Film reviews 24: “The Muppets”, “Carnage”, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and 11 others…

ninotchka

This month: “8½”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Carnage”, “In Time”, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, “Mean Streets”, “The Muppets”, “Ninotchka” (pictured above), “Persona”, “Raging Bull”, “Run Fatboy Run”, “The Sitter”, “To Be or Not to Be” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse”.

This month, the average rating is 6.14/10 with film of the month being . Follow @halfacanyon for more.

(1963) – 8½/10

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee
“Everybody’s waiting to get you. You don’t have many friends now.”

A perspicacious viewer might guess that Federico Fellini is sending a clear message when he makes a film called (as he had just made six full-lengths, two shorts, and co-directed one), with it also being about a director making a film. Except the message isn’t clear, as it darts from reality to a film-within-a-film via dream sequences – a mixture of Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz, where Emerald City is black-and-white and a woman in a bed can turn into a photograph on a pillow. The abstract nature is further imposed with Fellini’s procedure of writing dialogue and redubbing in post-production, meaning that the audio often doesn’t match up, which is even more confusing when watching with English subtitles.

The tortured protagonist is Guido (Marcellow Mastroianni), a director under pressure to deliver a film that appeals to both audiences and critics – and yes, I do mean to call him a tortured protagonist, as Fellini desperately immerses you into the suffering of a man who has all the artistic potential on his side, but no story to tell. Perhaps, like Fellini himself when making , Guido accepts that the film he’s making is a ‘chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism.’

Guido wants to make a sci-fi film, but isn’t sure why and panics when he sees the film crew building a large spaceship on the beach. His thoughts are vaguely autobiographical, if that’s possible – he has visions of the troubled relationships with the women in his life, which become interspersed with memories of childhood and overtly physical metaphors of guilt. In one scene, he is bathed by several beautiful actresses vying for a part in a film that may or may not exist, but revolt when they find someone in the room who is ‘too old’ and must ‘go upstairs’ – for a while, you’re not sure how much is real, and even when it turns into a surreal nightmare, it’s still unclear as they all clap before sitting at the table to discuss what happened.

The mixture of realities corresponds with a theme of travelling – they drive around in circles, or are stuck in traffic examining the neighbours (in the opening scene that’s been imitated in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and REM’s video for ‘Everybody Hurts’). Even the hotel Guido stays in is called The Railroad. So it seems that 8 ½ is a journey itself, and you even wonder if the barely built spaceship on the set will take off. When Guido says he wants to make a film to bury what’s dead inside him, he laments his lack of courage to bury anything. While that’s probably Fellini communicating his own concerns, he isolates the blankness of a filmmaker’s life – down to its essence, the dream sequences acquiesce smoothly with reality without ever seeming gratuitous. It may be indulgent, but it’s also focused surrealism fleshed out with humour and drama that demands to be rewatched several times.


Bonnie and Clyde
(1967) – 7/10

Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: David Newman, Robert Benton
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway
“I’m writing a poem about us.”

The cinematic retelling of the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story came three decades after the real life couple had their crime sprees regularly reported in the newspapers – the publication of Bonnie’s poetry should have suggested at the time they were worthy of a film. So you have Warren Beatty as Clyde, a handsome car thief – charming and enough of a thrill to entice Bonnie, a dazed waitress played by Faye Dunaway. Together, they move from petty thefts to robbing banks, while the camera romanticises their spontaneous relationship.

Even with the violence and carelessness of the couple’s  brutality, their bond is what takes centre stage – Bonnie and Clyde expands on the myth by humanising their actions and drawing the viewer into fantasy. And you get caught up in the journey, with it being no coincidence how heavily cars feature in almost every scene. The disappointment is that there could perhaps be more focus on the central pair – they dominate the film, but it’s still a wasted moment whenever the camera faces away.

