While January is typically one of the best months of the year for cinema in the UK, as that’s the time when most of the big Oscar nominees are finding their way to these shores, February can feel like a bit of an afterthought. A few Oscar contenders (such as Selma) continue to filter through but these are usually themselves an afterthought in their respective awards categories, and the Oscar ceremony itself, along with the BAFTAs, tends to be the main focus of the month anyway.
That’s not to say other films released over this past month are unworthy of attention. Though I haven’t seen all of them (no review for Fifty Shades of Grey I’m afraid), there were at least two I’m very fond of, as I’ll go on to detail. Following are the releases I’ve seen during February and, essentially, want to sum up in a somewhat succinct fashion rather than writing full reviews for each – though there will be one exception to that.
Selma – A significant historical drama focusing on the Reverend Martin Luther King, picking up after his “I have a dream” speech. That it focused on the real life ‘bread and butter’ of King’s struggles as he fought the otherwise overlooked battle for equal voting rights is probably what I liked most about it; you get the sense that it’s not centrally about glorifying him as a ‘hero’, but rather painting the bigger picture he was fighting for. Which I think is how he would have liked it.
Having said that, the film occasionally feels like it’s going through the motions and, were it not for David Oyelowo’s show-stealing performance as the man himself, it could have faded badly. He certainly should have been among the Oscar nominees, but as for the film itself? Not so much.
7 / 10
Kingsman: The Secret Service – Probably my film of the month, even though it was technically released in January and faces stiff competition from a certain horror film which I’ll get to in a bit. Kingsman: The Secret Service is extraordinary, whether you end up loving it or hating it (and it definitely encourages you to fall into one of those categories).
Featuring an excess of humour, swearing, killing and all manner of the old ultra violence, what sets Kingsman apart is its own self-awareness. It knows you’ve been exposed to and largely desensitised by much of its content before and goes offensively over the top to show you precisely that, before blowing apart its own genre conventions (literally…). Best of all though, it takes those misogynistic early James Bond films that many conservative moviegoers were comfortable with back in the day, and illustrates that, actually, in some ways they were just as offensive as what we’re witnessing today. If not more so, because they actually tried to pretend they weren’t. Kingsman hides under no such illusions; it sets out to blatantly offend, and if it fails in your case then you’ll at least love it for trying.
It almost struck me (almost because I’m hesitant to throw the comparison around too easily) as a modern day Dr Strangelove (1964), though its target in this case is not a government or military regime, but, in true postmodern fashion, other spy films and those audiences that voyeuristically lap them up. If you find yourself offended by its sheer audacity in going to places you wouldn’t have seen coming, look past that if you can, and you may see a film that deserves to be talked about in five to ten years from now for all the right reasons. 10 / 10
Cake – Jennifer Aniston plays a rare serious, and rarely serious, role as a sardonic ‘chronic pain sufferer’ who attends a support group at which one of the members has just committed suicide.
I liked how the film dealt unapologetically with the issue of chronic pain, whether physical or whether linked to depression and suicide; its sarcastic sense of humour captures a feeling of apathy for one’s fate that few may understand but some who’ve been to similar depths will fully appreciate. Cake isn’t just about Aniston either; Anna Kendrick also has an important role and adds her own style to the movie when on screen. There was an air of suspicion in the industry that Aniston would receive an Oscar nomination for this film. On reflection I’d say she could count herself unfortunate not to receive one. 8 / 10
Blackhat – Featuring one of the least believable computer hackers ever (a toned Chris Hemsworth as a technical genius, anyone?) and a plot one could scarcely call original, Blackhat is nonetheless as entertaining as any typical ‘run of the mill’ thriller could expect to be.
Michael Mann’s signature directorial style is evident, and saves the movie from falling into complete popcorn-fuelled creative obscurity. Fast paced, close up action sequences are shot with the refreshingly stripped down feel of a low budget flick, though the Hollywood production qualities are effective elsewhere with the usual mix of explosions and cinematic sound effects. Overall, certain exaggerated sequences and a somewhat far-fetched finale hurt what could have been a more original film, albeit still an enjoyable one as is. 7 / 10
Boogaloo and Graham – I may not often talk short films, but it isn’t every year that Northern Ireland receives an Oscar nomination with a good chance of winning, so I felt I had to in this instance. Boogaloo and Graham may have ultimately left the ceremony in Los Angeles empty handed, but is certainly worth 15 minutes of your time if you haven’t seen it already. Even better, you can do so for free over the next twenty days or so on BBC iPlayer (here). A hilarious, heartfelt drama set in 1978 Belfast, it’s sure to leave an emotional mark on you despite its brief running time. 9 / 10
It Follows – Along with Kingsman, this newly released (last Friday) American horror film is arguably the highlight of cinema releases over the past month.
Sharing similarities with The Babadook (which, coincidentally, was also released on DVD and Blu-ray mid-February), It Follows brings together various influences from both West and Eastern horror from the peak years of horror cinema. The latter part of that influence was what appealed to me more (being a big fan of the J-horror resurgence between 1998-2003), and it is the maturity with which this movie handles its inspirations, not by simply copying but by advancing those ideas, that initially makes it feel like something rather special.
Approaching its subject with a confidence that prevents over-reliance on jump scare tactics, the film’s premise is built around a force/ entity that literally follows its victims. It doesn’t chase per se, it doesn’t hurry; it merely follows at walking speed. But it never stops. Sure you can run, very far if you’d like, and it could take this thing days to catch up. Though unlike you, it doesn’t need to rest. If you want to survive, you either need to keep moving or pass on the curse to someone else – the method of that ‘passing on’ harks back to Western ‘slasher’ tropes just as the pervading atmosphere of inescapable dread echoes Japanese horror films such as Ring (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). That proves quite a potent mix, as it turns out.
I did have some slight gripes with It Follows in the end, though I still consider this the best American horror film of recent years (The Babadook was Australian so doesn’t count) – yes, according to my personal taste, even better than 2013’s The Conjuring.
Check back here on Friday for my full review.