Film Reviews 32: “To Rome With Love”, “Premium Rush”, “Prometheus”, “La Dolce Vita” and 11 others…

la dolce vita 2

This fortnight: “Dark Shadows”, “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon”, “La Dolce Vita” (pictured above), “The French Connection”, “Fright Night” (1985), “Fright Night” (2011), “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, “Lola Versus”, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”,  “Pierrot Le Fou”, “Premium Rush”, “Prometheus”, “Sound of My Voice”, “La Strada” and “To Rome With Love”.

This month, the average rating is 6.03/10 with film of the month being La Dolce Vita.

I’ve started recording music again, and you can listen to A Postcard to Nitrogen, I’m Boring and East, West or the Sea. You can also follow me on Twitter at @halfacanyon.

Dark Shadows (2012) – 3.5/10

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Bella Heathcoate
“You do still love me, don’t you? Somewhere deep in that cold, unbeating heart?”

Tim Burton revisits a forgotten soap opera on autopilot mode, but the inventiveness and wit must have missed the flight. Regular collaborator Johnny Depp is a vampire trying to cope with the modern world, while getting tangled in a love triangle with Eva Green (a witch) and Belle Heathcoate (200 years younger than him). So, some wacky hijinks ensue, but without much joy.

The anachronistic humour is overkilled – a vampire quoting Love Story may be funny at first, but it doesn’t bear repetition. Otherwise, the dialogue is very uninspired and seems like something from a cheap family sitcom, with a typical example being:
“Are you stoned?”
“They tried stoning me, my dear.”

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
(2012) – 3.5/10

Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Writers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Starring: Mark Kelly, Steve Zissis
“You’re going to leave because I’m playing sports with my brother tomorrow?”

The Duplass brothers edited The Do-Deca-Pentathlon four years after filming, with the delay caused by studio interest in Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. The low budget feature finally emerges like an antiquated product of their amateurish mumblecore era, rather than the finely tuned Jeff.

A bizarre sporting competition lays at the inconceivable plot – 25 events between two brothers which wrecked their relationship. After years of not talking, tensions are healed by recreating the event. The action plays out slowly and without fanfare, while the realism is wrecked by the implausible storyline. It’s like the Olympics, but with less athleticism and far, far less drama.

La Dolce Vita
(1960) – 9/10

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux
“I’m probably going to be visited by more ghosts.”

Somebody once told me that it takes seven hours of deep conversation to truly know someone. If you don’t have time for Satantango, then here’s a recommendation. The multi-chaptered La Dolce Vita is three sprawling hours in the hectic life of Marcello, a tabloid journalist who deplores his profession but is addicted to the lifestyle. Instead of a coherent narrative, there is an episodic structure that add layers to Marcello’s self-indulgence; he sleeps with models, drinks champagne with aristocrats, but can’t avoid the stare of a dead fish. (That last bit is literal, not a metaphor.) He swims (metaphor) through the glitz like a natural exercise, but doubts linger within him; he finds emptiness in his glamorous friends, which becomes more of a reflection of himself.

Fellini’s direction and cinematography captures the physical waste of the rich in widescreen, with many dances starting in mansions simply because the space is there. The repetitive instances means each section harmonises, while the models and aristocrats become increasingly anonymous and harder to follow. There are also conspiracies about the number seven (according to Wikipedia) and how it links with the seven deadly sins, seven days of creation and seven members of S Club 7. (I might have made up that last one.) I don’t really believe any of that, but there’s certainly mystery behind the sequencing – the poetic closing shot follows a slow crescendo of excess, with the sea’s presence washing away drunk memories.

Marcello’s eternal loneliness is contradicted by how he mistreats the only woman who shows him unconditional love, which is just a small factor of his complicated character. It’s only when he’s drunk that he momentarily admits affection towards someone, and his sad childhood is only remembered when he sees his father dance with a former one-night stand.

These are snapshots worth rewatching to find the unspoken emotions, whether it’s how Marcello takes a punch in the face, or the reluctance in which he trawls through the Trevi Fountain. It’s a case where characters refuse to take off their sunglasses; when an actress is asked in an interview if she thinks Italian neo-realism is dead, she stays silent.

The French Connection
(1971) – 7.5/10

Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider
“Pay attention.”

A redundant observation is that The French Connection needs to be seen in a cinema, if possible. Chances are, you ca[r]n’t. On the surface it may be about tough policemen trying to outsmart drug dealers, but it’s also a few thrilling scenes padded out with laboured dialogue – when it rushes, it does so with more adrenaline than the heroin they are chasing. The famous car chase is more exhilarating with the knowledge that William Friedkin filmed much of it among bewildered members of the public, which makes it more stupid than dangerous. But still dangerous.

