Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hindsight: A 2015 Cinematic Retrospective

It appears that I saw more Hollywood films in 2015 than I did in 2014. Damn. You win this time, culture industry. As usual, let's begin with some films I didn't see.

Six 2015 Films You Might Have Expected Me To See, But I Didn't:
The Bad Education Movie
It's not exactly top-notch sitcom material, but I quite like Bad Education. It has some funny moments; it's better to watch while a bit drunk. Anyway, the film looked pretty uninspiring: the cringe factor of the show cranked up to a million, and the contrast between the "crazy" comedy characters and the scoffing, eye-rolling "straight man" characters exaggerated to an even greater degree. I don't think it would have ever been shown in cinemas over here.

Ex Machina
Apparently this is quite good. I just haven't seen it. Why haven't I seen this?

Update in 2017: I've seen this now. It was good, and rather challenging to my beliefs. It's odd to think about when apparently the director saw the robot, Ava, as the protagonist, while I viewed Caleb, who ends up trapped in the facility, in this role. Ava ends up becoming a murderer, but in a sense so was Nathan, and Caleb was his inadvertent stooge with a controlling saviour complex. At the same time, I wonder if the film's focus on punishing Caleb for his patriarchal decision-making overlooks the extent to which our actions are influenced by historical and social forces beyond our control. Also, we are left wondering how to view Ava; does she have emotions, but behaves selfishly, or is only following a routine? Is she justified in killing Nathan, who murdered several of her own kind (in a sense) and abandoning Caleb, who tried to save her for arguably selfish, patriarchal reasons of his own, because she was essentially created as a tool to manipulate men rather than as a person with her own identity and individuality? One to think on further, I suspect, and in any modern film that has to be a good thing.

The Hateful Eight
I don't mind a bit of Tarantino and I heard this was pretty decent. I just haven't seen it yet.

Update in 2017: I've seen this now. It was all right.

The Lobster
I understand that this weird dystopian satire is quite good too and I want to see it. It's supposedly a society where if you don't couple up with someone romantically and/or sexually, you turn into an animal. I'd be buggered, then.

Update in 2019: I was motivated to see this after seeing the director's film The Favourite, and I enjoyed both that and this. While as a dystopian text the equally oppressive nature of the City/hotel and the Loners could be construed as a false equivalence, as a reflection on the hypocrisies of both couplehood and singledom it was effective. The dull, stilted delivery really enhances the sense of the artificiality of how many relationships, both romantic and platonic, are navigated, the costuming is simple and effective, and the music and occasional dark humour create a sense of hyperreal oddness that tends to hit the spot for me. It's definitely not for everyone but I enjoyed it a great deal.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
More like the Man from C.U.... etc, am I right? I didn't really want to see this; I can't believe they're still trying to make films by rehashing old twentieth century spy and crime TV shows. Henry Cavill should play James Bond, probably.

Victor Frankenstein
Another horror film featuring Daniel Radcliffe? Can I expect more Woman in Black style quality? Probably not; I understand that this film is quite shit. I still want to see it, but it sounds like Universal is completely fumbling their attempts to bring their classic Horror franchises back to life.

Moving on...

Ten 2015 Films I Did Actually See:
This was basically the definition of a generic superhero flick. Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd, but underutilising his comedy potential) is an "honour among" style thief with a heart of (stolen) gold who just wants to be back in his young daughter's life. Thus he is hired to become the new Ant-Man, succeeding his new employer Hank Pym as a superhero who can become tiny and run inside people's ears and so on. The plot is incredibly derivative of Iron Man and Iron Man 2: the villain is an evil Ant-Man with his own, more powerful suit, who is going to cause terrible evil by flogging the suits to the military and/or Hydra. He and Ant-Man have a big punch up; Ant-Man wins. There are some good moments where normal things become tiny or huge, although it doesn't really make sense because the technology is said to just increase the space between atoms; if you turned a little Thomas the Tank Engine toy gigantic, for instance, it wouldn't smash through the side of the house, because it's still the same flimsy plastic, just stretched out further; the toy would still be the thing that broke. Also, if it just changes distance between atoms, how can Ant-Man shrink into subatomic size and risk disappearing into some weird microscopic dimension? Anyway, I believe this started off under the direction of Edgar Wright of British comedy fame but he quit part way through because Marvel kept interfering, and the film was finished by another bloke who played it safe. It shows. Rudd's Ant-Man is more interesting and funny in Captain America: Civil War than in this, his own film.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ugh. This sucked. You can read my review of it here. At the time I didn't think it sucked that much, but in hindsight (which is the whole point of these annual articles) I'm pretty sure it did. The Avengers run around and have a fight with a big robot. A city gets smashed up in the process. Everything is basically Iron Man's fault, as usual. It feels like a piece of pointless filler padding out the cinematic universe.

Back in Time
I wouldn't have thought of this as a 2015 film but Wikipedia said it was, so let's say it was. This was a documentary about Back to the Future, because 2015 was when Marty came to the future in the second film. The bits in this where they were interviewing the actual cast and crew of the films was quite interesting, but loads of it was padded out with pointless bullshit like: fans at conventions who build their own DeLoreans (who cares?); some company trying to build a real life hoverboard (who cares?); the bloke who made that cartoon show "Rick and Morty" banging on about "Rick and Morty" (what does this really have to do with Back to the Future?) They should have made this just about the making of the films and reflecting back on it 30 years later, and relegated all the stuff about the tedious fans and the Rick and Morty guy patting himself on the back to a separate "fan" documentary that no one would have to watch.

