Film reviews 21: “50/50″, “Another Earth”, “Friends With Benefits”, “My Week With Marilyn” and 14 others…


This month: “27 Dresses”, “30 Minutes or Less”, “50/50”, “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy”, “All the Real Girls”, “Another Earth” (pictured above), “Citizen Kane”, “Contagion”, “Dig!”, “The Fighter”, “Friends With Benefits”, “The Future”, “Like Crazy”, “Man on Wire”, “My Week With Marilyn”, “Our Idiot Brother”, “The September Issue” and “Sleeping Beauty”.

This month, the average rating is 6.0/10 with film of the month being All the Real Girls. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

27 Dresses (2008) – 4/10

Director: Anne Fletcher
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna
Starring: Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Malin Akerman, Edward Burns

In defence of 27 Dresses: it isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen. It sticks with its absurd premise of someone being a bridesmaid for 27 weddings, and the cast never let slip their disappointment with the script. Still, it’s an unambitious film about the tragedy of living alone in a Manhattan apartment, complete with continuity errors when the protagonist changes her hair each scene.

30 Minutes or Less (2011) – 2.5/10

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Michael Diliberti
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson
“That vest is packed with C4. The C is for chaos.”

Maybe I’m paranoid, but ever since Judd Apatow found fame, many mainstream comedy films are becoming increasingly more focused on the cast than the script. The cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, all directed by the guy who did Zombieland. The plot: A pizza boy has a bomb strapped to him and is forced to rob a bank.

What were the production meetings like?

A: But the script isn’t funny.
B: Don’t worry. We’ll use improvisation. They’re comedians.
A: Jesse Eisenberg isn’t.
B: Don’t worry. We’ll play him out of character. The audience will see the humour in that.
A: Nick Swardson isn’t funny.
B: He’s a big name.
A: His latest film Bucky Larson scored 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and flopped at the cinemas.
B: There’ll be car chases and explosions.
A: It sounds unrealistic.
B: Actually, it’s based on a true story. When it really happened, the bomb detonated and he died.
A: It sounds like it was all done in quite bad taste.
B: All while not sticking to source material.

50/50 (2011) – 7.5/10

Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
“50/50? If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are best friends. Not in real life, but in a film. When Levitt is diagnosed with cancer, it’s up to Rogen to support his friend, which he does by spying on his girlfriend. In response, Levitt makes fun of Rogen’s annoying laugh.

Although 50/50 is based on the writer’s experiences, many elements feel tacked on to commit to film structure. While the maturely handled humour around the dark topic works, some elements don’t: the clichéd moody girlfriend, the inevitable moment the friendship falls apart at the start of the third act, the predictable point the friendship glues itself together ten minutes later, and the romance with Anna Kendrick as a quirky doctor. It’s the little bits in between that are compelling, mainly because it’s rare for the subject of cancer to be handled in film with humour, perspective and little schmaltz.

The bleak optimism of 50/50 is that everyone needs to handle tragedy in their own way. Well, that’s what I gathered from the film. Levitt is practically a straight man while everyone around him falls apart or, more importantly, doesn’t. There’s the overbearing mother. There’s the pithy girlfriend who feels too guilty to dump him. There’s the caring best friend who also wants to use his friend’s illness to get laid via sympathy. There’s the terror of knowing your life could be shortened by chance, yet it manages to wrangle humour from Levitt discovering he’s been sent to a training hospital – he’s Anna Kendrick’s third patient, and she informs him, “I might be using this for my dissertation.”
It’s very dark and very funny.

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011) – 3/10

Directors/Writers: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck
Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie bibb, Lake bell, Nick Kroll
“So out of the four dudes involved, I don’t even rank in the top two?”

It has a funny title. The screenplay is by ex-writers of The Larry Sanders Show. The cast has the likes of Jason Sudeikis, Lake Bell, Martin Starr and the person who played Valerie in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. So what went wrong?

The script is lazy. The storyline is that a group of friends decide to have an orgy, but the writers never attempt anything innovative – it’s structured to fit in punchlines that never occur, and it ends up curiously empty. The first half of the film is the writers trying to convince themselves that this is a plausible plot line – if they can’t convince themselves, how can they convince the viewer?

All the Real Girls (2003) – 9.5/10

Director/Writer: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Patricia Clarkson
“Sometimes I pretend we only have ten seconds to live.”

