Film Reviews 35: “Skyfall”, “The Master”, “Excision” and 9 others…

excision 2

This month: “Edward Scissorhands”, “Excision”, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”, “Ken Park”, “The Ladykillers”, “Love Liza”, “The Master”, “Le Silence de Lorna”, “Skyfall”, “Slacker”, “Transformers” and “Vamps”.

The average rating is 6.17/10 with film of the month being The Master. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) – 7.5/10

Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Caroline Thompson, Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest, Winona Ryder
“Of course he had a name.”

Help.
My name is Kenicky Scissorhands.
I have scissors instead of hands.
This is the only time I’ve ever felt like Johnny Depp.
It is hard to type, so sorry for any spelling mistqkes.
When you have scissors instead of hands, the world ignores you.
That’s what Tim Burton’s film is about.
He makes a beautiful world but finds the absurd in suburbia.
Absurdbia.
Everyone is mean and purple.
Not many films look like this.
I like that.
Edward Scissorhands is the Edward Scissorhands of films.
I just wish that there were more rounded characters.
And maybe a bit less physical humour.
There is an episode of Seinfeld where Italian hairdressers are united by Edward Scissorhands.
They talk over it, but are hit by the pure imagery.
That simplicity is unclouded by pretension.
It is a naive space that Tim Burton longs to find again.
It’s a balloon that floated away.
Or popped with scissors.


Excision
(2012) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Richard Bates Jr
Starring: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Ariel Winter
“I only want you to go through the same gut-wrenching agony that I go through every Sunday listening to your sermons.”

Two glammed up versions of AnnaLynne McCord sit in an abstract waiting room with no features, orgasming while spitting blood. That’s the first scene which ends abruptly when McCord wakes up from the nightmare. These surreal set the tone for a dark suburban satire that’s more “horrifying” than a horror.

McCord aspires to be a surgeon; she’s pale, awkward and doesn’t mind being friendless. For example, she picks up a dead bird in broad daylight and places it into her rucksack. Her obsession with dissecting human bodies is redolent of May, a far superior horror comedy. In May, the eponymous lead finds her friends mistake her sociopathic behaviour for shyness, but Excision is less subtle – at one point, McCord gleefully projectile vomits on a bitchy girl at school.

The dark tone is never properly struck by Excision because it can’t develop its original idea of a teenager plagued with gory urges and depression. It starts well with a sinister lead and jarringly bright colours that emulate the scenery of black comedies like Pushing Daisies and A Clockwork Orange. The momentum is lost when the character becomes predictable; the outcome is inevitable, but without much dread.

The driving force becomes the disturbing fantasies in McCord’s head that create images so shocking, you have to credit (and worry for) the director. Unfortunately, they’re never more than imaginary and are never incorporated into the real world, so you don’t get an eerie Lynch atmosphere. Instead, it’s a fairly ordinary character study with hints of darkness, interspersed with brilliant short films. Perhaps an excision is needed.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(1999) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach De Bankolé
“Hold on – did you say he only contacts you through a fucking bird?”

Jim Jarmusch’s distinctive style of filmmaking is ever present in Ghost Dog. The one shot that particularly sticks out is a carrier pigeon flying meditatively to the sounds of RZA’s hip hop soundtrack. The beat of the Wu-Tang Clan hang over a strange drama that’s occasionally hilarious, but often wanders aimlessly. That may be Jarmusch’s trademark, but the philosophy feels hollow.

In the lead, Forest Whitaker plays an assassin who readily quotes from Hagakure, an ancient code of the samurai. (It’s basically a self-help book, except it’s considered offensive to criticise the readers.) He also teaches a young child about literature; these scenes feel like an attempt to qualify the film as something it isn’t. For the rest of the time, you have a droll assassin coolly finding his victims before they find him.

It’s enjoyably bizarre, but too much of an exercise in irony. (Nothing to do with Alanis Morrissette.)


Ken Park
(2002) – 0.5/10

Director: Larry Clark
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Bullard, James Ransone, Stephen Jasso, Tiffany Limos
“Nobody loves me.”

The disjointed feel of Ken Park is partly from the film’s structure: four depraved stories loosely bookended by a suicide. It’s also the case of a director working from someone else’s discarded script – written by Harmony Korine in 1993 when he was just 18. It’s possible that Ken Park was made a decade after its conception to capitalise on Korine’s fame, but that’s the cynicism you detect from a film that’s so desperate to shock; it’s easy to imagine Larry Clark thinking about the media controversy throughout the whole shooting.

