LFF 2017 Wrap-Up: From Blade of the Immortal to Three Billboards…

My film-watching this year has been spotty at best, but I was determined to make the most of the BFI London Film Festival rolling into town to get a head start on a bunch of films coming out in the next few months, in the hope I might be able to catch up on those I already missed in the meantime. Here’s a bunch of short thoughts on all the mostly excellent movies I watched.

Blade of the Immortal / The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike)

Though book-ended by spectacular multi-man sword-fights, Blade of the Immortal sags somewhat in its episodic middle, as our antihero (garbed in black-and-white, yet even the villains operate in shades of complex grey) encounters bossfight after bossfight, with gradually diminishing enthusiasm. The choppy construction and editing also leaves some head-scratching jumps in time and location that disrupts the flow. But it’s worth sticking through it for flashes of strange, bloody hilarity, and for a climax that has a body count around the 400 mark. No 13 Assassins, mind.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Lanthimos’ skilled skewering of social norms was deployed to brilliant effect in his English-language debut, but not even The Lobster could prepare you for the strange, dark avenues he takes us down in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s opening shot is a bold statement – this isn’t going to be pretty. But he manages to make the awkward and uncomfortable incredibly funny, though much of that will depend on whether you’re on the same wavelength (if you didn’t like The Lobster, this isn’t going to change a thing). The stilted dialogue, the removed camera, the matter-of-fact approach to disturbing scenarios, all present and correct. A game cast playing things deadly straight. As before, the best point of comparison would be a feature-length sketch from Chris Morris’ Jam.

It’s tense and disturbing and mysterious. I was grinning throughout.

The Florida Project / Close-Knit

Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami)

At first, the cheery plinky-plonk piano score that plagues 90% of cutesy-poo Japanese dramedies saw me brace for tedium, but Close-Knit proved me wrong. A delight and a surprise, sensitive, charming and funny that still manages to be quite frank and upfront about how far transgender acceptance has come, but also how far it has to go. As it is viewed through the eyes of a child (wonderfully played by Rinka Kakihara), it is simple and gently told, though just because it’s not a heavy “issues” drama doesn’t mean it shies away from anger and sadness – indeed, it makes those moments all the more emotionally powerful (a few moments had me verging on blubbing). That it generally plays things broad and safe shouldn’t be held against it, this has potential to be a crowd-pleaser that may in turn change perspectives of those who would not ordinarily seek out LGBT fare, including families and kids. It’s the kind of film that should be shown in schools, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

Moonee and Scooty: great rebel icons of cinema history.

They go on adventures. They get into all kinds of scrapes. They fly in the face of authority. They talk back to grown-ups. Particularly Willem Dafoe, who spends most of the film exasperated by everything and everyone, but his firmness comes from a place of kindness. He’s great.

It is all very very funny, and though there is a universality in its portrayal of childhood, it gives a snapshot of a world of which I’m unfamiliar that feels authentic without judgment, warm and uplifiting without shying away from the rough edges.

The bittiness of the kids’ escapades and encounters, and Halley’s “no fucks given” atittude, means that my patience and sympathies were somewhat tested by the end of it’s running time. There was clearly too much gold to keep from us, and it would’ve risked someone’s favourite line being cut, but a good 15-20 mins cut out would’ve kept the energy up and my enthusiasm for the characters and their situation in check.

But if you don’t come away from it feeling that Moonee is some kind of hero, then you’re dead inside.

You Were Never Really Here / The Shape of Water

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

A harrowing take on the hitman thriller, that has elements of Leon and A History of Violence, but is very much its own beast. Joaquin Phoenix dominates, a physical force to be reckoned with, but suicidally depressive, suffering deep mental trauma, scars internal and external. This is aggressive film-making – flashbacks tear through the present with a jolt, brutal violence leaves you wincing if you can even bear to look, and Jonny Greenwood’s pulsing, swirling, juddering score combine to create a real assault on the senses. Its lean running time is to its credit; any longer and it might be all too much to take. But boy howdy is it something.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro)

Once more, Del Toro invites us to take a swim through his myriad genre interests, but The Shape of Water is just the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less.