Somewhere on this site, I claimed in my review of George Washington that the ‘emotionally confused characters of All the Real Girls strangle the film’ – I rewatched and I was wrong, and what does that sentence even mean, anyway? (And, yes, I googled myself to find that). Now I’ve seen all of David Gordon Green’s films, I get his game: behind the watercolour montages, each shot is a meditative metaphor, as everything moves apart from the characters. The main characters will never leave each other, no matter how hard they try, and they never know what so say – it’s both scripted and real, with a background show of speeding trains and birds, with even the clouds moving faster than Paul Schneider’s voice.

Will All the Real Girls become David Gordon Green’s Days of Heaven? It’s a bit of a trite claim, but I’ve put the idea in your head, reader. I’m sure one scene takes place at night for the sole reason of having a bright fire in the flame, eventually replaced by a lit end of a cigarette. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, like Paul Schenider literally punching the ground, but that scene fades into an elegant three minute sequence of time passing and factories producing labour to the sounds of Mogwai.

Another Earth (2011) – 8/10

Director: Mike Cahill
Writers: Mike Cahill, Brit Marling
“He realised the only way to save his sanity is to fall in love with this sound.”

When Brit Marling drives home from a party, she notices a blue sparkle in the sky – a bauble that looks like another planet, synchronising with her reality, like two friends finishing each other’s sentences. This lapse in concentration leads to a crash and four years in prison, although this is a sentence nobody finishes for her. Upon release, she finds the man whose family she killed in the accident, and offers her services as a cleaner. (It’s a metaphor.)

The existence of the unimaginatively named Earth 2 makes the characters ask questions like ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not a better name for a planet?’ It also hangs there, like a sunset that won’t go away. Beyond the teenage angst and clippy directorial tricks, there’s a surprisingly moving story about trying to hear violins instead of guilt.

Citizen Kane (1941) – 8.5/10

Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph cotten, Dorothy Comingore
“I have money and power. If I don’t look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe someone else will – someone without money and property.”

A glorious biopic of a man who had everything, then lost it. A bit like me – I had something, and then I kinda lost it. But, really, every shot in Citizen Kane is aware of its greatness – whether stooping high over  a disowned art collection, or a close-up of a man clapping an opera singer out of guilt. Orson Welles astounds as a media mogul driven to loneliness, foreshadowing his own career – the camera captures every combative shudder of doubt and clarity, meditating at the collapse of self-inflicted grandiose as a concept, character and film.

Contagion (2011) – 7/10

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne
“We’re isolating the sick.”

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is a frightening glimpse into a deathly virus that spreads across the globe faster than vaccines can be produced. It means a lottery is televised so the public knows who will have a chance to live. It’s also a case of journalists versus biological warfare, which is something I know far too much about.

The films use various subplots – none particularly stand out, but each includes a well known actor, which is a bit of a consolation. There’s Matt Damon who must protect his daughter from touching her boyfriend in case she becomes infected. (It isn’t a zombie film.) There’s Jude Law, a blogger who fakes an illness and recovery to boost the sales of a drug. And there’s Gwyneth Paltrow who just dies, slowly and painfully, in the way that only she can, or at least you want her to. As the virus spreads, society crumbles, but you wonder if perhaps the film loses focus having too many extraneous characters.

Dig! (2004) – 7.5/10

Director: Ondie Timoner
Starring Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor
“I’ve never seen them eat. All I’ve seen them do is drink liquor and snort drugs.”

In 1993, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre were two bands starting out, dissipating at the idea of a major label. They began as best friends, then became bitter rivals; The Dandy Warhols gradually sold out until they could peak as one-hit wonders, but Dig! focuses on the hilariously pathetic narrative created by The Brian Jonestown Massacre and their frontman, Anton Newcombe.

From early on, it’s clear that Dig! will shine a torch on Anton’s self-destruction. Footage of an early BJM gig shows him stopping a song and telling a band member to leave the stage because he played a wrong note – a catalyst for a fist fight and an illuminating shot of a petulant singer dragged onto the streets by security. His girlfriend dumps him, explaining, “Heroin makes him evil.”

One flaw within Dig! is that neither band is that good. Yes, BMJ lost out on the mainstream because of Anton’s anti-commercial behaviour, but they were never going to become bigger than, say, The Dandy Warhols. And, even then, seeing a mediocre band just through hoops to make it not-that-big, you understand Anton’s frustration and jealousy.

