a slut, and I never quite felt her truly conquer against the claims made by men upon her body.
Predestination (Dir. Michael and Peter Spierig)
As far as trans films go, this one can’t help but infuriate. Not for the bleak, fatalist twists – which the directors are more concerned about constructing than analyzing – but for how little it seeks to inhabit a streamlined experience of somebody whose identity is put into an inescapable stranglehold. Sarah Snook’s incredible, navigating a character whose gender and sexual identity is brutally abused by cosmic coincidence. It’s a stunning performance confined in a careless, superficial feature that needs to throw in terrorist attacks because gender fluid crisis apparently isn’t exciting enough. *sigh*
Mommy (Dir. Xavier Dolan)
Xavier Dolan knows how to give my heart a major hangover. Dolan builds intimacy and palpable empathy for characters and dynamics whose unruly attitudes gather melodramatic power in his heightened claustrophobic visual space. The inhibitions he places on that space, however, feel all the more limiting given the overreaching time space he operates across. Dolan’s ability to create intoxicating atmospheres can often be thwarted by a resistance towards coiling the thematic tension more tightly. The result is messy, inelegant, but very directly and undeniably moving.
The Duff (Dir. Ari Sandel)
High school movies aren’t the culturally definitive works they used to be. The post-Clueless period of grade school dominance has passed in the cinema, and high school movies of the digital era simply don’t have the same spark. iPhones, Facebook and Twitter are the language engines of the day, and senseless abbreviations their chief buzzwords. The Duff feels similarly abbreviated, its relationships both plantonic and romantic feeling only half-established and largely curtailed, which makes the routine familiarity of its narrative feel all the more dismissible.
Of Horses and Men (Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson)
I spent the bulk of Wild Tales counting down how many were left before the end, like if the Count from Sesame Street was an anxious cinephile. I did the same with The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (trash), Two Days, One Night (Cotillard), but not with Of Horses and Men. Maybe it’s because of the narrative tether holding its Icelandic stories of a horse-centric community together, past each of their respective punchlines. Maybe it’s the sly feminism of having the least embarrassing or grim story be that of a woman’s triumph of skill, while the men become repeatedly emasculated by the horses they attempt to dominate. It lacks in deeper thematic resonance, but not in airy, hillside texture.
What We Do In the Shadows (Dir. Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi)
A surprisingly accurate depiction of the preferentially macho attitudes and moral abandon in a bachelors’ den, violent consumption of human womens’ flesh included. This mockumentary riff might’ve stuck deeper if it went for the jugular, but it’s polite fun when it’s not making a mess. It treats supernatural creatures as minorities better than Chappie does with A.I., but that often feels questionable when we see real world minorities being unfairly diminished within the film. Jackie van Beek, as the shortchanged woman serving the vampire household, is hilarious when given the stage, but her presence is curtailed by the film’s focus on male vampire bonding. That said, it manages to imbue these bloodsucking monsters with guilt-free sweetness, particularly Taiki Waititi’s love struck Viago, whose ending is as sweet as it is unconventional.
Frozen Fever (Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)
Less in the vein of the beloved Disney animation it stems from than that of the superfluous Toy Story shorts that have proliferated the screen since Toy Story 3, this is a pointless comic musical riff that does nothing to extend the joys or strained emotions that Frozen engendered. The snowball tribbles may be the most terrifying demonic presence in 2015 cinema. Also, Elsa can just make emerald green dresses with her ice powers? What is this bullshit?
Broad City: Season 2 (Created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer)
Broad City isn’t a show that builds to anything in particular, and it feels refreshing to have such a consistently entertaining show without the need for a narrative game plan. It allows for episodes when it can dip into formally ambitious comic set pieces, like the grand escapade of its finale, St. Marks, where we observe the Brooklyn community as a galleria of experiences, momentary touched upon in tactile ways. It means we get uproarious dips into psychedelics, like how Wisdom Teeth takes Abbi Jacobson on Whole Foods adventure via a giant plush buck-toothed bunny. And it means that whenever we do dip into overarching narrative, it does so with hysterical abandon, as the episode Knockoffs pegged (heh) Abbi’s aspiring romance with Jeremy into a character-fulfilling corner. And yeah, it brought Alia Shawkat and Ilana Glazer together for a moment of perverse bliss, so thanks Broad City.
