…and just like that, it’s Halloween again!
I’ve spent this last week diving into my own personal collection of horror films. I re-watched some classics like Poltergeist, The Thing, Halloween, and Alien. It was fun to see the good ol’ boys again. The thing that differentiates a merely good horror film from a ‘classic’ is its re-watch-ability. I’ve seen Alien thirty times at least, and it never stops being scary.
Actually, that’s not true.
Horror films aren’t endlessly re-watchable, if I’m being honest. You can usually get five or six toe-curling viewings out of a good horror, and after that you basically know every scary moment by heart. The tension is lost as well, because you know where the story is going. The only thing that really remains is your love for the characters and the atmosphere.
I meet people all the time who refuse to watch horror films, and all I want to do is this:
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a great horror film. Watching one that makes you shake involuntarily by chilling your very bone marrow is an invigorating experience. It’s a rare one, too, unless you scare easily or you’re a horror virgin. There’s so much garbage out there calling itself ‘horror’ that you have to do your homework before making a selection. Speaking of which, I’ve found it hard to pick out three new horror films this year. There just haven’t been any good horror releases in 2016. Last year was jam packed by comparison. There was Crimson Peak, We Are Still Here, The Witch, and my personal favourite…It Follows.
If you’re a layman who’s eager to pick out a good horror this year, then It Follows and Crimson Peak are excellent choices. Beyond that, there are some fantastic modern horrors for you to check out; The House of the Devil, Cabin in the Woods, Insidious, The Evil Dead Remake, Drag Me To Hell, and Trick R’ Treat are just some of the great chillers and splatter-slashers made in the last ten years. Also, if you’ve never seen one of the Scream movies, make sure you get on that shit right away! There are four of them and they’re equal parts scary, funny, and genre-educational.
Unfortunately for me, I’ve seen way too many of these horror movies. I’m always struggling to find adequate fresh blood for this time of year, so this time I’ve decided to search outside of ghouls and goblins.
The first film I chose was The Invitation. I’ve wanted to see this one since I first heard about the great response it was getting from critics. It’s not a ‘Halloween’ film, or even a ‘horror’ films per se. It’s more of a tense paranoia thriller, but it’s a damn good one!
It starts off with a couple arriving at a reunion for friends who haven’t seen each other in years. The night begins pleasantly, but as the hours tick by things begin to seem oddly out of place. The hosts of the party appear to be hiding something, or perhaps our main character is simply overly suspicious. Only in the last few moments of the film do we get the real answer.
You should watch this one, I recommend it! I just can’t tell you any more about it without spoiling the whole thing.
Session 9 is a weird one. It’s a tiny movie from 2001, made for a small budget and shot on digital video tape instead of film. It only made about $300,000 upon its initial release, and has since become a tiny cult favourite.
The film concerns a group of asbestos removalists who take on the job of cleaning an old abandoned mental hospital with a creepy history. As you might imagine, the dark hallways are hiding something far more dangerous than a carcinogen.
I do wish this film looked more professional. I’m not a fan of video tape, and I wish people like Michael Mann would stop using it. In this case, however, it did add a certain ultra-realism to the film. I felt like I could reach out and actually touch the walls, which I suppose works for a horror film.
Most importantly, though, the film had some really creepy moments where I began to feel damp behind the ears. One scene, in particular, stayed with me for all the right claustrophobic reasons.
The underlying story is almost entirely confusing until the very end, when the whole thing suddenly falls into place. Make sure you stay with it until then, because it will make sense eventually.
The final film I’ve chosen is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I’ve not seen it yet, and will be watching it tomorrow night. I don’t know much about it, other than that it comes highly recommended. Many film historians put it high up on their list of horrors, next to The Shining and The Exorcist. How can I argue with that?
Anyways, that’s what I’m up to this time around. I hope you all have a great night. I do hope you’ll try and find a really scary film to watch, or even two or three. Happy Halloween!
It’s time to finish what we started. Pucker up!
I recently began subscribing to the Australian version of Netflix, and was immediately confronted with a stark reminder of why I have always been a proud pirate and will have to continue sailing the rough torrents of the internet for some time yet.
There’s nothing on this damn thing!
I scroll up and down, though every category: horror, drama, thriller, rom-com. There’s barely anything but box office tween-movie bullshit! Where are the obscure titles, the arthouse projects, the independent low-budget experiments? This is barren! Instead they’ve filled it up with big-budget mass-produced typical tripe.
As I pushed my supercilious shopping trolley though this digital corporate suburbia, trying to stomach the most over-marketed flavours of film you can imagine, it got me thinking about a particular symptom of poor cinema that Australia struggles with.
The only genre that Australia seems to be comfortable appropriating is the Western, for obvious reasons. We have miles and miles of red desert sandwiched against blue sky and nothing much in between. Except that…that isn’t true. Living in Australia means living in or around a city. It means waking up in the morning to the sound of train horns and traffic jams. We don’t mount a camel at 7 AM and head out towards the horizon. We down a bitter coffee and squeeze ourselves into smelly boxcars, wearing pristine suits and skirts and holding onto greasy metal rails.
Have you ever taken a moment to look at an Australian city? The closer you get to the city centre, the more brick and rust is replaced by steel and plastic. Yet the original grunge and architecture never fully dissolves. It’s always there, wedged in amongst the contemporary showcases. Take a stroll away from the main roads, and you have a maze of thin streets that look like the inside of a submarine. There are small delis and doughnut shops stacked against bins, pipes, and cross-beams. All you need is steam coming out of the manhole covers and you’ve got yourself a solid…
Film Noir, from the french for ‘Black Film’, encompasses a large array of crime dramas from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. This genre still resonates through modern cinema, but spikes every so often, resulting in what’s typically known as Neo-Noir.
