September 2023 In Review

Frightfest may be over, but that does not mean festival season is over for me as Fantastic Fest unfolded. Within that time, I also managed to catch up on some 2023 releases, dive into the Saw franchise before seeing the new instalment, and even revisit Middle Earth in cinemas. So, let's see what films I saw this past September.

Friday The 13th (1980) [rewatch] - 2/5 - Despite two previous watches where I disliked this film, I decided to give this another try because I want to like this work which birthed a horror icon and a beloved franchise. Goodwill and effective kills can only take me so far, as the film is full of nothing characters apart from the supremely irritating Ned, and beset by Sean S. Cunningham's dreadful direction which overuses slow-motion amidst pacing issues (particularly in the last act). If I actually make it through the rest of the franchise this time, then I hope the subsequent films impress me more.

Polite Society (2023) - 4/5 - For her feature directorial debut, Nida Manzoor crafts an entertaining martial arts comedy which follows an aspiring stuntwoman intent on rescuing her sister from her impending marriage. What unfolds is a fantastic time spent with action beats, humorous interplay between characters, and a touching sibling relationship at the centre. Some of the supporting characters could have done with more work, and there were some distracting uses of slow-motion in the fights, yet this is an absolute blast.

Blue Beetle (2023) - 3/5 - After many films from DC which felt designed by committee, this feels like a breath of fresh air. Writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and director Ángel Manuel Soto tell the story of college graduate Jaime Reyes (a charming Xolo Mariduena), who returns home to discover gentrification is harming his home and leaving his family threatened with eviction. His attempts to find a job leave him with a piece of alien biotechnology; a scarab which bonds with him, granting Jaime a super-suit packed with abilities, an arsenal of weapons, and an interface which walks him through using the scarab. Meanwhile, weapons industrialist Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) has sights on using the scarab for her militarised ideal of a police force. It's a familiar origin story, particularly during the expected hero beats involving CGI battles and villains that are little more than their motivations. What makes this work is how fun it all is, particularly with a focus on Jaime's family as the likeable characters share great scenes, especially involving George Lopez's engineer Rudy with distrust for the government. There is also real passion behind this project, capturing Latinx life amidst gentrification as they are seen by White people in power only as tools to be used for their own gain. An effective feature which does not break the mould, yet is a step-up from the lacklustre offerings which have been popping up from DC for the past while.

Home Sweet Home: Where Evil Lives (2023) - 2/5 - A technically impressive exercise capturing one woman's night of terror.

The Glenarma Tapes (2023) - 3.5/5 - A curious blend of ideas centered around believable friends.

It Follows (2015) [rewatch] - 4.5/5 - From meticulously crafted shots to Disasterpeace's masterful score, this is a chilling work that generates terror from the uncertainty of who is approaching.

Best film of the month, Best film seen in cinemas, and
Best film rewatched: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Fool's Paradise (2023) - 0.5/5 - Charlie Day tackles a Hollywood satire for his directorial debut.

Rat Race (2001) [rewatch] - 2.5/5 - A rewatch hinders this film for me, as the best gags feel stretched over an overstuffed cast. The characters that are the most consistently funny are Jon Lovitz's family, with the film peaking as they visit a Barbie museum and the subsequent car ride. Outside of that, the gags are a lot more sporadic in hitting their mark, particularly with the scenes of rich people betting just dragging out the same point. The ending with Smash Mouth is such a bizarre choice which feels like an appropriate encapsulation of the time, but at least the film closes with a banger of a song.

Them (2006) - 4/5 - A teacher and her boyfriend find themselves tormented by mysterious assailants who attack the pair at their remote home. What unfolds is a tense and uncomfortable tale across that swiftly flies by, with instances that made me gasp out loud and unnerved with tension. The mystique of the tormenting figures is undone by a late reveal, particularly with regards to the execution of that scene, although it's a small matter in this grim and very effective flick.

It Lives Inside (2023) - 4/5 - Cultural identity struggles told with slick direction and a compelling lore.

The Darkside of Society (2023) - 0.5/5 - A personal recounting which feels exploitative.

