Film reviews 25: “The Hunger Games”, “Shame”, “We Bought a Zoo” and 8 others…

stranger than paradise 2

This month:  “Ace in the Hole”, “Chatroom”, “Dogtooth”, “Goon”, “The Hunger Games”, “Into the Abyss”, “Léon”, “Shame”, “Stranger Than Paradise” (pictured above), “We Bought a Zoo” and “You and I”.

This time, the average rating is 5.18/10 with film of the month being Dogtooth. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Ace in the Hole (1951) – 8.5/10

Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall
“If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

The Half a Canyon “Billy Wilder Promise” continues this month with Ace in the Hole. It’s a sharp satire about a moody journalist looking to make a name for himself. (No, it’s not about me.) It follows Kirk Douglas as a local reporter hunting for a big story to send him back to New York. Instead, he’s stuck with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where stories are a little ‘too Albuquerque’. Luck comes his way, ironically, when a good-natured man called Leo finds himself stuck in a cave – Douglas exploits the situation by ensuring the rescue operation takes longer than necessary, securing himself an exclusive story.

Wilder’s biting screenplay comes only one year after the menacing drama of Sunset Boulevard, but Ace in the Hole is even darker. Douglas builds a relationship with Leo by crawling into the cave, promising everything will be okay – he meticulously forms a bond with the man he could be slowly killing, just for the chance to return to a national newspaper.

Douglas also kicks Leo while he’s down (a hole) by starting a romance with his wife – she wants to leave Leo, so is also happy for him to be trapped in the cave. It’s an unsettling relationship full of sinister chemistry – they recognise the worst in each other, and it turns them on. Her cafe benefits from the onrush of visitors, and the media comes under attack again – crowds camp outside the cave, finding fun in the spectacle. The film may be from 1951, but still feels relevant today (the Chilean miners from last year is one of the more obvious examples) with a frustrated journalist lamenting the assembled crowds.

Douglas also corrupts a young photographer into following financial greed, while making friends with a crooked sheriff. It’s a fascinating web of deceit that’s driven by careerism, rather than any distinct hints of human selfishness. Perhaps that’s what’s so great about Ace in the Hole. This isn’t a man who’s created a circus for his own needs, but because cutthroat journalism is at his heart and, judging by his actions, has replaced his soul.


Chatroom
(2010) – 1.5/10

Director: Hideo Nakata
Writer: Enda Walsh
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Hannah Murray, Imogen Poots
“I’d really like to chat on a regular basis.”

Hideo Nakata, director of The Ring Two, succeeds in making an even more ludicrous film. Five teenagers communicate in an online chatroom called Chelsea Teens, sharing their various anxieties and secrets – except Aaron Johnson tries to manipulate the other four into ruining their lives.

The dialogue is appalling, both in content and execution, and bears the same level of intelligence you would find in an actual chatroom. The acting is so unnatural, it’s as if they’re reading from cue cards while a gun is pointed at them – a fate better than watching the film itself.


Dogtooth
(2010) – 9/10

Original title: Kynodontas
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia
“You want this pencil? It has an eraser at the end.”

Lanthimos has created a world that’s both frightening and safe, and also confined to a single house. The sun-kissed camera captures the light as it glimmers against the lens, also pinpointing drops of water from a family’s outdoor swimming pool – the droplets come from the three children splashing in the garden, all three in their late-teens or early-twenties. It’s not as idyllic as it sounds – or, you could say it is too idyllic.

The parents have never let their homeschooled children outside of the house – they don’t know that a world exists beyond the tall fence in the garden. Without radio, television or books, their life is a modern version of Plato’s cave. It’s an intriguing starting point, but Dogtooth is too smart to be just an exercise in sadism or a traditional horror film – it’s actually neither, and better for it.

The motives behind the parent’s actions are never made clear. Rather unsettlingly, they appear to be sensible and lovingly protective of their children. The easy assumption would be that they want to shield them from the immoralities and dangers of the outside world. However, the film puts more focus on how the children have been affected – they are children, just in adult bodies.

With no knowledge of the real ways of life, or even that it’s unnatural to be imprisoned, the children are closer to their primal instincts – their sibling squabbles can be violent and head in unexpected directions.

Nevertheless, as horrifying as the story sounds, there is an essence of black comedy in every scene. How is this possible? The absurdity of the family setup is so well contained, it’s almost like science-fiction. In particular, the parents have their own strange methods of explaining life to their children. Overhead planes are actually toys that might fall into the garden. When a stray cat crawls into the garden, the children are terrified to see the mysterious creature – the father explains that cats are the most dangerous animal, frequently eating human flesh, and are a reason to never venture outside the house.

