Film reviews 29: “The Dark Knight Rises”, “Project X”, “Love and Other Drugs” and 7 others…

ira and abby

This fortnight: “Broken Flowers”, “The Dark Knight Rises”, “Dead Man”, “Detention”, “Down by Law”, “Gummo”, “Ira and Abby” (pictured above), “Love and Other Drugs”, “Project X” and “Shallow Grave”.

This time, the average rating is 6.2/10 with film of the fortnight being Broken Flowers. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Broken Flowers (2005) – 9.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton
“The future isn’t here yet.”

When Bill Murray swapped comedy for pathos, he was widely applauded – Oscar-nominated for singing karaoke with ScarJo in Lost in Translation, and his role in Rushmore helped build the critical wave that swept the Wes Anderson tide. He deserved the praise, but Broken Flowers is where he truly shines as the weary focus of every scene.

When Murray receives a letter from someone purporting to be his son, his pushy neighbour forces him to find his ex-girlfriends and do some detective work. The storyline isn’t an ideal trajectory (especially as it was done in High Fidelity), but Jim Jarmusch adds unexpected mystery and comedy along the way. Not only does the film solely follow Murray, but it patiently draws the life out of his facial expressions; his wilder days are over, and tracing his steps brings an uneasy clarity over his loneliness.

The past figures from his life have all changed, but represent the different sides of his character that have eroded; they see him as a stranger and can barely pronounce his name without an awkward laugh. Jarmusch teases out the smaller details in his descent; he sleeps on the living room’s sofa instead of in the bedroom, and is content watching television in an empty house. The dry comedy comes from watching him play a reluctant detective – he doesn’t search for his son because of personal reasons, but to stop his neighbour from hassling him.

The added mystery is in how Jarmusch doesn’t explain backstories; several relationships are introduced by the pitch of a “hello” and whether there’s a “goodbye”. It isn’t until a dreamed montage of images and a heartbreaking final scene when you realise how powerful the drama is within the muted responses.

Jarmusch’s films best known films (Strangers in Paradise, Down by Law, Dead Man) follow deeply rooted men who are physically displaced – Broken Flowers continues the tradition, but is the pinnacle of a character finding self-discovery. The journey isn’t about finding clues, but one of car journeys without dialogue, vacant recollections of old faces, and staring into the abyss.

The Dark Knight Rises
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
“This isn’t a car.”

There wasn’t much need for Christopher Nolan to make another Batman film. He already firmly established Gotham as a bleak city to avoid on business trips, and was rightly praised for it. His vision has already been established, and the Joker and Harvey Dent aren’t even returning. Any continuation would probably be obsolete – the sinister streets can’t be made much darker, and any curveballs would damage the legacy. It’s the reason why most sequels don’t work, as reintroducing characters can seem redundant. All he had to do was not make something terrible – The Dark Knight Rises is an inconsistent mess, but never stops being thrilling.

Perhaps Nolan is also aware a sequel was unnecessary. It’s not as arbitrary as the storylines of Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, but it’s based on two things: Bruce Wayne’s hibernation, and the calculated menace of a new villain, Bane. Wayne’s absence from public life is justified by Maggie Gyllenhaall’s death, which seems too much a break from character – especially the cane he carries around for unexplained reasons. The other plot catalyst is Bane who puts so much effort into destroying Gotham because of Jacobin terminology and to avenge Ra’s al Ghul; it all seems very unconvincing, although to be fair I couldn’t work out every word he said.

As expected, cinematography is breathtaking, and there are a few action scenes that have an andante effect on your pulse rate. It’s mesmerising enough to distract you from the convoluted storyline. For all the complaints of Breaking Dawn and the last Harry Potter film being split into two, The Dark Knight Rises is very much two conjoined films – even at 165 minutes, it isn’t long enough. The time problems are fixed by curious solutions, such as a stranger kindly punching Bruce Wayne’s vertebrae back into position. Emotional goodbyes are forgotten with a few blinks, and several months can pass in between scenes without much indication.

Even Nolan’s desire for realism can’t prevent numerous plot holes in a superhero film, especially as The Dark Knight Rises rushes through so many strands with only brief clarification. It was all I could think about for the next few days, which is the sign of a film that digs inside your psyche – a genuine irritation that such an ambitious film could contain so many instances of deus ex machina. Not that I noticed in the cinema; I was too gripped.

In terms of developing the story, Nolan has mixed results. The characterisation is unremarkable, given how little screen time everyone gets. The most noticeable progression is a cynicism in human nature that wasn’t quite there before – while the boats never exploded in The Dark Knight, the police of The Dark Knight Rises will destroy a bridge to stop anyone escaping the city. There is also less black humour, as expected when you have Bane instead of the Joker. Most of the charm comes from Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, a mostly unnecessary character who has minimal impact on a plot struggling to explain itself under three hours.

