Film Reviews 17: “No Strings Attached”, “It’s Complicated”, “Aliens”, “The Seventh Seal” and 24 others…

the man who wasn't there 2

This month: “Aliens”, “Anchorman”, “Blue Velvet”, “Chungking Express”, “Crash”, “Diggers,” “Dirty Pretty Things”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “It’s Complicated”, “Junebug”, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (pictured above), “My Neighbour Totoro”, “No Strings Attached”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Ponyo”, “Quadrophenia”, “Roman Holiday”, “The Romantics”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Super High Me”, “Tart” and “Wild at Heart”.

This volume, the average rating is 6.1/10, with film of the month being Blue Velvet. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Aliens (1986) – 8/10

Director/Writer: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn
“Not bad for a human.”

aliensI nearly stopped watching when I saw the opening credits: ‘Screenplay by James Cameron’. After my friends called me a fool, I persevered, and I was suitably frightened. Sigourney Weaver returns to star in Aliens, set almost a century after Alien, and no one believes the severity of the creatures that killed her crew – they laugh at the idea of their blood being corrosive, and, well, they ridicule the plot of Alien.

It leads to a surprisingly intense war between humans and aliens – the humans have guns, but the aliens have these things that come out of their mouth like a whisk. Suspense and horror are traded in for action and terrible dialogue, with people regularly saying, “I hate this job.” I’m not sure why these aliens are so frightening, as their main skill is to climb through air vents, take the escalator, and occasionally lay an egg inside you. It’s mainly the fear of being in space and being stuck there forever – twenty years before Avatar, Cameron shows early hints of xenophobia.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
(2004) – 3.5/10

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell

anchormanA film for eight-year-olds with low expectations.

Blue Velvet
(1986) – 9.5/10

Director/Writer: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern
“Yes. That’s a human ear.”

blue velvetQuestion: Are there any bands better than Neutral Milk Hotel? Answer: Every band is better than Neutral Milk Hotel.

Ever since I heard In the Aeroplane over the Sea, I’ve passionately felt Neutral Milk Hotel are the most overrated entity since burgers – a statement so contrary to critical opinion that I will often listen to their music to reassure myself. Similarly, I used to hate Blue Velvet, thinking it was a bland genre exercise. However, on second viewing, I see a precise masterpiece – I was gripped by the lavish beauty and threatening menace that encompassed the full two hours.

The film begins with Kyle Maclachlan discovering a human ear outside a house. After some investigation, he finds himself at the sexual centre of a kidnapping scheme between a fragile singer (Isabella Rossellini) and a violent criminal (Dennis Hopper). Rossellini’s stark performance is delivered in a nightmare world that takes time to unveil itself, so much so that she finds herself naked in more ways than one. At first, the film is set in a quiet town where the green of the grass shines brightly, but it all changes in the evening – red curtains flail, but no one seems to be around.

When Isabella Rossellini finds Kyle Maclachlan, an innocent stranger not so innocently hiding in her wardrobe, she asks, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” In the sleepy location of Blue Velvet, it becomes more apparent that nearly everyone has to be a detective or pervert to survive. In the silence, there is poetry even in the way furniture is arranged – the layout of Rossellini’s living room is a stage for intrigue and violence, but keeps reoccurring from the same angles that it becomes as familiar as the living room for any three-camera sitcom, like a Friends episode entitled “The One Where Ross Discovers an Ear and…”

Whereas the baby never disrupted the surreal mood of Eraserhead, Dennis Hopper emphatically brings a frightening presence to each scene he appears in. As a villain, not only is he highly quotable, but also genuinely disturbing. In his first appearance, he inhales gas through a mask, swears angrily, then sexually assaults Rossellini – like the viewer, Maclachlan can only watch with grimace through his fingers. Remarkably, unlike the daydream and nightmare mood that encompasses Lynch’s films, Hopper’s violence feels chillingly real – he mostly chooses not to use a gun, and you can see the pleasure in his eyes from using the flesh of his fists to cause pain. Ironically, his most iconic line: “You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker. You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.”