The litmus test for Bonnie and Clyde is that beyond the violence, even when an innocent man is shot in the head, the bloodshed barely registers – yet, there’s also no sense of gratuity or strides toward shock value. Instead, it’s an intriguing love story that possibly peaks when Bonnie reads Clyde poetry in a parked car, stationary in the rain, away from onlookers, and she says: “I’m writing a poem about us.”


Carnage
(2012) – 3.5/10

Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza (play)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly
“My wife dresses me up as a liberal, but the fact of the matter is I’ve got no patience for this touchy-feely bullshit.”

In Carnage, two sets of parents argue over a fight between their children. These parents are played by Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster – perhaps their children were fighting over whose parents were better actors? But, in addition to an impressive cast, Roman Polanski takes directorial duties, and it’s all based on God of Carnage, an award-winning play. So what went wrong?

Apart from the bookending scenes, the entirety of Carnage is inside the same Brooklyn flat, all in real time – yet you never feel claustrophobic. Remarkably, this is a fault of Polanski, a director once famed for the nightmarish horrors of being alone in your flat (Repulsion), having neighbours conspiring against you (The Tenant) and living next-door to Satanists (Rosemary’s Baby). Instead, Carnage can’t even maintain the minimum requirements of having a tense drama with a modicum of uneasiness.

Although I haven’t seen the play, there doesn’t seem to be much effort to adapt the script for a cinema audience. This wouldn’t be such a problem if Carnage wasn’t so short – its bizarre rhythm means the time frame borders on nonsensical. For instance, when Kate Winslet says, “This is the worst day of my life,” you’re acutely aware that only an hour has passed. The tone shift of their relationships if reliant on a small glass of alcohol they each consume, which ends up working at a speed which can only be explained by film running times – compare this with the 1966 version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is a memorable adaptation of a boozy argument between two couples, made even more traumatic by its exhausting length, all of which makes Carnage seem tame and dull in comparison.


In Time
(2011) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Justine Timberlake, Cillian Murphy
“Four minutes for a cup of coffee?”

I had early doubts with In Time when I noticed it was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the man also responsible for 2002’s S1m0ne, a film so awful that not even Al Pacino, Winona Ryder or Catherine Keener could save it. Like S1m0ne, Niccols introduces a bizarre scenario with In Time then runs it to the ground.

The premise of In Time has promise. It’s set in the future where time has overtaken money as the currency. Once you hit 25, you have a certain amount of time to live. This means that hypothetically the rich can live forever, just as long as they maintain their investments. Unfortunately, the idea is stretched further than its malleability, and the clunky metaphor for capitalism seems clunkier than a heavy suitcase full of chipped clogs.

Justin Timberlake is the man who fights for the idea that there’s enough time for everyone to live. Yet, as fun as the first act is, it’s hard to maintain interest when there are so many plot holes and ridiculous twists that usually involve somebody taking one second too long to reach a certain point.

Please put me in the timezone that has a better version.


Martha Marcy May Marlene
(2011) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
“Just because we’re sisters doesn’t mean we have to talk about everything that comes into your head.”

Hey, did you know I’m the lesser-known Olsen brother?

Anyway, Elizabeth Olsen, also known as the one who isn’t a twin, is remarkable as Martha, someone escaping from a cult. After disappearing for two years, Martha phones her sister (Sarah Poulsen) without explaining her past. She has to adapt to her new, domestic surroundings, but is haunted by nightmares that the cult have followed her.

In Martha’s new life, she’s a free spirit unable to adapt from the rigid laws of her past into the unspoken rules of middle-class etiquette. Her new life is represented by how she no longer has a phone, walks around aloof, and is desperate to swim naked – a cliche that, to the film’s credit, is surprisingly effective when deployed. The film’s uneasy tone is complemented by how its structure is punctuated with flashbacks of life in the cult – men eat their meals while women wait, they burgle houses, as well as hints of orgies and using drugs to rape girls.