There are many classic noir stories, usually centred around heists, investigations, or just plain gangster intrigue. My personal favourites have to do with suspense and escalating tension, rather than grimy detective work. Typically a main character will make a selfish decision based on something superficial, like sex or money. Thus begins an increasingly complex series of events which traps him or her in a prison of their own consequences. Confused? Want examples? Well, here’s your homework, should you choose to accept it:
The first place to start on any Film-Noir caper is Double Indemnity. This is the classic murder-gone-wrong movie, and one of Billy Wilder’s most famous works. The setup is a stroke of genius.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter, an insurance salesman who falls in love with his client’s wife, Mrs. Dietrichson…the classic femme fatale. The two devise a plan to murder her husband and cash in on his life insurance policy. It all seems straight forward, until Walter’s boss suspects foul play and sends Walter off to investigate his own murder.
The film is an utter joy to sit through, as the couple have to eventually worm their way out of meeting with witnesses, find ways to re-purpose the evidence, and scramble to distract from suspicious clues. All the while, they grow resentful of each other and begin to argue over their agonising situation. As you might imagine, there is no happy ending in sight.
It’s always baffled me that in this age of adaptations, remakes, and reboots, there have been so few attempts at directly modernising this story. Maybe one day it’ll pop up at the box office, but until then you should check out the original.
Of course, you can’t take a stroll though the golden age of cinema without bumping into the master himself, Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s lesser admired films, but I actually prefer it to Vertigo or Psycho. It’s a far more engaging premise that befits my own sensibilities like a killer’s glove:
The film opens, obviously, with two total strangers meeting on a train. After engaging in innocuous conversation, they find that both are struggling with comparable predicaments that would swiftly be resolved if a particular person in their life was to die. They begin to discuss the idea of ‘swapping murders’. This way there will be no connecting motive and both can retain an alibi on the night of the crime. There isn’t even any evidence of collusion between the two, since they are merely strangers on a train. Of course, the plan isn’t really fool proof, as it relies entirely upon the mere promise of both individuals fulfilling their respective halves of the deal.
From the minute this film opened with a visual motif of crisscrossing train tracks I was in! The expository dialogue that’s standard in a 1950’s film may grind at your modern cinematic expectations, but the story is just too good to be left unresolved. You’ll want to hang in there and see this plan deservedly unravel.
Now we make a jump into the 80s and 90s, where Noir made a hell of a comeback. One of the greatest examples of Neo Noir is the Coen Brother’s film debut Blood Simple. It’s minimalist in concept, and pays direct homage to the classics.
Julian, the owner of a Texas bar, suspects that his wife is having an affair. When confronted with photographic evidence, he pays a private detective to murder her and her lover. Of course, in a sweltering summer of moral flexibility and loyalty to money alone, nothing is ever that simple.
This is certainly not one of the funnier Coen Brothers films, and is more tonally akin to No Country for Old Men than it is to Fargo. Still, the Coens can’t help but introduce a healthy dose of visual humour and winking irony. I hope you’re someone who enjoy twists and turns, cause they’re a-comin’.
If I live to be 100 and spent all that time preaching to you on topic, I could never truly convey just how much I love Bound. It’s practically perfect in every way. You just have to see it and you’ll understand.
The Wachowski Brothers (now known only as ‘The Wachowskis’ after one of them underwent a sex-change operation) spent years struggling to secure a deal for their most precious film aspiration, The Matrix. In a fit of frustration, they took some time off to make a tiny noir thriller named Bound. It proved to the studio that they were dependable filmmakers and earned them the confidence to make what became one of the 90’s most groundbreaking action movies. The irony is that Bound is actually better than The Matrix. It really is!
Now, I’ve recommended this film in full detail here, so if you’re interested in my fleshed out reasons for adoring it, then by all means dive in. To those who can’t be bothered, I shall retread.
Bound regurgitates the classic formula from Double Indemnity, but with one significant change: sexual orientation. Violet, a seductive femme fatale, lives in an apartment building with her money laundering Mafia boyfriend, Caesar. When Corky, a hardboiled lesbian ex-con, is released from prison and begins maintenance work in the apartment next to her, the two can’t resist each others sexual charms and end up planning to elope with all of Caesar’s stolen cash. If their intricate plan of lies and misdirection plays out perfectly, there will be no need for bloodshed…but that’s a big ‘if’.
Bound is stylish as hell and wonderfully indulgent. I’m always surprised whenever one of my LGBT friends says they’ve never even heard of it. It should be mounted on the wall as a high point in progressive genre reinvention.
Whether you’ve heard of Bound or not, I can almost guarantee that you’ve never heard of (and certainly never seen) The Ice Harvest…but you should! It’s directed by the late great Harold Ramis, one fourth of the Ghostbusters crew who also directed Groundhog Day and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In contrast to the other films on this list, The Ice Harvest successfully wrings comedy from all its crime thriller cliches. We have the femme fatale, the double and triple crossing, the money heist, the clashing double act, the crime lord, the body dumping dilemma, and of course the cynical protagonist with a wisecracking attitude and a history of broken hearts. It’s all so familiar, and yet it’s somehow been magically stirred into a fresh chilled cocktail.
John Cusack is Charlie Arglist, a lawyer for the mob. Together with a local scumbag business man, played by Billy Bob Thornton, they decide to steal two million dollars from one of Charlie’s clients. Everything goes well, until a winter storm turns the roads into ice and prevents them from skipping town. For the next several hours they both have to hide in plain sight and avoid suspicion, not an easy thing to do in a small town during Christmas.