Chungking Express
(1984) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro
“When the sun rose, I knew I had to go.”

chungking expressI’ve been to Hong Kong before, and the city was as busy as the camera in Chungking Express, a film that presents two sinister love stories in cut up colours and sounds. When I was thinking about the film afterwards, my opinion lessened when I analysed the strange plot in my head. Luckily, the narrative is almost impossible to follow on first viewing. To be honest, it’s a distraction, and it’s worth just living in the/that moment.

(1996) – 4.5/10

Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: David Cronenberg, JG Ballard (novel)
Starring: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Eias Kotesa, Holly Hunter
“The traffic – where is everybody?”

crashYes, there is more than one film called Crash. This is not the Oscar-winning drama set in LA, which I haven’t seen, but a film adaptation about a cult who find sexual pleasure in car accidents.  The premise sounds bizarre, yet it should be more intriguing. The drama is repetitive and predictable, and it fills out its running time with tedious action sequences. Once the initial shock is played out, the film doesn’t have anywhere to go, and not just because the cars no longer work.

(2006) – 5/10

Director: Katherine Dieckmann
Writer: Ken Marino
Starring: Paul Rudd, Lauren Ambrose, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton, Ken Marino
“It’s already an arduous trade.”

diggersWhat constitutes a coming-of-age film? Diggers, a drama with sitcom stars playing straight roles, was advertised as ‘coming-of-age’, but, really, time just passes. There’s no development, but it’s made oddly watchable by its cast – Maura Tierney (Lisa from NewsRadio), Sarah Paulson (Harriet from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Paul Rudd (Mike from Friends), Ken Marine (Ron from Party Down), and Lauren Ambrose (the creepy person from Six Feet Under).

The unusual setting is that the main characters are professional clam diggers, hanging around on boats all day, free to have dry, observational conversations. The unambitious script means nothing really develops beyond a few sort of funny lines like: “Floating’s important for a boat.”

There are some missed opportunities as a talented cast have to repress their talents – the clam digging aspect is barely touched upon, except for thirty seconds where Paul Rudd eats oysters. Is there a difference between interesting people and people who are just new to you?

Dirty Pretty Things
(2002) – 8/10

Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Chiwete Ejiofor, Sergi opez, Sophie Okonedo
“You know I can’t eat? I’ve already seen you laugh three times. Now four.”

dirty pretty thingsI live in London and it’s okay, I guess. Dirty Pretty Things follows two illegal immigrants hoping to leave London, if they don’t get arrested first. One is an ex-doctor from Nigeria, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who works in a taxi during the day and in the hotel lobby at night. The other is a Turkish maid played by Audrey Tatou – yes, the French actress from Amelie.

The beginning of Dirty Pretty Things does an amiable job of conveying the paranoia of day-to-day life as an illegal immigrant, especially with surprise visits from the immigration police. The film’s more interesting aspect begins when Ejiofor finds a live human heart blocking a toilet, then discovering the hotel’s owner sells passports in exchange for kidneys – these amateur operations are done by himself in hotel rooms. As an ex-doctor, Ejiofor is offered a lucrative role to be the surgeon, in exchange for passports for him and Audrey Tatou – his conscientious refusal leads to a moving battle of ethics versus logic.

Ejofor’s character is introduced well, with subtle hints dropped in each scene about his past, without being overbearingly suspenseful. As you’d guess from the plot, the film is incredibly moving, but is also funny in the right places – Benedict Wong plays a mortuary worker full of one-liners and metaphors about chess players – yes, metaphors about chess players, not the actual game. Moreover, Wikipedia reveals the screenplay was written by someone called Stephen Knight who also ‘wrote the scripts for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’, which would explain the number of times someone in trouble phones a friend.

Frankie and Johnny
(1991) – 3/10

Director: Garry Marshall
Writer: Terrence McNally
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hector Elizondo
“It makes you a creep. No, it makes you sincere. That’s worse.”

frankie and johnnySometimes you read a film review because they’re written by your friend, not because he’s Roger Ebert  or Ed Howard, and I appreciate it. Similarly, I watched Frankie and Johnny because the titular roles are played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. The characters never develop and nothing really happens. It’s just dull dialogue and terrible jokes – an example is a woman in a diner claiming ‘puppy’ is a palindrome. Nevertheless, it’s strangely watchable because of the lead actors, but even they can’t pull it off – yes, even Al Pacino can’t make this dialogue seem convincing.