Hathaway may not fit into the dreariness of Nolan’s world, but Catwoman is also unsettled by being part of Gotham’s crime scene – possibly an accidental piece of casting genius. Alongside Alfred playing the piano to open a hidden door, she provides the only lightness in the whole film, and is worthy of her own disappointing spinoff feature. (I have already given it 3.5/10!)

It’s hard to praise The Dark Knight Rises for its bleakness and realism, for that was already established in the previous films. It’s also tough to criticise it for not living up to its predecessor, given how memorable Heath Ledger was as the Joker. The final judgement is whether Nolan could make a satisfying conclusion that didn’t damage the trilogy’s reputation – he delivered something not quite magnificent, but containing enough elements from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to remind audiences why we love a superhero despite his ridiculous voice.

Dead Man
(1995) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer
“Are you sure you have no tobacco?”

The mystique of 19th century America is explored by Johnny Depp as William Blake – he is unsure if he is the reincarnation of the Romantic poet. Dead Man is ostensibly a mood piece, shot in black-and-white with a crawling soundtrack: Neil Young plays improvised guitar lines, matching the film’s willingness to pause for reflection.

The deadpan (sounds like the title) nature of Jarmusch’s take on a Western is particularly idiosyncratic;  shootouts are simply a formality with male bravado, while there are surreal touches when Johnny Depp wonders if he’s already dead. It manages to be both anachronistic, fantastical, yet staying true to the genre.

(2012) – 4.5/10

Director: Joseph Kahn
Writers: Joseph Kahn, Mark Palermo
Starring: Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Spencer Locke
“1992 was, like, the coolest year ever.”

During the numerous 90s references in Detention, I wondered if this is a considered attempt to be a future cult classic. It’s a mixture of teen comedy, horror and science fiction, with a plot encompassing murder, romance and time travel. Visually, it’s a lower budget version of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, with scenes flickering like a comic book – captions appear on screen, with gags appearing at such a fast rate that it almost excuses the dire punch lines.

The attempts to be postmodern are evident by how the characters break the fourth wall, and their own deconstruction of horror films that look remarkably similar to Detention. It’s nothing inspiring, but the bizarre overflow of 90s nostalgia suggests the filmmakers were thinking of themselves – the plot is an indulgent mess, where a sample joke is the main character turning up to a fancy dress party as Clare Danes from My So Called Life. (Okay, that is quite funny.) Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to follow, while any empathy runs dry from the sitcom tone – think Community, but less sharp.

For all its failings, Detention is still worth watching for its ambition. It may be a mess, but it has the speed of a crashing rocket. And, as you’d expect from a film director making a transition from music videos, there is plenty of visual flair punctuated by alluring montages.

Down by Law
(1986) – 7/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
“We are a good egg.”

The sad, pensive characters of Jim Jarmusch’s films tend to be trapped in their own worlds, with physical journeys having more of an internal impact – in Down by Law, a shift is made when three men are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. When they escape, their hideout looks identical to a prison cell. It’s an atypical Jarmuschian (is that a word?) image that encapsulates the dry comedy of existential anguish.

There is a subversion of a typical jailbreak film as their getaway isn’t explained or even shown – Roberto Benigni promises he has a plan, and in the next scene the trio are fleeing the sound of a prison siren. The weirder aspects make it worth watching – Tom Waits as a radio DJ who won’t want to talk, the absence of other people in the outside world, and Benigni’s juxtaposed optimisim. Yes, the world is so bleak that it’s possible to derive humour from someone who is genuinely cheerful at the face of adversity. Not a bad character defect to have, I reckon.

(1997) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Jacob Reynolds
“These two brothers, they murdered their parents. They both claim to be raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

There’s a video on Youtube of Harmony Korine promoting Gummo on David Letterman’s show; he’s a nervous, fidgety 19-year-old who is mercilessly mocked by Letterman for poorly promoting Gummo. The audience laughs at – not with – Korine when he explains that his directorial debut reinvents the last century of cinema.

If that audience had seen Gummo, their reaction would have been different – either supportive or vitriolic. After a tornado destroys a town in Ohio, its poor residents continue their nihilistic lives. The vignettes use mostly non-actors in a manner so uncompromising, it forces a physical reaction. It portrays an underside of America never shown in the media without distortion, where activities include breaking chairs, using rifles and pretending to be dead.

As Korine promised Letterman, Gummo breaks the rules of filmmaking; improvised scenes  are interrupted with shoddy home footage with an unconnected monologue. Werner Herzog is even quoted praising a scene where in the background, a piece of bacon is taped to the wall. It’s an example of the recurring image of decay. Although no real animals are used, several cats are purported to be killed for nihilistic reasons. In the first few minutes a cat is drowned, and later one of the most memorable shots is of a young boy, dressed as a rabbit, proudly holding a dead cat to the camera.

