Film reviews 26: “The Avengers”, “Battleship”, “Man on a Ledge” and 10 others…

foot fist way

This month:  “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “4.3.2.1”, “American Reunion”, “The Avengers”, “Battleship”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “The Cabin in the Woods”, “The Foot Fist Way” (pictured above), “Iron Man”, “Kill List”, “Man on a Ledge”, “Taxi” and “Tormented”.

The average rating is 5.5/10 with film of the month being 2001: A Space Odyssey. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – 9.5/10

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (short story)
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
“I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you now very confidently that it’s going to be alright again.”

Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey space spaceshipIf you haven’t read Jon Ronson’s article about Stanley Kubrick’s boxes, you really should. It details the relentless perfectionism that motivated Kubrick, a compliment often thrown at Terrence Malick with The Tree of Life. But 2001 starts bolder with the birth of the universe (without any Brad Pitt voiceovers). For twenty minutes, apes fight and marvel at a strange object that appears to have fallen from space. It’s confusing and fascinating, conceptually sliding mid-scene into a satellite floating in space to the sounds of classical music. It’s a dream coexisting with science.

Kubrick presents a future where astronauts are homesick and don’t have much to say, unless if it’s with a lip-reading robot. There’s little dialogue, as the focus is placed on a hypnotic set, particularly when you’re watching a man jog against gravity, and you forget just how slow the film is. The poetic achievement is that the most human character is a robot called HAL – the ship’s computer with a personality devoid of any of the kookiness attributed to Bender, C3P0 and Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Kubrick even admitted in a rare interview that HAL’s momentary malfunction comes from:

In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility. The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon — most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it’s inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy, etc. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film.

Reading Jon Ronson’s visit to the Kubrick estate gives me a fortuitous insight into a man who gave almost too much thought to every small aspect of his films, and it’s evident throughout 2001. It’s no wonder he had the sets destroyed afterwards as he wouldn’t have wanted the memories to be tarnished. The abstract episodes are so bizarre, yet are strange enough to complement the empty thoughts that fill a spaceship. It’s science fiction that manages to be both real and implausible, orbiting the mundane truth of existence – so, yes, science fiction.


4.3.2.1
(2010) – 1.5/10

Directors: Noel Clarke, Mark Davis
Writer: Noel Clarke
Starring: Ophelia Lovibond, Emma Roberts, Tamsin Egerton
“Your eyes are very quick.”

With 4.3.2.1, Noel Clarke makes his very own Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. What I means is that he’s made a self-indulgent film with no attempt at artistic merit, yet somehow celebrating himself for doing so. His cynical attempt at a mainstream film is to insult the intelligence of the viewer with a lazy script, while hoping it’s enough to replace characterisation with naked characters.

The plot follows a retelling of a diamond heist from the point of view of four young protagonists. These vignettes don’t share many themes or connections, apart from a few loose crossovers. Clarke throws in gratuitous nudity, drug abuse, lesbianism and thirty minutes where Tamsin Egerton has her trousers stolen (and doesn’t bother finding a replacement), yet doesn’t find any sense of fun. Clarke even includes a cameo for himself, adding a line where Emma Roberts tells him he must have a big penis. That’s the kind of self-indulgence you’re dealing with.

(And when I compared it with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back? Well, there’s even a lengthy, unfunny appearance from Kevin Smith.)


American Reunion
(2012) – 4.5/10

Directors/Writers: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Seann William Scott
“I want you to come.”

The first American Pie film came out in 1999, so all the characters come back for a school reunion. Well, most of them. Jason Biggs’ mother died three years ago – intended for the plot, or to spite the actress not wanting to come back? The mathematics might seem off. After all, who organises reunions for 13 years later? The answer is that 13 years marks the point of desperation that work has dried up for most the original cast.

Aside from Seann William Scott and Alyson Hannigan, look at what happened to the others:

  • Jason Biggs disappeared from the mainstream, except to star in Anything Else, the worst film Woody Allen has done in his illustrious career.
  • – Chris Klein thought he was too big a star to be in American Pie: The Wedding, but became an alcoholic whose biggest role came when his audition tape for Mama Mia! leaked onto the web.
  • – Eddie Kaye Thomas? Do you even remember who that is?
  • – Tara Reid’s last nine films have been straight-to-DVD.
  • – Eugene Levy spent every day hoping Christopher Guest would answer his calls.