Howl’s Moving Castle
(2004) – 6/10

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones (novel)
Starring: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa

howl's moving castleIn this beautifully designed animated film, based on a novel by Dianna Wynn Jones, an eighteen-year-old girl is turned into a 90-year-old woman by a petulant witch. It’s a bit like Freaky Friday, yet shares more in common thematically with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.

There’s enough to assume Howl’s Moving Castle is a top-tier film – it’s based on something written by Dianna Wynn Jones, it’s helmed by Miyazaki after Spirited Away, and it looks incredible. However, as marvellous as it all looks, these scenes are mainly a disjointed collection of colourful things that happen, much in a way that Spirited Away and other Miyazaki films tend to avoid – when one door closes, three windows open.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981) – 6/10

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman

indiana jones and the raiders of the lost arkLike London Zoo, the bit with the snakes is the highlight, but, despite the hype, there are better alternatives.

It’s Complicated
(2009) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski
“And he married her? A known lunatic?”

it's compicatedFirstly, it’s not complicated – a divorced couple consider getting back together, but also consider not getting back together. It’s actually quite easy to understand as the plot is repeated to friends, family and other block characters, and lines of dialogue include: “It’s been… awesome just…  being… like… us.” When the title is said out loud by Alec Baldwin, the actual line is, “It was complicated.”

However, it’d be unfair to review the film based on its title. It’s a fairly predictable romcom aimed at older people, but has gained more exposure from having Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin as its leads. Streep reprises her role from Kramer vs Kramer as a villainous ex-wife – like a producer of any Hollywood film aimed at older demographics needing a male lead, she has to choose between Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. It’s not just that there isn’t anything original that happens, but it feels so tired – extended sequences about how ‘funny’ it is to take marijuana, and the most scripted children since your church’s local Nativity play.

(2005) – 7.5/10

Director: Phil Morrison
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Starring: Amy Adams, Emberg Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola
“I want to make the invisible visible.”

junebugThere are spaces and wrought sentences flowing throughout Junebug. The premise is similar to Meet the Parents, but that’s where the similarities stop – an arts dealer meets her husband’s Southern family, but there is almost nothing but sadness. Junebug isn’t really a comedy – it’s too subtle, and any humour is out of instinctive nervousness. It’s nothing like Meet the Parents. I really wish I hadn’t mentioned that goddamn film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets
(1949) – 7.5/10

Director: Robert Hamer
Writers: Robert Hamer, John Dighton, Roy Horniman (novel)
Starring: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness
“I shot an arrow through the air – she fell to earth in Berkley Square.”

kind hearts and coronetsPeter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian about how Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on an anti-Semitic novel from 1907 called Israel Rank. Fortunately, all anti-Semitism is absent from the famously dark film about a man who must kill eight family members (all played by Alec Guinness) to become the Duke of Chalfont – it’s like the reverse version of The Ladykillers, another classic from the Ealing studios. There is more comedy in the narrative which reveals the killer’s mind’s strange workings – he consoles himself after the death of an innocent woman because he ‘saved her from a weekend worse than death’. Highly recommended.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
(1986) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Keiko Yokozawa, Mayumi Tanaka, Kotoe Hatsui
“That must be the last robot.”

laputa castle in the skyWhat do you do when a floating girl falls from the sky, and it turns out she’s the princess of a castle in the sky that might not even exist? And you’re being chased by pirates and the army? Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
(2001) – 7/10

Directors/Writers: The Coen brothers
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco

the man who was there 1The Coen brothers lightly touch upon film noir in 1998 by making The Big Lebowski a subtle adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but it’s still remarkable how naturally they tackle The Man Who Wasn’t There – a black-and-white neo-noir exercise set in 1949. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a meek hairdresser in California who finds himself in the middle of a blackmail scheme. As you might suspect, things don’t go according to plan when his sort-of innocent wife is arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.

The first half is a visual wonder with the Coens getting the pacing perfect – the genre is mimicked convincingly, yet they can still add on their own unique stamp. For instance, there are cartoonish camera tricks, like a loose wheel that won’t stop spinning, and numerous references to UFOs. Also, the dialogue sounds like it could belong to Raymond Chandler, but at the same time it could be part of Fargo, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy ­– unlike Intolerable Cruelty, their diligent insincerity translates well.