It’s never truly explained, but makes sense in the world of Gummo, where even a scene with a man wrestling a chair can be frightening. The only salvation is from music – whether it’s Madonna on the radio, or Roy Orbison on the soundtrack.

As a viewing experience, it’s torturous, ugly, confusing, but oddly beautiful.

Ira and Abby
(2006) – 5.5/10

Director: Robert Cary
Writer: Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring Chris Messina, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm
“As many of you know, I love weddings – I’ve had a few of them…”

Jennifer Westfeldt’s three films have been rapid-fire romantic comedies with a slight twist – the “gimmick” with Ira and Abby is when two strangers decide to marry after knowing each other for six hours. Like Westfeldt’s Friends With Kids, it’s an implausible idea which takes a while for an inevitable conclusion.

There’s an amiable attempt to keep the central relationship believable, and it’s the charm of Westfeldt (who always plays the female lead in her films) that maintains an emotional core when the plot falls apart – character relationships become intertwined and so complex that it mirrors an overlong sitcom. The humour mostly comes from an admittance of its own contrivances, with a sample line being: “I’m cheating on my wife with my daughter’s mother-in-law.”

The film is unsure if it wants to be Woody Allen or Seinfeld, and, unsurprisingly, falls short of both.

Love and Other Drugs
(2010) – 5/10

Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Marshall Herskovitz, Charles Randolph, Edward Zwick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway
“You do realise you’re not a good person because you pity-fucked a sick girl?”

There is an old episode of Fist of Fun where Stewart Lee suggests the worst application to be a radio station controller is to mention in the cover letter that your favourite band is the Spin Doctors. In last year’s Wanderlust, my biggest laugh came from Paul Rudd ironically trying to impress the community with a cover of “Two Princes”, the best known Spin Doctors song. How does Love and Other Drugs begin? With “Two Princes”, setting the tone for later.

That misjudgement represents the struggle within Love and Other Drugs, a film that squanders its potential with bizarre moments that strangle any drama. Despite its advertising campaign (that might as well have had Jake Gyllenhaal leaning against a wall), the storyline is more akin to 1970’s Love Story, but with Anne Hathaway instead of Ali MacGraw.

Gyllenhaal plays the handsome womaniser convincingly because, let’s be honest, he looks a bit like a jerk. He ends up falling for Hathaway, a Parkinson’s sufferer who selflessly ends their relationship because of her illness. When Gyllenhaal redeems himself and finds sentimentality, he does so convincingly because, let’s be honest, he looks a bit like someone who would cry quite easily. It has a chance of being a moving story, but too often weak comedy bits are sandwiched between the drama, killing any momentum.

It tries to be raunchier and edgier than your standard romcom with the word “love” in the title, but is watered down by too many tropes – a geeky brother, unsatisfactory one-liners that belong in a sitcom, and starting everything with the bloody Spin Doctors.

Project X
(2012) – 1.5/10

Director – Nima Nourizadeh
Writers: Michael Bacall, Matt Drake
Starring: Thomas Mann, Alexis Knapp, Oliver Cooper
“Hey, we want some pussy…”

That’s the opening line of Project X, a tasteless, unimaginative sex comedy that doesn’t really try to be funny, while being based on found footage without a decent reason. The “plot” involves a house party that descends into chaos, with a closer look at characters so dull and unlikeable that it’s a struggle to care about them – if you do, it’s in a negative way.

The strongest emotion I felt was anger at what seemed to be animal cruelty towards a dog. Elsewhere, the dialogue is monotonous and unnatural, complemented with unlikely wish fulfilment and female characters with the depth of the layer of clothing they are [not] wearing. This is a film where the alleged moment of redemption is the line: “I’m sorry. I just wanted to get some pussy.”

Shallow Grave
(1994) – 5.5/10

Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston
“At long last, nothing will ever be the same again.”

Three housemates, for reasons I won’t explain, find themselves with a dead stranger upstairs – next to the corpse is a suitcase full of money. They dispose of the body and keep the cash, but things are never this easy – I’m assuming, as I’ve never even seen a dead body, let alone been in that position. Not only do they fight each other, there’s also their own conscience to battle, and outsiders who know about the situation.

It’s a moderately amusing, largely forgetful comedy, with Ewan McGregor providing most of the laughs. Danny Boyle’s directorial debut isn’t spectacular, but has hints of his hasty style that would be better demonstrated two years later with Trainspotting.

Personally, I’d prefer a shallow grave as I can’t tread water.

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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