This isn’t Sliding Doors – there’s no haircut to let you know if you’re watching the past or present – which intensifies Martha’s paranoia. There’s one scene when she dives into the water, and it’s so claustrophobic that it’s as if you’re drowning, wanting it all to end. So, a similar reaction to the other Olsen films.


Mean Streets
(1973) – 7.5/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Starring: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel
“Who’s going to help him if I don’t? Nobody tries anymore.”

Although Mean Streets on paper seems to be a quintessential take on New York, it’s more about Scorsese’s love of directing. As much as New York is presented as a dazzling, vibrant city, the playfulness of the camera juxtaposes pop music with gun violence, Catholic guilt with drunken angles, and character introductions with timeliness. After all, most of it was actually shot in Los Angeles.

The central thread is Harvey Keitel, tangled by his role in the mafia, his religion, and a secret affair with an epileptic woman. But, most of all, he has to look after Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro), an unreliable gambler who borrows money without any intention of paying back. It’s a series of vignettes that takes in evocative shots of the city, with street sounds blaring over dialogue while the sun blurs diagonally from the corner. Scorsese captures the excitement of mixing realism with broken styles – although some scenes are perhaps undermined by experimentation, there’s a harmonic canyon of ideas at play.


The Muppets
(2011) – 8/10

Director: James Bobin
Writers: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams
“Life’s a happy song.”

As a reboot, The Muppets already has it easy, blessed with a rich cast of established characters and celebrities eager to join in the fun. The real challenge is to make it relevant for a new audience – a task Jason Segel accomplishes by adding a postmodern spin, while maintaining the original ethos of the franchise.

Segel lives with his brother, Walter, a muppet raised in a human family. Walter, perhaps mirroring Segel’s real life endeavours, grows up loving the Muppets and reforms them for a big show. Upon discovering the Muppets have retired, they must visit them one by one – Kermit lives alone in a dusty mansion, while Fozzy Bear fronts a tribute band called The Moopets. This reintroduction of the characters never feels heavy-handed and, in fact, maintains pop culture relevance – chickens cluck along to Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” and four muppets perform an a cappella version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Perhaps the biggest coup is the celebrity cameos. Although Jack Black and Rashida Jones have large roles, there’s a showbiz joy from spotting how many one-second appearances there are – from Alan Arkin as the tour guide, Emily Blunt reprising her role from The Devil Wears Prada, to recognising the drummer of the Moopets is Dave Grohl. It proves how well The Muppets works for all ages by how seamlessly Amy Adams and Segel blend in with the Muppets – their co-existence is always good for a laugh, even during moments of drama.

The musical numbers are more hit than miss – the rap interlude falls a bit flat – with “Man or Muppet” being particularly memorable. Personally, I was excited to see Feist appear for one second to sing a line, then discovering Andrew Bird recorded the whistling solo from the finale, whereas another person would be equally giddy by Selena Gomez participating in the “Mahna Mahna” song at the end. Fun for everyone, as their PR person would probably say. (I am not their PR person.)

There are moments when the meta aspects are too clever for its own good, mostly down to repeating self-aware jokes. However, you forgive a film like The Muppets for its faults because it manages to feel earnest in a cynical age – it may be the product of hundreds of Hollywood meetings, script doctors and focus groups, but you would never realise from the enthusiasm in Jason Segel’s non-felt face.


Ninotchka
(1939) – 9/10 (or Ninotchka out of Tenotchka)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch
Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Bela Lugosi
“As basic material, you may not be bad, but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.”

Although Billy Wilder is known primarily for classics like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, it’s easy to forget just how many great films he’s written – there’s also Sabrina and The Lost Weekend, among others. In fact, he has a large filmography I’ve yet to explore, much of which I’m heard little about, and it’s a Half a Canyon promise that I will investigate further.

