Film Reviews 33: “Looper”, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, “Damsels in Distress”, “Grizzly Man” and 12 others…

holiday 2

This fortnight: “The Aristocrats”, “The Art of Getting By”, “The Awful Truth”, “Beauty and the Briefcase”, “Damsels in Distress”, “Daydream Nation”, “Everything Must Go”,  “Grizzly Man”, “Holiday” (pictured above), “Iron Man 2”, “Looper”, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, “The Thin Man”, “Trash Humpers” and “You Instead”.

This time, the average rating is 5.53/10 with film of the fortnight being Grizzly Man. I found a way to plug my vocal cords to my laptop via USB cable. So now instead of a screensaver, Microsoft Word automatically opens and tells me I’m useless. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

The Aristocrats (2005) – 4/10

Directors: Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza
Starring: 100 comedians
“You hear one note of Coltrane, you know it’s Coltrane.”

The “aristocrats” joke is better known among comics than audiences, mainly because it’s like describing last night’s dream – more fun to tell than hear. This documentary continues that logic by interviewing 100 comedians solely on the topic to rather excruciating detail, with every second being a direct-to-camera interview.

The joke itself is rather simple. A family act visits a circus, and an agent asks them what they can do; the father describes the most tasteless act possible (usually involving incest, bestiality and fecal matter). When the agent asks the father for the name of the act, he responds, “The Aristocrats.” The documentary focuses on how comedians love to improvise with that middle section, as if they’re jazz musicians.

The footage could perhaps be used as an intriguing 30-minute BBC Radio 4 documentary or an episode of This American Life. The highlights are in short 20-second bursts with the joke being told through vaudeville acts – a mime using graphic gestures, an unfunny ventriloquist, and some jugglers. Bob Saget and Jason Alexander delight in performing the filthiest versions they can conjure, while The Onion’s writing staff dissect its mechanisms. It’s fascinating to see comedians discussing stand-up as a science and art form, but there isn’t enough insightful analysis to sustain the running time, perhaps encapsulated by closing with Jon Stewart’s reticence to speak on the matter.

There are appearances from many big names (like Billy Connolly, Robbie Williams and Eric Idle), but without subtitles providing names before the credits. This typifies the lack of information uncovered in The Aristocrats which, as expected, finds that most talking heads repeat the same opinions – they mostly agree it is offensive, has an unfunny punchline, but can be subverted. It’s just a shame the documentary lacks the improvisatory skills the joke itself supposedly provides.


The Art of Getting By
(2011) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Gavin Wiesen
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts
“You’re my only real friend. Let’s not ruin this.”

The restraint shown in The Art of Getting By suggests it’s happy to be just another coming-of-age indie drama. It’s a shame as Wiesen’s debut film demonstrates potential with a central romance between two naive people in the nervous period just before graduation. Some fine performances from the leads bring likeability, but there are key ingredients missing from the Sundance pie; when the relationship does and doesn’t form, it’s so sudden that I had to roll my eyes.

The low-key drama mostly works because of the actors’ charms, even if it follows the quintessential dramatic rule that someone has to be punched 25 minutes from the end, approximately 10 minutes before the boy and girl reunite.

Another problem with having unremarkable characters is the lack of backstory. Some parenting issues are lightly touched upon, but Highmore’s poor school record is mostly unexplained. Still, you have to admire a film that makes its most majestic moment when a boy tells a teacher he will do his homework.


The Awful Truth
(1937) – 7.5/10

Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Sidney Buchman, Viña Delmar, Arthur Richman
Starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne
“Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were too, so I guess things will never be the same again. You’re all confused.”

I recognised elements of 1949’s Adam’s Rib in The Awful Truth, but that debt is more connected with the classic screwball era. Cary Grant’s chemistry with Irene Dunne is the nucleus of the traditional remarriage plot; the married couple split up, then sabotage each other’s relationships, while exchanging rapid one-liners at a tempo rarely found nowadays. The writing isn’t as sharp as the period’s classics, but it contains enough sharp lines to engage the viewer – a far from awful truth.


