June has been a bit of a messed-up month that felt a lot longer than it actually was. Even worse, about halfway through, my brain derailed and I’ve been having a dickens of a time getting back on track again. I wish I had a good excuse, but I don’t: I discovered Dosbox, which I’ve been using to play ’80s computer games–mostly classic CRPGs–on my ’09 iMac.
Also, between the death of Christopher Lee and the near-as-damnit cancellation of Hannibal, June has really sucked.
* * *
Top 5 movies of 2015 so far
We’ve made it far enough into 2015 that I feel comfortable compiling a top-five list of my favorite movies of the year so far. To wit:
- The Nightmare
- Ex Machina
- It Follows
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Duke of Burgundy
* * *
This month’s content
Reviews of current or recent releases
For Cinema Axis
- LAMBcast #272: “Bring Your Own Discussion Topic”
- LAMBcast #274: “2015 TV Special”
- Mad, Bad, and Downright Strange Showcase #20: “Dogtooth / Dark City“
* * *
Other movies I watched this month include…
Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
Not a bad little flick. I really liked the bits about sound recording and engineering, and it’s a good film for Travolta during his “transitioning away from playing Sweathog Manero” phase. But for the most part it’s De Palma being De Palma, wearing his influences on his sleeve as always, and it doesn’t really grab me the way, say, Body Double does.
When I talked about Nightcrawler having a “New Hollywood sort of vibe,” this is what I meant. Travolta kind of reminds me of Gyllenhaal here.
Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)
It finally dawned on me when I saw Mad Max: Fury Road that I’d never seen any of the original Mad Max movies.
I had heard that the first one was a bit dodgy, and it certainly is, in comparison to Fury Road and what I know about Road Warrior and Thunderdome. George Miller doesn’t have the money to do a proper post-apocalypse, there’s too much dialogue (much of it from Max himself) and not enough of it is memorable. (The best line–“Anything I say. What a wonderful philosophy you have”–belongs, of course, to the Toecutter.)
On the other hand, take it out of the context of the series and its reputation and what you have is a delightful and surprisingly strong SF-actioner with very few objective flaws. Miller clearly has a vision and he mostly knows how to translate that vision to the cinema, and like any great B-movie director, he knows how to turn his budgetary limitations into assets. Mel Gibson is the perfect muse for the project, an impossibly young actor who lacks in skill and craft but makes up for in sheer attitude. And, of course, there’s the auto stuntwork.
I ultimately do expect the two sequels to be better, but they have such a strong foundation to build on.
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
It seems the stock reaction to American Sniper is that it’s a staunch piece of neo-conservative pro-Iraq-War propaganda which glorifies the American military (with whether you think these are good or bad things largely defined by your political leanings). This interpretation is wrong, but it’s worth examining what the film does which is just as bad.
What Clint Eastwood seems to have set out to do was to view modern warfare through the eyes of a combat soldier and portray those experiences as frankly as possible. He doesn’t glorify war. He portrays it as a chaotic pile of smoke, noise, blood and fire. Kyle kills women and children to defend himself and his fellow soldiers, watches his friends suffer and die, never knows who outside his company to trust, and comes home with an escalating case of PTSD to a rapidly fraying marriage.
Eastwood supposedly keeps politics out of the film, and the fictional version of Chris Kyle isn’t “a fan of politics.” But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t hold views that align with a political faction. He believes that America, “the greatest country on Earth,” is under attack by “bad guys,” “savages” who “chose the wrong side.” Nothing Kyle experiences in Iraq over the course of the film challenges his perception of the war in anything other than a token, easily brushed off way. American Sniper portrays its fictional Iraq War as a proverbial hell, but a necessary one. The real war–the one fought by real people such as the real Chris Kyle in the real Middle East which exists as part of the real world–was at least as hellish but not even remotely necessary.
The tragedy of the whole thing is that for the most part, Eastwood seems more engaged as a filmmaker than he has in years. The film’s portrayal of the psychological effects of time spent in a combat zone is very realistic (one of my best friends, a psychologist and therapist, describes its portrayal PTSD and its development as “spot-on”). Bradley Cooper turns in a career-defining performance. If American Sniper had been about a fictional soldier in a fictional war, it would have been a pretty good movie (albeit too emotionally manipulative to be a great one). But by being about this soldier in this war, the film is intellectually dishonest and morally irresponsible.
Still Alice (Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, 2014)
A pretty good film with some excellent performances from Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and, possibly oddly enough, Kristen Stewart. (Diversion regarding Stewart: I remember how much hype she received as a promising young actress, hype that died pretty much the minute she was cast in Twilight, at which point everyone started hating her.)
However, it’s very much of the “Oscar-bait tale of brave people bravely braving terminal illness” subgenre and I can’t really think of anything it does to set it apart. Also, Moore put a better performance in Maps to the Stars, but there was no way that was ever gonna get an Oscar nod.
Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)
Luc Besson and Alex Proyas invented the grammar of the modern action film, and then the Wachowskis came along and undercut them.
Still, you can’t feel too sorry for Proyas. In ’98, Dark City was an odd mix of Crow-style thoughtful action, noir sensibility, and Gilliamesque absurdity. Today, it seems downright prophetic, and not just because of the obvious similarities with The Matrix. Its influence can be felt everywhere. Even the Strangers, hairless weirdos in severe black clothing (owing an obvious debt to Hellraiser), became something of a trope: check out an Observer-centric episode of Fringe and see what strikes you. Revisiting it for the first time since its theatrical release, I was surprised to see how influential it was.
Also: fucking awesome cast. Rufus Sewell? Bruce Spence? Ian Richardson? Richard O’-fucking-Brien? Sign me up for that.
Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)
Dogtooth is a ninety-minute-long examination of language and emotional manipulation. There are points when it is funny (“Mom! I found two small zombies in the yard!”), points when it is extremely funny (“In two months, your mother will give birth to two children and a dog”), and points where it is not so much funny as absurd in a way that it is easy to enjoy (the scene where the father “translates” Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon”).
What Dogtooth isn’t is tell much of a story, you know, with a dramatic arc, conflict, or any of that sort of thing. There were bits I liked, but they didn’t come on a consistent enough basis. I would have liked it more if it told more of a story, but hey, different strokes for different folks, I guess.