Detractors might say the same thing about Clark and Korine’s earlier collaboration, Kids, but that took on a moment and followed an underclass rarely shown in film. The focus in Ken Park is less on real people, and more how to challenge the censors; multiple instances of incest, rape and unsimulated sex are so overblown, it would be unintentionally funny if it wasn’t so dull.

Maybe Clark could be applauded for being bold enough to cross boundaries, but his intentions are transparent. One character uses a knife to cut a cake, then walks into a bedroom to use that same knife to stab his grandfather for using a word in Scrabble that isn’t in the dictionary – oh, and he’s completely naked with an erection during the process. Earlier, that same character masturbates, with his erect penis in the centre of the screen; when he’s finished, the camera zooms in on his ejaculate.

These scenes keep following each other without any momentum or much point other than a determination to be weird with everything. Yes, everything. Even the simple things. A man drinks water from the tap. Use a cup! Bear in mind that Ken Park was never released in the UK because the director punched the head of the UK distributor in the face at a restaurant.

Maybe it could have worked if Korine was behind the camera, with Gummo finding beauty within the vile, but with Ken Park there’s little below the surface; when you watch a boy clip his mother’s toe nails, you realise that he is accomplishing more that you.


The Ladykillers
(2004) – 2.5/10

Directors/Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P Hall, Marlon Wayans
 “Well, fuck, man. What’re we gonna do? Give the money back and go to church?”

There’s an urban legend that Bill Murray signed up for Garfield because he confused its screenwriter, Joel Cohen, with Joel Coen. He had so much faith in the geniuses behind The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink that he’s pretend lasagne is edible and Mondays aren’t so great. It could have been so different if the only Coen brothers film Murray had seen was The Ladykillers, an unnecessary remake of an Ealing classic.

To their credit, they don’t simply repeat a near-perfect script; their own touches are added. The old lady is no longer defenceless, and soul music seeps through the scenes. However, an early joke about “hippity hop” suggests the Coens are a beat behind The Hudsucker Proxy and even Intolerable Cruelty. Tom Hanks tries hard, but simply isn’t a Falkneresque criminal genius.

I propose a sequel called The Ladykillers-killers where a gang try to erase this remake from history.


Love Liza
(2002) – 8.5/10

Director: Todd Louiso
Writer: Gordy Hoffman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Kehler, Kathy Bates
“I own a plane and it runs on gas and I want to fly the thing right fucking now!”

The humour of Love Liza comes from a painful place; it hurts, and often.
Philip Seymour Hoffman begins in a state of disarray following his wife’s unexplained suicide. His complicated emotions aren’t presented with obvious signs of mourning. Instead, he is dishevelled and breaks down by laughing maniacally for a minute at an office colleague’s joke.

The masterstroke is his coping mechanism: inhaling petrol fumes. It’s a specific addiction that he doesn’t complicate with alcohol or drugs; rather than a literary image of a bottle of whiskey, he wakes up on the floor surrounded by petrol and a cloth over his face.

While Love Liza may focus on one man’s depression, it’s uproariously funny. Most of this humour comes from his alibi: faking an interest in remote control planes to explain why his clothes always smell of petrol. This creates a bigger impact when it comes to his own depression; he doesn’t bother to lie about why he won’t sleep in a bed anymore.

The only major downside is an unopened letter he carries around. It’s an annoying conceit that doesn’t build tension, and exists to serve an easy ending. That doesn’t matter so much when you have such a sharp script that sidesteps unexpectedly; he tells a stranger that he’s holding a suicide note from his wife, but his words go unheard as the recipient drives away. It’s a cruel laugh, but also a cruel world. And a St Vincent song.


The Master
(2012) – 9.5/10

Director/Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

I was treated to a private press screening set up by Paul. (We’re on first name terms.) So, Paul organised a viewing for just me, Mr Cruise (we’re not on first name terms) and Katie Holmes (who ran out in the prison scene). I was sat in the middle. For all the publicity about Scientology, there’s little present in The Master that angered Cruise – I know, as I sat next to him. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s vague representation of L. Ron Hubbard isn’t cruel, nor delves into biographical footnotes such as whether he’s a sci-fi writer. Instead, he’s a more human figure that opposing parties will have you believe.