Beauty and the Briefcase
(2010) – 4/10

Director: Gil Junger
Writer: Michael Horowitz
Starring: Hilary Duff, Michael McMillian, Matt Dallas
“I’m the best undercover journalist in the history of the world.”

If you’re watching Beauty and the Briefcase for insight into the competitive world of women’s magazines, then you’re better off with The September Issue or even The Devil Wears Prada. Hilary Duff is no longer the master of disguise that is Lizzie McGuire, but a wannabe journalist who has only ever written for her university publication. Through having connections (possibly from her Lizzie McGuire days), she scores a meeting with the editor of Cosmopolitan to pitch ideas, and is commissioned to write a cover article (!) about dating “men in suits”.

It’s an absurd plot where, as expected, she falls in love with a man who doesn’t wear a suit – the most compromising ethical dilemma not brought up by Leveson. Not really a shrewd depiction of journalism, but a bizarre family comedy with enough sex references to make you feel uncomfortable – not that I watched it with anyone, but I could picture several teenagers sitting awkwardly in their family living rooms.

Duff is an unfortunately ditzy blonde stereotype who can only think about sex and journalism (in that order), but has fine comedic timing. It’s funnier than you expect, with the best-written joke being how an inexperienced journalist is allowed to write a cover story for Cosmopolitan – if you’re reading, I’m also available for freelance work.


Damsels in Distress
(2012) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Adam Brody
“This scene and this soap is what gives me hope.”

Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years is more akin to the early comedy of Metropolitan than the personally disappointing Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. The charming campus comedy of Damsels in Distress uses a whimsical cast centred on a female quartet determined to save university students from depression through emotional support and tapdancing lessons. Try it and tell me if it works.

Stillman’s love-it-or-hate-it dialogue is goofier than usual and perhaps more likely to repel sceptics. It‘s awash with over-the-top lines and quirks like a boy who can’t identify colours and thinks a traffic light is blue, but how can you not find joy when he later screams “Indigo!” at a rainbow?

The world of Damsels in Distress is very unlike ours or in any other film, including Stillman’s own work. This is partly from the strange campus politics, self-aware 80s soundtrack and slightly overwritten language, but it took me some time to realise: it’s an adult comedy where everyone is bizarrely nice. The need to help others isn’t played for laughs or sentimental value; it’s part of Gerwig’s character that two of her main aims is to create a soap with an anti-depression scent and to start an international dance craze. It’s a world where the suicide centre gives you a donut, then orders you to put on some tapdancing shoes.

Not only is the script full of wit and strange turns, but you genuinely enjoy the company of these people. Stillman doesn’t lose his hilarious touch at analysing triviality (with one scene ending on a girl marvelling at seeing an artichoke for the first time) and, as they say in the film – the past is gone, so you may as well romanticise it.


Daydream Nation
(2011) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Michael Goldbach
Starring: Kat Dennings, Reece Thompson, Andie MacDowell
“The highlight of your entire life is going to be your yearbook photo.”

The self-indulgence of Daydream Nation begins when you have a title that not only references a Sonic Youth album, but even names its protagonist Thurston. But that’s where it stops. Kat Denning narrates the indie drama with a blunt description of emotions, rather than through the character’s behaviour.

At the centre is a love triangle involving two students and a teacher, but it’s played without spark or authenticity. Denning and Reece Thompson have thoughts redolent of adolescence, but in the worst way that doesn’t ring true. An unnecessary subplot with a serial killer is a last-ditch attempt to hide the blandness; if it’s going to be named after a Sonic Youth album, then it should be Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.


Everything Must Go
(2011) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Dan Rush
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall
“If you don’t have the answer, find it. It’s that simple.”

Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go is not a great representation of Raymond Carver’s short story Why Don’t You Dance but makes a valiant effort to translate the minimalist text onto the screen.

Will Ferrell’s alcoholism costs him his job and marriage, and his wife leaves his possessions in his front garden, which leads to a sad yard sale, if you pardon the tautology. Ferrell is fortunately in placid mode and acts with restraint, but the unadventurous script is unable to explore the mundane details that work so well on the page. Instead of being pensive, it takes an exciting situation and makes it slow, predictable and average.


Grizzly Man
(2005) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, lots of bears
“I will die for these animals.”

