Film reviews 20: “Midnight in Paris”, “The Tree of Life”, “The Ides of March”, and 9 others…

inland empire2

This month: “American Splendor”, “Bad Teacher”, “Chalet Girl”, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, “Horrible Bosses”, “The Ides of March”, “Inland Empire” (pictured above), “Lost Highway”, “Melancholia”, “Midnight in Paris”, “The Tree of Life” and “Undertow”

This month, the average rating is 6.08/10, with film of the month being Melancholia. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

American Splendor (2003) – 7.5/10

Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writers: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar (book), Joyce Brabner (book)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander

I’ve never read Harvey Pekar’s comics. After watching American Splendor, a biography of his life, I instead went to Youtube for clips of his David Letterman appearances. Pekar laid out his life in his writing, yet never stopped his hospital day job; he takes offence when Letterman suggests he can’t welcome fame because it would end his comic. It’s a fascinating limbo to be stuck in, halfway between a daily drudgery and the ticket to just off the cliff.

As a film of Pekar making a comic about himself, there’s enough analysis as it is, but it mixes actors with the real people they’re portraying. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The interspersing of Paul Giamatti and the real Harvey Pekar exaggerates the fear that an autobiographical writer sacrifices his life by becoming a character, whether on Letterman or day-to-day business. The cameras remain still, taking in the silence of the walls, trying to find a crack in the panels.

Bad Teacher (2011) – 3/10

Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
“I could totally go for a walk right now.”

Everyone’s seen more Cameron Diaz films than they realise. I’ve seen eighteen. Yet, has anyone ever watched a film FOR Cameron Diaz? Despite its short length, Bad Teacher is as tired as the idea that Cameron Diaz can still carry a film.

Diaz plays a ‘bad teacher’ surrounded by loosely distinctive characters who share no chemistry. Disappointingly, the best line is, “I want to sit on his face,” and it doesn’t pick up until the last fifteen minutes by rising to a low level of mediocrity.

Chalet Girl (2011) – 3/10

Director: Phil Traill
Writer: Tom Williams
Starring: Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Tamsin Egerton, Ken Duken
Things I can’t digest: cellulose and Chalet Girl.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 5.5/10

Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone
“Fuck. Seriously? It’s as if you’re photoshopped.”

A few coincidences can go a long way, but Crazy, Stupid, Love takes it a bit too far. The partially apt title reflects a savvy take on film clichés without being particularly daring, but hitting the right spots, even if the disjointed timeline is covered by the fingerprints of script doctors. Let’s get out of here.

(2011) – 7/10

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Hossein Amini, James Sallis (novel)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks
“I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”


Ryan Gosling saunters through a supermarket aisle like a car, snaking past a row of breakfast cereal, heading towards the fresh fruit.

Horrible Bosses (2011) – 4.5/10

Director: Seth Gorrdon
Writers: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley
Starring: Charlie Day, Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston
“Mr Motherfucker, please don’t shoot us – let’s just talk it out.”

Instead of a review, I have written a poem:

Bland, bland, bland, boss, boss, boss, Jamie Foxx.
Poorly edited – shots don’t match up,
And you can see where dialogue was cut.
The actors carry the film, like a tortoise
Doing work experience at a film
Studio. Forced, but watchable,
Like the QVC shopping channel.

The Ides of March (2011) – 7/10

Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon (novel)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The opening of The Ides of March glorifies posters and banners. Signs are everywhere, carrying slogans and political opinions abbreviated into three words. George Clooney is not only the film’s director and co-writer, but plays a Democrat presidential candidate spouting liberalisms like a student protestor trying marijuana for the first time. Clooney’s character’s campaign is plotted behind the scenes by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling – it makes you wonder if Hoffman and Gosling secretly did the writing and directing for The Ides of March.

Surprisingly, there’s no obvious “good Democrat versus evil Republican” storyline, but just Democrat infighting and backstabbing – who else will know how to drop eco-friendly sentences into speeches attacking capital punishment? Paul Giamatti attempts to lure Gosling into another Democrat’s campaign with Machiavellian intentions – it’s a cynical angle, but neither biting nor acidic. Perhaps if Clooney was less intent on twisting Hollywood conventions and let loose on Republicans, he wouldn’t feel so restrained. He still manages; it’s slick, smart and engaging, even if ultimately underwhelming. The world of politics is painted with dark colours – enjoyably dark colours.

Gosling drives around, has sex with a younger woman, yet this isn’t Drive. No, it’s about broken promises and no way near as political as advertising suggests. It’s a soap opera crafted to fit a mainstream film structure, with some digestible politics sprinkled now and then, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Inland Empire (2006) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: David Lynch
Starring: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
“I’ve been hypnotised. Or something.”

If Inland Empire turns out to be David Lynch’s final film, it’s a fitting conclusion. Over its spiralling 179 minutes, it’s the most “David Lynch”, by which I mean the surreal interludes never stop, even continuing through the end credits. Like the feedback that runs through the Wilco song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, an unseen threat is always present in Inland Empire. It’s possibly because Lynch uses digital video instead of film; often when someone speaks, the camera goes out of focus, or it zooms in on a face for too long with a shot that’d be rejected as a passport photo.

