Film Reviews 34: “Frankenweenie”, “On the Road”, “Ruby Sparks” and 12 others…

your sister's sister

This fortnight: “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”, “Comedian”, “Fitzcarraldo”, “Frankenweenie” (1984), “Frankenweenie” (2012), “Leaving Las Vegas”, “The Letter”, “On the Road”, “Ruby Sparks”, “Seeking a Friend For the End of the World”, “Shut Up and Play the Hits”, “Silence”, “Wild Strawberries” and “Your Sister’s Sister” (pictured above).

The average rating is 6.1/10 with film of the fortnight being Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking which I rewatched but didn’t review. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) – 8.5/10

Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: William Finkelstein
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
“Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing.”

Teaming Werner Herzog with Nicolas Cage seems dangerous, like how at school you’re warned not to mix magnesium with water. It turns out the pair collaborate as well as Herzog’s earlier films with Klaus Kinski; Cage can also create terror using just his eyes, even while using an electric shaver on his chin.

The ancient Greeks changed perceptions on madness by believing it was all down to natural imbalances, not supernatural behaviour. The insanity of Cage’s character, a violent lieutenant who uses his power to steal drugs from criminals, is similarly induced by chemical withdrawals; beginning with vicodin for back trouble, he slides into cocaine and heroin.

The combination of Herzog and Cage risks overexposure, but is grounded by a script that tackles the crime genre with cliches and clings closely to the narrative. This allows Herzog to instil his own idiosyncratic take on the genre without derailing proceedings, even when you’re suddenly treated to a singing iguana’s point of view. And, anyway, lizards are renowned for their eyesight.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
(2005) – 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Camilla Belle, Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener, Paul Dano
“You’ve been ruined by that fucking scumbag.”

By definition, a ballad should encompass several verses and a refrain. That might explain why so many characters are written out of The Ballad of Jack and Rose without explanation. The central relationship belongs to a dying father and his sexually curious daughter; outrageous symbolism with serpents and bees infiltrates the cinematography.

Misjudged music cues unsettle the coming-of-age drama that takes itself too seriously – especially as one scene involves Camilla Belle losing her virginity to her sort-of brother-in-law which rocks the bedroom enough that a cage door opens and allows a poisonous snake to escape and attack Catherine Keener. Yes, really.

(2002) – 7.5/10

Director: Christian Charles
Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams
“The idea of doing anything, which could easily lead to doing something, which would cut into your nothing, and that would force me to drop everything.”

Jerry Seinfeld returned to stand-up after Seinfeld finished its ninth season to prove a point. He must have been aware that for all the adoration poured upon his sitcom, nobody was watching for his stand-up sections. That format can be seen at the moment in Louie, with FX rightly praised for allowing Louis CK completely control. The difference is that Seinfeld was equally Larry David’s show, if not moreso; considering Seinfeld’s control issues, it’s unsurprising he’d want to return to the road.

Seinfeld proves a point by ditching old material and starting afresh, and talks to the camera as if it’s the biggest ordeal of his career – ignoring the many episodes he scripted and that he already started a career from the harder position as an anonymous figure with a whiny voice. He still manages to be self-effacing and, while Comedian never captures anything particularly remarkable or shocking, Seinfeld’s determination is as watchable as his prepared material.

There are glimpses of early struggles when Seinfeld is unable to handle a heckler, while it’s curiously shocking to see him break character by swearing backstage. To break the monotony, the documentary also follows the more inert rise of Orny Adams, an incredibly unlikeable comedian who doesn’t bother with Seinfeld’s false humility.

Instead, he’s full of bitterness and jealousy (not with Seinfeld, interestingly). He does bring pathos when he shows the camera his home: packed with folders and boxes of jokes and scripts. But when you see his act, you have to feel sorry for him – some people just aren’t born with Seinfeld’s composure, no matter how many years they spend practising with microphones.

(1982) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy
“The church remains closed until this town has its opera house.”