The Fighter (2011) – 7/10

Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
“Stop calling me an MTV girl. I don’t even know what the fuck that means.”

After a six-year absence, David O. Russell returned with The Fighter, having learned two lessons from I Heart Huckabees: be more patient with the characters, and let someone else write the screenplay. If you remember the ridiculous character developments of Russell’s earliest efforts, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, you appreciate the simplicity of The Fighter – a family drama about “heart”, loyalty and using sport as a distraction for the pointlessness of life.

Mark Walhberg excels in the lead role as a boxer trying to please himself, his girlfriend, his brother and his mother. The supporting cast are exemplary, with Christian Bale in particular as a boxer whose career was ruined by cocaine addiction; he jitters so palely and convincingly that it’s almost frightening – almost, not quite, or else it would be called The Frighter. No, what is frightening is that the role was originally for Matt Damon, who had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. (Which is odd because I envisage Mark Walhberg as a Matt Damon who can act.)

I sometimes forget boxing is a real thing that happens, and that strengthens the emotional intricacies of The Fighter. The generation gaps make you wonder what will happen to these characters and yourselves, or did you miss the boat? Oh, the boat. Anyway, Bale forever talks about a fight he won in his peak, rather like how I talk about the time RL Stine tweeted that he was scared of me, and it’s sad – he lives through his brother, but so does every other character in the film, whether as an agent, relative or spectator.  It’s a simple truth, deftly told with terrific performances.

Friends With Benefits (2011) – 5/10

Director: Will Gluck
Writers: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis
“Just a friend going down on another friend…”

The message is that all men are bastards, apart from your “fuck buddy” who just so happens to be Justin Timberlake. The other piece of advice comes from Justin’s father: “Life is goddamn short, and you’ve got to make the most of it.” It leads up to Justin’s declaration of love to Mila Kunis that when something happens to him, he can’t wait to tell her – that’s not love, that’s a blogger talking about how they love writing for their audience.

The Future (2011) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Miranda July
Starring: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater
“I don’t know anything. I’m just a rock in the sky.”

I never understood the appeal of Miranda July’s first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. That’s not the case with The Future, but I just don’t understand it. It’s narrated by a dead cat with a computerised voice, and that’s the part to me that makes the most sense. The central couple have their own problems – she judges people by the sound of their footsteps, while he tries to freeze time by sitting as still as possible.

There are moments when it’s weary, but it’s often beautiful – the shifting of the moon over an argument on structural formula on what is okay and what is not okay. It is okay.

Like Crazy (2011) – 5/10

Director: Drake Doremus
Writers: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones
“We should be with each other and I feel it so strongly and I feel, like, er….”

Hooray, it’s that guy from Middle of Nowhere and the eponymous star of Chalet Girl. No, I’m being unfair. There’s a lot of potential with Like Crazy, mainly because there’s nothing there – boy meets girl, girl doesn’t have valid passport, then they miss each other. The ensuing musical montages are clichéd and uninspiring, even when they’re interrupting the ineffective shaky camera.

Still, Like Crazy works but it’s so downtrodden. The actors are reasonable enough, and they do make you feel sad, even when they’re just checking the mail. But that can’t hide the short clips of a whimsical line or a snapshot quote of something a teenager would write in their diary, or the irritating looks out of a window while the soundtrack weakly strokes your shoulder. This is a film deliberately aiming itself at girls with tumblrs.

Man on Wire (2008) – 7/10

Director: James Marsh
“My story is a fairytale.”

In 1974, Philippe Petit walked the line between death and being immortalised in a documentary. Man on Wire uses archived footage and reimaginations of when he spent 45 minutes tightrope ‘dancing’ between the Twin Towers. He called it the challenge of doing the impossible, for it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s beautiful, and it’s giving something to someone. Maybe, but I’m not sure if you want to hear about it for 90 minutes.

The direction is jumpy and creative, which this kind of documentary needs, with some of the footage looking like a scene from Paris, Texas, with wispy, mournful music breezing in the background. Even when it begins to tire, there’s still something breathtaking when you see the photos of a man standing on a wire that high above the ground, looking down upon a crowd of onlookers, laughing to himself. Deep inside, he grabs the moment, whispering under his breath the immortal word: “Lol.”

My Week With Marilyn (2011) – 4/10

Director: Simon Curtis
Writer: Adrian Hodges, Colin Clark (book)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh
“In a while, crocodile.”