The cat and mouse game takes a while to develop, but it’s worth the wait. The cold nihilism is slyly echoed in the streets of New York, evocative of jazz and misfortune. It’s all shot with grit and a boldness that hasn’t dated 41 years later (apart from the racism).

Fright Night
(1985) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Tom Holland
Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall
“Your friend needs a psychiatrist, not a vampire killer.”

Is your neighbour a vampire? He looks weird and you’ve never seen holding a cross. That’s the dilemma faced in Fright Night when teenager William Ragsdale notices the man next-door preparing to bite a girl’s neck. Instead of chasing tense scares, the script is more of a self-aware comedy with the dialogue as creaky as the floorboards.

Much of the humour and action hasn’t dated well, with the appeal coming from its B-movie aesthetics and probably ironic appreciation. I’m not sure why it’s claimed a place as a cult classic, but there is a devilishly amusing character in Roddy McDowall playing an actor famous for killing vampires onscreen – he is seen as the protagonist’s last hope, and thus like seeing Noah and asking Russell Crowe to build you a boat.

Fright Night
(2011) – 6/10

Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Marti Noxon
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Imogen Poots, David Tenant
“I don’t need an invitation if there’s no house.”

The remake of Fright Night is surprisingly competent, especially as it tries to be less self-aware (the source of the original’s charm) and replace goofiness with CGI effects. Not only that, but there’s no longer Roddy McDowall as an ex-actor discovering that vampires are real. Instead there’s an unamusingly sweary turn from David Tenant as a stage star who already knows the truth.

There’s a lot going against it, but it somehow works by embracing slick thrills. Colin Farrell is the standout of a great cast; his portrayal of a vampire is less about cloaks, but as a boozy thug impatiently waiting to be invited in. (That notion of the folklore has always puzzled me.)

When the plot starts moving, it delivers physical humour from Farrell’s creativity as a remarkably violent vampire – a villain who also happens to have a desire to suck your blood. It’s also fairly predictable and underwhelming after a while, especially if you’ve already seen the original. But what else were you expecting?

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
(2007) – 8.5/10

Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell
“There is a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone is interested.”

When Steve Wiebe sits down to play an arcade version of Donkey Kong, he is poised like a classical pianist. Fittingly, he grew up as a failed musician who couldn’t attract an audience to his band’s gigs. On top of disappointment with his baseball team, he turned in his 30s to computer gaming, a world where you’re in complete control, don’t need anybody else and can permanently damage your eyesight. It’s an activity that attracts obsessive behaviour, with the murkier side captured in Seth Gordon’s documentary about the Donkey Kong record you never knew existed.

It should be a simple story of gamesmanship and a few people looking back at the time they wasted, but The King of Kong develops into a conspiracy thriller and a contemporary tale of good versus evil. Knowing too many plot details will ruin the experience, and it’s best having little prior knowledge. It’s also a rare argument for why documentaries should exist – the people involved with competitive gaming would be impossible to write or recreate in fiction. But isn’t life a competitive game, and aren’t we all fiction anyway?

Lola Versus
(2012) – 2.5/10

Director: Daryl Wein
Writer: Zoe Lister Jones, Daryl Wein
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman
“I just keep having sex with the wrong people at the wrong time.”

The golden era of 1930s/1940s screwball romantic comedies can never be replicated without seeming like a pastiche. It’s just the way it is. A modern romantic comedy needs to have at least one swear word or else it’s deemed a commercial family movie, rather than a piece of art. I’m being facetious (while also masking my true feelings), but context means you can’t have another His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night without feeling like a tribute.

The major hope is that we’re not stuck in an era of Lola Versus, yet another weak Greta Gerwig comedy about directionless graduates looking for love and a career, in that order. It genuinely puzzles me that Gerwig’s career trajectory is so focused on this direction, even after becoming a “breakout mumblecore star”.

The thrust of Lola Versus is identical to Hannah Takes the Stairs and most of Gerwig’s filmography – she breaks up with a boyfriend, then breaks as many hearts as possible while crying in between. The twist is that the technological age is now thrown into the script. She fastidiously checks other people’s phones, and you watch her scroll through her ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile. When it doesn’t meander, there are sub-sitcom jokes unnaturally scrabbled into scenes. The lukewarm dialogue makes you appreciate the writing of those who can make this style look easy, like Lena Dunham, Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach.