Saw (2004) [rewatch] - 4/5 - With Saw X releasing at the end of the month, I decided to revisit this franchise for the first time in almost a decade. The inaugural film feels worlds away from the series which would follow, with the main focus being on Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) as they awaken in a dirty bathroom with their feet in chains. What unfolds is a compelling tale of the two latest victims of a prolific serial killer (despite some claiming he does not actually do the killing). Yes, there are questionable acting choices and jarring editing decisions, but there is also genuinely unnerving sequences (Adam in his apartment). Also, the ending is an all-timer that I wish I could have experienced with an audience upon its initial release.

Best film watched for the first time:
Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

Saw II (2005) [rewatch] - 2.5/5 - Turn up the green tint, crank up the 2000s editing, and pile on the bad acting, because it's time for Darren Lynn Bousman to start the sequels. Everything about this should work, from the cops cornering Jigsaw to the house of traps, but it's undone by the lacklustre execution. For a house that has traps tailored to the captive characters, it's disappointing that we only see less than half of their traps in here (although the needle pit is an all-timer). I cannot say I care for any of the character, and that last 20 minutes is doing some considerable heavy lifting for this film.

Thorns (2023) - 1/5 - Apocalyptically boring.

Dead Man's Shoes (2004) - 5/5 - A powerful and unflinching examination of how destructive revenge can be. One of the best British films ever made.

Valley Girl (1983) - 3.5/5 - A charming romance which offers the debut of Nicolas Cage.

Rain, Rain, Go Away (2023) - 3.5/5 - An effective short film about trauma.

Final Summer (2023) - 2/5 - A throwback to summer camp slashers.

Another Day To Live Through (2023) - 1.5/5 - Slow pacing hampers what promises to be a cycle of abuse.

Biggest Disappointment: Fool's Paradise (2023)

It Lives Inside (2023) [rewatch] - 4/5 - Revisiting this on the big screen was a great experience, as this tale of cultural identity is effectively crafted amidst an engrossing lore and unsettling moments. Shout out to the loudmouth behind me who wouldn't stop cracking "jokes" like he was onstage at the Apollo theatre.

Saw III (2006) [rewatch] - 3/5 - I was too harsh on this film the last time I saw it. This time, I was compelled by Jeff's journey through the traps in an extreme effort to deal with his grief, while seeing the people he previously vilified in a new light as scared people hurting in their own ways. Less interesting was Angus Macfadyen's performance into the character, making for the least interesting protagonist so far. The scenes with John Kramer and Amanda are also interesting, as it becomes apparent that his teachings have been repurposed in the wrong way by the apprentice. I cannot say I cared much for the central couple, before or after the obvious reveal, but what was more interesting were the traps (The Rack is exquisite) and the set-ups for what is to come. I'm still not a fan of the nu-metal looking lighting or the frantic editing, but I have a reinvigorated interest in revisiting the rest of the series.

Caddy Hack (2023) - 0.5/5 - Utter gopher shit.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) [rewatch] - 1.5/5 - A perfect encapsulation of the strange 2010's trend of turning properties into "grim and gritty" versions in a ridiculous attempt to garner credibility for more fun and goofy products. The turtle designs look ugly, the action is incomprehensible, the performances are very blank, and the characters are turned up to be most frustrating. The reshoots to make William Fichtner's character separate from the Shredder are most jarring, and Mikey being a massive creep is a terrible choice.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) [rewatch] - 5/5 - Spending my Saturday at the cinema, watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended editions) on the big screen.

Rewatching this first film, it's clear that I had forgotten how exceptionally crafted this work is. What Peter Jackson does is make Middle Earth feel so real and lived in, with a rich history and stupendous characters that come alive tremendously. Jackson may be working on a much larger scale than his previous works, but this feels like a natural evolution for him which contains plenty of grisly deaths and gruesome actions which remain effective despite the 12a rating. It also helps that the excellent cast make the characters, and especially the titular fellowship, feel so easy to invest in. Of course it should be mentioned how this was such a defining piece of cinema, and none of that would have been possible without the exceptional care and craft put into each aspect of this feature. An absolute masterpiece.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) [rewatch] - 5/5 - War has come to Middle Earth, and it is a jaw-dropping thing to witness unfold on the big screen. This middle chapter of the trilogy puts the separated fellowship on differing paths, each combating the forces of Sauron in their own way, and this is best exemplified through the jaw-dropping depiction of the battle of Helm's Deep. There is also the introduction of Middle Earth icon, Gollum, as masterfully depicted by the Laurence Olivier of mo-cap performances, Andy Serkis. The runtime was felt in some places, but this remains another exceptional entry which Peter Jackson brings alive so fantastically.

