January has a reputation of being one of the worst months for new movies, but really this is often only the case if you’re in the US. International markets tend to get the awards movies in the early months. This January I saw more films in the cinema than possibly any other of my life. There were suddenly a ton of new releases every week that I wanted to see. There were even a couple of really good ones like Ex Machina and Paddington in there. I found myself going to the cinema up to 5 times each week last month. I’d love to be able to write a full review of each film but sadly just couldn’t find the time, so am compressing them into a couple of round-up posts.
Predestination is one of those films that’s quite difficult to talk about at all without getting into spoilers. The occupation of one of its two unnamed characters, for example, it’s revealed until around the halfway point and could be considered something of a spoiler. Adapted from Robert A. Heinlein’s famous short story All You Zombies by Australian siblings Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), Predestination is an efficient two hander that manages to explore a number of time travel paradoxes in fascinating ways. Having read the story a few years back I knew what the major twists were already but it still gave me plenty to mull over. The Spierig’s have managed to expand the story without having it feel padded or stretched out. In addition to its twisty time-travel narrative, Predestination is also a surprisingly affecting exploration of gender identity. It quite daringly cuts to an extended flashback in its early half as a patron in a bar (Sarah Snook) explains her background to the inquisitive bartender (Ethan Hawke). Hawke is dependable as ever but Snook is revelatory. Again it’d be a shame for me to reveal the exact nature of her role but it’s an extremely challenging one for any actor. I haven’t seen her in anything else besides this but on this evidence she could be a major talent. Overall, a highly recommended pleasant surprise for a January genre film.
I’d been hearing very good things about writer-director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook for months; here was a horror movie that was getting not just good reviews, but 5-star future classic level ones. It also wasn’t getting the usual “it’s not really a horror film” type comments that often appear when a horror film receives mainstream critical acclaim. When I finally got a chance to see it, I found it to be an original story of a struggling single parent, atmospherically shot and very well acted. However, it just wasn’t very scary. Not at any point was I on the edge of my seat, and I haven’t thought about it once subsequently while lying alone in bed. It just didn’t stick with me the way the best horror movies should. It undoubtedly has a number of chilling, stand-out moments, such as the pop-up book sequences, and a thought-provoking conclusion but still…I guess I’m allowing outside hype to influence my opinion too much here but when none other than the director of The Exorcist says something is “the most terrifying film ever”, it sets expectations pretty high, and The Babadook doesn’t even come close.
Mike Leigh’s name is almost synonymous with British ‘kitchen-sick realism’, but he does occasionally dabble in period fare too. His latest film, a big success at Cannes last year, is a biopic of the later years of nineteenth century landscape painter J. M. W. Turner. Like his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy, Mr Turner features a recreation of nineteenth century life that feels thoroughly authentic. It eschews any sort of standard plot arc, instead coming across more as a series of vignettes. Leigh respects his audiences ability to keep up and doesn’t offer any date or location markers when jumping forward to follow Turner (Leigh regular Timothy Spall) as he paints, travels, researches, socialises with other artists, and acts like a general bastard to many around him. The slightly meandering nature of the film may prove off-putting to some, but ultimately rewards. I actually found some of the most enjoyment in learning the more day-to-day activities of nineteenth century life, and the surely well researched vernacular employed by the actors.
‘Into the Woods’
Most of the popular Broadway musicals that eventually get the big screen treatment have achieved a level of mainstream saturation that almost everyone will have some familiarity with the songs and story by the time the film comes out. I wanted to see Into the Woods as it gave me a rare opportunity to see a musical film about which I knew practically nothing. Unfortunately the ‘story’ here is just a hodgepodge of existing fairy tale characters that aren’t weaved together with any kind of cleverness. The cast appears to have been assembled based on how famous they are rather than any kind of musical ability, though this still doesn’t explain annoying TV personality James Corden’s appearance of the grating child actors. It also caps off what must be Johnny Depp’s worst year yet with another terrible extended cameo. I found the songs lethargic and instantly forgettable, and the overall film completely tedious. Maybe I should have known better seeing as this was coming from Chicago director Rob Marshall, who with this atrocious effort can now claim to have made the two worst musicals I’ve seen.