Film Reviews 31: “Anna Karenina”, “The Watch”, “Barry Lyndon” and 10 others…

mister lonely 2

This fortnight: “About Cherry”, “Anna Karenina”, “Barry Lyndon”, “Comes a Bright Day”, “The Conversation”, “Heat”, “Hi Custodian”, “Kids”, “Mister Lonely” (pictured above), “Pi”, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”, “Walk the Line” and “The Watch”.

This time, the average rating is 5.69/10 with film of the month being The Conversation. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Cherry (2012) – 2.5/10

Director: Stephen Elliott
Writers: Lerelei Lee, Stephen Elliott
Starring: Ashley Hinshaw, James Franco, Heather Graham
“Your job is fucking disgusting.”

Stephen Elliott has the misfortune of being the third most famous person on IMDb with the same name, and About Cherry is unlikely to change that. His debut feature is a humourless delve into the pornography industry without new discoveries.

Ashley Hinshaw plays Cherry, a young waitress who moves to San Francisco for a modelling career, and finds a more profitable route. She’s surrounded by undeveloped characters played by recognisable names (James Franco, Heather Gramam, Dev Patel), but each personal relationship rarely extends beyond casual small talk and an occasional revelation. Remarkably, considering how contrived most of her friends are (from Franco as the bearded lothario who forgets to turn up to dates, to Patel who realises he will always be a boy friend instead of a boyfriend), each strand lacks closure. This isn’t to say that everything should be wrapped up nicely, but when a film ends on what feels like the midpoint of a second act, you have to ask questions.

The shooting style suggests a rushed filming, as if the cameraman is worried about the batteries running out. The main puzzle is why James Franco is taking part, while the inclusion of Heather Graham is a reminder of Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent Boogie Nights, a superior take on similar subject matter. While Anderson scoped the pornography profession from its violent highs to its drug fuelled lows, About Cherry can barely muster glimpses into what might have been a more courageous film. Instead of making the viewer wonder why the protagonist is entering pornography, it substitutes drama for occasional nudity and a half-hearted attempt to “tell it straight”.

Anna Karenina
(2012) – 8/10

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Film reviewers are all alike; every unhappy film reviewer is unhappy in his/her own way. I was cheered up by Anna Karenina, though. I saw it on my own in the cinema on the morning it was released, having very little prior knowledge of Leo Tolstoy’s 350,000 word novel. I knew so little about it, I only realised it was Jude Law when the end credits appeared.

Like Benjamin Franklin, I was struck by Joe Wright’s inventive take on the realist source material by presenting it as a clockwork fantasy, mostly set in a dazzling theatre. Tolstoy may have written his tragedy in 1877, but the musicality of Wright’s direction adds a modern swing without dumbing down for the audience. (I am guessing, as I haven’t actually read the book.)

The theatre setting is an indication that the film is meant to be a spectacle; its eponymous lead, played by Keira Knightley, isn’t so much the star, but an instrumental solo. The danger of turning a tragic love story into a golden fantasy is that it takes away from the emotional resonance of the characters, which isn’t helped by the slight woodenness of Knightley’s eyes.

However, I would argue that Anna Karenina’s downfall benefits from the cold direction, demonstrating the banality of love when you’re disconnected from the chracters. Either way, it gets swept away in the rich cinematography which grandly complements the idea of draining someone for all their love until there’s nothing left.

  So it’s a rare occasion where Tom Stoppard’s words are the least tricky element of a project. Tolstoy would probably hate it, but its visuals are adventurous enough to be considered an Avatar for a different audience.

Barry Lyndon
(1975) – 8/10

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Leon Vitali, Marisa Berenson
“I have hidden my neck ribbon somewhere on my person.”

Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive perfectionism has been covered to death on this blog, and is evident in this period drama. It’s grand and beautiful, with every scene looking like an 18th century painting. It’s also surprisingly funny in how it tells the miraculous rise and eventual misfortune of an Irish rogue in a tale of patient opportunism. It may be slow, especially at its 3-hour length, but a 3rd person narration preserves a momentum rarely found in similar biopics. It swirls like a vivid art gallery, although there’s a lingering feeling that one should have more control over how much time is spent with each painting.

Comes a Bright Day
(2012) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Simon Aboud
Starring: Craig Roberts, Imogen Poots
“There’s a place just around the corner that does the best – and I mean the very best – pasta.”

Simon Aboud’s debut feature comes after a career working with advertisements, and it shows – filmed crisply, you want to buy the onscreen products, but it lacks in substance. The concept is promising: a heist that goes wrong, entangling an innocent boy (Craig Roberts) as a hostage who finds love amidst the criminal gang. Unfortunately, like the heist, the film doesn’t work.

