So, in between trying (and failing) to keep shit regular with the Marvel reviews and the Lynch retrospective, I have been neglecting a certain thing about this year:
The fact that movies still came the fuck out this year. Which is mostly fine by me, since it’s been pretty hugely… franchise-y, as opposed the vast smorgasbord of versatility we got out of last year’s US releases.
Still, we’re a little past halfway through the year and though it’s way too late to be talking about EVERY movie I saw, I want to take at least some time to talk about certain pictures I know I can conjure up words about. I’ll be leaving out Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ant-Man because I want to acknowledge their franchise first with a recap (I considered doing the same for Inside Out and When Marnie Was There given their production companies are ones I want to talk about sometime soon – I already began a podcast series based on remembering each of the Ghibli films. I will post links sometime once I stop thinking I sound like a moron on them).
About Elly (2009/dir. Asghar Farhadi/Iran)
Whuzzat? 2009? Salim, you said you’d be talking 2015. Well, yes, I am. For some reason that perplexes me (given the massive success of Farhadi’s 2011 masterpiece A Separation, Ahmadinejad actually being a huge fan of the movie, and even the fact that this film’s construction is a lot more Westernized than would be inaccessible to American audiences), About Elly wasn’t released in the US until earlier this year and that’s just about a shame. All strength this picture has is as a near-verite presentation of a scenario based on the disappearance of the titular girl and the slow and precise manner in which all these people traveling with her discover more and more secrets about her than they were in want to find out, as they desperately try to find Elly, in fear of the ever magnifying stakes with each new character element being introduced.
I regret that such a minimal synopsis is what I can present, but the bitch about Farhadi’s stories are that they are always in momentum and so every moment is another spoiler. I wanted to pick and choose what I’d like you guys to find out from watching the movie itself. And it’s remarkably constructed by all rights with all around wire-held performances including the last performance Golshifteh Farahani gave in an Iranian film before she was exiled from the country, though both the visual and human element are not as extraordinary as A Separation was. So I guess that’s my one weakness, the fact that I had seen a no-bullshit perfect movie from Farhadi (and other Iranian filmmakers) and held it against the picture. Maybe I need to give it another look. It is still however, in spite of the comparison, a very engaging and communicative scenario.
Wild Tales (2014/dir. Damian Szifron/Argentina & Spain)
A movie I skipped out on seeing at Cannes 2014, seeing it within the past few months has proved that I haven’t really missed out on much, even in spite of its Oscar nomination. Like all other anthology pictures, this revenge-based entry (so obviously produced by Pedro Almodovar that he could’ve been uncredited and I’d have called it) struggles (and like most, fails) to have each story on the same level of each other and it’s damn well a descending order of quality – from the morbidly hilarious “Pasternak” (though maybe poorly timed as HOURS after I saw the film, the infamous Germanwings Flight 9525 happened) to the pretty predictable but not entirely dismal “Til Death Do Us Part”, both the bookend stories. But there’s still a bitter enjoyable savage humor in most of the tales and in many of them a heightened cartoonish quality that insists we eschew underlying meaning, to keep this at least a promising little watch on a Sunday evening when you’re bored. Maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for black comedy By the time it gets boring, it’s the end anyway, so you’re in the clear!
When Marnie Was There (2014/dir. Yonebayashi Hiromasa/Japan)
It’s remarkably appropriate for a swan song (for now) of Studio Ghibli. Like it’s basically an ultimate culmination of all the things that studio lived off of – Isolated lonely female lead, lush flora-based environments, moving to a new world, characters introduced to each other in a manner that separates them from each other’s worlds. And it’s all used to great effect. And yet, this story of Anna meeting Marnie and finding out her history is also perhaps the single most grounded picture they’ve done yet since Whisper of the Heart. There’s supernatural elements, of course, but it doesn’t serve to heighten the story as much and the elements are laid out and paced extremely patiently. It’s a movie that doesn’t want to be any bigger than it is, but is just fine accomplishing the little things it has to to become a moving, emotional and engaging story of depression and making sense of your existence. I’m sure Miyazaki wouldn’t ask for much more out of the final movie out of his pet project of a studio.
Ex Machina (2015/dir. Alex Garland/UK)
Opening up explaining the premise of Ex Machina is something I’m really going to begrudge myself to do, because it was in the opening moments of Ex Machina that I felt I was watching a really fantastic piece of pop cinema, if nothing else (I feel it was trying to be just a bit more cerebral than it actually was). It’s so confidently given to us in bits and pieces that are elusive and mysterious visual clues that are a huge leap of faith out of Alex Garland towards his skills as a director.