The Ice Harvest was never really given a fair shake by critics. They considered it largely unfunny and averagely entertaining. I could not possibly disagree more! It’s one of Ramis’ best films! Is it better than Groundhog Day? Probably not, but you could make a good case for it. Both feature self deprecating main characters that find themselves unable to escape their surroundings, literally. What I like about this one is that, unlike most noir tales, it manages to find an underlying sweetness in its main character. He may be ethically ambivalent at times, but fundamentally cares about not letting innocent people get hurt.
You’re absolutely right, what does this have to do with my third recommendation of an Australian film? Did I just give up the search and decide to list American Noir films instead? No, not exactly.
See, I always thought to myself that urban Australia was ripe for noir. It’s the next genre we can absorb and re-envision for ourselves. I’m not talking about sleazy gangster crime, we have plenty of those. I’m talking about solid writing, style and story structure.
Fair point, and maybe one day I will, but as I’m about to show you…someone else already has.
The Square is exactly the kind of Australian film I’ve been searching for. It’s a noir thriller that fits in perfectly with the rest of the genre. It concerns two lovers, Ray and Carla, each cheating on their respective partners with one another. Carla ropes Ray into a scheme whereby she will steal her boyfriends drug money and stage a fire to cover it up. Ray has the connections and sets up the job, while orchestrating alibis for the both of them. Unfortunately, Carla’s mother-in-law ends up dying in the fire, making them both accessories to murder, and that’s only the beginning.
The Square is written by Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, and directed by Nash Edgerton. It shows, once and for all, that Australian filmmaking talent can stand toe-to-toe with its American equivalent. As a bonus, the artists involved clearly understand that they’re not just ripping off an American genre (which in turn was adapted from the French), but that genre is a lens through which they can focus in on themes that matter in Australian culture. The Square seems to want to discuss class differences more than anything, and the difficulty of transitioning up and down the economic ladder. The two lover, Ray and Carla, are separated economically and geographically. Ray lives on one side of the river, the posh side of town, and Carla lives on the other side, in the poorer neighbourhood. Their plan depicts an attempted upsetting of the apple cart, a decision that has grave consequences for both of them. With that in mind, consider what the ending of the film is trying to say about Australian socio-economics…and who suffers the ultimate wrath.
That’s it. The trilogy is complete! See, I can compliment Aussie films! I’m not always a Debbie downer. Now, Aussie movie makers, go forth and make good art! Stop thinking about the country you want to sell and focus on the stories you want to tell. Most importantly, draw from you own life experiences. Your life and your interests make up your palette, pick the most interesting colours and paint them on the silver screen. Don’t just copy others and don’t let some studio of government affiliate pressure you into gumming up your ideas with marsupials and orange landscapes. What kind of film would you want to watch? If you can answer that question honestly, then you’re always pointed in the right direction. Whatever art you end up with will be beautiful and interesting in its own way, I promise. Just don’t be boring and predictable, ok?
So there I was at work the other day when I suddenly remembered that I haven’t updated this blog… …for months!
That’s what happens when I’m busy making a film of my own. It’s as time consuming as it is utterly exhausting, but now I’ve finished showing my underbelly and can return to my true love…pointing at everyone else’s.
“When we last left you…” I was in the middle of bending over backwards to recommend Australian films, and we still have one left to go. I haven’t lost sight of this, but I have something else to take care of first.
Remember this? Of all the posts in all the years in all the world, I had to almost miss 2015.
Fret not! I know it’s July, but I’m not going to miss my chance to unveil the perfectly titled ‘Fifteen of Fifteen’! It’s unconscionable!
I know that 2015 is well and truly in the rearview mirror at this point, but can we please just step into the DeLorean for a minute and take a trip back to when Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World were dominating the box office while Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Spotlight were emptying the Oscar shelves. Remember it now? Ok, good.
Let’s go over the rules again:
This is not strictly a list of my favourite films in 2015. What I’ve done here is try to cobble together a set of the best movies that the average film-goer, or even netflix buff, probably overlooked in a year full of anticipated blockbusters. If you happen to find yourself with “nothing to watch” one night and you feel a little adventurous, by all means pick one out and give it a try, or perhaps even make a selection from 2014 or 2013. I can’t guarantee that they’ll all be to your taste, but I will say that this is probably the best year I can remember for overlooked independents. There was so much great stuff that I almost wanted to increase the number.
BUT THAT WOULD RUIN THE “FIFTEEN OF FIFTEEN” title! …and we can’t do that.
So we begin, as always, at the bottom…
A fair few of you may actually have seen Crimson Peak. It had a decent run at the cinemas, but never really became the big hit that Guillermo Del Toro probably hoped it would be.
“In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds – and remembers.”
It’s not hard to see why people didn’t recommend this to their friends. The premise alone is labyrinthine and dense. The poster screams “horror”, but the summary reads like Russian literature. Then, to top it off, the reviews all had a sense of “meh” about them. The consensus seemed to be that the film was not scary. I agree. There’s a lot of eeriness, but never any paranormal toe-curling tension or even a single cheap jump-scare payoff.
All of this is ok, however, because the film is not meant to be scary. It’s pitched as a gothic romance, the keywords being “gothic” and “romance”. Balancing morbidity and love is tricky as hell, because you tend to alienate both halves of your audience. The women find it too frightening, gross, or unsettling while the men are bored out of their minds with the slow sappiness.
I found it enjoyable on both counts and, as far as demographics go, there’s one group that will adore every lavish second of it: Production Designers.
If you’re someone with a soft spot for fantastical costumes and architecture, eat your walking corpse’s heart out! Del Toro has brought you the ultimate in horror mansions, a house that oozes character, literally. Everything from the tap handles to the door latches has been designed to tell a story or evoke an emotion. The film is also gorgeously lit, with a bright and consistent contrasting colour palette of yellow, red, and green; representing life, love, and death.
The whole experience is a trip back to the classic ghost films of the 60’s, with candlesticks constantly illuminating dark hallways. The aim of the game here is not to let your imagination fill in the blanks, but rather to exhibit the imagination of the filmmaker. Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most brilliant visual minds working in cinema today, and he has some unbelievable things to show you if you’ll just open yourself up to it.
Like I said, a fair few of you may have seen Crimson Peak, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of you skipped it. Just remember to manage your expectations. It will intrigue you, maybe even stun you, but not scare you. Relax and and soak in the exuberance.
Perhaps partially redundant, but here you go:
“Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution, to paint a portrait of the man at its epicentre. The story unfolds backstage at three iconic product launches, ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac.”
Just like Crimson Peak, Steve Jobs was a film with a decent profile. It was written by wordsmith prodigy Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing, and directed by Danny Boyle. Must have been a giant hit, right?
Made on a budget of $30 million, the film ultimately only scraped together $34 million from its entire theatrical run. While technically going into profit, it became known as one of the biggest flops of the year. With this much talent involved expectations were raised, but in hindsight it was always going to be a struggle to drag audiences back into the cinema for a Steve Jobs biopic…thanks to this little spoiler:
Out of the two competing exposes about the same man, the better one arrived late to the party and missed out as a result. Not only was Jobs the first to be released, but it made the same amount of money as Steve Jobs. Yet on account of having half the budget, it was a greater success. Are you confused yet?
Exactly! All you need to remember is to avoid Ashton Kutcher and you’ll be fine. In fact, this is a good general rule anyway!
The great advantage that the Sorkin script has is that it showcases Steve Jobs as a darker and more complex character. Steve was to loyalty what computer hardware…is to loyalty.
It’s clear that in his “post 90’s” stretch Aaron Sorkin has become more interested in flawed central characters that blur the line between hero and villain. If you’re someone who enjoyed the tone of Moneyball and The Social Network, in particular, then you you really shouldn’t miss this one.
The setup is also way more interesting. It presents the summation of Jobs’ life through three real-time product launches, each one an act in a three-part play. Through this prism we see the chasm between his relationship to the public and to the individual. We slalom through a landscape of broken friendships and partnerships, all within the confines of what is clearly a synthetically constructed narrative, and yet it never feels inorganic. Behold the gospel that is the Sorkin script.
Here’s one that I’m almost certain you haven’t seen. Lucky you!
“A documentary about the proposed 1998 Superman Lives feature film that would have starred Nicolas Cage.”
No, you’re not having a sudden onslaught of dyslexia. You read that correctly.
For almost two decades there’s been a rumour that Tim Burton was planning a Superman sequel that would star Nicolas Cage. No one was really sure how deep into development the project had gotten before fizzling out, but most assumed that it never escaped the scripting stage. Then this picture began circulating.
Clearly Superman Lives had made it all the way to casting and costume fitting, something which only raised more questions.
Documentary filmmaker and self proclaimed geek John Shnepp has decided to make the effort of investigating just how many relics and unrealised plans actually exist. The truth is so much more fleshed out than anyone ever thought. The Death of Superman Lives piles together every available scrap of information about what could have potentially been the most insane superhero movie ever made. Interviews, story plans, concept art, and even VFX test footage helps gather a complete picture of the train wreck cinema fiasco we all secretly wish would have happened.
To my surprise, 2015 turned out to be a great year for horror films. There are a total of five on this list, far more than most years. Not only are they fundamentally effective, they’re all wildly at odds with contemporary genre expectations.
Case in point: We Are Still Here.
“In the cold, wintery fields of New England, a lonely old house wakes up every thirty years – and demands a sacrifice.”
I’ve found it hard to pinpoint why I…kinda…like this film. I fully admit that it’s far from 100% successful, but there were key moments that stayed with me.
With a shockingly low budget, but fuelled by substantive inspiration, We Are Still Here is the kind of rough (and I do mean rough) diamond that many horror film fans will find themselves oddly charmed by. Every element of this film is underdeveloped, but it has a core vision. The creators have stated that they didn’t want to choose between ghouls or ghosts, and instead combined them. When faced with a cliche, their go-to strategy was to take the road less travelled. It may not have lead them to a home-run, but it certainly kept me watching.
Oh, you like horror films? In the inappropriate words of Bernie Goetz, “here’s another!”
“A family in 1630’s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.”
The Witch is a cerebral horror film in the vain of The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not a film you can ever relax into, and nor should you. It raises several questions and provides very few answers. This is not a date movie or a gorefest, and at times it will make you uncomfortable with its ongoing references to deviant themes and uncomfortable human behaviour. The very first sequence in the movie is intended to put you off and then dare you to sit through the rest. It’s no spoiler to say that the story isn’t headed to a good place.
I might struggle to recommend Australian films, but how about an American one with a New Zealander in it?
I’ve never seen Flight of the Conchords, but I have it on good authority that it’s very funny. One of its stars, Jemaine Clement, now comes to you as the oddly out of place lead in the indie comedy film People, Places, Things.
“Will Henry is a newly single graphic novelist balancing parenting his young twin daughters and a classroom full of students while exploring and navigating the rich complexities of new love and letting go of the woman who left him.”
This movie is essentially a deadpan juggling act. It’s always funny, but in a subtle way that consists of equal parts punch-lines and cringe moments. What’s endearing about it is how adoringly it treats its central character. Although Will is a buffoon in many ways and a hapless victim in others, he remains a consistently great father. He struggles to provide for his children financially, and so substitutes it by enriching their lives with immaterial happiness.
