Film reviews 27: “Take This Waltz”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and 9 others…

hard eight john c reilly

This month:  “21 Jump Street”, “Blowup”, “Cloverfield”, “The Comedians of Comedy”, “Hard Eight”, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, “Paris, je t’aime”, “Passenger Side”, “Take This Waltz” and “Wanderlust”.

This time, the average rating is 6.21/10 with film of the month being Take This Waltz. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

21 Jump Street (2012) – 7.5/10

Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Writer: Michael Bacall
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle
A remake of an 1980s television show called: 21 Jump Street
“37 Jump Street. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”

Like the ugly duckling that turned out to be a swan, 21 Jump Street is a pleasant surprise that doesn’t resemble a duck. The film is based on a 1987 television series, an early omen, and it’s a shaky premise – two undercover policemen are sent back to school to stop a drug outbreak. It’s a bit like the plot of Never Been Kissed, but slightly more ridiculous. Luckily, the casting of Jonah Hill and 32-year-old Channing Tatum is a sign of self-awareness, with the actors taking the roles seriously enough to avoid smugness.

The leading pair’s chemistry is the main strength of 21 Jump Street. While the script is sharp, there are many aspects which are disappointingly unoriginal; there’s tired drug humour, and character arcs as predictable as the built-in function on your mobile phone’s text messaging service. It instead is full of foul-mouthed charm and rapid one-liners. Considering that every scene is done with a wink to the camera, the ace up the sleeve is Tatum – primarily a dancer, not an actor, he remains connected to the humour and able to say, with complete conviction: “Fuck you, Miles Davis.” Well, I found that part funny.

WATCH IF: You’re the same age as Channing Tatum, or not the same age as Channing Tatum.
AVOID IF: You’re aware that you dislike self-awareness.

 


Blowup
(1966) – 8/10

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writer: Michelangelo Antonioni, Edward Bond, Tonino Guerra
Starring: David Hemmings
Direction: Up
“Some people are bullfighters. Some people are politicians. I’m a photographer.”

Michelangelo Antonioni’s take on London’s swinging 60s is a murder mystery drenched in hedonism. David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who parties and sleeps with models, but this routine is partially interrupted when he unknowingly captures a murder.

The uncovering of the mystery is a tense ten-minute period as Hemmings runs through negatives and prints to find clues, but it’s a red herring. Instead, the film is a stylish representation of forced fun and how drugs create a fabled dream; the party keeps going long after the smiles disappear, and not even a death can become a hurdle.

WATCH IF: You photograph murders.
AVOID IF: You prefer your murders in audio form.


Cloverfield
(2008) – 5/10

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan
Footage: Found
“Maybe not the best topic of conversation.”

Here’s the thing, as Mark Kermode would say – it’s a found footage film about an alien invasion. Or maybe it’s a monster. Whatever it is, it’s entirely competent. The acting’s decent. The special effects are impressive. It’s just not that captivating, apart from the novelty of it being found footage. I’m not sure why somebody would carry a camera around to film a monster, instead of running away. Although, now I think about it, it would deserve an Instagram.

WATCH IF: You think the monster is a metaphor for yourself.
AVOID IF: You are scared of the dark.


The Comedians of Comedy
(2005) – 4/10

Director: Michael Blieden
Featuring: Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Zach Galifanakis, Brian Posehn
Length: 109 minutes
“I’m not schizophrenic. I’m just depressed.”

I’m not really sure why this documentary exists.
Four comedians go on tour.
That’s it.
There isn’t a campaign.
It isn’t shot that well.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory.
There isn’t that much footage of their shows.
The backstage shots are actionless.
They’re never completely honest.
They’re never truly performing.
They’re funny, I suppose
But they’re not really trying.

WATCH IF: You’ve run out of podcasts.
AVOID IF: You can see them on stage, rather than in a documentary.


Hard Eight
(1996) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson
Most noticeable cameo: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
“I don’t want to die.”

Before you learn how to win roulette, you have to lose a few times first. This isn’t strictly true, but it’s the analogy I’m applying to Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film. John C. Reilly plays a young, affable gambler taken under the wings of Philip Baker Hall, a father figure who’s spent a lifetime at casino bars.

Just like in Anderson’s later films, Hard Eight is less about plot twists, but about an evocative world and how characters deal with the degradation of time. Unfortunately, with the film being over in 96 minutes, there is a huge loss in momentum, much unlike his lengthier masterpieces Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood.