Werner Herzog’s philosophical documentary about Timothy Treadwell is mostly told through found footage; Treadwell spent 13 summers in Alaska living with grizzly bears and filming video diaries of his one-sided relationships. He hoped to prove the strong kinship he shared with the creatures and to a certain extent he does – just like in the human world, he is ultimately betrayed by his friends and was eaten in 2003.

Treadwell’s footage captures an attempt to be one with nature, repeatedly punctuating sentences with phrases like “I don’t regret being here” and “These are my best friends”, as if trying to convince himself. As you’d expect from a lonely man talking to a camera, he reveals more about himself than the bears; hints of loneliness, using the bears as a (successful) solution to his alcoholism and drug addiction, and bitter resentment with the human world. Herzog’s 2012 film about death row, Into the Abyss, could easily apply to this.

These videos are enough to make Grizzly Man captivating for humans and bears to watch, perhaps together, but Herzog adds his own unique spin. Herzog sympathises with Treadwell as an ambitious filmmaker endangering his life in front of the camera. Most people would (and did) ridicule Treadwell’s lifestyle, but Herzog admires the commitment of someone who captured shots of nature that can’t be created by a studio. After all, Herzog is someone who had a 320-tonne ship actually dragged over a hill in Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog’s psychoanalysis is that Treadwell was fighting civilisation; he grew up an “all-American boy”, then lost a diving scholarship and came second to Woody Harrelson for the role of Woody in Cheers. (If you ask me, I think it’s down to the name. It also meant we missed out on an alternate world where Sam Malone is told by Frasier that Diane was eaten by a bear.) Herzog remarks he sees no kinship in the bears’ eyes, and just a “half-bored interest in food”. That Treadwell saw something else, demonstrates another chase for an unreachable dream, or a need for clearer sunglasses.

When Treadwell rants at the camera, you wonder if Herzog is correct. He documented beautiful footage of bears in their natural habitat, but your attention is drawn towards a man on the edge. I couldn’t stop noticing that he always wore sunglasses, as if there’s something he was hiding. Not only that, we learn that he had his girlfriend with him for the last two years, but kept her out of shot. He moves closer and closer towards the bears, even the ones he admits want to kill him. The mystery adds up when you consider it’s a failed actor who felt he had nothing to lose, and you wonder if the unspoken message is that he wanted to die, and he wanted it to happen this way. Sometimes I wish I would be eaten by a bear and everything would just end.


Holiday
(1938) – 9/10

Director: George Cukor
Writers: Phlip Barry, Sidney Buchman, Donald Ogden Stewart
Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan
“I never could decide whether I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale or John L. Lewis.”

This screwball classic has nothing to do with the similarly titled 2006 Cameron Diaz film, but is actually a remake of a 1930 film of the same name – itself, an adaptation of a play. Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that the crux of the film takes place in a single room, playing to its strengths: the dialogue and endearing stubbornness of Katharine Hepburn’s temporary inertia.

Cary Grant is who the viewer initially identifies with, as he starts to doubt the American Dream. He becomes engaged to Doris Nolan, the daughter of an extravagantly wealthy family; she glibly confesses to her sister, Katharine Hepburn, that she doesn’t mind being married for her money. Grant may or may not be after her money, but there’s a limit; her father insists he works for his bank firm, but he wants to take his earnings and travel the world.

Grant is deemed un-American because he doesn’t want to make as much money as possible, and he finds sympathy from Hepburn. She takes a while to emerge in Holiday as a co-lead (if you don’t count her early scene-stealing) but becomes the focus when she refuses to go downstairs to join her father’s party, swarming with affluent socialites. As she dots around in a circle, exchanging one-liners with whoever walks in, the depth of the character is revealed; drowning in pressure, having a life partly ruined through a financially forced head start disguised as kindness.

It’s a challenge to the viewer; Grant and Hepburn seem to have everything, but they’re still unsatisfied. Her father denounces her as acting like a 17-year-old. He has a point; she behaves like a petulant teenager, while he yearns for a gap year. It sounds cliched to say that, for all their luck and fortune, all they really want is each other. It’s to the film’s accomplishment that this doesn’t seem saccharine. Instead, Grant and Hepburn become an alternate vision of the American Dream, like quick-witted boats against the current, borne back ceaseless into the screwball era.