On the Destroyer album Streethawk: A Seduction, Dan Bejar references Fitzcarraldo as what made him learn to love again – but then he wonders if it was actually “the making of”. Werner Herzog’s celebrated film is, after all, just as well known for its gruelling production: vicious arguments with Klaus Kinski, and dragging a real 320-tonne ship over a hill. It’s a magnificent image of pain and accomplishment that’s probably the apex of the 157-minute saga.

The dread-filled atmosphere possibly mirrors the fear of the cast, which is understandable when considering the plot: an eccentric man plans to fund a new opera house by tapping rubber from a dangerous region of the Amazon. He reluctantly employs natives, while paranoid they could use their numbers at any point to kill him. With terror, he asks a confidant why they work like horses (but really the question should be why do horses work in the first place?) and gets an uneasy response.

It’s a slow and tedious hour before the boat appears, but it’s worth persevering through the setup to witness the menace of the waters the madness of Kinski’s eyes, and the sight of a ship blaring opera through the rainforest. It’s a brave move for Herzog to film such a great feat by doing it for real; I can’t wait for him to take this approach into sci-fi.

(1984) – 7.5/10

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Lenny Ripps
Starring: Barret Oliver, Shelly Duvall, Daniel Stern
“I guess we can’t punish Victor for bring Sparky back from the dead.”

Although Frankenweenie hit cinemas last week, Tim Burton made an earlier version in live-action with a lower budget. At the centre is a 10-year-old boy’s loving bond with his dog; the boy’s name, Victor Frankenstein, hints at the film’s direction.

The black-and-white portrayal of suburbia allows subtle humour when neighbours are petrified of an “undead” version of Sparky – a dog wearing a blanket. It’s dark in tone, but might seem appropriate for a family audience, given its lack of sex, violence and bad language. However, it represents nostalgia for a more innocent age – both in filmmaking and childhood – and that is what’s brought back from the dead.

(2012) – 8/10

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Frank Welker, Winona Ryder
“One day you will dream of me, won’t you kitty?”

If you look 5cm above this sentence, you will see I highlighted the original Frankenweenie yearning for the past. This is again the case with Tim Burton’s affectionate remake, but now reflects Burton’s own desire to return to his roots.

Once again, the opening scene is Victor Frankenstein making an amateur sci-fi film for his parents. This time, there’s more poignancy; the 2012 version is now in stop-motion, which brings a hint of autobiography. The revival of Frankenweenie may be down to a lack of new ideas, but Burton shares a parallel with Victor; instead of bringing a dog back to life, he revitalises himself.

The expansion of the 1984 original allows experimentation with a range of undead animals that’s surprisingly disturbing, even in animated form; sea monkeys as gremlins, and a grotesque amalgamation of a cat and a bat. (That last image is possibly why Christopher Nolan won’t make a sequel to The Dark Knight Rises.)

The specific style of Frankenweenie is a focused tribute to old horror films; still in black-and-white, but now gorgeously animated. The children’s unblinking eyes are hilarious inexpressive, exaggerating the longing of loners and the weirdness of oddballs. With the clay lovingly detailed, there’s fun for everyone – especially the dead soul inside you.

Leaving Las Vegas
(1995) – 5/10

Director/Writer: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue
“Killing myself is a way of drinking.”

When you look down a bottle, you have to close one eye and squint with the other; your vision is obscured, and anyone nearby thinks you’re an idiot. That’s my analogy for Nicolas Cage’s alcoholic screenwriter; when sacked, he takes a one-way trip to Vegas to drink himself to death.

He forms a bond with Elisabeth Shue, a prostitute with her own problems; through mutual agreement they live with each other’s baggage. This allows the drama to happen side-by-side, with mirror images of cliched tragedies – ever so predictable, but with two moving lead performances. (Although most of that moving is if you shake your head in disbelief.)

The Letter
(2012) – 1/10

Director/Writer: Jay Anania
Starring: Winona Ryder, James Franco
“I’m sorry you didn’t like my story.”

High hopes: Winona Ryder and James Franco starring a psychological thriller. Low lopes (sic): Jay Anania is a film teacher at NYU who was accused in a lawsuit of giving Franco undeservedly high grades in exchange for being in his films. Not sure if that’s true, but even autopilot Franco mode is in its own autopilot mode. (Autoautopilot mode? Superautopilot mode? Vautopilot mode?)