Once the arrest is made, the film stutters and doesn’t recover – each scene takes too long, without any inspiring ideas to develop. In the time between the arrest and the final scene, I sense the Coens didn’t have any specific plans – they just knew what the ending was, and must find a way to bridge that gap.

Is your life like The Man Who Wasn’t There? Sometimes, I wonder, walking down a busy pavement while everyone else is walking the other direction.

My Neighbour Totoro
(1988) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Chika Sakamoto, Noriko Hidaka, Hitoshi Takagi
“Tell her I hope she’s feeling better.”

my neighbour totoroIt’s always a pleasure to become so absorbed in the imagination of a children’s film, especially if you hate children. It’s only once it finishes that you realise just how great My Neighbour Totoro is. There isn’t much that happens, but the viewer is brought into a gentle world of umbrellas and cat buses – all dreamt up by two young children trying not to worry about their possibly terminally ill mother. It’s sad, but uplifting to be entranced by such innocence.

No Strings Attached
(2011) – 2.5/10

Director: Ivan Reitman
Writer: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig
“Did you have sex with someone, then give her a balloon?”

no strings attachedAfter co-starring in Black Swan, Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman have two separate films with identical plots – Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached. You can probably guess what happens. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher are friends who decide to regularly have sex without forming a relationship. Everything you think happens, does – the middle and end, exactly as you’d expect.

For some reason, I was hoping for something edgier, but No Strings Attached never strays from romcom formula. In fact, it overbearingly sticks to structure, particularly by having not just one, but an entire committee of quirky best friends to deliver relationship advice.

Question: Is No Strings Attached aimed at idiots?
Answer: No, but it would probably help.

It isn’t an original idea for a film, but the characters treat the idea like lightning, gasping for both reasons – on Ashton Kutcher’s father’s deathbed, he says, “Sex… friends? Friends with benefits? We can’t choose who we fall in love with.” This scene is even more ridiculous because the QBFs (quirky best friends) have been saying this the entire time.

Long term readers will know I have issues with two of the cast members, Natalie Portman and Greta Gerwig, so I’ll keep my criticisms to Ashton Kutcher – he cries less convincingly than a robot, or any household appliance. The puppeteer should have kept the strings attached.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
(1975) – 7.5/10

Director: Miloš Forman
Writers: Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, Ken Kesey (novel)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield
“He’s dangerous. I don’t think he’s crazy, but he’s dangerous.”

one flew over the cuckoo's nestIn case you don’t know the plot, Jack Nicholson fakes his way into an asylum, then finds it hard to get out. I read the Ken Kesey novel a few years ago, and that is narrated and told by someone pretending to be deaf and mute. For this reason, the emphasis on Jack Nicholson becomes clearer, and I’m not sure if it should be called a gamble, but it pays off. As you might have seen in Tim Burton’s version of Batman, Jack Nicholson (he must forever be called his full name) is an expert at playing the bridge between sane and insane – in both, his signs of craziness exhibit a greater awareness than those around him, whether that’s Nurse Ratchett or Bruce Wayne.

Speaking of bridges, the one sequence that I feel could be thrown overboard is when the patients take a fishing trip – the only scene that takes place outside the hospital. This excursion feels like a deleted scene from a DVD as it adds nothing, like a plodding comedy sketch without direction or punchlines. Elsewhere, the white walls of the hospital produce a claustrophobic atmosphere, which is what makes it so exciting when women with alcohol climb in through the window from the outside world – the outside world – the outside world – the outside world etc.

And Jack Nicholson’s eyes, full of madness with pupils that fight gravity, are the stars.

(2008) – 5/10

Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Tomoko Yamaguchi, Kazushige Nagashima, Yuki Amami
“He hates humans. He kept me in a bottle.”

ponyoWhat’s in the water? I don’t know how to explain it to you…

A five-year-old finds a sort-of-fish which turns into a sort-of-fish-human. Ponyo is strange, and not just because of the plot – it just couldn’t click, and I’m not sure why. If you’re reading this site/page, you’ll realise that I’ve recently been working my through Miyazaki’s animated films, and Ponyo is the most beautifully designed of them all – the colours, direction and drawing can’t be beaten. Yet, I felt underwhelmed.