Though it does a decent job of marrying a modern fairy tale with Cold War intrigue, for all its visual magic wonder, it feels oddly hollow, Del Toro caught up in the aesthetic trappings, boo-hiss villains and sudden, bloody violence, but unable to really sell the central chemistry, no easy feat between a mute and man in a rubber suit, despite the best efforts of Sally Hawkins. It’s surprisingly stronger as a comedy than you might expect, and it embraces and accepts the weirdness of its tale.

Meanwhile, Michael Shannon plays the “Michael Shannon” role. Octavia Spencer plays the “Octavia Spencer” role. It’s Richard Jenkins who is the real reason to watch though – if the film’s heart is anywhere, it lies with him. Someone get that guy a merman to love.

Ghost Stories / Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson)

A successful transition from stage to screen, that manages to capture some of the energy of live performance and theatrical craft with its intense atmosphere and strong performances. In some ways a throwback to the horror anthologies of yesteryear, though it’s certainly more of a complete piece than just a smattering of unrelated shorts like so many recent takes on the format. There are loud noises and shocks and jump scares to appeal to the Friday night popcorn crowd, as well as some lovely silly humour to break the tension just a touch, but the lasting impression it leaves you with is its haunting imagery and ideas that are hard to shake.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

McDonagh’s best film yet, with all the offensive dialogue you’ve come to expect (this is Trigger Warning: The Movie, folks), but more rounded, textured and emotionally rich than before. There’s a maturity and a sense of purpose here, just with lots of fruity, laugh out loud lines layered on top. You believe the characters, their behaviour, their actions (depiction isn’t endorsement, remember), and you get caught up in the machinations of small town America the way you would one of them “slice of life” podcasts you get these days.

Goes without saying Frances McDormand is top-tier, and this is further proof that Sam Rockwell is maybe the best actor working today to still not receive a major acting award nomination (correct me if I’m wrong), but the film is stuffed with good turns all round. Pretty dang great.

FILM REVIEW: Ghostbusters

Ghosbusters

For all the hype and hope, all the fury and anger, Ghostbusters was always going to be just a movie. It’s a shame then that it’s not a very good movie. Which is frustrating, as it manages to get so many of the difficult things right that a blockbuster franchise reboot entails, but then messes up the simple stuff.

Simply put, Ghostbusters might be the most carelessly assembled tentpole release in recent memory. Okay, except Batman vs Superman (there’s nothing here as incoherent as that film at its clunky worst), and perhaps if the film was snappier and shorter (not that it ever dragged), the problems wouldn’t be so noticeable, but Ghostbusters is marred by sloppy editing at every turn. It’s not just nitpicking continuity errors, but scenes feel so obviously pieced together from a mishmash of takes, I found it hard settling into a decent groove without something jolting me out of the experience again. Dialogue cuts off abruptly (showing the cracks of unsuccessful riffing), little is done to make the off-screen action feel like it flows concurrently with what is happening on-screen (one moment, Patty is lying on the floor, the next she’s upright with a ghost perched on their shoulders), and there is no sense of time and space (two defenestrations take place through the same window, yet this is never commented on). It feels like the events of the film could be over the course of a few days, but Holtzmann somehow manages to create all this kit, retool all these devices and pimp their ride seemingly at the same time she is out and about with the rest of the team. At one point, Erin is split up from the group only to rejoin them at a crucial moment because…reasons?

Sorry to get all nitpicky. But co-writer/director Paul Feig also fails to get a handle on the big set-pieces. The ghosts and special effects looked decent, if lacking in imagination, but the crowd scenes lack atmosphere – the big heavy metal concert looks like all the oxygen has been sucked out of it – cheap-looking sets and unconvincing backdrops don’t help either. All this wouldn’t matter so much if the film was funny – and I guess it is, sorta? Its fun, generally, and there were a few good laughs, but Ghostbusters is stuffed with too many jokes that fall flat, lost in mumbly, improvy, overtalking, a register that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the film. I kept on thinking “Okay, that’s weird” fairly often, like a comic beat had been missed, or something in the script just didn’t translate to screen and then failed again in the editing room but stuck around anyway. And despite stealing pretty much every scene, I am still not sure if I really understand Chris Hemsworth’s part in all this. It’s a great performance, and I understand it’s a gender flip on the idea of the dumb but sweet natured bimbo who’s breezed through life on looks alone, but Kevin is a special kind of surreal stupidity (we’re talking beyond even Dougal from Father Ted). It’s nice that the jokes are spread around but it leaves the humour feeling imbalanced. You need the principal characters to bounce off someone that represents some semblance of reality, but here every supporting character is an oddball. Oh, and I still have an issue with the internet appearing prominently in films (yeah, it’s a vital part of all our lives, but any references to Twitter and Amazon and YouTube just makes me cringe – acknowledging the manbabies that have plagued the internet since the film’s announcement works against it).