Regardless of any nostalgia you might have for the first American Pie film, the reunion is tedious in its exposition. Much of the film is simply reintroducing the characters, who were never that interesting in the first place, and it gets worse – jokes are constantly recycled, even showing clips of ‘the dance’. Admittedly, I was laughing quite hard when Chris Klein finds out his girlfriend had an affair with Mario Lopez, but the funny moments are too far apart. It should perhaps have done some damage control by mimicking its predecessors even further, judging by the incomprehensible side-story whereby Jason Biggs accidentally has his naked 18-year-old neighbour in his arms for about ten minutes.

The 13-year gap expresses the cynicism behind the filmmakers. At the press screening, every journalist was given a whole pizza, possibly to distract from the repetitiveness of the jokes. Well, that’s what I thought as I sat in the cinema, picking out olives in the dark.


The Avengers
(2012) – 7/10

Director/Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston
“You think you’re the only hero in the world?”

I actually saw this at a press screening a month before it came out, so the version I saw misses a few seconds of Robert Downey Jr. that were shot in time for the theatrical release. I had to sign an embargo. I sat across the aisle from Body Hilton. It was really exciting. Almost as exciting as the film.

It’s been a long and expensive marketing campaign for The Avengers. Captain America, Iron Man (and a sequel) and Thor provided the back story, and now it’s time for Joss Whedon to fuse them together – only this time with Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, with shades of his character from The Kids Are All Right and You Can Count on Me, except with fifty shades of green.

It takes some time to reintroduce all the superheroes and to find a contrivance that would mean they need to work together. (That contrivance is Mark Ruffalo whose inclusion bears no logic, but is excused when he ends up being the most fun character.)

The best films should be about the journey, not the destination. This is where The Avengers is different. I don’t particularly care for any of them individually, but together they become an odd social experiment. It’s like when you have strange friends from different circles and you want to see what happens when you put them in together in the same room. Except one of them is a bit too much to handle when he’s in a bad mood.

The plot framing is a bit awkward and relies on the audience’s good will to overlook a few logistics like the ineffectiveness of ScarJo and a guy with a few arrows. Thor and Iron Man have an early fight for no particular reason other than to keep the viewer salivating before the final sequence. The thrilling third act is worth the wait, but it is preceded by a long setup that wouldn’t sustain a film on its own. I suspect a second viewing would be like rewatching Inception and discovering how much is exposition. A bit like the human body having lots of water, The Avengers is more diluted than you might realise. But that’s the only way you can survive.


Battleship
(2012) – 3/10

Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna, Liam Neeson
“But I saved the world!”

A film adaptation of a Hasbro board game? It doesn’t sound appealing, especially when you realise they overlooked the chance to have Aaron Sorkin tackle Scrabble or see how Hal Hartley would handle Hungry Hungry Hippos. It worked for Jumanji, sort of, and Battleship has a few things going for it. Firstly, the viral marketing meant most people had low expectations in terms of artistic value. Secondly, the ridiculous concept means there’s a central theme to hold everything together. So it’s weird to complain that there wasn’t enough Battleship in Battleship.

The sea battle between mankind and aliens isn’t as funny or exciting as it sounds. The plot itself is cliched to rather bizarre levels – any moments of self-awareness are flooded with lengthy, humourless action sequences that mundanely chug along at a loud volume. It all centres on a man in the Navy trying to atone for being arrested after stealing a burrito from a supermarket. After that, there’s nowhere to go but underwater.

If only Battleship followed the true ethos of a board game by being a metaphor for the daily struggles of life. You win. You lose. You wonder what it is you’re doing. You have no answer.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(1969) – 8/10

Director: George Roy Hill
Writer: William Goldman
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
“I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing – I won’t watch you die.”

The Beatles invented music videos, but none as captivating as some of the sequences in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The sounds of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ accompany Paul Newman riding a bicycle, and it feels like Hollywood is being recreated. The lead duo, with Newman accompanied by Robert Redford, exchange knowing one-liners, establishing tropes for future action films. But it seems original, even though much of the dialogue is unnatural and groan-inducing, which I suppose is an aspect of classic cinema.