In fact, because of Ex Machina, I think a lot more of Alex Garland the director than I do of Alex Garland the writer. Not to say I don’t think much of Alex Garland the writer, I like the scripts to both 28 Days Later… and Ex Machina, it’s just that both are flawed.
Anyway, the plot IS important to Ex Machina so let me get it out of the way – Bluebook employee Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a company lottery to visit and stay with reclusive Bluebook CEO and genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the single reason I actually went to see this movie, and while Isaac kills it… Gleeson and Vikander upstage him very much so).
Nathan, in spite of being off-putting with his bro-ish attitude and extreme control over how Caleb both explores the retreat property AND how Caleb interacts with him, has something really cool he wants Caleb to be involved with. It’s an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that Nathan himself made and he wants Caleb to be involved with running Turing tests on her to see if Caleb, even with prior knowledge of Ava’s basis as a robot, could have her pass as human.
And from there is where the film gets a bit tricky with its narrative shenanigans that I really don’t want to spoil it. Anyway, it’s not why I’d been gushing. I’d been gushing because of the whole design of the picture – how sleek and cold and modern it all feels with a hint of (implied followed by overt) sexuality that feels so threatening and so threatened as to turn a science fiction film into a noir. Sure, it falls apart in the third act and sure, it’s a bit too breezily quick for us to register entirely what just happened, but it’s looks so good and it sounds so good and it looks and sounds like it feels so good to the ending point that I don’t care if it’s all human or just something like human.
Focus (2015/dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa/USA)
The movie is all about looks. It looks nice and glossy and slick with itself as a photographic and editing piece. But unfortunately, when it tries to get deeper as a romance or character study between Will Smith and Margot Robbie’s otherwise good performances, that’s where it starts to falter. Which is why it’s easy to divide the good and bad of the film into its story’s own two halves: The first being where it’s dedicated to explaining the craft of the con and letting having fun watching all these hucksters in action and the second when it devotes itself a lot more to the relationship between our two leads and how its been affected by the earlier part of the story. And then it sputters to a stop because reasons.
Spy (2015/dir. Paul Feig/USA)
You know what really impresses me more than the fact that I had fun at a Feig/McCarthy collaboration more than I expected (it’s being clearly that they are the best thing for each other)? The fact that the ultimate cold bitch-y Rose Byrne (whose performance in Neighbors already implied that she could hold herself as a comedic sparring partner) and Jason Statham (who I had no idea was able to manipulate his movie “I’m a badass persona” to such brilliantly parodic effect) stole the damn show from them. It’s also impressive how much Spy devotes itself as an action movie, even if it doesn’t really satisfy me in that factor the same way better recent action movies (Mad fucking Max) did. I mean it’s not perfect, since almost everybody on-screen except the actors I name are tripping over themselves and the movie still has a damn problem with beating dead horse jokes, but it is overall a better time than I expected.
The Age of Adaline (2015/dir. Lee Toland Krieger/USA)
There were so many ways a premise such as “woman lives for 100 years without aging a day” could have gone. It’s disappointing that the way Krieger chose to take it was to have it become a straightforward romance. But thankfully, it still somewhat delivers on that end on the part of its performances – Blake Lively is really able to sell the concept of this aged and sophisticated woman underneath all this untouched beauty, while Harrison Ford and Ellen Burstyn still upstage her as a former lover of Adaline’s insistent on having her consider her actions from this moment on in her life (Anthony Ingruber gives the most uncanny Harrison Ford impression as a younger flashback version of the character) and a more ebullient version of the role Burstyn already played in her immediately previous film Interstellar, respectively. It works.
But it could have been so much more interesting, dammit!
Inside Out (2015/dir. Pete Docter/USA)
Inside Out is easily the movie out of all of these that I’ve given a capsule response towards that I love most, so I have no problem still calling it the most overrated film of the year so far.
That doesn’t matter. It’s charming. It’s perfectly cast with Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and even Mindy Kaling with the most thankless role in the script doing phenomenal to not just audibly embody their characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, but in Poehler and Smith’s case being sneaky enough to insert enough human personality into those voices so that when Joy isn’t so joyful or Sadness is getting a bit better, we can never doubt their subsequent emotional arcs. Plus it looks absolutely beautiful with the inside of Riley’s mind being allowed to live in large bold shapes and colors that pop out. Plus, the fact that it works effectively as metaphor for the psychology of any human being living the world and how their thoughts have to urge their own reactions… namely leading to depression and what it takes to get out.
Plus… oh fuck it, I’m gonna make a full-length review of this eventually because I just have to much to say about this flick. How did Minions possibly beat it at the box office? Fuck, man.