Biggest Surprise: The Coffee Table (2023)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) [rewatch] - 5/5 - In a trilogy which had Urak-hai's born from mucky sacs, constant close-ups on a pus-faced orc, and so many decapitations, it's curious how the most gross element is Denethor eating his dinner.

From the unsettling opening detailing Gollum's origin to the earned emotional farewells, this is a masterful way to close one of the best film trilogies I have seen. The focus may be more on set-pieces and giant scale battles, but it does not forget character amidst these impressive realizations of Peter Jackson's direction. There was no plot thread which I was uninterested in seeing close, no character that I was not unengrossed in following, I was compelled across the entire lengthy runtime. A superb ending, and my favourite of the trilogy. Also, I think Sean Astin deserved Best Supporting Actor at the 76th Academy Awards.

Chasing Chasing Amy (2023) - 4/5 - A touching and personal exploration of Kevin Smith's 3rd feature.

Cruising (1980) - 4.5/5 - A compelling thriller from William Friedkin.

Visitors (Complete Edition) (2023) - 3.5/5 - A unique work that has fun with its Troma style Evil Dead premise while working its way to viewer's hearts.

The Coffee Table (2023) - 4/5 - A bleak and unforgettable work about the perils of buying tacky furniture.

The Creator (2023) - 4/5 - An original piece of science-fiction that is visually stunning.

Worst film of the month: Darkside of Society (2023)

Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (2023) - 2.5/5 - Better than a straight-to-streaming prequel has any right to be.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016) [rewatch] - 2/5 - The sequel to 2014's dreadful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles begins with one clear positive; the director has a better idea of what he is doing. He delivers something which is actually trying to add some visual flair and delivers comprehensible action, although there is only so much Dave Green can do when it feels like studio creatives are breathing down his neck over what to do. The inclusion of stuff like the Technodrome, Krang, and Baxter Stockman feels like a corporate idea of how to appeal to nostalgic audience members while misguidedly making these goofy elements grim and gritty to try and make them "respectable." The worst offender is Stephen Amell, who tries playing Casey Jones with charisma but instead resembles a hyperactive child. The turtles themselves are forgettable elements who hit the expected beats without making the journey there believable, and their designs remain disgustingly ugly. This Platinum Dunes era of the turtles is a foolish one, and I'm glad to see the back of it.

The Retirement Plan (2023) - 0.5/5 - As half-hearted and artificial as Nicolas Cage's wig.

Saw IV (2007) [rewatch] - 2/5 - This series is fascinating in how all it needs to deliver is a killer ending and, no matter the quality of the film which played before it, you're on-board for the next film. This one puts prominence on Detective Riggs, a hot-headed character who acts first without considering the consequences of his actions. A bland figure to lead the film, but his raised importance highlights how the series interestingly puts focus on once supporting or background characters to show another angle to the previous films. There is also an interesting flashback to show what led to John Kramer becoming Jigsaw, which gives Tobin Bell more of a chance to deliver gravitas as the man driven to his calling by circumstances out of his control. A shame the plot left me feeling confused as to what happened at times, not helped by the frantic editing.

Saw V (2008) [rewatch] - 2.5/5 - Detective Hoffman is now the heir to the Jigsaw mantle, and the only one standing in his way is Detective Strahm, who is determined to reveal the new Jigsaw killer's identity. There's an interesting idea here, with the potential for a cat and mouse game between the two leads. Unfortunately, it is upended by uninteresting performances going into characters who are so boring. A large part of it is flashing back to the previous films to convolutedly show Hoffman was there the whole time, while Strahm spells it out for audiences. It's fun to see the writers try to retrospectively correct some plot holes and answer lingering questions, yet the more interesting segment involves the latest victims trying to survive. But, once again, the ending has me hooked and excited for the next one.

Psycho (1960) [rewatch] - 5/5 - What more can I say about this masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock? A masterclass in tension, editing, and subverting audience expectations, even if the infodump at the end is a bit much. Anthony Perkins is absolutely phenomenal as Norman Bates.

Best film of the month: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Best film seen in cinemas: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Best film watched for the first time: Dead Man's Shoes (2004)
Best film rewatched: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Biggest Disappointment: Fool's Paradise (2023)
Biggest Surprise: The Coffee Table (2023)
Worst film of the month: The Darkside of Society (2023)

Number of films watched: 36