These are the films I saw this fortnight: “Argo”, “Ball of Fire”, “Cape Fear”, “Casino Royale”, “Down Terrace”, “For a Good Time, Call…”, “Holy Motors”, “I’m Not There”, “Lay the Favorite”, “The Limits of Control”, “People Like Us”, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Why Stop Now”.
Always end your arguments with three decimal points, especially if you’re talking to significant figures. This time, the average rating is 5.35/10, with film of the fortnight being Holy Motors. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Argo (2012) – 5.5/10
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin
“This is the best bad idea we have, sir.”
The greatest scandal of the 90s was when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon convinced Hollywood that they wrote Good Will Hunting. So it makes sense that Affleck would take an interest in Argo’s remarkable source story: six American hostages are smuggled out of Tehran by a CIA agent pretending to be location scouting for a fake sci-fi blockbuster.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much edge to Argo – even with the artificial scratches and grainy picture. It’s punctuated with weak jabs at Hollywood, despite being two hours of self-celebration. It’s competent filmmaking that doesn’t overly drag, but I never felt much was at stake. For example, the hostages are practically anonymous; their lives are the film’s objective, yet you can’t even tell them apart.
Affleck’s character may be intentionally humble, but a subplot involving his son is embarrassingly tagged along. It’s a distraction from the central premise – not that you’d care, considering the dreadful attempts at humour and the running joke: “Argo fuck yourself.”
Like Richard Linklater’s Bernie, the highlight of Argo is the end credits where actors are shown next to the real-life counterparts. It’s the only moment that makes you gasp – a taste of the intricate, breathtaking thriller that Affleck never made, but read on Wikipedia.
Ball of Fire (1941) – 4.5/10
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett
Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck
“I embalmed some dead phrases.”
The Hollywood partnership of Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder for Ball of Fire should have produced a classic. There’s early promise with the introduction to a house of lexicographers who realise they’ve lost touch with modern slang. For the sake of their encyclopaedia (the Wikipedia of 1941), Gary Cooper wanders for an adventure and meets Barbara Stanwyck, a club singer whose energy carries much of the film – the metaphor she chooses is the apple that hit Isaac Newton on the head.
Using that farcical image (no disrespect to Netwon intended), Ball of Fire slides into ridicule when Stanwyck’s criminal connections haunt her and change the tone from verbal comedy into slapstick and gunfire. Unlike Hawks’ and Wilder’s other films, it’s dated poorly – and not just when a professor’s fashion is mocked and taunted, “It’s 1941!”
Cape Fear (1991) – 8/10
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Wesley Strick
Starring: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis
“Thing is, there isn’t much to do in prison, except desecrate your flesh.”
Colours expressively wash the screen. Shots are inversed. The camera zooms in on household objects for symbolic effect. It echoes The Shining, but Scorsese makes Cape Fear more mainstream than Kubrick. After 14 years, a convicted rapist seeks retribution from the defence lawyer who sent him down – a very patient revenge that involves legal harassment in public places. This is presumably what life was like before Twitter.
Scorsese embraces the Hollywood genre with a tense thriller aware of its own fun value; Robert De Niro is a villain who might as well be the Terminator with an unlicensed law degree. Aside from the religious themes and an edgy comment on sexual awakening, what most impresses is the absence of a clear hero.
While De Niro is undeniably despicable, he has a point – the legal system cheated him. Nick Nolte isn’t a brave man protecting his family, but an adulterous, crooked lawyer spurned on by entrapment. The film’s next step is usually inevitable, which isn’t a weakness; the action is always propelled by its themes.
Casino Royale (2006) – 6/10
Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green
“I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me.”
With Skyfall coming out this month and David Petraeus resigning as Director of the CIA, it seemed like a good time to admit the only version of Casino Royale I’d seen was the 1967 one with Woody Allen. It’s an embarrassing confession that’s not as bad as when Daniel Craig admits he’s been sleeping with his biographer.
Well, now I have. Aside from a reinvention of parkour that allows running through a wall, too much of the action takes place on a poker table. Like casinos in real life, you lose awareness of time without winning anything. Some smart sequences, a Bond girl who is complicated enough to be a real person, and you have an adequate spy caper; a poker game with an old friend who keeps insisting he’s changed, yet keeps bringing up his past.
Down Terrace (2009) – 3/10
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Robin Hill
Starring: Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin
“Look, it’s banter, right…”
The characters feud with semi-amusing jabs, but the shaggy-dog story gets in the way; the gentle highlight is two men wandering in a field while Karen Dalton sings “Are You Leaving for the Country?” