Saturday, July 22, 2017

10 for 10: the "stuff I watched last year" Edition

[10 for 10... that's 10 movies which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie or TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of half-remembered scattershot thoughts? Surely that's doable?   ]

In this edition:
1. The Martian (TMN on demand) - 2015, d. Ridley Scott
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (in theatre) - 2016, d. Taika Waititi
3. Midnight Special (VOD) - 2016, d. Jeff Nichols
4. The Big Short (Netflix) - 2015, d. Adam McKay
5. Sleeping With Other People (Netflix) - 2015, d. Leslye Headland
6. Admission (Shomi) - 2013, d . Paul Weitz
7. Elstree 1976 (Netflix) -2015, d. Jon Spira
8. Mascots (Netflix) - 2016, d, Christopher Guest
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Netflix) - 2016, d. Dan Trachtenburg
10. ARQ (Netflix) - 2016, d. Tony Elliott



The Martian should have been something I saw in theatres, but it wasn't a big tentpole sci-fi, superhero or fantasy movie, and Ridley Scott isn't one of our "always see" directors.  Also, I've realized Matt Damon just isn't a draw for me.  I like him just fine, but he's never going to sell me on a movie on his own.  Sooo, it kind of languished, not for anything other than lack of time or access.  When we got the movie package last year for Game of Thrones, well, The Martian was there waiting.  And hey, it was good.  Entertaining, full of "Fuck Yeah, Science" moments (what was it?  "I'll science the shit out of this"? Eh, I don't recall).  It was a nice story of survival, but it was trying for a lighter, feel good tone, and a such there wasn't a terrible amount of drama.  I mean, we're not talking Castaway isolation (in terms of not having any other cast to cut away to), but for height of the stakes for ol' Matt Damon, there wasn't a lot of tension.  I think it may be a plausibility thing, the fact that we haven't actually landed anyone on Mars yet.  Sure, there's the potential, but we're just not at reality yet.  I liked it but it hasn't stuck with me.  And I couldn't help but think of this as related character to Matt Damon's role in Interstellar, and there's a lack of consistency between the two characters (both stranded on planets) that just bugged me.

(David has a great write-up from long ago...and also mentions the Interstellar thing)


The Hunt For The Wilderpeople  is now on Netflix, and it probably deserves a rewatch.  Any of Taika Waititi's directorial efforts do, in fact.  His first effort, Eagle vs Shark, was very much the Napoleon Dynamite of the New Zealand set, while the mocumentary What We Do In The Shadows has become an evergreen favourite because of its genre trappings.  Hunt For The Wilderpeople has a title that insinuates genre trappings, but is actually an exceptionally enjoyable, warm and funny (with a sombre undercurrent ) comedy about a young orphan boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison), in New Zealand who has behavioural problems, but is taken in by the sweetest, kindest-hearted woman anyway.  Her husband, a staunch, crotchety Hec (Sam Neill), doesn't really want much to do with the kid, and keeps to himself most of the time.  But the new surrogate mother figure suddenly passes away and Hec finds himself in a position he never wanted to be in, a mentor and father figure, and it a role he resoundingly rejects.  Faced with returning to state custody, realizing he's had his last chance at finding a home,  Ricky runs away.  Hec knows where he's going, and reluctantly sets out to bring him back.  In the trip on return, the two, as expected, bond, but in ways unexpected.  It's themes are well trod, but it's the way in which the story is told, Waititi's wry yet uproarious humour, and a very deliberate pacing and film style which make this one worth not just watching, but treasuring.  Waititi's next venture is Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel, which should be amazing.



I just wrote about Stranger Things, FINALLY,  and how spectacular it was, in large part due to its  1980's sensibilities.  Not just homage, or attempting retro trappings, but achieving a genuine sense of the era, a sense of belonging, of being of the '80's.  Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special strives for much of the same, and achieves to a certain extent.  There's the definite sensibilities of 80's genre dramas like John Carpenter's Starman or Spielberg's E.T., the type of movie that doesn't want to wow with special effects or any genre trappings, really, outside of one small conceit.  Here, it's a young boy who has a supernatural ability, an inner light that can manifest itself in both helpful and destructive ways.  The boy's father (Michael Shannon) has to extricate him from a cult-like religion and the pursuing governmental forces, both of whom have ill designs for the boy.  The chase is a fraught one, and seeing the lingering impact of the religious teachings on both the father and son is much of the meat of the story.  It's a sombre road movie, with Shannon's expert brooding carrying the bulk of the film on his shoulders.  I'm still not certain the retro 80's aesthetic (despite being modern day) helps the story much.  It's a pastiche for sure but using it would imply that it was more exciting or fun.  It has a pretty distinct ending, one which a viewer could go either way on (it could be too much, or make the viewer wish there were more of it).  It's a sad film, overall, but worth the journey.

(David watched it too and remembered far more details than I did)

I like the composition of the arrows but
there's just too much white space here.
I think the fact that the top and bottom
arrows are longer than the left and right
arrows is also part of the problem

The 2008/2009 housing crisis was a real shit show, and it had been brewing for years, due to a lack of regulatory oversight or industry foresight.  It was also the product of immense greed, the brainchild of the richest of assholes trying to get more money for the rest of the richest of assholes.  The fact of the matter is, the stock market is lost on the layperson for the most part, which allows the people that work in the industry, and the government agencies that oversee it, to do whatever the fuck they want to manipulate it to keep the money flowing in from ignorant investors and circulating among themselves.  The Big Short is a big-name cast movie (Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, among many many others) that dives into what actually happened, and expresses it in a way that may still be a little too inside baseball for some, but with enough entertainment value that you'll get the gist if not the specifics.  Frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay does an impressive job with this dense and dry topic, presenting it in such a way that you get angry but are still engaged with the story and the characters.  At the time, it was a fairly important movie, but important movies usually only get seen by people who already know the topic.  I don't think the Big Short reached enough of the laypeople audience to really measure an impact. People just knew they got screwed, and for a lot of them it was such a sore subject they just didn't want to know how.  They would rather be distracted.


Man, it is really hard to sell a comedy, even
a romcom with a poster.

The main flaw with Sleeping With Other People is the inference that ex-SNL star Jason Sudekis and then-Community/Mad Men star Alison Brie were the same age, the story involving the fact that they first hooked up in college.  There's a very noticeable 7-year-gap between the two of them.  Sudekis has looked to be pushing 40 for over a decade while Brie was playing a teenager when Community started.  Even with a real-world 7-year-gap, it's still hard to reconcile how they could have met in college.  The movie pays it no mind, and carries on, and delivers an enjoyable, yet unassuming, and ultimately unmemorable romantic comedy.  But I just couldn't get past it.

The comedy is light, though the cast is talented, including Amanda Peet, Adam Scott in full dickbag mode, Jason Mantzoukas playing against type as a nice guy best friend, sharing a delightful relationship with Andrea Savage.  It's a solid watch but no real standout comedy bits, and neither the characters nor plot will stick with you.


Like, I mean, really hard to sell comedy
with a poster.

Another romantic comedy, Admission, is equally as unmemorable.  Paul Rudd and Tina Fey are a great comedic pairing, both immensely likeable alone and together, but something about this film just doesn't click.  The conceit of the film is a light expose of the rather political and jaded admissions process for elite universities.  Not only do they rigorously screen their applicants but they also scout for applicants, looking for the best and brightest, which may seem noble, except when you understand that it's all done for the prestige, to maintain the reputation, to keep the elite status, all of which keeps alumni and donor money coming in, as well as allowing the school to charge more for tuition.  Fey plays the head of admissions at one such prestigious school, but when an applicant coming from a troubled alternative school run by Paul Rudd shakes up her worldview, (plus a romantic connection with Rudd) will her staunch adherence to customs and rules override her conscience as it always has.  You know it won't.  Rudd's far too charming, and his whip-smart kid who takes such a shining to Fey couldn't help but sway her.  It's a sweet film, and the usual charismatic schtick from Rudd goes a long, long way in watchability, but it's so by the number that it's almost painful.  You've seen this type of story a dozen times, if not dozens upon dozens of times.  Depending on your preference for romcom, it may be comfortably familiar, or it may be monotonous.  If you're not into romcom, take a hard pass, this isn't the place to start.



I probably shouldn't have even bothered watching Elstree 1976, a documentary featuring a few of the peripheral faces (or masked faces) from the original Star Wars series.  I'm not sure that the film does much in the way of enhancing the Star Wars experience, beyond going into the minutiae of how the film's success has affected a handful of the lesser-known performers.  The journey it takes is from the modest, British backgrounds of the actors, and onto the stage of Elstree studios.  Their seemingly well-honed stories at this point tell of their feelings about the film before they knew what it would become, which honestly could be just as much fabrication for "good" storytelling as actual recollection.  The Star Wars nerd in me was hoping for some unseen goodies, some trinkets of Star Wars that only the people on the inside would have had, some insight into things that could have been but weren't...but this isn't the doc for that.  It's not even really a "making of" which the title would almost imply, but rather the journey of the people involved.  There's a large portion of the film spent on fandom, how these performers capitalized upon it, and the politics of being a convention attraction.  It gets rather petty, and silly, and would make a pretty funny series, actually (note to self... how do I watch Con Man: The Series).  The people all seem nice, but this doc is inessential at best for all but the diest of die hard Star Wars nerds.