Will’s struggle is to endure a torrent of emotional hardships until something can give him a a slight hope of control. Even if that never happens, though, it’s fun to watch him grasping at straws.
Alright, you’re not happy with just a lead actor from New Zealand? Let’s step it up a notch.
“A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as a guide.”
If this film proves anything, it’s that film is all about fakery. Here we have Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is Australian, playing a Scottish traveller. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender, who is Irish, plays an American outlaw. One is helping the other traverse the American West, as represented by the New Zealand countryside.
Just about everything in Slow West is disingenuous, and yet if you didn’t know…you wouldn’t know. Best of all, it gives us a fresh take on westerns. You’ve never quite seen one like this. It’s uniquely bright, colourful, and stands in contrast to almost all of modern cinema by filming its subjects matter with entirely steady shots. At times it reminded me of the craft in a Cohen Brother film, particularly one like Fargo. There is very little movements in either the camerawork, action, or dialogue. The director, John Maclean, compensates for this with what I like to call “precision filmmaking”.
There is a golden rule in scriptwriting, which is to go from A to B as directly as possible without being boring and predictable. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, but the thing to avoid is unnecessary deviation from the story. Don’t let your main character go on a rant about something that isn’t germane to either a plot-strand or an underlying theme. It’s messy and distracting, so cut it out if you can’t justify it.
Of course, some filmmakers manage to break this rule and get away with it, to the frustration of others.
Slow West, in a very classically disciplined way, chains itself to minimalism at all times. Dialogue that would otherwise stretch on for paragraphs is condensed into a handful of words. Sometimes even one word, or a simple gesture, is enough.
None of that is to say, however, that Slow West doesn’t have several moments of fun. There are jokes, chases, shootouts, and subsequently a lot of both dark and funny deaths.
It feels very strange to be recommending a teen comedy. It’s not usually something I do, but The Duff left me feeling like is deserved some recognition.
“A high school senior instigates a social pecking order revolution after finding out that she has been labeled the DUFF – Designated Ugly Fat Friend – by her prettier, more popular counterparts.”
The whole conceit of this movie seems like a hard sell. You would be forgiven for suspecting it to be a mixture of Mean Girls clique-humour, rags-to-popular-riches Cinderella fantasy, and…every other cliche you can think of. Its setup also reeks of potential body shaming for young women. Something that I’m totally against, mind you! I value women for their personalities and don’t judge them by their looks or leer over them like some large drooling predator. Amirite, sistahs?
But if you ignore the premise, the characters, the poster, and the trailer…and just watch the movie…you’ll find that The Duff is actually a very sweet film. It’s easily as strong as Emma Stone’s compelling Easy A when it comes to issues of teenage female empowerment, and it’s just as funny, if not more.
I’ve always been a fan of Mae Whitman from when I first saw her in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She’s a perfect fit for this role. The chemistry between her and Robbie Amell is dynamite, and that’s the key to why it works. A romance comedy only succeeds if you can sense genuine harmony between two personalities, and in this case you’ll find yourself biting your nails in anticipation of the miss-matched couples hooking up correctly.
Yes! Now we’re getting into the really really good stuff. These next several movies are truly exquisite films whose tepid response is so unjustified that it’s criminal.
“A middle-aged couple’s career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives.”
If you know my cinematic taste intimately (Ew! There’s got to be a better way to phrase that.), you’ll know that I’m an evolving fan of Noah Baumbach. He’s been an independent filmmaker since the 90’s, but only recently caught my attention with the lovely Frances Ha. His follow up is While We’re Young, a comical look at age-denial.
I’m particularly fond of this topic, as I’m already feeling old and I’m not even thirty yet. On the other hand…I’m almost thirty!
I don’t think it’s unusual to freak out a little every time you’re about to cross a decade threshold. It serves as a reminder of the clocks irreversible momentum. It’s not all about mortality, either. Eventually age has a way of pressuring you into abandoning a young persons lifestyle and “settling down”, whatever you perceive that to mean. Anyone with a burning, or even lukewarm, passion for reaching unfinished goals will find this a hard pill to swallow.
While We’re Young sees Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts come face to face with more impressive versions of their younger selves. It leads to an experimental maturity reboot that is utterly unpredictable in its outcome. A genuine crisis of the soul occurs, where the main characters have to decide whether they want to slip into the second half of their lives like it’s a soothing bath, or reject it as a constricting social construct.
This moment either has happened or will happen to all of us. Baumbach seems to be one of the only current artists willing to address it from every angle and with all the satire it deserves.
Is age really just a number? We’ll find out…
Is your Argentinian anthology film collection a little slim these days? Say no more!
“Six short stories about revenge.”
That’s about as concise of a setup as you could ask for. I have a special place in my heart for anthology films, and a special place within that special place for Wild Tales.
Anthology films succeed because of their internal diversity. With six stories available, you’re bound to like at least one or two of them. They vary in size and scope, but all centre around the bizarre outcomes of revenge.
What impressed me most was the high quality of this movie. I know that might sound damning with faint praise, as if I automatically assume that a film from Argentina should look like an outtake from The Blair Witch Project, but that’s not what I’m saying. There’s some serious money and talent involved here, with large scale VFX and crisp cinematography. Every smooth square inch of it gleams with wear-and-tear virginity, like a recently unboxed piece of expensive technology. Frankly, it impresses me to see this much attention being paid to such an indulgent entertainment piece. On top of that, the film made it into the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category. Not too shabby.