I thought this was okay, to be honest; nothing special, but a pleasant enough way to pass the time. It's just a live-action remake of the classic Disney cartoon, which might seem like sacrilege to some but I'm just not nostalgic enough about those old Disney fairytale cartoons. It just felt a bit generic, kind of like that Gaiman adaptation Stardust. If they wanted to update the film, they could have provided a more realistic motivation for why the evil stepmother is so horrible. By contrast, if they wanted to keep it a bit absurd (as it still was at points, like when the fairy godmother appeared), they could have had the mice talk and stuff as well. Bonus points for having Hayley Atwell as the mum, but then negative bonus points because she gets killed off five minutes in.

Fantastic Four
Jesus. This was really terrible, and I'm honestly not saying that to go along with the crowd or something. I consider myself more of a Fantastic Four fan than your average punter (I have a medium-sized collection encompassing parts of the Lee/Kirby, Byrne and Hickman eras and, for whatever reason, the whole Waid era)  and this somehow was even worse than I expected. In some ways it tries to be its own thing too much, sort of like a B movie about teleportation rather than a superhero film, but it's also way too similar to the equally derided 2005 adaptation, with Doom having superpowers and the thin characterisation. I reckon this was done on the cheap, too, because huge amounts of it takes place in a single lab set. If you want more of my thoughts, see here, or listen to this podcast for thoughts which suspiciously coincide with mine. This probably gets my "worst film of 2015" award.

It Follows
This premiered in 2014 but come on, it's a 2015 film. Everyone saw it in 2015 (I actually only saw it this year). This was an interesting premise: a murderous "thing" is following a person; the only way they can fob it off onto someone else is by having "sex" with another person, and then the thing will start hunting them instead. They too must copulate furiously with someone to pass the curse or whatever off again. In contrast to The Lobster mentioned above, this wasn't too scary for me because I'd be completely safe from it wahey. Anyway, the idea is engaging and ominous, although the film isn't that scary in general. What it benefits from the most is an unsettling electronic soundtrack (by the same composer as that of the very pleasant soundtrack of the indie game Fez) and a curious dreamlike atmosphere in which the decade and time of year is very hard to pin down; it's sort of the past and the future at once, and the seasons seem to change between scenes. It's a film worth watching even if the premise is rather contrived.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
Much like The Farked Ones last year, I, uh, didn't see this at the cinema. I only saw it the other day, in fact. It concludes the franchise, supposedly, and in a sense it does a decent job in wrapping up the plot: apparently everything that happened was in service of giving the demon a body... in 1992, despite this being set in 2013. As such, the time travel used in The Marked Ones continues here, and permits some unsettling moments. It also follows up the plot of the third film, giving a reasonable sense of closure. My main issue with the film was that there was way too much CGI; a special camera is introduced that allows us to see the invisible supernatural things, and it turns out that Toby the Demon just looks like a mass of CGI smoky shadows with a Voldemort face in the middle. A bunch of big CGI tentacles are used to kill some of the characters, and little girl du jour is abducted to the past through a big CGI time tunnel. That wasn't my cup of tea. It's no better or worse than the last two, really, and more or less gets the job done, but its use of CGI hampers the suspension of disbelief a bit. There are also two secondary protagonists, the main male character's brother and the main female character's friend, who exist purely for comic relief and fan service respectively, which makes this instalment feel perhaps the most "generic horror" in terms of the scenario of all the films.

It's a crappy James Bond film starring Daniel Craig with a completely misconceived attempt to reintroduce Blofeld and the eponymous evil organisation. Read my full review of it here and some further thoughts here. The plot and the climax are a complete rip-off of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's not worth discussing any further. First Craig was leaving, then he wasn't, and now he is again. Who knows anymore. I don't have high hopes for the next one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Am I still talking about this? See my initial thoughts here and my full review and recap here. It's a mediocre film with a few memorable moments. I rewatched it recently and found it quite dull, especially the middle act on the planet Takodana. The performances and screenplay are all tolerable but the story is cynical and lazy and it doesn't really tell much in the way of a complete story, making it feel far too much like a piece of product designed to keep consumers on the hook (which of course it is) rather than a logical and necessary continuation of the narrative of the original films (which it isn't). Is it better than the Prequels? It's directed in a more interesting way, but feels "off" - it feels like a J.J. Abrams film that happens to be "Star Wars", rather than a Star Wars film that happens to be directed by Abrams. The screenplay is probably less clunky than those of the Prequels, but again, a good deal of that is to do with the direction. In many respects it feels far less original because it relies so heavily on call backs to the original film and The Empire Strikes Back. Its use of practical effects also makes the use of CGI, when it does appear, more noticeable and very irritating. I want Episode VIII to be better than this.

By a process of elimination, because the above films were all mediocre to bad (except for It Follows, which is decent), my top film of 2015 is:

The Witch
This is a weird, disturbing horror film about colonial settlers in North America succumbing to their own isolation, paranoia and religious fundamentalism. It's atmospheric and creepy, exhibiting clearly the traumatic consequences of severe puritanical practices and the repression of human nature. A family of seven are exiled from their colonial town because of the father's heresy and they try to eke out a poor living in the woods, but accusations of witchcraft begin flying around among the family members when the youngest child, a baby, disappears. The characters speak in an early modern idiom appropriate to the time period, night scenes are really dark, and everything feels eminently realistic and believable, even as apparently supernatural things happen. In keeping with some of the best horror narratives, it's never completely clear whether the supernatural events are real or just paranoid hallucinations. Overlaid with this are traditional themes of spiritual terror about the theological complexities of salvation and damnation. It's good.

That's twice now I've given a horror film my "film of the year" award. Do the "good" horror films somehow get more exposure than the "good" films of other genres, like sci-fi, for some reason? Are other genres too saturated with Hollywood action hybrids, so we don't notice when the more cerebral stuff comes out? I guess so. I need to see Ex Machina. (Seen it now, but I think I still preferred The Witch)

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