But for all my petty gripes (easy to let slide on their own, but the cumulative effect becomes too much to bear), Ghostbusters certainly has its pleasures. And as mentioned before, these are mainly the elements that were harder to pull off, so credit for the creative team and cast is still due. I liked all the main characters and the dynamic they had with each other and how the team comes together. The performances from Wiig and McCarthy add a touching emotional element, and although McKinnon is largely played as an inconsistent bag of quirks, there’s enough about her unphased perma-grin that delights. And Jones for the most part sidesteps lazy “Aw hell naw” sassitude with a winning positivity and energy. The overarching plot is fine, if not necessarily the fuzzy motivations and glossed over know-how, using the vague skeleton of the original film but making everything else very much its own. Ghostbusters is at its best when its doing its own thing; affectionate cameos and references abound, some subtle and neat, others distracting or horribly dated (note: The Obsbournes ended over a decade ago).

And in that way, I hope for a sequel. And I am glad they made THIS Ghostbusters film. With the team in place and the pressure off, another Ghostbusters outing completely divorced from its predecessor would be enticing (hopefully the final post-credits tag is just a corny wink than a statement of intent). But maybe next time round, Feig should pass the torch on to a writer-director who can mix comedy, action and horror and make it work. Are Edgar Wright or Joe Cornish available – or am I being too obvious?

2015: Films of the Year

Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!

 

film20151to5

 

1. The Look of Silence

A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story.  In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.

2. The Lobster

Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast.  It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

3. It Follows

There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.

4. Carol

Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.

 

film20156to10

 

6. Force Majeure

A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.

7. Snowpiercer

Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.

9. Enemy

While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.

10. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

 

And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.

 

LFF 2015 Wrap-Up: The Lobster, The Assassin, Anomalisa, The Boy and The Beast

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival has long been and gone, but I’ve finally gotten round to doing a quick wrap-up of all the films I saw. Admittedly, I only managed to see four out of a line-up of hundreds but they are all worth talking about, and three of them are waiting to be released in the UK.

The Lobster

THE LOBSTER

My most anticipated film of the festival (and also the one that was released right after its LFF screenings) also ended up being my favourite. Billed as an unconventional love story from Dogtooth and Alps director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a world in which singletons are taken to a remote hotel where they must find a partner within 45 days or face being turned into an animal. Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, like the best sci-fi (or alternate near-future semi-dystopia or wherever/whenever the setting might be), it has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though his first film in the English language, Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast, lead Colin Farrell especially good playing our sadsack ‘hero’. It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

The Assassin

THE ASSASSIN

Winner of the Best Director prize for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the Cannes Film Festival and topping Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll as the best film of 2015, The Assassin comes already heavily garlanded. But it’s a case of cinematic Emperor’s New Clothes if there ever was one. Critics may fool you with words like transfixing, captivating, or imaginative to describe the film. But what they really mean is that it is empty, dull and plays around with its aspect ratio a bit. It’s possible to have a beautiful film that also manages to captivate with its story and character, but The Assassin is deliberately vague on both counts for seemingly no reason other than perhaps to make snobby arthouse audiences feel like they are watching a proper film rather than something as trifling as a simple ‘martial arts movie’. And what action is here is incredibly brief, a rush of fast edits that amount to very little, simply there to punctuate the tedium and keep you from dropping off to sleep. The bulk of the film involves people in pretty clothes walking into nicely decorated rooms and telling other people what is happening, who then sit there and think about it for a bit, and then onto the next scene. And yes, there are some rather gorgeous shots, but nothing more breath-taking than any desktop backgrounds that come pre-loaded onto a new laptop. If you don’t find yourself checking your watch repeatedly throughout, you’re either lying or not wearing a watch.