Anderson has never been one to hold closely to Robert McKee’s textbook, but there are still a few nervous plot twists. The supporting roles by Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson come across as audition pieces, rather than elements of a film. Many of the plot turns don’t fit the characters, while often representing the atmosphere of a casino; time stays still, but it might get better eventually, just as long as the machines are still working.

WATCH IF: You’re prepared to take a gamble on a great filmmaker when he was still searching for his voice.
AVOID IF: The existential weight of the world is falling upon your shoulders.


Jeff, Who Lives at Home
(2012) – 8/10

Directors/Writers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon
Camera: Shaky
“I watched Signs again last night. It keeps getting better every time I see it.”

The unusual storyline begins when Jeff (Jason Segel) watches a few too many M. Night Shyamalan films and leaves the house to solve a mystery. A few coincidences means that he and his brother (Ed Helms) investigate if the latter’s wife is having an affair, while their mother ponders the identity of her secret admirer. To complain that the plot is contrived would be missing the point, as it’s the root for the film’s improvisational charm. Problems are solved by stumbling, with the mathematics of the universe at odds with the mumblecore direction.

Mark and Jay Duplass are still shooting amateurishly with a camera shakey enough to feel like you’re sitting in a washing machine. The difference is that Jeff is unusually active for a mumblecore film, echoing the movements of the genre’s more enjoyable efforts such as Quiet City and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I think in my review of Baghead I heavily criticised their directorial skills, but they know how to find lo-fi fascination – the kind that isn’t inspired by Juno, but more from documentaries. One particular highlight is when a smoke alarm sets off the sprinklers in an office, with Sarandon finding a spiritual awakening at her computer desk. A bit like you right now.

WATCH IF: You are in your twenties and live at home. There’s nothing wrong with it. Please. Somebody tell me it will be okay.
AVOID IF: You haven’t forgiven the Duplass brothers for Baghead.


Moonrise Kingdom
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis
“What kind of bird are you?”

Is it possible for Wes Anderson to be too much like Wes Anderson? Can the writing on Half a Canyon be too much like Half a Canyon? From the first few scenes, I feared Anderson was delving too far into self parody. The camera slides like someone emulating Anderson.

It’s an interesting prospect, whether greatness can be parodied. Thinking back to Rushmore, it’s amazing that Anderson has not only continued with a great cast (still with Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman), but has become even more esoteric now he has entered the mainstream – like when that Finnish metal band won the Eurovision Song Contest.

When two 12-year-olds run away, there is a search party to find them before a forecasted storm. It’s like any other party, but with more searching and less partying. It’s a sweet story until the final act when reality is broken – and, by this, I mean even Anderson’s peculiar world has its reality broken. Perhaps it’s the effect of writing and directing Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, with its “Let’s form a plan” scenes replicated in non-animated form.

The surreal diversions of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be Anderson’s way of challenging cinema to see what he can get away with. That’s my theory, anyway. His deadpan humour has somehow made him an attractive name to Hollywood stars, so he wants to be as weird as possible. It makes sense because his style peaked with his second and third films (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums), and it took Fantastic Mr. Fox to rejuvenate his career;  making a film about 12-year-olds was his next challenge. I look forward to seeing what he does next, but I’m sure it will be distinct.

WATCH IF: You like Wes Anderson.
AVOID IF: You switched off after 10 minutes of The Royal Tenenbaums.


Paris, je t’aime
(2006) – 7/10

Director: Loads of people
Writer: Loads of people
Starring: Paris (the city)

As experiments go, Paris je t’aime  ranks somewhere between Edison’s lightbulb and the sandwich I just attempted. 18 unconnected vignettes follow each other, each discovering romance in the French capital. It isn’t all cinematic shots of a couple’s silhouette in front of the Eiffel Tower. Many of the segments portray loneliness, immigration and, at one point, falling for a vampire.

The standard is higher than expected, with highlights involving the most established names – the Coen brothers direct Steve Buscemi’s struggle to avoid eye contact at a train platform, while Alexander Payne writes the closing monologue where an American fondly recalls the city.

I think my invitation to write a vignette was lost in the post. I would have made the Louvre the third main character. The soundtrack would have songs by Scott Walker, and that Serge Gainsbourg cover by Karen Elson and Cat Power. The lead couple would talk in unison, harmonising, even when they cough. “When I say I have beautiful shoes, I actually mean I have the blues,” she says, looking at Edison’s lightbulb.