Those of you out there who struggle to draw pleasure from screen violence or don’t fancy revenge as sufficient character motivation might be tempted to skip this one. I suggest that you don’t. It’s very funny amidst its depravity. If you give it a chance, it will whisper sweet nothings to the lizard portion of your brain. You’ll find yourself coaxed into relating to these characters and their vitriolic decisions. It’s a scary thought, I know, but maybe…just maybe…there’s part of you that sympathises.
Ok fine, I will watch Flight of the Conchords, I promise. It’s hard not to when the people behind it made one of the funniest films of last year.
“A documentary team films the lives of a group of vampires for a few months. The vampires share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. Turns out vampires have their own domestic problems too.”
I want to immediately address the elephant in the room: Mockumentaries are all too common! Ever since This is Spinal Tap and The Office set the bar for hilarity and cringe by utilising a fake documentary format, we’ve seen dozens of these copycats. Borat, Bruno, Summer Heights High, Come Fly with Me, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Reno 911!, Trailer Park Boys, Kenny…the list goes on.
The only other category that could possibly compete with this level of abundance is that of vampire films. How many versions of Dracula have we had at this point? Twilight came, did its thing, and went. Then we even got Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Gee, thank you 20th Century Fox. I really needed to know what the emancipator of American slavery could do to the undead with an axe and a good swing.
All of this now leads up to the announcement that Jemaine Clement and Taika Watiti are making a mockumentary about vampires. You can imagine my reaction….
…and yet, it’s so good!
Right off the bat (pun inadvertently stumbled upon) we get references to everything from Nosferatu to Gary Oldman. The legends and myths around vampires are brought into the real world and played out like a reality show. It explores all the funny inconveniences and quirks that would inevitably follow a vampire lifestyle.
It’s great to finally see the vampire genre spoof itself. I’ve always been turned off by how seriously these creatures take themselves. ‘Oh, woe is me! I live forever but I have to drink blood and live at night.’ Yes, I get it. It’s a tortured existence. What I don’t understand is how you manage to style your hair so perfectly without a reflection.
Don’t you hate it when there’s hardly any size or font difference between the main star’s name and the film title? “Kevin Bacon Cop Car?” What the hell is that? Anyway…
“A small-town sheriff sets out to find the two kids who have taken his car on a joy ride.”
I really enjoyed this one. Like really enjoyed it! It’s very simple. The motivations are straight forward, the characters aren’t too complex, and the dialogue is straight to the point. Unlike most modern films, it has no problem putting children in mortal danger. It’s like a modern gritty reinvention of The Goonies, you could say.
Two children make the poor mistake of stealing a cop car, assuming that the worst they’ll get is a talking to from the police or their parents. Of course, it’s so much worse. The car belongs to Sherriff Kretzen, an upstanding policeman and part time drug dealing murderer. Kretzen’s entire double-life hangs in the balance and depends upon him retrieving the car before the children discover what’s really going on. And away we go…
Yay! Noah Baumbach returns again. I’m such a fan!
I know, you’re bored with all my adoration. If only I gave half a fuck. I don’t. He’s amazing!
“A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside-down by her impetuous, adventurous stepsister-to-be.”
You might think that this film is similar to While We’re Young, but you’d be wrong. It starts off as a drama about a young girl trying to fit in at college, but takes a turn when Greta Gerwig’s character, Brooke, enters her life. Suddenly it becomes an increasingly frenetic screwball comedy, and here’s where I start my rant:
What ever happened to screwball comedies? There used to be a whole industry of writers being paid to pen high quality script about hilariously ever-escalating situations. Dramatic irony was the name of the game, where each character was misunderstanding each other and only the audience had a complete view of what was going on. This style of comedy was all the rage in the 30’s and 40’s, then made a bit of a comeback in the 70’s and 90’s. As I’m a child of the 90’s, these are some of my personally favourite examples:
Nowadays, though, comedies have been hijacked by the likes of Will Ferrel and Adam McKay. While some of their films (like Anchorman and Step Brothers) are very funny, they’re all about improvisation. It’s far less impressive when there’s no real script in place, and the director just lets funny people sputter in front of a camera until they have enough to edit together. That’s a pretty lazy way to make a comedy. Just make an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway, it’s cheaper.
What I want to see is a script that plays out like intricate mathematics. The setups and the payoffs are perfectly timed. The build up of complexities is externally chaotic, and yet there’s clearly always a captain at the helm.
Mistress America is one of these. The dialogue is smart, complicated, funny, and delivered at a crazy pace, similar to Gilmore Girls. As the plot progresses, it literally accumulates a motley crew of characters that don’t seem to know why they’re here or where they’re going. They just follow one another blindly, and I was happy to tag along as well.
Final two, and we’re back to warm nutritious horror!
“A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter.”
Upon first glance, the setup for It Follows seems very typical. In reality, this is one of the most perfectly conceived horror films I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s such a great idea!
The film posits an entity that follows you. Only you can see it. It never stops and never runs. It only ever walks at a slow constant pace. It always knows where you are, and is always walking in a straight line towards you. It will appear to you as a random person, sometimes as someone you know. When it reaches you…you die!
Now that is genius! The entire film becomes an excruciating exercise in paranoia. You’ll find yourself picking people out of a crowd and wondering “is that it?”. There are also additional rules which further complicate the main character’s dilemma. The only way to pass the follower to another person is to have sex. You will still be able to see the follower, but they will now be following your partner. However, if the follower kills that person, it immediately turns around and begins following you again. As you can imagine, this gives our central hero some mythological room within which she can strategize. Can she devise a plan to escape the inescapable? Oh the fun we’ll have!
No you don’t! Come back here!
