The Redefining Monthly Review of January 2019

Here I go again: the 13th year of 100 Films in a Year!

Ah, “100” films… Once upon a time that goal was a challenge: in my first six years, although I did surpass it twice, I also only just reached it twice, and twice fell short. But since then things have improved considerably: in the last six years I’ve doubled it twice (and then some, in last year’s case), and twice more ended up closer to 200 than 100. I’ve also been reaching #100 quicker and quicker — it’s less “100 films in a year”, more “100 films in five or six months”.

That said, I’ve had a particularly good run of it in terms of free time the past couple of years, and I don’t know if that’s going to continue, so I’m loathe to boldly establish a brand-new goal for myself. Maybe next year. For the time being, my official target has technically changed, in a couple of ways. For one thing, the titular “100 films” have only ever included films I’ve not seen before, and consequently I often rewatched very little. Nowadays, I’ve countered that with my Rewatchathon (2019 being its the third year), which adds 50 films to my viewing goal. Secondly, I’ve watched at least ten new films every month since June 2014, and I intend to keep that up — and as there are 12 months in a year (did you know?), that rounds up my aim to 120 new films.

So I guess my official minimum goal is 170 Films in a Year. Doesn’t have the same catchy ring, does it? Especially as it should technically be 120 Films I Haven’t Seen and 50 I Have in a Year. Eesh.

Anyway, enough of that — let’s get properly started on 2019. Here are all the films I watched in the first 12th of this 13th year…


#1 Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)
#2 Cool Hand Luke (1967)
#3 Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018), aka Gojira: Hoshi o Kuu Mono
#4 1941 (1979)
#5 Rambo (2008)
#6 The Stewardesses 3D (1969)
#6a Experiments in Love 3D (1977)
#6b La jetée (1962)
#7 Glass (2019)
#8 The Player (1992)
#9 The Happytime Murders (2018)
#10 Zatoichi Challenged (1967), aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô
Rambo

The Player

.


  • So, I only watched ten new feature films in January.
  • That’s bang on my minimum goal, which is a good thing, but it also means January was my lowest month since September 2017, which is less good.
  • On a more positive note: since I started achieving a minimum of ten films per month year-round back in 2015, I’ve had no more than a single only-ten-films month each year (November in 2015, December in 2016, September in 2017, and none in 2018) — so maybe getting it out of the way in January bodes well for the rest of the year?
  • Also, while this may be the joint-lowest month of the past 4½ years, before then I regularly had sub-ten months. Indeed, pre-2014, 56% of months failed to reach double figures at all.
  • I didn’t watch a film on the 5th, one of the remaining dates on which I’ve ‘never’ watched a film. Two months in a row I’ve messed that up! I’ll have to be more attentive at the end of this year and the start of 2020…
  • In fact, I didn’t watch my first film until the 9th, which is the second latest start ever (in 2011 it was the 10th). That made the film in question — Happy New Year, Colin Burstead — feel somewhat ironic, what with it being, y’know, quite well past New Year by that point.
  • This month’s Blindspot film was Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire cum neo-noir thriller, The Player.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film was Cool Hand Luke, which I had little choice about: no sooner had I included it in my 2019 selection because it was streaming on Amazon than I discovered it was to be removed a mere two days later! Just another reminder why relying on streaming services is a bad idea. Physical media 4eva!



The 44th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I found surprising depth in the fourth Rambo, and was one of the apparently-few people who didn’t walk away disappointed from Shyamalan’s trilogy-closing Glass, but this month’s winner has to be The Player. Mixing sharp Hollywood satire with a perverse respect for the wonders of Tinseltown, shaped into a neo-noir thriller storyline and delivered via bravura filmmaking, that includes a justifiably-famous opening oner, Robert Altman’s comeback film promised so much that I love in movies, and delivered on it all too.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I may’ve watched several notoriously bad films this month (Spielberg’s 1941, R-rated puppet flop The Happytime Murders, gimmicky 3D sexploitation The Stewardesses), but I actually enjoyed all of them on some level. No, this choice was easy. Apparently while promoting his latest film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, director Ben Wheatley talked about it being his first movie where no one dies. Sure, no one in the film dies, but while watching it I became concerned that I might die from boredom.