It’s a fascinating and unflinching study into human nature. Lanthimos has taken a curious idea, but turned it into a nightmare with dreamy aesthetics and a brand new outlook on stray cats.


Goon
(2012) – 3/10

Director: Michael Dowse
Writers: Jay Baruchel, Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Alison Pill
“You’re not here to play hockey. You’re here to fight.”

I hope that I’m the first critic to admonish Goon as being Rocky on ice with even fewer laughs. It’s a sports-comedy written by Evan Goldberg (Seth Rogen’s writing partner) and Jay Baruchel (whom I’ve defended endlessly on Half a Canyon, and this is how he repays me?). There’s only really one joke as it follows Seann William Scott’s progression as ice hockey’s next great enforcer – that means his job is to fight members of the opposing team, and effectively be an on-pitch (rink?) bodyguard during the match.

As an immature sports film, it’s committed to the cause – I’m just trying to balance in my mind whether that’s a good thing. In sporting terms, when I watch Goon, it’s end-to-end stuff between not-really amusing and not amusing. However, I did laugh at the commentator’s Judy Blume reference: “Are you there Doug? It’s me, Margaret.”


The Hunger Games
(2012) – 5.5/10

Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Gary Ross, Billy Ray, Suzanne Collins (novel)
“May the odds ever be in your favour.”

When I saw The Hunger Games at the cinema, there was a mixed reaction in the audience – some were hypnotised by a dystopia where children kill each other to stay alive, but  others were shuffling uncomfortably by the end of its 142 minutes. And that’s if they stayed, with a few walking out long before then. I guess your tolerance levels depend largely on whether you’ve read the book upon which the film is based, and to what extent you’ll put up with a lengthy adaptation of a young adult novel boasting a Stephanie Meyer endorsement on its front cover.

But it’s not like any young adult novel. It’s been marketed as the new Twilight, complete with a teenage heroine deciding if she’s Team Peeta or Team Gale (what, no Team Lenny Kravitz?), yet it’s a far harsher world. It’s set in Panem, a place that won’t be on your maps until the future and you enter an alternate reality. The government is a bit like your old friend from school who won’t talk to you anymore because of something you did ages ago; the population are punished for a past rebellion by having the Hunger Games forced upon them once a year.

What are the Hunger Games? I’m glad you asked. It’s a televised event, rather like Big Brother, except there’s even more reason to not want to be a participant. A lottery selects a few children who are thrown into a royal arena where they must battle until only one is left alive – and yes, I did phrase that to mention Battle Royale. While it shouldn’t take away just how bold The Hunger Games is for taking such a stark subject into a film for children, it was done so much better by Battle Royale, an almost identical film that went further because it wasn’t censoring itself for a younger audience.

Where The Hunger Games has the advantage over Battle Royale is the chance to do something new with its two weapons – not a bow and arrow, but Jennifer Lawrence, and as a satire on reality television. Lawrence is pretty good, echoing her standout performance from Winter’s Bone. But the film truly misses an opportunity in terms of satire – there are smart touches as contestants realise appealing to an audience increases their chance of survival, while commentators marvel on who they want to die. (Unless if it’s a satire on an ability to turn Battle Royale into a Hollywood blockbuster by using American actors, in which case, well done.)

The film builds up a lot of mood and tension, but never quite makes it as a satire, thriller or drama. It’s far longer than necessary, which it attempts to compensate with peculiarly manic cameos from Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz. It could perhaps have built upon the idiosyncrasies of its alternate reality, like the mechanical wasps (may the odd bees ever in your favour?) or add a comment on the quest for fame. With Battle Royale, there was a character who participated because he enjoyed killing people, so why not have The Celebrity Hunger Games with former soap stars trying to revitalise their career and love life? No, I’m being ridiculous and losing focus, just like the film – a young adult amalgamation of more insightful satires like Battle Royale and The Truman Show.


Into the Abyss
(2012) – 7/10

Director: Werner Herzog
“These people want to murder me. And it’s hard to believe.”

I was listening to Werner Herzog discuss Into the Abyss last week on Mark Kermode’s radio show. It’s a documentary about the execution of Michael Perry, a 28-year-old on death row for murdering three people as a teenager. On the radio show, Herzog said he was able to make Into the Abyss from only eight hours of material because he knew which questions would find the humanity of his subjects. The best example is in the first few minutes with the prison’s chaplain, usually the last person an inmate sees before they die. Herzog asks, “Please describe an incident with a squirrel.” Thirty seconds later, the chaplain is in tears.

