Film reviews 23: “Young Adult”, “War Horse”, “The Descendants”, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and 9 others…


This month: “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas”, “The Descendants”, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, “The Help”, “Hugo”, “Suspiria” (pictured above), “Terms of Endearment”, “Tiny Furniture”, “Tower Heist”, “The Vicious Kind”, “War Horse” and “Young Adult”.

This month, the average rating is 5.31/10 with film of the month being Young Adult.

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) – 4/10

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Writers: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
“Hey ladies, I’m Neil Patrick Harris. I played Carl Jenkins in Starship Troopers.”

Firstly, I can’t believe I watched a THIRD Harold and Kumar film. I also can’t believe I watched it, not in 3D or at the cinema, but on my laptop, and two months after Christmas. It glorifies in stupidity to mixed success – the jokes are rapid, as are the gimmicks with claymation, celebrity cameos and scenes shot purely for their 3D effect. It’s just a pity that it’s not as funny or smart as it thinks it is. Or maybe I’m just not festive enough to appreciate the comedy of a baby on cocaine.

The Descendants
(2012) – 6/10

Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
“You are putting lipstick on a corpse.”

When I saw The Descendants at the cinema, someone behind me called it the worst film she’d ever seen. The person in front of me applauded. I was literally in between.

Alexander Payne’s latest film should be a guaranteed winner; it follows Election and Sideways with a self-reflective loser facing a midlife crisis, showcasing George Clooney with an assured performance. When his wife falls into a coma, he has to cope with the revelation that she cheated on him – he mourns for her with a mixture of loyalty and resentment, while reconnecting with his two daughters. He has so much to say, but she lies there comatose in bed, in the middle of Hawaii’s sweltering weather. It’s the kind of storyline that can’t fail, yet does.

For all the sharp moments of comic relief, the screenplay seems unfinished. The highlights are genuinely moving, but the scenes in between drag aimlessly. After all, it’s hard to strike emotionally when some of the characters are cliched indie quirk, but of a lesser quality. There are also moments that possibly worked better in the novel, but don’t translate too well into screen, particularly an anticlimactic side-story about selling property.

Perhaps the complacency comes from the glorious suction of the setting. The film soaks itself in Hawaii, with characters walking barefoot as the ocean swoons in the background. There’s a more accomplished film somewhere underneath which could probably be found with more time spent in post-production. It’s a shame that the final scene can be so emotionally satisfying, but can’t mask a generally underwhelming experience.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(2012) – 0.5/10

Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: Eric Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer
Starring: Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Sandra Bullock
“That was the last time I spoke to him.”

The defining moment of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is when the protagonist walks over a bridge, then his internal monologue points out the metaphor. It’s fair to expect sentimentality from a film about 9/11, but the shameless attempts at emotional manipulation are nauseating.

The film follows an eleven-year-old boy called Oskar. Yes, Oskar. After his father was killed when the planes hit the Twin Towers, he rifles through the house for memories. He accidentally knocks over a vase, which has a key that says ‘Black’ attached to it. It’s typical of the film that even the smashing of the vase happens in slow motion, with the director trying to wring emotions out of the ceramic breaking into pieces.

Out of desperation, Oskar assumes this key is a message from his father. He goes to the phonebook and decides to visit the 417 people in New York with that surname. Of course, it’s sad that a boy misses his father enough to strive to such measures, but it’s even sadder that a film would base itself on such a contrived story. As you’d imagine, the people he meets teach him various lessons in life – they’re mostly vague, involve loss, and always backed with string music. A particularly egregious example is when he meets a crying woman, then asks:

Look away if you don’t want to know the twist, but it turns out that the mother knows what he’s doing. She explains, as if it’s obvious, that she pretended to think in the way her son would think, and guessed his plan to visit these 417 people. If that wasn’t far-fetched enough, she visited these people a few hours before he did, all without knowing his schedule. Yes, she allowed her eleven-year-old son to wander around New York on his own for a pointless task that does nothing other than dig even further deeper into his depression and insecurities. Not only is she a bad mother, but she’s also a badly written character.

Oskar is widely inconsistent with his moods, but, to give credit to the screenwriter, always annoying. He counts his lies, and narrates in metaphors. At one point, he crouches on the floor, whispers “I love you” to his mother under the door, then wonders to himself why she doesn’t hear him. He hints at being tested a few years ago for autism, but it’s never mentioned again, as if it’s yet another stab at emotional manipulation.

The soundtrack is like a Spotify playlist called ‘Sad violins’. In the final scene, he conquers his fear of swings at a nearby park, under swooning strings and crescendos. When the swing goes down, he remembers the sad times. When the swing goes up, he remembers the happy times. The frame freezes as he ascends on the swings, and then sad piano music plays. It’s quite simple, really. So simple, yet he repeats the basic storyline every few minutes, all without irony. Of course there’s no irony, but it also isn’t earnest. Instead, it’s hollow, contrived and the cinematic equivalent of watching someone struggle with Microsoft Word.