Onpaper, the central storyline is Joaquin Phoenix joining the Cause, a cult established by Hoffman; its central belief is that our souls were once pured, but were stained in past lives. However, the real film is about the parental relationship between the pair. Half the running time is spent wondering what Hoffman sees in Phoenix – a violent alcoholic with post-traumatic stress disorder, whose mumbling is occasionally hard to pick up from cinema speakers. Is it a paternal instinct, or perhaps homoerotic? Either way, it’s a fascinating portrayal of a cult – there are lurking suspicions the literature is being improvised, but the Cause is possibly an innocent effort to help others.

Anderson glosses over the darker areas associated with Scientology – Hoffman is scornful at the idea of violence, and there’s little about financial extortion. Focusing on the Cause’s shady medical business would only distract from Phoenix’s dilemma; as the protagonist, he’s less interested in money than impressing Hoffman.

Phoenix’s performance alone is breathtaking – even when someone you know inevitably complains that “nothing happens”, they must surely be open-mouthed at the interrogation scene where he doesn’t blink. (The sequence is so impressive that there should be a tribute website called BlinkedIn.) Remarkably, he is possibly out-acted by Hoffman’s astute calmness; executing subtlety without you realising (or blinking). A lesser actor would dampen the impact when the Cause changes its philosophy from finding lost memories to using your imagination – the motive is less obvious and creates an edge for subsequent scenes.

Phoenix’s post-war depression makes him particularly susceptible, and makes him a fascinating character study to both Hoffman and the audience; while malleable, he’s also a brute looking for a passion. He was once a soldier, but finds solace in taking orders from a cult leader despite his scepticism. It’s more of an indignation at war than religion.

Anderson can take a motorcycle and speed into these philosophical areas because of his filmmaking’s rhythm that bypasses convention. The grand nature reflects an auteur with the confidence to wholeheartedly follow a vision. The cinematography is breathtaking, while the landscape is cleansed by Johnny Greenwood’s ethereal score. At only one point did the soundtrack become sour, and that turned out to be Tom Cruise forgetting to turn off his phone.

Following There Will Be Blood, Anderson is making a case to be the filmmaker of our generation. His characters make decisions without explanations; the viewer must decide. If The Master slightly falters in the last 30 minutes, it’s only because the first two acts are impossible to follow. It demands to be rewatched to explore the further mysteries. For instance, is Amy Adam’s the real brains behind the Cause? Is the son the only sceptic? How much is a dream? Is the lion my friend? Is the beach scene an outtake from Lars and the Real Girl? It needs to be seen again, but your memories aren’t invited.


Le Silence de Lorna
(2008) – 3.5/10

Directors/Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
“If you agree, I’ll help you to stay clean.”

Acquiring a passport with a fake marriage – a comedic trope in sitcoms and Green Card. The Dardenne brothers take a colder approach (and also in temperature).

Lorna is the pained Albanian immigrant at the centre of a convoluted scheme; in return for a Belgian passport, she must wed falsely twice. It’s perhaps evidence that even sham marriages are statistically likely to end in divorce.

The dry drama involves drugging the first husband so he dies of an overdose. In Hollywood style, she falls in love with him and tries to save his life. However, it’s distinctly not a Hollywood film, which makes her actions harder to accept. There’s no humour or light moments, but the tension is also absent. A sequence of unfortunate events take place. Slowly. Sentences are plain. Pause. This isn’t enough to create an atmosphere. And then the swift narrative snatches away the emotional complexity.


Skyfall
(2012) – 6.5/10

Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Bérénice Marlohe
“Take the bloody shot.”

Sam Mendes made his name with American Beauty, and again tackles the negative influence of gun ownership, the psychological effect of absent parents and suburban dysfunction through James Bond. Well, not really, but it begins with the collapse of the middle-class family of MI6; a rift occurs between Bond and his surrogate mother, M. (It may seem like he calls her Ma’am, but he’s really calling her Mum.) Further havoc occurs from the lingering jealousy of Silva, a disenchanted relative struck off the Christmas card list. In fact, Silva introduces himself with a lengthy monologue and establishes himself as desperate for an apology from M – could this all have been solved through group therapy?

The HR department is conspicuously absent, despite the involvement of Sam Mendes. As a director, he’s used to emotional dramas, not action sequences, which makes it a surprise that the fight scenes far outshine the quieter moments. Or maybe not, as it’s a Bond film.

The opening 007 minutes is particularly thrilling with a chase scene involving several vehicular changeovers. The first half contains more memorable moments bookended with Roger Deakin’s dazzling cinematography acting as a live-action version of Instagram, as well as several lulls that seem unnecessary considering the 143-minute running time.