There are some moments that really drag, but this essentially makes the surreal sequences that more memorable, even if it isn’t always a pleasurable experience. Still, there’s a thrill in really not knowing what’s coming next, as you could be watching a woman under interrogation saying she was ‘hypnotised or something’ into killing with a screwdriver, and the next scene is a family of rabbits performing a sitcom, followed by prostitutes who suddenly turn into choreographed pop dancers. I don’t know where Lynch wants to go next, or if he wants to live here forever.

Lost Highway (1997) – 8.5/10

Director: David Lynch
Writers: David Lynch, Barry Gifford
Starring: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty
“I haven’t been feeling too good.”

It took two viewings until I finally understood Lost Highway, or, at least, understood how I felt about it. The first hour is possibly my favourite section of a film by David Lynch, with Bill Pullman wondering who keeps sending anonymous brown parcels with a videotape inside – the video is of him sleeping in his bedroom.

It gets stranger, and Pullman looks as if he’s shrinking and a few seconds from disappearing; he recoils and jumps under the blanket as if part of a magician’s vanishing act. It may be a clue or a red herring, but he hates video cameras, preferring to remember things his own way, rather than the way it happened – this leads to an extraordinary twist in how to relive your life without guilt, without memory, until a lightning bolt reminds you of an electric chair.

Melancholia (2011) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Chalotte Gainsbourg
“Don’t nap. It’s your wedding. You’re not even halfway through yet.”

Is Kirsten Dunst shooting electricity from her fingers the greatest twenty seconds in the history of cinema? Possibly, but probably not. After all, Melancholia begins with its climax – the end of the world.

After that opening, modernity is put into perspective. When a castle holds a wedding, you wonder why they bother talking about PR salaries, let alone the ceremony, especially when a planet called Melancholia is approaching. The idea perpetrated by Lars von Trier is that a depressive is at peace with the end of the world, welcoming the flames of an incoming planet. It’s depression versus anxiety, and they’re both riding horses.

In the last few hours before Earth’s destruction, even a peaceful shot of running water is ruined by the camera slightly shaking. Dunst’s blank face is a mystery, yet everything you need to know; it’s her best performance since The Virgin Suicides (or Crazy/Beautiful if we’re revealing secrets). The sci-fi concept enables von Trier to pinpoint melancholia as an emotion, and it’s everywhere – when abstract art makes sense, when a planet draws a naked body, and when breakfast tastes like ashes. It’s also a reminder that the end of the world will be slow, painful and a bit like the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3.

Midnight in Paris (2011) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams
“I’m jealous and I’m trusting. It’s cognitive dissonance. Scott Fitzgerald talked about it. You can fool me, but you cannot fool Hemmingway.”

You can’t take New York out of the New Yorker, even if you stick him in Paris and introduce elements of time travel. Owen Wilson takes the main role in the style of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, finding a Parisian time tunnel that transports back to the 1920s, away from modern anxieties like global warming and Rachel McAdams.

Owen Wilson speaks like a Beat poet, so it doesn’t seem so contrived when he gets lost and drinks wine with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and the Fitzgeralds. The film’s concept may be a little irksome, but where else can you see a fanboy tell TS Eliot, “Prufrock’s like my mantra!” or Ernest Hemmingway as a great comic character: “If you’re a writer, you must declare yourself the best!”

Crucially, Midnight in Paris benefits from its European setting, whereas Allen’s other attempts have noticeably missed a New York spark. In fact, the peaceful tempo suits the whimsical conceit – unlike other ciphers, Owen Wilson channels Allen’s personality without over-reliance on a stammer or fake anxiety. Sometimes I get so anxious that I crawl into a ball in my bedroom until the sun goes down and I can’t remember if the curtains are open or closed.

The Tree of Life (2011) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, a running philosophy

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has been dividing critics like a semi-denominatable fraction, with its defenders calling it ambitious, but is it really? It’s long, plotless and has dinosaurs, but ambitious? There are some beautiful images, but nothing particularly haunting – more soothing. Even the best moments (the evolution of Earth, with the asteroid and dinosaurs) is fake David Attenborough.

A woman whispers, “Lord, where were you?” while the screen replies with what looks like the default visualisations you get with Windows Media Player. After half-an-hour, I didn’t know if this was a work of art, or just some computer screensavers set to opera. Can you get screensavers where Brad Pitt says something now and then?

I couldn’t say I was enthralled, but I wasn’t bored; the camera’s always moving, and you don’t know what to expect. It’s a bit like the lyrics of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”, with water running through confusion. At one point, the mother reads out the last line of a children’s book: “…admiring his beautiful new coat.” So, maybe Malick does have a sense of humour.

Undertow (2004) – 4/10

Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Joe Conway, Lingard Jervey, David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Devon Alan

After the one-two punch of George Washington and All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green plays a thriller like a poetic fairytale, except it’s over-the-top, overwrought and over far too late – or, as I like to call it: Overtow. David Gordon Green’s best work has always been about inert characters over-emoting while the world moves around them, such as Eastbound & Down’s slow conversations in fast cars; Undertow goes the other direction, with ridiculous action located in a dead forest, and I feel like one of those trees, dead and watching everything.

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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