Herzog says early on that he’s against the death penalty, but he doesn’t take the simple route of arguing against the death penalty (something which Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark does quite well). He also doesn’t try to prove Perry’s innocence (and, if anything, does the opposite). Instead, he examines the emotions of those affected by the incident by prodding them with plaintive, sympathetic questions. One particularly intriguing interviewee is the mother of one of Perry’s victims, who describes how she built up a monster in her mind, then the shock of seeing him in person as being just a boy. She also says that nobody should have to die, but five minutes later contradicts herself with the assertion that some people don’t deserve to live.

Herzog doesn’t force his politics into his interviews or in the editing, but he does have some themes which he brings up a few times. One question, in particular, is about how inmates handle time. Perry, who is scheduled to die in eight days, says that he’s a Christian so he’s just counting down the days until he is ‘going home’.

The offbeat questions are what separate Into the Abyss from what an ordinary filmmaker might make. It’s only disappointing that it’s let down by its limited source material – with more time, Herzog might have been able to dig deeper with his subjects. Still, it’s commendable that he can speak to a man who used to strap people down on a gurney before they were injected, and get him to describe how leaving it behind means a new understanding of life: “You start noticing what the birds do, like the hummingbirds – and why there’s so many of them.”


Léon: The Professional
(1994) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
“I’ve finished growing up, Leon. I’m just getting older.”

Here are some things I don’t like: films with a precocious child in the lead role, action films that are over two-hours long, and Natalie Portman. She’s a 12-year-old whose family are murdered by crooked DEA agents, but is rescued by Léon – a lonely ‘cleaner’ with whom she forms a strange bond. Of course, by ‘cleaner’ he means that he’s a hitman.

The irony’s a bit clunky, but the focal relationship is quite fascinating – he tries to be a father, while she naively wants him to be her ‘first lover’. After a thrilling first act, the main portion of the film is serene – he teaches her how to be an assassin, but there’s no sign of danger.

Unfortunately, the drama is ruined by final showdown of action cliches that move away from the running hints of French New Wave.  The heart of the film is also let down by absurdly over-the-top villainy by Gary Oldman as the corrupt DEA officer – if it’s a love-it-or-hate-it performance, then I hate it. It’s an unnecessary caricature, as elsewhere there’s a lot more sincerity than you’d find in any other action film. And the opening sequence isn’t too bad, either.


Shame
(2012) – 3.5/10

Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Ami Morgan, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
“We’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”

Steve McQueen’s take on sex-addiction is that it’s an illness which can be easily hidden – you have Michael Fassbender, handsome and composed, secretly consumed by casual sex, masturbation and pornography. Fassbender’s addiction isn’t portrayed in the manner of Trainspotting or Requiem For a Dream (although that would have made far better viewing), but as a stylish character study – he’s economic with his words and doesn’t need to deliver a monologue for sideways purposes of exposition.

Cold visuals bring out the emptiness in Fassbender’s life, awash with impure thoughts and pornography. It reminds me of American Psycho, except Shame wears itself out during its second act. He stares at the legs of a female passenger on his commute to work, then he masturbates in a toilet cubicle – it isn’t enthralling and doesn’t really bring out the potential of a subject rarely examined in cinema.

It turns out that the ‘shame’ of the title might allude to something else, as hinted by his peculiar relationship with his sister, played by Carey Mulligan. She disrupts his lurid lifestyle and hints at childhood incidents that still play on his mind. Their relationship is horribly unsettling, but is undeveloped – an issue which becomes jarring when she becomes central to the plot’s most significant turning points.

I’ll give McQueen the benefit of the doubt, as this is only an interpretation, but I sense unnecessary homophobia in the plot development when Fassbender’s downward spiral climaxes when he has sex with a man, as if there is nothing worse. Even if I’m reading that scene incorrectly, McQueen makes another big mistake by persevering in the second-half with what is an amiably bland melodrama. At one point, Fassbender tries to escape his mind by going for a jog around the city at night, perhaps to search for peace and tranquillity – that, or he was looking for a more subtle script.


Stranger Than Paradise
(1984) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Richard Edson, John Lurie, Eszter Balint
“He’s Screamin’ Jay Hawikins and he’s a wild man, so bug off.”

Jarmusch’s low-budget breakthrough captures a deadbeat swing that glorifies in awkward silences. Oozing in ‘coolness’, Eva (Eszter Balint) is introduced by an uninterrupted establishing shot of her walking through New York to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She’s there to visit her cousin Willie (John Lurie) and they sit in his flat bored out of their minds; she smokes, he plays solitaire and loses.