The plot is complicated without being of interest, instead becoming background noise, like a roommate reading a Wikipedia plot summary into your ear while you’re trying to watch a love story. However, the central romance is cold and without chemistry – even having Roberts locked in with Imogen Poots can’t create any satisfying interaction, and feels a bit like watching two Big Brother contestants making small talk then kissing because there’s nothing else to do.

It’s only the hint of a smooth saxophone solo from the jazzy soundtrack that really hints at what the director would have wanted. With a better script, it could have been a great advert.

The Conversation
(1974) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford
“He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

A few months ago on this blog, I made fun of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out for reimagining Blow-Out with a sound specialist, instead of a photographer, uncovering a murder. “It can’t be done!” I said. It turns out I was wrong.

The majority of The Conversation is focuses on Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who covertly records subjects for vast amounts of money. The character study has layers that are slowly peeled when paranoia develops and nightmares start to take over. He plants microphones in public places to capture the utterances of strangers, but values his own privacy over his happiness. He doesn’t own a landline phone, and sweats when asked a personal question. The smaller details build up richly so that even the dream sequences make sense.

When Hackman suspects he’s been hired as part of a murder plan, his conscience takes over his daily routines. Racked by guilt, he questions his existence as a sound man, creating a moral dilemma probably covered in many Philosophy A-Level exam papers. His only true expression comes through playing the saxophone at home, when no one is around.

This reluctance to break out of a shell is what makes The Conversation eminently watchable, as a thriller where the detective doesn’t want to find the clues; a hero who doesn’t know what to do; a problem that might not be a problem. Really, it’s what paranoia looks like when caught by surveillance.

(1995) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Michael Mann
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino
“I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”

Technically, Heat is a loose biopic of Detective Chuck Adamson’s battle with Neil McCauley’s heist gang back in the 1960s. Really, it’s a 3-hour competition between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino trying to outwit (and out-act) the other.

Pacino is the stressed lieutenant whose personal life is falling apart, with his office time spent obsessing over De Niro’s criminal activity. What separates Heat from any other generic action drama is the depth of the drama, where even less significant characters feel like real people, and criminals can speak with rich language instead of cliches. To quote Mike from Breaking Bad: “No half measures.”

And the coffee scene between De Niro and Pacino? Even more tense and thrilling than when the Flintstones met the Jetsons.

Hi Custodian
(2012) – 4/10

Director/Writer: David Longstreth
Starring: The Dirty Projectors
“I saw my friend in a pool of light, all drowned in doubt and shame.”

As much as I adore the music of The Dirty Projectors, I still felt Hi Custodian was a waste of time. It’s a short film based on their most recent album, Swing Lo Magellan, influenced by Kanye West’s Runaway video from last year. The difference is that despite the numerous filmmaking faults of Runaway, it was watchable because of its single vision and Kanye’s overblown ambition.

Instead, Hi Custodian is an overlong music video; the abstract images have cinematic flair, but become tiresome when you suspect David Longstreth isn’t as vigorous in the editing room as he is in a musical studio.

(1995) – 7/10

Director: Larry Clark
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Leo Frizpatrck, Rosario Dawson, Chloe Sevigny
“That shit is fucking made up. I don’t know no kids with AIDS.”

The manufactured thrills of Project X suffer in comparison to Kids. Mumblecore’s recent popularity has seen its stars praise John Cassavettes, but not so much this collaboration between Korine and Clark. It’s perplexing. Kids captures with authenticity the behaviour of disaffected youth, without shying away from violence or depravity. The pseudo-documentary spends a day with horny teenagers who beat up strangers, take drugs and have unprotected sex – all while oblivious of the AIDS crisis. It distils the hopelessness of a generation and ignored underclass; coping, yet with nothing to lose.

Mister Lonely
(2007) – 8.5/10

Director: Harmony Korine
Writers: Avi Korine, Harmony Korine
Starring: Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Werner Herzog
“It’s such a special place. A place where everybody is famous and no one ages.”

Harmony Korine’s return to filmmaking follows an eight-year absence where he became addicted to drugs, tried to live on the streets, and became a lifeguard’s assistant. Apparently. It’s part of the antagonistic myth that helped build Korine’s career, but his comeback is easily his most conventional effort that confirms his talent extends beyond self-promotion.

Korine continues his lifelong ambition to create cinema that didn’t exist, but this time it’s with a surreal twist. The sad figure of Mister Lonely is a Michael Jackson impersonator who is rescued from Paris by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator; they’re both empathetic figures on their own, but the costumes and makeup amp up the pathos missing from last year’s My Week With Marilyn and, er, My Week With Michael.