I can’t say Marilyn Monroe means that much to me. Still, My Week With Marilyn makes little effort to change my mind. It follows a few days she spent filming in England, while having a brief love affair with a nobody (played in the film by a nobody). The love story is unconvincing and a bit like Twilight with the genders reversed.

Emma Watson provides much needed comic relief, even if unintentionally, and her screen time reminds me of Me and Orson Welles, a far superior take on the same story. Perhaps My Week With Marilyn could have been more like a monster movie, saving up Marilyn Monroe’s appearance until later in the film. Instead, she is demystified with mundane dialogue punctuated with clunky philosophical quotes. I much preferred my 30 seconds on Marilyn’s wikipedia page.

Our Idiot Brother (2011) – 6/10

Director: Jesse Peretz
Writers: Evgenia Peretz, David Schisgall
Starring: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Adam Scott
“Trust me, man – I’ve been other candles.”

The cast for Our Idiot Brother is illustrious, but of what? It centres around a large family and their friends, but the size is possibly to accommodate the impressive cast: Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, Katie Aselton, TJ Miller and Adam Scott. And what message does the film radiate? That Paul Rudd has a beard and Zooey Deschanel’s hair is longer than you remember. It’s a collection of loosely performed laidback scenes with an amusingly contrived storyline that allows each star an opportunity to laugh, cry, stare into the abyss, and redeem themself.

The actors’ chemistry has its potential only lightly touched upon, like a deft, independent feather; many scenes successfully emulate a rehearsal before a truly great film. So, yes, I suspected the filming was rushed, especially from the zigzag editing between scenes and the difficulties of bringing together such a zeitgest cast without a Hollywood budget. And wikipedia proved me right, with a producer boasting a cut of the film was done less than a year after he first saw the script.

What if your potential was like a polar cap, melting and disappearing as time passes?

The September Issue (2009) – 4/10

Director: R.J. Cutler
“It’s very teethy. And there’s a double filing. But we’re going to fix that.”

Vogue magazine contains staples, and is also one. The September Issue is a behind-the-page documentary following how an issue of Vogue is put together. In the office, they drink bottles of water and pretend the camera isn’t there. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief, is frightening, but more in the way you’re scared of heights, rather than the fear that you’re wasting your life.

A power struggle ensues. The hero is Grace Coddington, the creative editor who battles the “skinny skinny” image of models, must pitch her ideas – Anna Wintour stands in the way. There is a tense moment in a lift, but it’s ruined when Grace accidentally looks into the camera.

It’s moments like this that made it hard for me to enjoy The September Issue. It isn’t that I don’t read fashion magazines, but the documentary doesn’t appeal to non-readers – the participants are too guarded, and the documentary makes no attempt to zoom in. When Grace says she wants a certain image to be blurred and that it’s a shame that readers want things pin-sharp, I wondered why The September Issue was neither.

Sleeping Beauty (2011) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Julia Leigh
Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
“Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina is a temple.”

Scene one: Emily Browning tests her gag reflex in a medical laboratory.
Scene two: Emily Browning works her shift at a café.
Scene three: Emily Browning snorts cocaine.
Scene four: Two men tell Emily Browning: “We were just arguing over which one of us is going to fuck you.”

This scene pattern continues for the rest of Sleeping Beauty, a cold mystery film about a passive sex worker. It begins as a wooden thriller, and the tension is killed when you realise how little the plot matters – this wouldn’t be such a problem if you believed the central character wasn’t such a caricature.

There are instances of unintentionally laugh-out-loud symbolism – she sets her prostitution money on fire like an Olympic torch, holding it in the air so that the metaphor burns itself into your retina.

But it works. The eerie atmosphere is maintained well, especially as the film gets more disturbing. The film’s central premise is that Browning can earn more money by allowing her drugged up body to be used by old men to fulfil their sexual desires, and there are some truly disgusting shots – a minute is spent with a close-up of her face being licked by a man who looks like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Much of the dialogue is delivered like text-to-speech computer software, and I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but it certainly creates a nightmarish mood. You could say that the blandness becomes hypnotic. Yes, the film has faults, but the faults are impressively consistent.

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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3 Responses to Film reviews 21: “50/50″, “Another Earth”, “Friends With Benefits”, “My Week With Marilyn” and 14 others…

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