The bizarre plot is sidetracked by mumbling monologues that sound like they were written through Google Translate. There are times when you wonder if Ryder and Franco are in different rooms, then you realise it’s just bad direction. The camera eerily moves at awkward angles to ill-effect, occasionally zooming in on Ryder’s lips, eyes, and then her nose. The acting is so flat that it feels like it’s before a first reading – if that was mathematically possible.

On the Road
(2012) – 4/10

Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, based on Jack Kerouac’s novel (which wrote itself anyway)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst
“I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

Like Jack Kerouac, I’m writing this review in a frenzied state after an eventful trip to the cinema. I first read On the Road at 16 on a series of bus trips to school, and each page became more and more tedious. I returned to it a few years later at university and loved it. The point I’m making is that I might appreciate Walter Salles’ adaptation more in a few years time, but I doubt it.

For now, Kerouac’s drug-fuelled trip is unimaginatively presented as a repetitive succession of unlikeable men running away from underwritten women. Without the Beat-style prose, On the Road is a second-hand account of an old holiday. The impressive cinematography and slick direction actually detracts from the novel’s spontaneity; Dean Moriarty’s mysticism is lost in high definition.

Without Kerouac’s run-on sentences, Salles delivers no sense of the present. It might not even be chronological. It’s a tame adaptation, regardless of an amusing double handjob from Kristen Stewart, that’s too concerned with not ruining the novel’s legacy – but without taking risks, it may as well stay in the garage.

Ruby Sparks
(2012) – 6/10

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina
“I missed you in bed last night. Did you get some good writing done?”

Zoe Kazan may deny the term in interviews, but Ruby Sparks can be described as a satire of the MPDG character: the one-dimensional girl whose sole purpose in a romantic comedy is to use the power of quirkiness to save the male lead from his own depression. In an inspired piece of casting, miserabilist Paul Dano is cast in the lead to teach him the lesson he should have learned from Gigantic when he finds love in a mattress story after bumping into Zooey Deschanel at her most Zooeyest. (Dano’s real-life romance with Kazan is just a cover up and an attempt to launch a conspiracy theory on the IMDb message boards.)

The drama’s concept centres around a typewriter – when Dano writes a novel about an imaginary girlfriend called Ruby Sparks, he is taken aback when she comes to life. To the film’s credit, you don’t wonder what magic was involved for this to happen. (Although I was puzzled throughout as to why a 21st century novelist with a luxurious two-floor flat and crippling loneliness doesn’t own a laptop.)

Dano’s creation mirrors the stereotypical behaviour of MPDG characters, much to his delight. It’s a fairly accurate satire, but without much bite. The relationship begins without many hitches, but too much time is spent setting up the premise and following their tiresome relationship.

The darker elements are introduced too late and hint at what could have been: a stab through the genre’s linctus heart. The highlight is a truly disturbing ten-minute sequence when Dano goes despicably mad with power at the typewriter (which means Solitaire would probably explode his mind).

Unfortunately, the gloom is diluted by whimsical sequences of a what-if scenario. The issues of ownership and jealousy within relationships are lightly touched upon, but suggest a missed opportunity. I ended up thinking about if placebo humans could exist, but would that just be a robot?

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World
(2012) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley
“Put Radiohead on. I want to do heroin to some Radiohead.”

The recent trend for end-of-the-world films is probably down to the Mayan prophecy. Or the rise in special effects. Or technology’s grey influence. Or a deterioration in happy writers with the collapse of the industry. It could be many reasons, but Lorene Scafaria is more concerned with an easy excuse for a love story.

And it doesn’t get much easier than having your attractive neighbour knock on your window for help. It’s mostly a road trip for Steve Carell and Keira Knightley to connect before Melancholia strikes Earth; the characters don’t grow, but make typical romcom conversations with longing eyes. It meanders along, without the urgency that the end of the world might sometimes demand, even if it does pick up fabulously in the last few minutes.