Iron Man 2
(2010) – 3/10

Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, ScarJo, Sam Rockwell
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to exit the donut.”

Robert Downey Jr wears the suit of Iron Man remarkably well, tossing off one-liners and sarcastic putdowns like a robot. Except he’s a human. His playboy lifestyle isn’t as entertaining this time round and, without the focus on an origin story, the structure falls apart: it isn’t clear who the main villain is, and Tony Stark’s faulty heart seems a barely planned plot contrivance that barely resembles an obstacle.

The film is dressed up with pointless accessories like ScarJo’s character (who adds very little apart from a few athletic kicks) and placing a dreary magnifying glass on Stark’s relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow – it isn’t unusual, it’s just badly written. When the tone suddenly shifts because villains suddenly shift their attentions and Stark starts drinking too much, it echoes Spider-Man 3. Perhaps they should have made more of an effort to emulate Ghostbusters (aside from copying the plot solution of “crossing the streams”).


Looper
(2012) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
“Time travel has not yet been invented. But in 30 years time, it will have been.”

Let it be known: I am one of the few reviewers to regularly refer to Wikipedia. You may not know that Rian Johnson also directed the episode of Breaking Bad with the fly. You know, the one where Walt tries to catch the fly and nothing else happens. It was called The Fly. Well, anyway, his Wikipedia page also cites that Annie Hall is his all-time favourite film. If true, its influence can be seen in Looper: a mishmash of genres, time travel, meeting your younger self, and characters that swing between likeable and unlikeable every few scenes.

But Looper is not a comedy. It also isn’t exactly sci-fi. The second hour takes place on a farm, but it’s far from Days of Heaven. For all the memorable action sequences, there are also unmemorable parenting sequences in between. The audience expects an existential action flick, but is instead lectured on how you should take better care of your son or else he will become a rainmaker. Oh, a rainmaker is Looper-talk for a criminal mastermind, which is unfortunate as Emily Blunt admits her crops are dying.

It takes place in 2044. Joe (…seph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper – an assassin who kills people sent back in time from 2074. When his future self appears in the form of Bruce Willis, it becomes complicated and extremely nonsensical. For all the talk of Looper being a smart sci-fi, there’s little explanation about its time travel logic. I could write a 2,000 word piece on the plot holes, but I won’t; it isn’t a film about time travel. (Although the ending negates the whole premise, and it made no sense that Paul Dano’s older version had limbs in the first place, but I won’t go into any of that.)

The first and third acts are fairly gripping in that ideas are smartly thrown around, and the action shuttles sharply. However, it lacks the atmosphere of the great dystopian sci-fis of Blade Runner and Children of Men. You don’t notice until the second act, when it slows down with the introduction of Emily Blunt. Her parenting issues take over from the action and kill the momentum; Looper could be commended for being two films welded together, but the joint was probably done with Pritt Stick.

I was quiet throughout, but other people at the cinema weren’t; their reaction defines the film. Act one: gasps and silence. Act two: bored chatter. Act three: silence. The ending: someone muttered, “What the fuck?”

The ambition of Looper isn’t fully realised, but can be appreciated; there may be several extraneous characters, but the logistically impossible storyline is smart and philosophical. Just as the highlight of Heat was Pacino and De Niro’s coffee table scene, Looper takes a break in a diner: Joe and has lunch with his older self. They both want to kill each other, ask questions, and they’re also hungry. The tension doesn’t last throughout, but it’s worth a trip to the cinema for this moment alone (and to see Levitt’s dodgy Willis-like makeup).

Lots of thrills, but when it makes you ask philosophical questions, you only realise afterwards that you were just questioning aspects of the plot.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower
(2012) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
“Why do I and everyone I love pick people who treat us like nothing?”

An illuminating moment took place when I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower at the cinema. By mistake, the house lights came on during the last 30 minutes; there was a collective embarrassment among the audience.