WATCH IF: You have a short attention span, but love Paris.
AVOID IF: You’re more of a Bordeaux person.


Passenger Side
(2009) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Matt Bissonnette
Starring: Adam Scott, Joel Bissonnette
Soundtrack: Wistful
“You’re a good driver. People like you.”

The second film by Matt Bissonnette (who still doesn’t have a wikipedia page) is watchable, but forgettable, as it meanders down a dusty road. The most characteristic aspect is its soundtrack; Passenger Side, named after a Wilco song, is mostly filled with songs by The Silver Jews. David Berman’s sardonic drawl characterises the film, a collection of faux-existential conversations punctuated with absurd set pieces.

It begins and ends when Adam Scott’s birthday is ruined by his brother asking for a lift. The purpose of the drive isn’t made clear, but that seems to be the point of Passenger Side. I guess it’s a metaphor for life and blogging.

WATCH IF: You want to go for a ride.
AVOID IF: You prefer Wilco’s later material.


Take This Waltz
(2012) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Title: Named after a Leonard Cohen song
“I’m afraid of connections. In airports.”

Sometimes you run out of teabags, you think back to when you last purchased any, and you wonder where the time passed. (Where did the time go? Down the drain with other caffeinated dreams.) Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen are in a similar position. They are married and in love, but it isn’t the same – he prepares for a book of chicken recipes, but she can’t stand the taste for much longer.

The couple drift apart slowly, with both of them receiving patience in their scenes. This is the benefit of the director being Sarah Polley, someone known primarily as an actress. The freedom means the camera can be both inventive and intimate, capturing subtle characteristics, such as Rogen’s nervous chuckle – he laughs because he deep down he knows that she could disappear at any moment.

The paranoia becomes prophetic when Williams becomes attracted towards to Luke Kirby, a rickshaw driver. It’s a dilemma that follows a few too many coincidences, but it’s excusable when escapism formulates the film’s spine; it’s a wavy world where affairs can only happen underwater in secluded swimming pools.

It’s a simple plot that becomes a platform for its actors, with Polley choosing to cast two comedians – there’s Rogen, but also Sarah Silverman in a supporting role. It’s a gamble that pays off, with Rogen proving he can be a serious actor (who doesn’t smoke marijuana). Silverman also carries believability in her portrayal of an alcoholic trying to start again. It creates a divide which adds to the film’s crux – does Williams stick with Rogen, a comedian playing the straight man, or run away with a rickshaw driver (who could probably give you a lift during the process)?

Polley has written and directed a film that recognises the expiration date of relationships and friendships. In a telling moment, Williams recognises the strangeness behind her husband’s baby talk. Her mute reflections are off shored by a fan moving in the background, with an off kilter energy propelling the film. It isn’t a tango, but a waltz.

WATCH IF: You trust my recommendations.
AVOID IF: You are impatient.


Wanderlust
(2012) – 5/10

Director: David Wain
Writers: David Wain, Ken Marino
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Malin Akerman
“You lost your sense of humour when you lost your apartment?”

David Wain can be seen as a lesser known Judd Apatow. His comedy films follow a similar style: trusted actors, colourful language, improvised dialogue, Paul Rudd. His latest directorial feature, Wanderlust, is again co-written with Ken Marino, but lacks the sharpness of Role Models or Wet Hot American Summer. It is instead more redolent of Wain’s more throwaway projects, such as his web series Wainy Days.

The problem with Wanderlust is that it’s a one-joke film. It is a good joke, though. Yuppie couple Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston can no longer afford their “micro loft studio apartment” in the city, and stay in Elysium, a field disguised as a bed-and-breakfast.  “I’m glad we don’t have a door,” says Rudd, unconvincingly.

There is a noticeable shortage of ideas, but the supporting cast (including Malin Akerman and Alan Alda) keep it watchable. One memorable moment is when Rudd attempts to play Two Princes by The Spin Doctors on the guitar, which plays to the ensemble’s skills. However, charm can only go so far, especially with flimsy setups. It’s rather like an extended episode of a sitcom, found on the DVD extras of a boxset. After all, much of the pacing and cutaway shots of the city remind me of shows like Caroline in the City or Friends (possibly because of Rudd and Aniston).

WATCH IF: The city is wearing you down.
AVOID IF: You sold your television during a midlife crisis.

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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