Anomalisa

ANOMALISA

The LFF Surprise Film is always a hot ticket and a bit of a treat (though the list of past entries is an eclectic bunch all right). And out of all the potential offerings, Anomalisa was the one I hoped for after hearing great things coming out of its other festival appearances. And lo and behold, so it was. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. And it’s not just a gimmick, rather the animation serves many functions, story, character and humour, creating a distancing effect while simultaneously making you invest more as you find humanity in something not quite real without a living, breathing human being entering the picture and spoiling everything, much as with Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, for example, makes you care deeply for a stick man. Here though the 3D printed models offer greater detail but also a deliberate sense of the uncanny, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained (not unlike The Lobster, set largely in the confines of a hotel, the unnatural atmosphere of which Anomalisa perfectly captures), but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. And yet, how it ranks amongst the likes of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York is hard to say. Upon initial viewing, it didn’t quite make the same impact on my heart, gut and mind as those films. I liked it a lot, but perhaps the second time, when its aims are clearer, it will connect more. Still, for any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

The Boy and The Beast

THE BOY AND THE BEAST

With The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has become maybe the best working anime director currently in the business. His latest is as thrilling and beautiful on a technical and emotional level as one has come to expect, though suffers from a few too many standard anime narrative conventions and character beats to be considered one of his best. A young street urchin finds a passage to a world of anthropomorphised animal creatures and is taken under the wing of a grumpy bear who reluctantly decides to train him as an apprentice so that he then may challenge for rule of the domain. There is an enjoyable antagonism between the two; even when there is the risk of their relationship sliding into sentimentality, the film holds off from letting them become too fond of one another, so when those emotional payoffs come, it feels earned and genuine. And it means you get more entertaining scenes of them getting on each other’s nerves. It does however lose its way during the inevitable segment in which they go their separate ways, a return to the human world and a forced love-interest perhaps adding an extra dimension to the characters but offering very little that’s engaging. It adds a fair chunk to the run time too, bringing a lively buoyant fantasy up to that point to a halt. But for the most part, whether through its entertaining mismatched-buddy comedy or its spectacular action set-pieces, The Boy and the Beast still has much to offer.

Burning Wet Hot American Meatballs: Summer Camps on Screen

A setting as much a part of the American teen movie fabric as the drunk and disorderly road trip, the spring break vacation, the homecoming prom, and the “big football game”, the summer camp movie is a subgenre of a subgenre that attempts to capture an adolescent experience that remains just as strange and foreign to me as the other aforementioned staples. It always struck me as a bit peculiar that families would happily ship off their kids for weeks on end into a pseudo-military system, particularly in a country without a particularly strong boarding school tradition, a wide range of ages all awkwardly stuck together. Moreover, I was always uncomfortable about how it all seemed to be indulging in a spot of mildly offensive cultural appropriation, a weird attempt to get back to nature via Native American cliché, something effectively skewered in to my mind the best summer camp movie, and one of my absolute favourite comedies, Addams Family Values. But as a sub-subgenre, you can see the appeal, both as film-maker and audience. They’re clearly pretty cheap to make (with picturesque locations readily available out of season) but they also offer plenty of opportunities for ‘hijinks’ as well as an excuse for lots of young flesh on display – y’know, something for daddy.