The Help
(2011) – 3.5/10

Director: Tate Taylor
Writers: Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Starring: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain
“You’re a good writer, Skeeter.”
“Thanks. I want to be a journalist.”

For something so mawkish and calculated, it’s a shame that the peaks have such disappointing payoffs, such as the sacking of Constantine and ‘the cake’. It’s isn’t terrible. It’s just unremarkable.

(2011) – 6/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan, Brian Selznick (novelist)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
“The movies are our special place where we could go and watch something and… we didn’t miss our Mum so much.”

The camera wanders ponderously through transparent tunnels in the first few scenes of Hugo. It’s a fairytale about a young boy who lives in a train station, and Martin Scorsese does an impressive job of using the lens to transport the viewer through the eyes of a wildly imaginative child. The shots are like a slow burning candle, absorbing the wax that drips down the side. Unfortunately, it too often feels like its lacking in purpose – beyond the magic of rediscovering early cinema, I found myself sitting impatiently, waiting for another archived clip.

Really, Hugo is Woody Allen for 11-year-olds, except one from his later period.

(1977) – 10/10

Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Thomas De Quincey (novel)
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Do you know anything about witches?”

Dario Argento’s absurdly colourful voyage into a coven of witches is a victim of its own palette. It’s a psychotic horror that’s a glorious massage for the eyes, and its peaks are unstoppable – particularly the opening scene, and any moments of terror, with a thunderous soundtrack that penetrates like rocks falling from the heavens. In between, it occasionally drags in a teasing manner that builds brightly lit tension. When it gets going, I’m struggling to remember anything more evocatively scary – and this is coming from someone who was a Viking in a former life.

Terms of Endearment
(1983) – 7/10

Director: James L. Brooks
Writers: James L. Brooks, Larry McMurtry (novel)
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito
“I want you to tell them that it ain’t so tragic. People do get better.”

With James L. Brook writing the screenplay and taking the role of director, Terms of Endearment is a fine mixture of drama and comedy. There are several strands taking place, with some plot developments that would otherwise overshadow most other films, but Brook keeps focus on the central relationship – the jagged connection between a mother and daughter, and how they live their lives.

The mother (Shirley MacLaine) struggles to cope with wildcard Jack Nicholson, an ex-astronaut looking for immediate excitement. The daughter (Debra Winger) is stuck with an accidental pregnancy and an unfaithful husband. For all the moments of light heartedness, the deft script knows how to punch your gut when you’re not ready and hit you with sadness, which is a definite accomplishment.

Tiny Furniture
(2010) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Lena Dunham
Starring: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky
“Can’t we just start again as new friends who were old friends?”

Lena Dunham is going to be a big name, and she’s probably going to be a divisive figure, if Tiny Furniture is anything to go by. She’s the screenwriter, director and main actor, so it’s unsurprising how specific and consistent her vision is presented. The largely aimless film is a comedy of uncomfortable wit, emphasising the emptiness of modern life. The walls don’t have posters, and rooms are arranged with sterile precision.

In the first few minutes, Dunham’s character describes being in a ‘postgraduate delirium’, and she meets a string of existential hipsters who find meaning through making bizarre youtube videos. She reconnects with an old friend, hilariously played by Jemima Kirke, who helps her battle a younger sister who manages to be both postmodern and passive-aggressive – she tells her older sister to stop wasting her life on a ‘speck of granola on a bowl of homemade yoghurt’.

Dunham bridges the uncomfortable gap between sadness and comedy – her insecurity lands her rock bottom, including walking in front of teenage boys in just her underwear, and a degrading sexual encounter in a pipe on the side of the road. The long, still scenes bring out an awkward drama that comes from a bizarre world of banal vulnerability and deflating mattresses.

Tower Heist
(2011) – 2/10

Director: Brett Ratner
Writers: Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda
“You’ve got Steve McQueen’s car parked in your living room?”

Back in 2005, Eddie Murphy came up with the idea of Tower Heist – he pitched it as Ocean’s Eleven with a black cast robbing Donald Trump. The version that came out last year is somehow less ambitious.

Brett Ratner directs an ensemble cast delivering half-hearted performances – Ben Stiller as a straight-man lead, Alan Alda as a tired villain, and Matthew Broderick trying an impression of Justin Long. It takes a long time to set up the plot, which is just a group of undeveloped characters stealing money from a building – except they have no trouble entering the building, and they have no obstacles. So, it’s a heist film where hardly anything can go wrong – there are even more thrills in the brief heists of Charlie’s Angels and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which is a fairly damning indictment.