The film uses patient, black-and-white cinematography that soaks in blank spaces while its characters mainly speak in humorously deadpan complaints. When Willie’s friend Willie (Richard Edson) visits, they still find little to talk about, yet they seemed determined to have fun. Except fun for them is taking a road trip to Florida to stay in a downgraded motel. When there’s a concern that the monotonous pacing might overstay its welcome, an amusing subplot about gambling enters the plot.

What’s particularly astounding is how Jarmusch finds hidden beauty in empty rooms. His characters exchange mundane small talk like strangers, tired of their surroundings. The actors don’t exaggerate their lines, with their natural performances probably coming from not being experienced actors. Edson, for instance, was the drummer on Sonic Youth’s underrated debut album. The camera uses this to find plaintive comedy in the conversation gaps, and artistic merit in the blank walls. It should perhaps be called Strangers in Paradise. (Or not, seeing as it’s about immigrants learning America’s just as grey as everywhere else.)


We Bought a Zoo
(2012) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson
“I like the animals. I love the people.”

Cameron Crowe’s first film in six years tackles the property market from a wildlife angle when single father Matt Damon buys a house with a zoo attached. So, in addition to his two children, he has a whole park of animals to feed. Remarkably, this is all based on a true story, unlike the implausibility of 2005’s Elizabethtown that threatened to ruin Crowe’s legacy.

In fact, We Bought a Zoo borrows from Crowe’s more illustrious past. Damon even quits his job in the first ten minutes with a speech in his office, just like Tom Cruise did in Jerry Maguire. Crowe’s trademarks all reappear, including a memorable soundtrack, courageous levels of sentimentality, and the adventure of a man leaving his hometown to accidentally find love in a blonde stranger – the latter happens in Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, and it happens again with Scarlett Johansson.

ScarJo’s role as head keeper at the zoo is irrelevant, as she’s there as a love interest. There isn’t much to her character beyond a few motivational words to Damon, which doesn’t help when you have such a frustratingly formulaic plot. She teaches him how to talk to a tiger, all while misusing the word ‘random’. The dialogue rarely ventures beyond greater depth than wondering why anyone would buy a zoo. Instead of quotable phrases like “You had me at hello” and “Show me the money”, you have “If you had to choose between animals and humans, who would you pick?”

Crowe does seem to be trying to make a family film, but he does so by giving more screen time to Damon’s two children. Unfortunately, the pair are so unabashedly one-note that they behave more like character devices that people. With the zoo’s financial struggles and side-story involving a hungry tiger, you could be forgiven for wanting them to be left inside its cage. The film is as plain and unimaginative as its title.

Matt Damon makes an emotional purchase, but ends up with “humanity” instead of humanity.


You and I
(2011) – 0.5/10

Director: Roland Joffe
Writers: Aleksey Mitrofanov, Shawn Schepps, Luke Goltz
Starring: Mischa Barton, Shantel VanSanten, Anton Yelchin
“Stupid bitch thinks I’m a pill freak just like her.”

Sometimes you read about a film on Wikipedia, don’t believe it’s real, search for it on Google, find it’s all on Youtube, watch it all, then blog about it. Well, that’s what I did. There was a troubled release campaign for You and I as its star Mischa Barton decided to disown it. Even with her filmography, it’s unsurprising. In a strange piece of casting, Barton plays a Russian teenager, who can only just about speak English, on a quest for love – instead a poem she placed online is miraculously found by a music producer and turned into a song by the band tATu. Yes, tATu – remember them?

The film is well-meaning, but that’s the kindest thing I can say about it. The plot has several strands each competing to be the most unintentionally absurd, each taking in drugs, crime and, what you just can’t ignore, tATu. Most of the characters are Russian, but speak in very broken English – it’s set in Moscow, which makes you wonder why they don’t just speak Russian to each other. Even more peculiar is the role played by Anton Yelchin – it’s stifled, and not indicative of his moving performance in Like Crazy.

It’s unfortunate that for all its failings, if it was only just that little bit worse, it could live on in infamy in the same way The Room made Tommy Wiseau an eternal figure. That’s probably why even Barton won’t promote it.

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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One Response to Film reviews 25: “The Hunger Games”, “Shame”, “We Bought a Zoo” and 8 others…

  1. Alive Mind Media (a division of Lorber HT Digital), Arts Alliance
    America, APL, Anderson Productions Ltd, Alexandra Juhasz, Blowback Productions, Bradley Beesley, Brave New Films, Braverman Productions,
    Inc. Teairra Mari plays a local gold-digging temptress who tries using sex to latch onto Kevin. –
    This is a movie about friendly monsters who live in the closet and try to scare kids
    at night.

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