I’ve run into a couple people recently who refuse to watch horror movies. Their excuse is “I get too scared”. That’s like avoiding roller coasters because they’re too exciting. That’s the whole point! A good horror film is an unbelievably refreshing experience. The best ones are all about editing and camera placement, rather than gore and creepy lighting.
If you’re more or less a horror virgin, then It Follows is a great first experience to have. It’s not too scary, merely confronting you with a terrifying notion that’s well explored. It will provide you with a prime example of what great horror cinema is all about: tension.
There are interesting additional flavours to this film. The director, David Robert Mitchell, decided to set it in no one consistent time period. The cars and sets look like something out of the 80’s, but the technology and clothing is far more modern. The soundtrack is created by Disasterpeace, who used a retro John Carpenter synth score that sounds like it belongs in a classic slasher.
I just absolutely loved the experience of watching this movie. I saw it at Cinema Nova, in an uncomfortable basement with a low ceiling and an annoying cement pillar protruding into my line of sight. Still, it didn’t matter. I was transfixed with what was on the screen, loving every second of it. The use of long takes and zoom lenses brought me right back to the films I saw on VHS as a kid.
Please watch this movie! It deserves you!
I thought It Follows was going to end up being my favourite film of 2015, but in the final days of December, Krampus arrived.
“A boy who has a bad Christmas ends up accidentally summoning a Christmas demon to his family home.”
Do you like Gremlins? How about Poltergeist? A Nightmare Before Christmas? Combine them all and you get Krampus. It’s written and directed by Michael Dogherty, who made one of my favourite films of the last decade: Trick r’ Treat.
If you liked Trick r’ Treat, then you’re in luck. Krampus is effectively an unrelated sequel. It features many of the same practical effects and clear nods to 80’s creature features like Pumpkinhead.
I wasn’t out of order when I mentioned A Nightmas Before Christmas, either. There is an entire section where the film turns into a stop-motion rendered animation. Like something right of of Tim Burton’s mind, it’s a beautiful piece of German expressionism and so appropriate to the spirit of the film!
Dogherty loves combining genres that aren’t normally combined. Here, he intentionally aims to mutate everything you’re told to love about Christmas into an unrelenting abomination. The spirit, people, decorations, traditions, and gifts are all perverted with no remorse.
It might just be one of my favourite Christmas films ever. I like it when filmmakers reveal the dark side of the holidays. Something about the absurd recipe of blood and eggnog makes for an interesting result. Lest we forget that Die Hard, Eyes Wide Shut, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are all technically Christmas films. They’re just not interested in pandering to holiday cheer.
For someone like myself, who hates this time of year profusely, it’s music to my ears. If Krampus is about anything, it’s about the falseness of Christmas. People spend time together, not because they want to, but because they feel they have to. It’s what you do! Well, bah humbug!
Tear it all down, with cannibal puppets and murdering gingerbread men!
Did anyone out there watch Welcome to Woop Woop?
You liar! I know you didn’t. First of all, it’s quite hard to find, and secondly…because no one in their right mind would sit through more than ten minutes of something like that. It’s barely a film, much less a good one. I, as it happens, am not in my right mind and have seen it twice.
Any proud Australian reading this should be seething at my disrespect by this point. How dare I claim that Australian films are below standard, and then put forth Welcome to Woop Woop as an example of what makes the grade? Well, I dare, I did, and I don’t care what you think.
Alright, fine, you may have a point. My whole argument is about Australian films being too Australian, so the natural retort is to ask for an example of the antithesis. What sort of films do I think Australia should be making? It’s easy for me to say that we need to be making good film, as opposed to just Australian films, but what constitutes a good film? Who decides what a good film is? What kind of films have both financial and critical success?
The complaint I hear most often is about money. “Australia doesn’t have the kind of money that America does, so we can’t make mega-blockbusters like they do”. But…who said anything about blockbusters? You know what Australia needs?…A Woody Allen!
You either know Woody Allen as a character, or as an artist. I temporarily titter at the former, but buckle with awe at the latter. You cannot be an independent film auteur without being highly literate in Allen’s back-catalogue. Since the early seventies, he’s made a movie a year, and some years two or even three. In the same vein as John Ford, he steams ahead with all the inhibition of an arctic icebreaker. Reviews and returns are equally poor deterrents, and he’s never been unable to make his next movie. How’s that possible, you ask? Doesn’t he have to lobby endlessly for grants, investments, and picture deals? Nope! Not when you’re Woody Allen, because Woody Allen…MAKES..GOOD..MOVIES.
Allen doesn’t make big movies or American movies. He writes simple scripts with good characters, typically a dose of witty humour, and insightful ideas. To date he’s written and directed 45 feature films. Here they are:
By the time you read this, however, it may very well be 46. That’s how rapidly he pumps them out. How does he do it? He keeps his budgets small!
Woody Allens films are low in scope, and therefore constitute a low risk investment. He has spent, in total, 613.9 million dollars on 45 films over the course of 50 years. That comes out to an average of 13.6 million per film. Collectively, they’ve grossed over 1.2 billion dollars internationally, raking in an average of 27.3 million each.
Basically it means that Allen’s movies typically pay out at twice their budget in a single theatrical run. Only in a handful of cases has this not been true. Over the years, he’s created a loyal fanbase that can be counted on to spread the word of a new release and line up for the next one. Actors who usually require multi-million dollar paycheques will all but waive their fee for a chance to work with Allen because of his iconic presence in American cinema.
The majority, if not all, of Allen’s signature talent lies in his writing. With a great script you can largely guarantee a decent return without wasting your money on pyrotechnics and green-screen. Films don’t have to be big to be successful. Just look at the Duplass brothers, for example!