The calm occurs from over-desperation to explain Bond’s new villain: the internet. The masterstroke is Ben Wishaw as Q, a computer geek who proves how powerful you can be if you stopped blogging about films and took up computer lessons to get a job with the Secret Service. A gun is now a novelty, especially as all the damage can be done through a computer. The danger of a bullet is that it might penetrate a laptop’s battery pack.

The new era of Bond also turns Bond girls into red herrings; aside from some flirting and conveniently steamy encounters, the main woman is M. He feels betrayed, but comes back from the dead to protect her from Silva and, more importantly, the internet. It’s a thread that, despite brilliant acting, didn’t move me at all because of my cold, dead heart, and the scattered one-liners that obfuscate the tone; humour is rightly part of Bond’s heritage, but doesn’t mesh well in Mendes’ world.

In one particular moment, a commuter makes a dreary joke after a spectacular piece of athleticism from Daniel Craig, which is redolent of an awful film trailer where the music stops with a record scratch for a predictably droll punchline. (Although it is hilarious whenever somebody drinks a bottle of Heineken.)

It took a while for Javier Bardem to win me over. My initial disappointment was in Silva’s strange behaviour that oscillates between playful and vengeful, and my doubts that an evil genius would rely on the London Underground running on time as part of a masterplan. It then sunk in that he’s a villain who really throttles Bond; mirroring an agent betrayed by M, their mutual surrogate mother. He isn’t crazy, but firmly set on revenge, and isn’t afraid to take cyberbullying to a new level.

Silva is also at the centre of one of the film’s highlights: a chase through the London Underground. The platform choreography echoes a similar sequence in The French Connection. When they run and slide down the bit between tube escalators (which I’ve always wanted to do), there’s no need for ridiculous gadgets. This isn’t the idiotic mess of Die Another Day, but reliant on tactics; the final act emphasises this when Bond improvises with a dilapidated building and a knife. The underwhelming nature of that last sequence is just a coincidence.

Fittingly, that makes Bond 2.0 a series of contradictions: a war on the internet, but without the gadgets; Sam Mendes, but without emotional resonance. When the drama is swept aside, the action speaks louder than Bond’s words; like American Beauty, you’re seeing someone who finds life in dying. It’s no longer about saving the world, but trying to rescue a franchise.


Slacker
(1991) –7/10

Director/Writer: Richard Linklater
Starring: Richard Linklater, Rudy Basquez, Jean Caffeine
“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it.”

When you hear the term “the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, you think of his second album – because that’s what it’s called. But its tracks include “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” which don’t sound “freewheelin’” to me. I think that adjective is personified by Slacker, Richard Linklater’s indie breakout.

The structure consists of anonymous hipsters jabbering strange beliefs, with the camera drifting between conversations connected only by theme: alienation. That’s not because some of them talk about UFOs (pun intended) and other conspiracy theories, but they’re outsiders having their voices idly recorded.

The winding scenes can occasionally be tiresome because of its hit and miss setup, but Linklater demonstrates an early talent for comedic writing; garrulous spirits infiltrate bars and record stores, and you’re the person overhearing the conversation on the other side of the shelf.


Transformers
(2007) – 2/10

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox
“Gentlemen, I want to introduce you to me friend Optimus Prime.”

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Vamps
(2012) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Krysten Ritter, Sigourney Weaver, Justin Kirk
“She’d been so lonely, having a friend made her want to keep existing.”

Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone’s 90s classic Clueless will forever be in our hearts and dusty DVD shelves, but Vamps is after our blood. It shares many similarities with Clueless, namely a sympathetic take on youths with nostalgia for a history they never experienced. The twist with Vamps is that of the central pair, Silverstone did live the past; as a vampire, she hasn’t aged since 1841. In that sense, it’s a modern update: Cher Horowitz dumps her flip-phone, and now complains about the reliance on modern technology.

There’s more ambition in Vamps that you’d expect, and it’s a fascinating disaster. There are elements of horror (with atrocious CGI and obvious use of green screen), two love stories and a satire of a generation who stare at screens. None of these angles are tackled sufficiently as the strands rarely integrate; left untangled, the tone shifts uncomfortably. This is smoothed over by the adept cast who fully commit to a fun script that breaks no new ground, but is charmingly schizophrenic – there’s even a joke about a cholera outbreak in Manhattan. It’s about time.

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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