It’s about two criminals on the run, but you end up remembering the bicycle. Aside from a few scenes with Redford’s girlfriend, Katharine Ross, there isn’t that much dramatic weight. It’s more about individual snapshots of Hollywood in the making.

It’s no surprise Sundance Film Festival got its name from a story of being lost, running from danger, where every step is a memorable leap into unknown familiarity. It reminds me of the golden age, even though I wasn’t there. I wish I was, but instead I’m here, in bed with my laptop writing this review.


The Cabin in the Woods
(2012) – 7/10

Director: Drew Goddard
Writers: Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Bradley Whitford
“I’m never going to see a merman.”

Imagine if horror films were actually reality television. You stick some teenagers in a secluded area, throw in a man with a chainsaw, and film the results. The looks of terror are more real than anything you can achieve from 40 years of acting school. It also helps that found footage is coming back into fashion.

Well, that’s what I thought was going to be the twist of The Cabin in the Woods. It’s been widely advertised as a self-aware horror film, which I suppose is true. Without giving anything away, it builds and builds into something far better than you could hope for – the postmodern touches too often kill the drama and suspense, but there’s a colourful payoff worth waiting for.


Iron Man
(2008) – 6/10

Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
“How ironic, Tony. You tried to rid the world of weapons. You gave it its best one ever. And now, I’m going to kill you with it.”

It’s hard to believe Jon Favreau is directing films like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens when he was doing such a fine job with indie comedies like Swingers and, er, whatever was lying around in his notebooks in the 1990s. Anyway, his take on the Iron Man comics is to go for humour, with dashes of human redemption. That’s why Robert Downey Jr is perfectly cast as a protagonist with a scattershot speech impediment whereby everything he says sounds like lengthy improvised scenes crudely edited in post-production. There’s also a tinge of sadness in everything that comes out of his mouth, perhaps explained in his Wikipedia page, but he does suit the role. (And the role is the suit, anyway.)

There are elements of Iron Man where Downey Jr is living out a masturbatory fantasy that involves Maxim models, fame, and obedient, talking robots. He also has Gwyneth Paltrow as a live-in servant, which is a bit strange, but I’m just going to assume it’s an extremely subtle dig at Chris Martin. In fact, is Iron Man a very long dig at Chris Martin? Two wealthy men who are the height of their popularity, unaware that they’re making the world a worse place with everything they create? I’m joking, I don’t hate Coldplay that much.

Comic book films should be fun, and that’s what Iron Man is, mainly because of Downey Jr. What it does lack is a satisfying final act or any sense of danger, with Jeff Bridges being an incredibly inconsequential villain. Or is Chris Martin the villain of it all? Nobody said it was easy…


The Foot Fist Way
(2006) – 7.5/10

Director: Jody Hill
Writers: Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Ben Best
“Meditate on that.”

When David Gordon Green graduated from film school in North Carolina, three of his classmates went on to create HBO’s Eastbound & Down – Ben Best, Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s sitcom mixes improvised awkwardness with visual flair like no other. The TV deal came from the positive reaction received by The Foot Fist Way at Sundance, which planted the seeds for Kenny Powers.

Danny McBride stars as Fred Simmons, an overzealous Taekwondo teacher having an existential crisis – not too dissimilar from a certain film reviewer you might know also having an existential crisis. His depression is as cinematic as you can get with a $79,000 budget, much like a stylish version of the British version of The Office.

It’s all driven by embarrassment, like a metaphorical vehicle that uses discomfort instead of petrol, but is watchable because of Simmons’ persistence. Just like how Kenny Powers believes he will make it back to the major leagues, Simmons has enough confidence that martial arts will compensate for his failing marriage. At first the humour seems to be cruel, but it unravels into a naive journey that’s past the last exit for self-destruction, and you just have to keep going on.


Kill List
(2011) – 7.5/10

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer
“There is only ever this moment.”

Sometimes you see two travelling salesman and wonder if they’re actually contract killers. In Kill List, that’s exactly what Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley are – and by contract killers, I don’t mean they shred legal documents.