You’ve never heard of the Duplass brothers? Alright, fine! Here we go…
Mark and Jay Duplass are herculean warriors in the fight against big budget movie domination. What they do isn’t low-budget, it’s no-budget.
Their early films were made for as little as $15,000 and ended up being selected for the Sundance film festival year after year. Later, they’ve gone on to produce fractionally larger projects with significantly more famous stars, like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig. Their formula is always the same; docu-drama style with an improvisational comedy tone. Their success is built on a solid understanding of character interaction. Watching the actors bounce off one another in a Duplass film gives me joy every time, and there’s always a great script underpinning it all. In fact, they’re not unlike Noah Baumbach in many respects.
Holy shit! Are you trying to make me tenderise a concrete wall with my forehead? Listen, folks, if this ‘blogger-bloggee’ thing is going to work then I need some commitment on your end. I didn’t make this thing so I could sit here and wax poetic about Transformer: Age of Extinction. Drive on past Village for once and take a trip to the Astor, or the Palace Kino, or Cinema Nova. Scroll deep into the cobwebbed independent film section of you Netflix, Torrent some obscure titles, or have a look at this year’s line up for the Melbourne Scandinavian Film Festival.
(Actually, that’s highly hypocritical on my part. I’ve never gone to the local Scandinavian film festival…and I’m Scandinavian.)
The point is…the point is…FUCK!!!
(Breathe in…breathe out.)
Well, since you’re wondering…
Noah Baumbach is a mumble-core filmmaker who primarily writes and directs comedy dramas, and they’re really good! Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen all of Baumbach’s films. Moreover, some of the ones I have seen did not rub me entirely the right way. His latest films are the ones I recommend.
Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and Mistress America work beautifully as a trilogy that’s unified by one theme…age.
Baumbach has provided us with three perfectly observed commentaries on the phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis and mid-life crisis. As someone about to go through that awkwardly stressful shift from your 20’s to your 30’s, I’m immensely grateful to see my own whirlpool of emotions represented on screen. If you feel at all unsure about your future or your path in life then you have to watch these!. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Vicenarian, a Tricenararian, or a Quadragenarian. Everyone will find something relatable amidst the “so true!” writing and lovably goofy characters.
Best of all, these films are made for a couple million dollars each. They borrow heavily from the Woody Allen business model, ‘low’ and steady wins the race.
Please, Australia, find your Noah Baumbach, find your Duplass Brothers, find your Woody Allen. He or she is out there somewhere. We may struggle to compete with America on a blockbuster level, but there’s no reason why we can’t punch above our weight in low budget independent films. Oh wait, I forgot…there is a reason…
Australian scripts blow! Either those who are in charge of selecting scripts have a poor eye for good content, or the industry is educating us incorrectly. As the recipient of an Australian comprehensive course in filmmaking, the second possibility scares me to death. Could it be true that we’re giving aspiring writers the wrong advise? I don’t think so.
My screenwriting lecturers were highly intelligent people with a broad understanding of both flashy and foundational storytelling. Though, they did inadvertently prove my point, about poor Aussie writing, by never ever using an Australian film as an example of premium craft…
…but they did mention this one…
One of my writing teachers once asked the class, as a whole, if we had seen Lantana. We shrugged unanimously, and subsequently crushed his spirits. That’s because Lantana was, according to him, that rarest of gifts…a great Australian script.
I never quite forgot how emphatically he had recommended the film, as if it was the only one that had managed to crawl through the perilous shrubbery of shoddy local moviemaking, only to be placed awkwardly on the corner of some forgotten dusty drama section at the local rental store. His pleading worked, but only after a five year delay when I randomly came across Lantana listed in Foxtel’s upcoming films section. I clocked the name and set it to record. Life had slowly, surely, and relentlessly made it’s point. This was a film I needed to see…
But of course, when it comes to Australian films, I’ve been burned before. I remember The Water Diviner like it’s a stubborn Vietnam War flashback. I feel a citrus-like cringe in the back corner of my jaw when I think about Mystery Road. Then, of course, there was Adore. Blimey!
No, no! I will judge, with a fucking microscope, whether Lantana is passable script or not. Don’t expect ‘good cop bad cop’ here, it’s all ‘bad cop’! Alone, in a dingy apartment with the cold steel of a gun grip resting in my palm, I will judge thee! Go on, Lantana, do your worst!
I’m just kidding…
…I watched it with my mum!
She liked it, but I really liked it. Before I get into why, here’s the plot…
“The relationships of four couples unravel after the discovery of a young woman’s body in Lantana bush in suburban Sydney.”
Lantana is the name of an Australian flower that grows in a complex bush formation. Not only does the film kick off with the body of a woman found in a Lantana bush, but the intertwining vines of the Lantana represents the intricate collisions of life and love that follow. So there’s you’re “Australianism”, one and done.
The important thing about Lantana is how incredibly well conceived and written it is. It never feels the need to push the tension into outright violent territory. Like complex clockwork, it keeps its ticking innards under the surface. There’s plenty of tension building up behind the curtain, and the audience is treated to the right amount at the right time. I genuinely had no idea where the story was going and, to a weary film buff, that’s better than sex.
We’re treated to reliably methodical performances from Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, and Barbara Hershey, as well as several others who hold their own within an intimidatingly talent-rich ensemble.
I’m grateful to Lantana for not pivoting to the Australian funding body’s idea of an “Aussie film”, nor shaving off its edges to try and imitate American genre fluff. This is a great and mature Australian film that Australians should be proud of, and deserves to be wedged into your DVD collection next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts; Small and effective, exactly as it should be.
Congratulations Australia, you got this one right!