It’s probably a personal problem. When Ponyo turns into a human, she never truly resembles one – her look is supposed to be magical, but I’m just glad it didn’t give me nightmares. Nevertheless, she passes off as a human to everyone, and it’s her wish to become one. Maybe that’s where I have issues – I’m biased because of humanity and wishing I didn’t exist.

(1979) – 7/10

Director: Franc Roddam
Writers: Franc Roddam, Dave Humphries, Martin Stellman, Pete Townshend
Starring: Phil Daniels, Mark Wingett, Leslie Ash
“You have to be different, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.”

quadropheniaPhil Daniels is a highly watchable portrayal of teenage angst – he cheers, he cries, he dances, and he plays the air drums harder than John Bonham. Quadrophenia reminds me of the first half of Out of the Blue, in that it’s about the joy of watching someone exciting walking down streets and talking back. It’s mods versus rockers, of course, but it ends up being a moderately successful advertisement for suicidal hipsters.

Roman Holiday
(1953) – 8/10

Director: William Wyler
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Starring: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn
“I don’t know how to say goodbye. I can’t think of any words.”

roman holidayI went to Rome a few years ago and it’s pretty great. So, no surprises that the city provides a fine backdrop for Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to wander in a way Before Sunset never accomplished. The story involves Hepburn as a runaway princess, while Peck does his best Cary Grant impression as a careering journalist. I guess they were short on stories in 1953, given the similarities with It Happened One Night, but Roman Holiday is less acidic – there is genuine warmth, and also no running jokes about the Wall of Jericho.

There isn’t anything cutting edge, but it’s fun and you get to see Audrey Hepburn smash a guitar over the head of a stranger.

The Romantics
(2010) – 4/10

Director/Writer: Galt Nidegerhoffer
Starring: Katie Holmes, Anna Paquin, Josh Duhamel
“I am afraid of the ocean.”

the romanticsThe opening credits provided an early warning by saying Katie Holmes was not just the star, but also an executive producer. The story is a bit wary – old friends reunite for a wedding, but also reunite a love triangle. The film is mostly forgettable, but I have to credit the bridesmaid’s excuse for stealing the groom from the bride – “As a friend, I want what is best for you.”

The Seventh Seal
(1957) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow

seventh sealThe Scott Walker song of the same name retells the story: “Anybody seen a knight pass this way/ I saw him playing with chess yesterday.” Ingmar Berman’s film is a fairly badass take on death and religion. A knight plays chess against Death in a final bid to live, while everyone else dies around him. Quite powerfully, as the plague takes yet another victim, God keeps his silence – as suffering spreads, he won’t respond to emails.

Super High Me
(2007) – 5.5/10

Director: Michael Blieden
Starring Doug Benson

super high meComedian Doug Benson saw Super Size Me, then thought it’d be funny to make a documentary called Super High Me where he continuously does marijuana for thirty days. Benson can be quite funny, but it’s a pointless exercise given that he’s usually high, anyway.

(2001) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Christina Wayne
Starring: Dominique Swain, Bijou Phillips, Mischa Barton

tartFriends don’t let friends watch Tart.

Wild at Heart
(1990) – 2.5/10

Director: David Lynch
Writers: David Lynch, Barry Gifford (novel)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe
“I do not understand this one tiny bit.”

wild at heartAfter making four very different films, David Lynch was somehow able to ‘make a David Lynch film’. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern play two lovers on the run, driving through a world of crime and violence – a ‘love conquers all’ theme copied from Blue Velvet, but embarrassingly executed. Lynch’s visual flair is still there, as is the mystery he allures, but he’s parodying himself – bizarre imagery is crudely inserted, and every clumsy idea is thrust so that you don’t have too much to think about.

The idea of two innocent lovers in a painful world is one that could work if it wasn’t for how cartoonish the pair are – their love for heavy metal is played for laughs, and they’re overacting is possibly weirder than the motifs of The Wizard of Oz that awkwardly provide punctuation. That could be the point, but this would make Wild at Heart a cynically unironic glorification of violence and misogyny. It isn’t wild, and there is no heart.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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