Favourite Short Film of the Month
La jetée may be an innovative and influential arthouse sci-fi classic, but does it have full frontal nudity displayed in genuine 3D? No, no it does not. As I wrote on Letterboxd, “whether you want a little knowingly irreverent comedy, a cornucopia of 3D tricks, or some relatively explicit softcore porn, Experiments in Love has you covered.” It’s way more fun than it should be.

Most Explosive Orgasm by an Inanimate Object of the Month
I’m sorry to subject you to such crudeness, my dear, gentle readers, but here’s the thing: The Happytime Murders’ trailers made a fairly big deal of its puppet’s silly-string-spraying climax, but it was already beat by (once again) Experiments in Love. The latter features a huge retro computer, which for some reason speaks with a dodgy Japanese accent, and for even less reason has a grabby protuberance that tries to grope the film’s female characters, and which eventually gets very excited and, well, shall we say shoots off… directly at the camera lens, of course, because this is 3D. Take that, Gaspar Noé.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
I don’t always watch my stats closely, but sometimes something catches my eye. This month, my Christmas TV review soared to an early lead — TV posts are always popular, and this one went up on the 2nd, so it had almost the whole month to rack up hits. By the halfway point, it already looked unassailable. Then Glass came along, and while it didn’t do spectacular short-term numbers, a strong day-by-day count saw it creep up the chart — could it challenge, even surpass Christmas TV? Well, no — those numbers actually tailed off pretty sharpish, leaving the Past Christmas on TV this month’s clear victor. (Glass did come a respectable second though, far outstripping this month’s other TV post.)


Real life got in the way a bit this month, so it’s been a rather quiet one (this is my first post for 11 days!) Nonetheless, there’s still a chunk of stuff to recap. For starters, January began (as always) with my review of the previous year…

And then regular business brought this little lot…


While my main goal only just scraped to its minimum monthly target, my Rewatchathon began by exceeding it by 25%…

#1 Twelve Monkeys (1995)
#2 Unbreakable (2000)
#3 Ghostbusters (1984)
#4 Split (2016)
#5 Les Misérables (2012)

…of course, when your target is “four”, 25% is “one”. Sounds less grand like that, though.

At this point I’d normally share a thought or two about some or all of the above listed films, but instead I’m going to mention my Letterboxd account. My stats on the site inform me that I ‘review’ films on there about 50% of the time. Those aren’t proper reviews, mind — usually I’m aiming for a ‘witty’ comment, but sometimes it’s a quick initial impression, especially if a film really made me feel something (for good or ill). Sometimes those comments end up getting mixed into the full reviews I later post here; other times they don’t.

This month, I wrote something about each of my rewatches (hence why I’m mentioning this now), which you can locate quickly as follows: Twelve Monkeys, Unbreakable, Ghostbusters, Split, and Les Misérables.


Here’s a new regular section for 2019. (Assuming I always have something to say in it. If I don’t, I guess it’ll disappear again.) These are films I’d been specifically meaning to watch (or rewatch) this month, but for whatever reason didn’t get round to — my failures.

For January, this includes a tonne of stuff — I’m about to name 19 different titles, enough to almost triple the number I actually watched. (If that’s the kind of level I’m operating at, there probably will be something to say here every month!) Those include some much-discussed recent streaming releases (Roma, Bird Box); some Amazon rentals I got on the cheap (First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Mandy); some films I’ve been meaning to see for yonks that recently popped up on streaming services (Gods and Monsters, The Purge: Anarchy); recent Blu-ray purchases (One Cut of the Dead, Waterworld, Crimson Peak); at least one film I recorded off TV (The Eyes of Orson Welles); some new Blu-ray/rental releases that I haven’t actually purchased yet (Dave Made a Maze, The Predator); and anything at all on 4K Blu-ray — I got a player for Christmas, and I’ve set it up and watched a few bits and pieces as tests, but not a whole film. Top contenders for that honour include Escape from New York, Mission: Impossible I, II or Fallout, Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049.

One thing I can say: some of those will definitely be amongst next month’s viewing. I mean, if they’re not, I wasted money on those rentals…


It’s the shortest month of the year! Better pick up my average weekly viewing, then, or I won’t even make it to ten…

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Glass (2019)

2019 #7
M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Glass

About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

…but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

Confounded?

Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

Is Dr Staple stable?

As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

(Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

Mastermind

Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

4 out of 5

Glass is in cinemas now.

Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Split

Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.