Ben Wheatley’s disturbing direction is initially about subtlety – strange mannerisms go unexplained, domestic arguments flare more than expected, and Maskell cooks a rabbit in the garden before eating it, staring coldly at his house. The eeriness continues when the pair are forced to sign a contract with blood, and find their scheduled victims show gratitude for being stabbed in the face.

Some of the bloodier scenes are so disturbing that a sense of the supernatural lingers. It keeps you feeling uneasy, even when it perhaps becomes a bit too overblown. You’re not completely sure where it’s going, but it’s going somewhere.


Man on a Ledge
(2011) – 2.5/10

Director: Asger Leth
Writer: Pablo Fenjves
Starring: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie
“You’re moving artwork, girl.”

Is this really a film? Sam Worthington breaks out of prison so he can stand on a tall ledge to distract the police while his brother Jamie Bell steals some diamonds. It’s remarkable that such an absurd plot can feel rote and mechanical, with the actors impassionedly running through dialogue on autopilot. The structure means everything takes place in two places – on the ledge, and the building with the diamonds. It’s essentially a ‘two bottle’ film, but without any tension. So, two areas of inactivity.

That wouldn’t be a problem if there was tension or characterisation, but the acting is extremely half-hearted when you consider the events. The references to Dog Day Afternoon reminded me of what Man on the Ledge should have been: an exhausting, twisting film where you actually care about the capturers and the captives. Instead, it’s just exhausting. Sam Worthington stands on a ledge with such a wooden performance that he might as well be an ornament.

Not only that, the ledge is quite thick. No one’s falling off that.


Taxi
(2004) – 4.5/10

Director: Tim Story
Writers: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant
Starring: Queen Latifah, Jimmy Fallon, Gisele Bundchen, Jennifer Esposito
“Okay, girls. Time to go.”

Screenwriters Tom Lennon and Ben Garant are two of my favourite interviewees and podcast guests because of their honesty about their roles as Hollywood hacks. They churned out Night at the Museum and its sequel, but were sacked from Herbie: Fully Loaded for refusing to make the car smile. When it comes to the critical failure of Taxi, they blame themselves, admitting that their script made it to the screen word-for-word without any changes.

The plot itself sounds like the process of a board meeting full of executives who hate cinema. It stars Queen Latifah as a taxi driver who’s lost her license, who teams up with Jimmy Fallon, a sacked police officer. Together, they chase four masked crime figures who are robbing banks around New York. It just so happens these thieves are leggy models with Gisele as their leader. Yes, that Gisele, the model who’s never acted in anything else apart from as herself in The Devil Wears Prada.

It’s trashy fun that, luckily, is aware of its own absurdities. Still, the jokes mostly fall flat and it’s the car chases that elevate the second half. Like a real taxi ride, it’s better when nobody’s talking.


Tormented
(2009) – 3/10

Director: Jon Wright
Writer: Stephen Prentice
Starring: Tuppence Middleton, April Pearson, Alex Pettyfer
“My kind are the people you can’t remember.”

Horror comedy is a tough genre. If you’re lucky, like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, you can be both scary and funny. Tormented is neither.

When Darren, a bullied boy with asthma, kills himself, Tuppence Middleton gives a speech at his funeral. She’s fulfilling her role as headgirl, but doesn’t actually remember who he is. In short, he comes back from the dead to get his revenge on people who called him Shrek, and Middleton watches everyone around her suffer bloody ends.

The slasher elements are nothing original, but are at times quite enjoyable. This is partly as when someone is being stabbed with a pencil, they’re not talking. Sample dialogue in Tormented is somebody screaming, “You’ve got no idea what it’s like to be bulled.” Well, neither did the screenwriter, judging by the caricatures floating around on screen. The jocks are too jock-ish. The nerds are too nerdy. The emos say little other than, “Takes one to know one.” The girls represent the director’s peculiar fantasy whereby in a tense argument, April Pearson licks Middleton’s nose. (Takes one to nose one?)

There isn’t any explanation as to how the bullied boy returns from the dead. He doesn’t seem to be a zombie or someone in a costume. It’s just an example that the filmmaker decided nobody would care as long as there’s bloody deaths and girls in short skirts. Maybe the screenwriter will also be haunted by someone coming back from the death, like how only Macbeth could see Banquo’s death, and then he’d realise what he’s done.

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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