First on the list is Ninotchka, before Wilder’s directorial days, but the first time he received recognition from the Academy – he lost the Oscar for best screenplay to Gone With the Wind. It manages to satirise both capitalism and the Soviet Union, while also being a romantic comedy set in grey dreariness. The title character is a diplomat played by Greta Garbo, a humourless cog in Stalin’s regime, who finds herself charmed by the glamour of Paris. The juxtaposition of political misery and frivolous comedy is early signs of how skilled Wilder would become at twisting genres, especially when he would later produce films as contrasting as Double Indemnity and The Seven Year Itch.

The world of Ninotchka is very much a Wilder creation with how he wrings emotion from the comedy by mixing idiosyncrasies with simple desires – people flirt by admiring each other’s cornea, and Garbo’s crowning moment is when she drunkenly pretends to be a queen who tells her ‘comrades’ that civilisation will crumble. And, aside from the light storyline, there is still heartbreak when she meets her love interest’s obnoxious girlfriend, and the dull return to communist Russia, away from western delights – she shocks a Russian friend when she cooks an omelette, proclaiming, “They can’t censor our memories.” And it’s that ideal that’s truly captivating about Ninotchka, that letters can be blacked out, but the sentiment is still there in the envelope.


Persona
(1966) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Lib Ullmann
“One goes through life doing the same things.”

In 1978, when Woody Allen released Interiors, his tribute to Ingmar Bergman, critics and audiences were disappointed that it was nothing like Annie Hall which came out the year before. Similarly, with Persona, not only did I want it to be like Bergman’s earlier film The Seventh Seal, but I wish it was more like the prologue.

The prologue is a dazzling collection of bizarre images interjected with flashing lights and musical cues – it lasts six minutes. The rest is a patient dialogue between two women who exist where the screen’s black-and-white choreography draws in in light to reflect on their pupils. They are in an isolated cottage by the beach, with one nursing the other back to full health following a nervous breakdown. Away from distractions, their relationship begins poorly, and becomes more fractured as they recognise similarities in each other.

Bergman’s camera style is to focus on the two characters’ faces, with frequent close-ups to heighten the emotional climax – one monologue is even shown twice in a row, word-for-word, but from two different angles to gauge contrasting reactions. There are other moments of playfulness like this, other than the aforementioned prologue – there is a brief abstract sequence where the film mimics a cinema projection breaking down, and a few seconds when the camera turns to show a film crew. These abstract interruptions are heavily juxtaposed with the tense drama that makes up the majority of Persona – to be honest, I’m not sure if the playfulness overshadows or complements the film.

It’s down to personal taste. When stripped of its surreal punctuation, Persona is an amiable drama – perhaps too dramatic – which works moderately well with the roaring of the waves in the background. However, the idiosyncratic touches are the clincher, and you will probably find them ingenious or gimmicky – I just happened to see a bit of both.


Raging Bull
(1980) – 8.5/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, Jake LaMotta (autobiography)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
“I just want to catch her. Just once.”

After seeing Christian Bale star in David O’Russell’s brilliant The Fighter from 2010, it’s a bit strange to then see Raging Bull for the first time – a remarkably similar film that is, to put it simply, better. Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro again, just four years after Taxi Driver, in a black-and-white biopic of Jake LaMotta, a boxer whose career collapsed at the same time as his health and personal relationships.

Scorsese’s vivacious direction means he knows how to make the screen smoky at the right moments, with a playful attitude creating a mystic world of what goes on in the mind of a boxer in the ring – flashlights of cameras, a punch in the face, and your coach screaming instructions from the side. From classical music to ambitious montages, Raging Bull is a film that knows it’s something special, and that’s all without mention De Niro – a breathtaking performance that’s entirely convincing in and out of the ring.

De Niro’s impressive commitment to the role meant he put on 27kg for some scenes in the film that make him almost unrecognisable. And it’s all there in his eyes, particularly when he brings his personal issues to the ring – Scorsese takes advantage of this performance, such as when he frames De Niro’s sexual paranoia, then follows it with a jump cut to a punch to a suspected love rival. All in all, few films have so successfully brought out jealousy as a raw human emotion that motivates a single character.