Instead you get lines like: “Are you seriously doing this just before I have to go and argue about my dissertation.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928) – 7/10

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Joseph Delteil Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain
“I fear that I am about to die.”

For a long time, my main frame of reference with Joan of Arc was through listening to The Smiths as a miserable 12-year-old, with Morrissey singing that he knew how she felt. Judging by this “classic” from the silent era, she had it pretty bad and worse than Johnny Marr’s post-80s career.

The most immediate contrast from modern cinema, aside from the fact it’s silent, is the high percentage of facial close-ups. Joanie’s there on trial, insisting that she’s working for God – the camera zooms in on her tearful face for so long that it’s a wonder how she keeps up the intensity. It’s incredibly powerful, but muted by its silence and not really enough to hold your attention.

I watched it listening to Paralytic Stalks, which fitted perfectly. I then concluded that Maria Falconetti was the original Michelle Williams.

Pierrot Le Fou
(1965) – 4/10

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina
“Did you ever kill a man, Pierrot?”
“My name’s Ferdinand. Why do you ask?”

When a husband runs away with his gorgeous babysitter to hit the road and leave a trail of crime, it should be a thrilling ride – the cheap joy of that synopsis is part of the central device of Pierrot Le Fou whereby Goddard is simply commenting on cinema, rather than giving the viewer what they want. It’s an antagonistic approach that is smart in Breathless and charming in A Woman is a Woman, but here it’s a thoughtless drag.

Godard’s statement on filmmaking is to break the fourth wall, highlight the absurdities of cinema conventions, and whatever seemed to enter his mind at the set. There’s a line that life may be sad, but it’s always beautiful – maybe, but it’s a muffled compromise that barely scrapes the surface of relationships and genres. Okay, genres are gimmicky, and it can be awkward if a man speaks with words while the woman uses emotions, but is that enough? The reason why the most enjoyable moments are the musical sequences and gawky colours is that for a moment, you think the film might turn into something else. It doesn’t.

Anna Karina’s character wishes her life was like a book (clear and organised). That’s how I feel about Pierrot Le Fou.

Premium Rush
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: David Koepp
Writers: John Kamps, David Koepp
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Daniea Ramirez
“Can’t stop. Don’t want to.”

I am not ashamed to admit that I can’t ride a bike. Actually, it is a bit embarrassing. I feel like I can’t practise in public in case a young child ollies around me. Anyway, it probably enhanced my enjoyment of Premium Rush, a 91-minute thriller about Joseph Gordon-Levitt cycling around New York. I felt like a kid in a flight simulator, especially as there were only three other people at the screening.

The simple plot involves Levitt having to deliver a package within a certain amount of time, avoiding NYC police and Michael Shannon as a hilariously over-the-top villain. There isn’t much effort to pretend the package isn’t a MacGuffin, but the non-linear narrative is mostly unnecessary and distracts from the central joy: the bike chases.

If you enjoyed this summer’s omnium events, then the dizzy races should be up your cycle lane. It’s energetic fun that will hopefully be followed by a sequel about me crossing the road while using my smartphone.

(2012) – 3/10

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Naomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
“They created us, then they tried to kill us.”

It’s a bad sign when a sci-fi film is heavy-handed with references to religion and humanity, with the directness very obviously being a last-ditch attempt to justify its own existence (like the robots within the film). Prometheus makes very little sense, has no tension, lacks depth in ideas, boasts a cast where the robot seemed the most like a human, doesn’t deserve to be connected with Alien or Aliens, wastes an elaborate set with a problematic storyline which didn’t deserve the large budget, and there isn’t anything else worth saying about it.

Check out the review below for how sci-fi can be done without special effects.

Sound of My Voice
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Writers: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius
“Now you can eat your apple.”

Brit Marling’s Sound of My Voice premiered last year at Sundance with Another Earth, a slightly more marketable film which she also co-wrote. In a Venn diagram, both circles overlap in an area labelled “vague sci-fi” – there is a loose supernatural element with a minimal use of special effects. In fact, Sound of My Voice uses handheld cameras and it’s only classified sci-fi because Brit Marling’s character claims to be from the future.

It’s uncertain whether she believes she was born in 2030, and she also can’t explain why she was sent back in time. But her present self leads a cult that meet in a basement, vomit apples and learn secret handshakes. Two investigative journalists try to infiltrate these meetings, but become slowly won over by her emotional manipulation.

Unfortunately, the short running time doesn’t allow the viewer to fully believe that a sceptic can be hypnotised over a few weeks. However, the whole 85 minutes are so sinister and absorbing that you almost forget the unexplained plot holes.