Speaking of conventions, Mascots takes us into a behind the scenes look at the people who participate in an international mascot competition.  [Okay, yeah, a competition is not a convention.  It was a shitty transition and I'm sorry.]  This mocumentary comes to us from Christopher Guest, because it obviously comes from Christopher Guest.  In fact it too obviously comes from Christopher Guest.  In fact it's almost a knock-off, for so middling are the results that there's not much about this film that doesn't immediately make the viewer wish they were watching Best in Show instead.  It's loosely the same story/plot, only with a somewhat different cast of absurd characters.  Really, had all of guests movies just been that same variation of formula, this would just be another in a tired line at this point, instead it's a disappointment that Guest would return to the same well.  What Best in Show had going for it was the plausibility.  There may be mascot competitions out there, but where best in show was sending up the people an personalities behind an analog Westminster Dog Show, a fairly well known event facilitated in Madison Square Garden in New York, Mascots isn't replicating anything familiar to the audience.  As such the competition that is being put on feels absurd and unbelievable.  Maybe I will see a mascot competition someday and marvel at how absurd and unbelievable it really is, and maybe I'll cut Mascots a little slack for it, but until then it just feels overboard, too broad.  It really wouldn't matter if the film were funny, and it is in fits and starts, but it just never clicks.  It feels rushed, the characters don't feel as fleshed out, and it's hard to care too much or invest in any particular person's chance at winning.  I would have preferred a mockumentary about furries to this, to be honest, but that seems to ribald for Guest these days.


erm, spoiler alert?

I have to wonder why the tenuous "Cloverfield" connection.  Overtly I realize that "Cloverfield" is now a brand for the studio, and one that's making them some nice coin, but in-world, in-story there is literally no crossover, so why?  I would actually like a for-real sequel to Cloverfield, one which does not use hand-held camcorders and so much nauseating shakey-cam to see the monsters mash NYC, but that's not this film.

No, 10 Cloverfield Lane is instead a smart, taut thriller that has you guessing through to the third act.  The fantastic Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, run off the road and awakens to some serious injuries inside a bunker.  Her captor is an equally fantastic John Goodman as Howard, who claims to have rescued her. Something bad has happened outside and they can.not.go.out.there. lest the bad things come find them. There's a third party in the bunker, the defiant Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard's story, to a point.  Howard is gracious to his "guests" so long as they obey the rules.  The bunker is homey with a 1970's vibe, and everyone gets along, until they don't.  Howard is explosive when he feels challenged, or violated, and Goodman as ever uses his stature and presence to scary effect.  Invariably all is not as it seems, or is it?  The question of Howard's honesty ebbs and flows, and even Emmett is a constant unknown.  Are they good men?  What's really going on?  Things erupt in the third act and where the film could have gotten really mean and not provided answers it instead opts for a big budget Twilight Zone-reveal that is equally out of place yet thrilling pay-off (but still no connection to Cloverfield).  This one's rock solid.

(Here's David's take)

He really doesn't wear the gas mask that much
in the film to frame the poster around it

I could have made 10 Cloverfield Lane #10, but I chose not to, just to drive some people mad.  If you're driven mad by the fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane is not #10 for no real reason, then mission accomplished.

Arq is a fine little time travel thriller, which has the feeling of a small-scale Edge of Tomorrow [aka Live.Die.Repeat] or an English Time Crimes, or a bigger budget, more mainstream Primer or a non romcom Groundhog's Day.  In other words, it's in good company, carving out its own place in the living-things-over-again market.  As with some of those other films there's no real scientific rationality to why someone is living their life over and over again, but the fun is not in the reality of the situation, but the rules that the plot establishes.  If there's an apparent defined set of rules to how the time reset works, then it's all good, the audience can invest.  I love these stories, as they explore one event from a whole bunch of alternate possibilities.  It's tremendous fun, but Arq actually builds a story, a purpose to it, and even, in the background, a whole other world (which we don't ever really see or interact with).  It's quite great though, real pulp sci-fi with a winning couple of leads in Rachel Taylor and Robbie Amell. It teases bigger things I certainly would like to see and know more about and explore, but it's plenty satisfying on its own.

(read David's take)


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