The idea that two pathetic, lonely people can be perfect for each other, is actually suited to the apocalyptic premise. Unfortunately, Carell and Knightley are too composed to sink this low; Knightley, in particular, is too giggly and MPDG-lite to convey any inner turmoil.

Carell is the opposite; overwhelmingly negative, beyond caricature. At some points, he echoes his Michael Scott character from The Office hiding in his office on a bad day. And then you remember that his wife left him and the world is going to end, so maybe he is allowed to be miserable. Sometimes I wish the world would end.

Shut Up and Play the Hits
(2012) – 7.5/10

Directors: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern
Starring: James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem, Chuck Klosterman
“Where are your friends tonight?”

There’s no reason to watch Shut Up and Play the Hits if you have no interest in LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy’s one-man band (that expands on stage) played the final gig last year at Madison Square Gardens. It was a 4-hour show that I was sad enough to watch live on an internet stream all night. The documentary is interspersed with stunning footage of that show shot by Spike Jonze, capturing a mesmerising performance and a crowd sharing a religious experience – although that religion is either MDMA or Pitchfork.

Aside from the performances, there are two other elements. One is snippets from a hilarious interview with my hero Chuck Klosterman, the journalist behind Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. The final jigsaw is a jarring selection of sparse moments the day after where Murphy sits in empty rooms mourning the end of his band. He never looks at the camera and makes a poor attempt to be natural; when he cries, I threw my glow stick at his face (and made a scratch on the screen).

It would probably be better to just watch footage of the whole concert, but the highlights in Shut Up and Play the Hits means you can relive the highs (Reggie Watts; “All My Friends”; Aziz Ansari crowdsurfing) and the lows (a cameo from Arcade Fire; that Nike song).

(2012) – 6/10

Director: Pat Collins
Writers: Pat Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, Sharon Whooley
Starring: Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride
“The mind turns upon silence.”

Listing three credited screenwriters is a bit disingenuous as the dialogue in Silence is bare and mostly improvised. It concerns a man assigned to record areas devoid of manmade sounds. This involves carrying equipment around rural parts of Ireland, while hiding from roads and technology. There’s no real plot or action, but a meditative journey through untarnished territory; the sound mix captures the bristles of the wind and the slightest creak of a chair in the cinema.

When I saw this at the London Film Festival, the director afterwards admitted that many will find it “excruciatingly boring”, but that will help build up the enjoyment. I found the reverse happened where I got lost in the shots of nature and patient cinematography. My interest waned whenever that silence was broken with dialogue – mostly meaningless, meandering and taking too long.

The director also spoke of finding religion in nature, then discovering there’s nothing there. Cynics might say that’s applicable to Silence, but there is a poetic beauty within its uncomfortably inert experience.

Wild Strawberries
(1957) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor Sjöström
“I can’t think of anything worse than growing old.”

It’s one of life’s cruel ironies that everyone is afraid of growing old. Wouldn’t it be so much better to be afraid of growing younger? You can go to bed knowing your fear is logistically impossible. Professor Isak Borg doesn’t have that luxury. At 78, he knows his days are numbered, but takes a road trip to collect a teaching award.

On the way, he revisits flashbacks of youth and lost love. It’s a grand performance full of pathos; conflict at every turn, forced relief on the rebound. When he remembers how his mother sent cards and presents to 15 great-grandchildren who never see her, it feels like a darker version of Tokyo Story. Even at an old age, he is still haunted by whether laughter is out of courtesy; paranoia never disappears.

Your Sister’s Sister
(2012) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Emily Blunt
“I really think your face is going to annoy me right now.”

Lynn Shelton and Mark Duplass reteam after Humpday (which this blog deemed to be overrated) with more dramatic focus: three talented actors improvise in an isolated cabin. Shot in 12 days, one guy, his best friend and her sister work from only a loose script; the dialogue is spontaneous and, unlike many other films of this nature, is rarely dull.

What sets Your Sister’s Sister from traditional mumblecore films is its professional cast; instead of amateurs who are friends with the director, the chemistry is formed on-screen (rather than mirroring off-screen relationships). Unfortunately, the drama’s foundations is based upon a shaky love triangle that’s too convoluted to complement the naturalist direction. Incredibly frustrating.

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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