There isn’t enough about Marling to convince me that she could operate a cult, even when she instructs her followers that an apple represents the bitterness inside the human body. In fact, it’s more exhilarating when she is on the backfoot and is questioned by doubters. When she is asked to sing a pop song from the future, she sings “Dreams” by The Cranberries. How does she defend herself? “Oh. I wasn’t alive in the 90s.”

La Strada
(1954) – 9/10

Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
Starring: Giuletta Masina, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart
“But when I see him, all my limbs itch to hit him.”

I came to La Strada having been overly familiar with Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, a loose black-and-white tribute made after Fellini’s death. I knew the general theme: a temperamental male performer travelling with an introspective woman at the receiving end of his brutishness. The difference is that Allen has Sean Penn as a talkative lead (for it is a “Woody Allen film”), but Fellini accomplishes the slowly remarkable feat of simple characters who verbalise through music.

It all begins by the sea, with the unresponsive water playing a secondary character throughout. Gelsomina (Masina) is sold for 10,000 lire to a street performer called Zampanò (Quinn) and they hit the road to play to audiences. The pair’s dynamic is based on cold discipline; Zampanò abuses his assistant, while her small taste of life as an artist (even if it’s just a strongman’s sidekick) means she’s too afraid to leave.

The narrative frames the duo as two sad souls who can’t articulate their feelings. Zampanò takes his anger out on whoever’s within hitting distance, which is often himself if that’s how you interpret an act that consists of hurting your body then drinking in the evening until you black out. Similarly, Gelsomina is wide-eyed and innocent, but unable to communicate her mixed feelings to a man who is effectively her owner, knowing that his response will be an to shut up.

Like any good screenplay, the sour relationship is disrupted by a clown from a travelling circus. In true Shakespearian fashion, it’s the Fool who speaks the wisest words – as a counsellor for Gelsomina, and hurling insults at Zapanò that hurt only because they dig at the insecurities he locks away.

But not everyone can be a clown. After all, you have to go to clown college, and you know how much university fees cost these days. It instead becomes more common that music is used to express emotions – whether it’s Gelsomina’s trumpet riff, the pathos of a sad violin, or Zampanò revving up the motorcycle. At the same time, the film’s score luxuriates the loneliness of the empty roads, with the strings wistfully extending the periods of no talking.

It might even be a nun who provides the most valuable lesson, advising that staying in one place means you get too attached and forget what’s important. For her, it’s God. For me, it’s something I’ve already forgotten.

To Rome With Love
(2012) – 6/10

Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni, Alessamdro Tiberi, Penélope Cruz, Alison Pill, Greta Gerwig, Alex Baldwin, Woody Allen, Judy Davis,
“There’s something attractive about a man who is plagued by the perils of existence.”

Woody Allen has been criticised for making Europe look like a postcard. His 46th film is no different, although I don’t see a problem – many of the characters of To Rome With Love are tourists, and the setting isn’t particularly relevant to the story (apart from when Roberto Benigni goes out to eat a pizza). This slapdash approach extends to the picture’s structure: four stories that aren’t connected and don’t share much thematically apart from Allen coming up with the ideas within the same short time period.

The vignettes are a mixed bunch, with the best strand featuring Jesse Eisenberg as a younger version of Allen, contemplating leaving Greta Gerwig for Ellen Page. It turns out that Eisenberg and Page are naturals for Allen’s anxious dialogue, and at no point does she quote a line from Juno after mistaking him for Michael Cera.

The ingenious casting continues with Alec Baldwin as an invisible romantic advisor, reminiscent of the central gimmick in the first Allen/Keaton collaboration, Play It Again, Sam – to be fair, it’s been 40 years and maybe he’s just forgotten. Maybe Eisenberg and Page will reconnect in future films because their comic chemistry is as charming as the Colosseum awkwardly hovering in the background.

The other storylines are less fruitful. Two are fairly one-joke threads (Roberto Benigni wakes up as an unexpected celebrity, and an opera singer finds he can only perform in the shower) which barely develop, yet have entirely predictable trajectories.

The last is an implausible comedy of errors involving a man being caught by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) by his parents; instead of explaining the situation, he pretends that she’s his wife and you watch in bewilderment as the farce unfolds.

Fortunately Allen’s late period instils a lot of charm and goodwill, partly from a professional cast who’ve seen Annie Hall and Broadway Danny Rose enough times to deliver their lines with a mutual understanding. It may be mindless and derivative, but it still delivers regular laughs. I saw it in the cinema and there were only three other people at the screening; at no point did any two people laugh at the same joke, which suggests everyone might find different aspects to appreciate.

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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