I went in without any research or seeing the trailer and was shocked to find it was a based on a young adult novel. I felt slightly cheated – look at that title name! Shouldn’t books and films aimed at that demographic be given ridiculous names like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? But it still shared chromosomes with my guilty pleasure: coming-of-age indie dramas.

Logan Lerman plays the protagonist and narrator, a reticent boy who has no friends at school. By chance, he’s invited for a late-night drive by half-siblings Ezra Miller and Emma Watson, two slightly older pupils in the form of “Manic Pixie Dream Friends”. They introduce him to “the island of misfit toys”: a gang of oddballs who experiment with LSD and late showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The drama is overly earnest with everyone quite keen to explain why they want to kill themselves, and anecdotes from their sad history. The adolescent angst is overwrought; Watson and Lerman are lazily defined as miserable early in the script by their mutual love of The Smiths (and the suicide ode “Asleep”, to further the point). There are quite a few unintentional laughs from sincere lines, with a notable example being: “And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”

But some of the embarrassment is from a deeper understanding. The characters are likeable enough to force a physical reaction, whether it’s a muted silence from witnessing an awkward exchange, or putting hands over my eyes when a game of “Spin the bottle” goes awry. It’s a half-decent attempt to capture the joy of being an outsider discovering new experiences with friends. As films about depressed teenage boys go, it’s ranks above It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but miles away from the non-existent adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye.


The Thin Man
(1934) – 2.5/10

Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy
“I think it’s a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.”

History has been kind to The Thin Man which is often named among other screwball films of the era like His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and The Lady Eve. Those are three of my favourite films of all time, but The Thin Man doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, even though that’s exactly what I just did. It has an interesting prospect of a young couple who solve a murder mystery for fun, but its humour has dated poorly and the leading pair’s chemistry is sub-GCSE standard.

The murder mystery is convoluted and not worth taking seriously – not that you’re supposed to, but it came closer to bringing me a laugh than any of the antiquated dialogue.


Trash Humpers
(2009) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Paul Booker, Dave Cloud, Chris Crofton, Rachel Korine
“It would be nice to live without a head. Think of all the money you’d save on shampoo.”

Harmony Korine’s career-long quest to find beauty in unexpected places takes a nosedive with Trash Humpers, a VHS-shot tribute to grotesque destruction. The premise: vandals are dressed in makeup and masks to look disfigured and elderly; they sing obscene songs, smash objects and tell racist jokes. Oh, and they hump trash. Several times.

There is certainly an element of Korine producing the worst film possible, but by “worst” I mean something unique – the 78 minutes of Trash Humpers iscertainly an experience. With grainy footage that imitates an old video cassette, its simplicity makes Gummo look like Magnolia. It’s never as dull as it should be, as the wanton damage is too unpredictable to be repetitive, and shots of tree-fellating are too bizarre to become tiresome.

Like Julien Donkey-Boy, there are shades of Lars von Trier (particularly The Idiots) in its amateurish and spontaneous production. After a few scenes of “trash humping” begin to outstay their welcome, I wondered if there isn’t actually any social commentary. Maybe this is just a mischievous filmmaker testing whether critics could find positives in anything, and finding joy in taking something like Trash Humpers to festivals.

There’s probably a lot of truth in that, but there’s poignancy mear the end. One man delivers a monologue about feeling sorry for people who go to work and pray on Sundays. “We choose to live like free people,” he says. “We choose to live like a people should live.”

It’s the only eloquent moment of the film, and it succinctly explains the chaos and structureless vandalism. When a drunk woman looks to the sky and asks God for direction, you realise there’s more behind Korine’s vision than at first glance.


You Instead
(2011) – 3/10

Director: David MacKenzie
Writer: Thomas Leveritt
Starring: Luke Treadaway, Natalia Tena
“It seems as if you barely even needed the handcuffs.”

He’s the lead singer of the Kooks. She plays keyboard for Kate Nash. Not exactly, but two musicians finds themselves handcuffed at T in the Park. Filming took place at the festival but is unable to pick up on the weekend’s spontaneity. It’s a neat idea that probably needs a few attempts and better preparation, or to go to a better festival like ATP, Green Man, or a film festival where they could sneak into a screening and a different film can be shown instead.

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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