Monroe takes Jackson to a Scottish commune shared by other impersonators including  James Dean, Madonna and the Pope. It means their mundane lives become charming, as you watch Jackson and Abraham Lincoln ride a motorcycle around town, while back at the house is Charlie Chaplin losing his temper over table tennis.

There’s also a subplot with Werner Herzog (well, it is a film about impersonators) and some nuns who jump off a plane hoping that God will be their parachute – I’ll leave you to guess their fates. When the strands are all put together, it’s overwhelming how Korine’s direction is achingly gorgeous. This isn’t like Gummo where the beauty was hidden under terror and vandalism, but it’s placed in the centre and in widescreen.

(1998) – 3.14/10

Director/Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis
“The number is nothing – it’s the meaning.”

It’s easy to describe Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature in relation with his later career. Is Pi just Requiem For a Dream with numbers instead of drugs? Or maybe it’s more of a Black Swan with numbers instead of ballet. Either way, it’s far less engaging that both of them, unless you enjoy asking yourself, “Is he a more of a mathematician or a numerologist?”

It’s a shame as Pi begins with early promise. A man wonders if the stock market can be solved by numerical patterns, arguing that it’s a natural organism. It’s a mystery that grows into an attempt to understand the meaning of life, but it all collapses as Aronofsky can’t deliver on the conceit. Instead it’s a repetitive look into paranoia that, like the number pi, feels never ending.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
(2007) – 4/10

Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan
Starring: John C. Reilly, Kristen Wiig, Jenna Fischer
“I do believe in you. I just know you’re going to fail.”

Spoof comedies have been notoriously poor after a generation of filmmakers grew up loving Airplane! and Young Frankenstein, and it’s unsurprising; your joke rate needs to be higher than any other comedy film, and you’re limited with subject material that needs to be treated in a manner that isn’t simply a lesser replication. Which is why that, even at 4/10, Walk Hard is a success as it’s such a difficult genre.

Closely parodying Walk the Line is a brave decision that works because it allows John C. Reilly to demonstrate his impressive range – he sings well, he cries, he does drama, he does slapstick, he does everything. In one scene, he has a breakdown, tears flows from his eyes, then a few seconds later runs out into the streets nearly naked. It isn’t funny, but it should replace Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue as an audition staple.

As expected, it’s just a series of gags, which can never be satisfying over the course of a film. There’s only so much material that can be obtained from Walk the Line, but the film smartly tackles other singers – one highlight is Reilly’s uncanny Bob Dylan impression. Through all its faults, it’s oddly watchable because of the central performance, even if the appreciation was through my stony silence, waiting for it to end. Because that’s all it is – gags, and mostly weak ones.

Walk the Line
(2005) – 5/10

Director: James Mangold
Writers: Gill Dennis, James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.”

Like Johnny Cash’s music, Walk the Line follows a reliable and predictable 4/4 time signature. Joaquin Phoenix is impressive, but it’s hard to be engaged without a passing interest in the folk singer’s career. His distorted childhood and drug-related downfall isn’t the most captivating of storylines, and the music seems too bland to back this reputation. That’s my own opinion, though.

The drama is steady and has a few scenes for Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon to demonstrate their acting (and singing) talents. Yet, even though it’s admirable how naturally they slip into their roles, there isn’t much evidence of Cash being enough of a tragic or inspirational figure to carry a film.

The Watch
(2012) – 4.5/10

Director: Akiva Schaffer,
Writers: Jared Stern, Even Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade
“Listen to him, but look at me.”

The vitriol against The Watch seems to be less against the film itself, but aimed towards the studio’s blind faith in the project – how could it fail with such a famous cast, a Seth Rogen screenplay credit, and a goofy alien plotline? When you look into it closer, the promotional gloss can barely cover the truth; there’s never been any evidence those four stars have any onscreen chemistry, Rogen has distanced himself from the comedy by avoiding any promotional work, and the aliens are a crude addition to an vacuous narrative.

The idea is that a neighbourhood watch have to save the world from an alien invasion. Instead of an explanation, there are series of mediocre vignettes where the frat pack get drunk and sing songs. If it sounds indulgent, it isn’t. If only.

The disjointed narrative is low on characterisation and momentum, with its greatest strength being unironic product placement and Richard Ayoade, proving he is funny in everything he does (apart from adapting my beloved Joe Dunthorne novel). There are a few laughs, but not enough, especially considering the potential. The special effects are rendered meaningless, with even the cast looking bored – yes, even when the aliens appear. So imagine that, the idea of yawning when an alien stares you in the face because Vince Vaughan’s schtick has finally numbed your emotions and ability to enjoy yourself.

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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