Run Fatboy Run
(2007) – 1.5/10

Director: David Schwimmer
Writers: Michael Ian Black, Simon Pegg
Starring: Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran
“Why did you ever let her go?”

I think that Run Fatboy Run is the kind of film in which you switch off after a few minutes – but, rather than allowing you to relax, you forget it’s there and think of something else. Anything else. When Simon Pegg’s on screen recycling jokes about an unfit man trying to exercise, I remember how good Shaun of the Dead is. When Dylan Moran’s on screen reading someone else’s lines, I remember that I’ve got How Do You Want Me? on DVD and I might watch it again some time.

It’s called Run Fatboy Run and it’d be unfair to complain about its lack of ambition – it’s just a passable comedy about a man running a marathon to win back his ex-girlfriend. (Wait, what?) Still, there’s a lingering sense that not only were they aiming low during filming, it was, unfortunately, a conscious decision.


The Sitter
(2011) – 1.5/10

Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Brian Gatewood, Alessandro Tanaka
Starring: Jonah Hill, Max Records, Kevin Hernandez
“I didn’t run like a little biatch. I probably just ran like a normal person.”

Why did you do this, David Gordon Green? When you give an atrocious script to one of the most talented directors, you get The Sitter – a puerile comedy obsessed with bodily functions and stereotypes, that looks fantastic. Jonah Hill stars as an unlikable babysitter trying to deliver cocaine to his girlfriend so that he can be rewarded with ‘vaginal sex’. This caper involves dragging along three children around the city streets at night where nothing is mystic or dangerous – this isn’t Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.

David Gordon Green’s backlash for moving to comedy is perhaps a bit unjustified – Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down are certainly better than Undertow and Snow Angels – but Your Highness and The Sitter are destroying the reputation he built with George Washington and All the Real Girls. Frustratingly, there are still flashes that Green still knows what he’s doing, especially when anyone rides a bike in slow motion. Yet, I wonder why he couldn’t have done more to save the film, as he is also ruining his career in slow motion.


To Be or Not to Be
(1942) – 6/10

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer
Starrong: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack
“How dare you call me a ham.”

Ernst Lubitsch’s fondly remembered comedy is possibly held in higher regard because of its context – the lead actress, Carole Lombard, died just before its release, and it was a comedy satirising the Nazis in 1942. It follows a theatre troupe regularly performing Hamlet in Warsaw during the war. For reasons too complicated to explain, they end up working against the Nazis by using their acting skills to impersonate various members of the Gestapo. Although the plot sounds silly, it’s remarkably complicated and fast-moving.

There are quite a few laughs, particularly from the lead couple, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. When Benny delivers his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, a member of the audience takes this as a cue to visit Lombard in her dressing room – when this affair develops, Benny’s suspicions are overturned by disappointment that someone always walks out of his performance. However, it all lacks the natural pace and wit of someone like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, with many of the absurdities falling flat, while also missing any of the emotional resonance from the screwball films of that era.


Welcome to the Dollhouse
(1995) – 7/10

Director/Writer: Todd Solondz
Starring: Heather Matarazzo, Brendon Sexton, Jr., Eric Mabius
“But… I’m better than a D minus!”

Todd Solondz’s first film is a demonstration of how Wes Anderson’s characters might fare in the real world. It’s a cruel place to be, after all, with Welcome to the Dollhouse focusing on Dawn, a friendless 12-year-old. What’s worse is that she’s heavily bullied and subjected to pushy parents. Her bold attempts to fit in mainly involve trying to ignore the sadistic bullying she receives at school, even faking her linguistic dexterity with one particularly violent boy, even using the phrase “Just because he’s a faggot, doesn’t mean he’s an asshole” so that she won’t be picked upon. But she does.

This depressingly cruel character study doesn’t bring sentimentality or redemption into its themes. Instead, it sticks to being a darkly humorous portrayal of what it’s like to be so miserable that she even finds abject jealousy at the abduction of her younger sister.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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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. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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