One of the few redeeming parts of the film is Téa Leoni as an FBI agent, although she receives little screen time and her character is rather inconsequential. I remember seeing Leoni and Stiller together in Flirting With Disaster and thinking their chemistry was lacking, and nothing’s changed. Sometimes I feel that Leoni is what could have happened if Parker Posey wasn’t treated like the queen of Sundance.

Every scene of Tower Heist wearily plods, following its formula in autopilot. An example of how terrible the humour is when an overweight woman takes offence at someone innocently using the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’. Well, for a film about people acting just for money, it’s a fitting display of actors acting just for money.

The Vicious Kind
(2009) – 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Adam Scott, Brittan Snow, JK Simmons, Alex Frost
“Last week, I introduced myself to a tree. That’s not a joke.”

In The Vicious Kind, Adam Scott takes an untypically dramatic role as someone obsessed with his brother’s girlfriend. He shouts misogynistic abuse at her, then apologises in tears a few minutes later. So, he’s an interesting character, especially when he has a cigarette in his mouth. Unfortunately, while the film isn’t bland, it’s not engaging. It’s unconvincingly stagey scenes too often feel like an attempt to ‘make’ a film. Although, I suppose they did.

War Horse
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Steve Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Starring: A horse
“He makes mistakes and he drinks to forget his mistakes, but he never gave up.”

When critics said the main character of War Horse is a horse, I didn’t realise they meant it literally. Over 146 minutes, a horse passes from owner to owner amidst World War I, galloping past rich backgrounds and lost sunsets, occasionally pausing to say, “Neigh.” It’s admirable that Spielberg has directed what is arguably a plotless film, but what’s really impressive is that he makes it oddly moving – this is despite all the characters being either forgettable or a horse.

Perhaps it isn’t too surprising that you end up caring more about the animals than the humans. While all the violence occurs around the horse, you notice how nature continues during human warfare. Noticeably, the richest scene concerns an English soldier and a German soldier (from opposing trenches) meeting halfway in No Man’s Land to rescue a horse trapped in barbed wire.

Perhaps Extremely Loud and Incredible Close could be improved by having a nine-year-old foal wandering through New York City.

Young Adult
(2012) – 8.5/10

Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson
“I think this song was playing the first time I went down on you.”

The opening of Young Adult is almost a parody of Scarlett Johansson’s introduction in Lost in Translation. The camera pans on Charlize Theron, hungover and slumped headfirst on her bed as morning seeps through the curtains. She’s divorced, an alcoholic and depressed – she isn’t too embarrassed to drink Coca Cola straight out of a 2 litre bottle in public. However, her inertia is irked when she receives an email with a photo of a newborn son of her old boyfriend from high school. It’s an early sign of the character’s intentional dislikeability that she uses this news as an impetus to return to her hometown and win back her old boyfriend.

The tragedy of Theron’s character is how closely she clings to her childhood, an era when she was prom queen and won an award for ‘best hair’. It was an age when social hierarchy placed her unequivocally at the top. Twenty years later, she ghostwrites young adult fiction and listens to mixtapes from her old highschool boyfriend – during the opening credits, she listens four times to the first verse of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘The Concept’. I like the song too, but it’s a sign of her escalating desperation – at first it’s funny, but it just becomes sad.

By chance, Theron bumps into someone from school who didn’t have such a good time. The character, played by Patton Oswalt, is still crippled from an incident at school where he was severely beaten up for being gay – the media attention vanished after the news that he wasn’t actually gay meant it technically wasn’t a hate crime. Theron’s selfish nature means that not only does she not feel guilty for being one of the people instigating the rumours he was gay, but she even says he should feel grateful he missed six months of school – the humour is deliciously dark.

Even worse is that Theron can’t see how much harder Oswalt has found life. Instead, she focuses on herself, even prepared to ruin a family to win back her ex-boyfriend. The process involves living in a hotel to hide from her mother, and using Oswalt’s generous company to fuel her alcoholism and loneliness. In one of the film’s most heart wrenching moments, he tells her, “Guys like me were born loving women like you.”

You’d never guess that Young Adult was from the same writer and director team as 2007’s Juno. Just five years later, Diablo Cody’s writing has certainly matured – although I enjoyed Juno and thought Jennifer’s Body was passable, there’s no “my eggo is preggo” or “honest to blog” clunkers. Instead, the dialogue, as well as Jason Reitman’s direction, is more slight – Oswalt tells Theron, “You’re a piece of shit,” and they clink glasses.

Buddy: “Mavis, I’m a married man.”
Mavis: “I know. We can beat this thing together.”

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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