Run All Night (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)
I’ve liked Jaume Collet-Serra films more, and the serious demeanor of this night chase film cuts off the silliness that made Non-Stop and Unknown such a hoot. It also, honestly, had me choking up a couple times. The way Run All Night captures the ugly moment when a child starts to see their parent as a human being, not just a negative archetypal influence, is fairly crushing. The typical idea of what traits we pass on to, or remove from, our kids comes across in more ways than one. It takes us less time to see the parallel of Ed Harris negatively imparting on his son the way that Liam Neeson refused to. It’s held to the last moment, though, how Harris has tragically imparted upon Neeson, and precisely how brutally that’s devastated his life. By the last time we see Joel Kinnaman look in the reflection, it’s hard not to see a bit of Neeson in there, but it’s a shade, not a shadow.
Often, though, I wished the technical hold on its action sequences could’ve slackened a bit to let them breathe. We go from one potentially electrifying set-piece to the next, but too many fall just shy of the cathartic buzz something like Kill Bill, Vol. 1 allowed for. It’s ultimately the quieter scenes, of suspense or internal agony, that stick more, which is a shift for Collet-Serra. He’s definitely imparting his emotional ideas with greater intent, and even the kinetic time-affecting touches have their purpose. His trajectory isn’t permanently one of action showboating. Here’s hoping his lessons learned on this large scale genre attempt lead to more assured efforts.
If we’re being honest, Looking: Season 1 felt like it got Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan’s series off to a wrong-footed start. It felt as awkward and gawky in its thematic voice as Jonathan Groff’s Patrick was in his public sexuality. If Looking‘s cancellation suggests it continued on this path to its own downfall, people shouldn’t feel deterred in exploring this series post-fact. The show still has a two-hour finale special to go before truly concluding, and in a way I do question HBO’s decision to give it a send-0ff when no other series they’ve canceled has gotten that friendly a goodbye gift. Is it a sign of guilt over canceling one of the few frank depictions of LGBTQ life on television? Possibly, but it’s a welcome one given the sensory and character leaps it made in its second season.
Working either on a jaunty, episodic week-by-week basis or as one 5-hour comedic drama, this season flowed quite seamlessly from one week into the next, and didn’t lose sight of its overarching themes, either. “Happiness. Not in any other place, but this place. Not at any hour, but this hour,” Patrick affably quotes Walt Whitman in the first episode, but that quote becomes less a theme than a question posed throughout the season. How long does that joy last without compromise or consequences. It’s a question Augustin is facing most immediately, grappling with his destructive behavior over last season and making deliberate strives to be a less shitty person. Patrick faces it gradually throughout, entering into an affair he knows will end with pain and heartache for someone, even if it’s not him. Unlike Girls, Looking doesn’t sidestep morality in dissecting the practical fallout of an affair.
Meanwhile Dom and Doris, the latter happily upgraded to series regular, face the positive and negative effects of their somewhat maturity-stultifying friendship. While Andrew Haigh remains main steward of the show’s stylistic senses, established to hypnotizing effect with a woozy, interconnected long take in Looking for the Promised Land, there are three other established indie directors aiding his vision. Sugar co-director Ryan Fleck nicely tracks the crumbling of two relationships in the 3rd and 4th episodes, …But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbitt takes on the more comically riotous episodes, and The Skeleton Twins director Craig Johnson, appropriately enough, translates the film’s most family focused episode with agitated energy. The season ends with Haigh returning to his organic long take approach with Looking for Home in a way that elicits more claustrophobic panic than happiness, a sneaky twist on that Whitman quote. It’s not always happiness in this moment, and you can’t prepare yourself for the daunting revelations that’ll happen there.
Other Reviews from January to March:
Jupiter Ascending (Grade: C+, upgraded since to B-)
Fifty Shades of Grey (Grade: B)
Girlhood (Grade: A)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 1 (Grade: A-)
Cinderella (Grade: B-)