meatballsgroup

And so, with summer having well and truly arrived, I decided it was an appropriate time to stack up a triple of bill of summer camp cinema I’d not seen before, starting with Meatballs. A low-budget Canadian comedy that went on to be a huge hit (leading to three barely-to-completely-not-related sequels), it marked the first starring role for Bill Murray, and with Ivan Reitman directing and Harold Ramis co-writing, it’s effectively a dry-run for Stripes, and in many ways is the quintessential summer camp movie. A bunch of stereotypes (the fat character eats a lot of food, the dorky one is literally called ‘Spaz’) get into various loosely-connected shenanigans and try to triumph over a rival summer camp, and that’s about it. There’s a lot of sub-par slapstick. There are constant grating songs. There’s an unsurprising amount of offensive perving. Most of all, it’s just plain annoying. The saving grace is Murray as camp counsellor Tripper, as you would expect, who has already perfected his shtick at this early stage, and his natural charm shines through. And Kate Lynch as Roxanne has a bit more to her than you might expect a romantic interest in a film of this type to be. But any fun is hampered by a weird sentimental plot involving Tripper befriending shy camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace), which is initially kind of touching, but not even Murray can cut through the treacle, which feels at odds with the half-arsed bawdiness elsewhere, resulting in a film presumably designed for everyone but appealing for no-one (box office success be damned). Spare yourself the headache-in-waiting.

wethotamericansummer

If there’s one film then that could perhaps offer a more entertaining take on the formula, it would be cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. With a prequel series forthcoming on Netflix reuniting its starry cast (plus some extra famous types for added thrills), David Wain and Michael Showalter’s movie is an affectionate parody of the likes of Meatballs, set on the last day of camp in the summer of 1981 as actors playing far younger than they could ever realistically pass for (itself a clever take on teen movie casting, even more pronounced with the prequel) desperately try to hook up with each other before everyone parts ways for the year. Unfortunately, despite my liking the performers, the film itself is sorely lacking in hilarity. Spoofs are prone more than anything to be hit-and-miss with their gags, trying to get by through quantity if not quality, but there really aren’t that many jokes here at all. Scenes coast by without a titter and performances fall flat, resulting in an anaemic, inconsequential series of sketches, with a script that feels like it was written in a day. It barely attempts to engage with the period and setting beyond superficial details, with its few laughs (mainly from Christopher Meloni’s Gene and Paul Rudd’s goofy ineffectual bad boy Andy) largely disconnected from the subgenre its mocking, so it seems like a pointless exercise, more so when its squandering such fertile ground for comic potential (hopefully something the series will do more with, at least judging by the trailer that offers more laughs in two-and-a-half minutes than this managed over plus 90). I imagine it benefits from repeated viewing, and that it did the rounds extensively on the college circuit, hence the clamouring for a follow-up, but Wain’s They Came Together does a far better job playing with its targets while being very funny too. Disappointing.

burning

My final film of the three was a dip into a separate but significant subgenre with a summer camp setting, that of the summer camp horror flick. The Burning may have the whiff of a Friday the 13th rip-off and so has subsequently found it hard to escape its forebear’s shadow, and doesn’t have the what-the-fuckery notoriety of Sleepaway Camp, but it is still significant for its cast and crew. Co-written by Bob Weinstein and produced by Harvey Weinstein, The Burning was a very early Miramax film production (and would be released in the UK by Handmade Films and end up a ‘video nasty’), with music from prog keyboardist Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Tom Savini expanding upon his practical effects work from Friday the 13th. And in their first starring roles, we are introduced to future Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens (no, not for his performance in Short Circuit 2, but his producing, specifically on documentary The Cove), plus George Costanza himself Jason Alexander, playing a kinda cool party guy in the Seth Rogen mould . But more than all that, it might actually be better than Friday the 13th itself.

Inspired by the Cropsy legend, a cantankerous caretaker is accidentally burned alive by angry campers when a prank goes wrong, and years later seeks bloody revenge with the aid of a pair of garden shears. It’s a simple set-up, but The Burning takes time with its characters too, giving them if not three dimensions, than at least two and a half, as they go about the standard summer camp activities, oblivious to the killer in their midst. The dialogue and relationships between them feel natural, even if they fall into some pitfalls of stupidity as is to be expected, and there’s enough distinct about them to make you care a little more for them when they variously get sliced, chopped and stabbed. And it doesn’t just succeed through Savini’s impressive gore and make-up, but its scares and jumps (largely taking place in the day time) are well deployed and feel earned. In fact, I dug it quite a bit, and the Hysteria Lives website offers a good overview of the film’s making, release and legacy.

Are there any other must-see summer camp movies out there? Let me know!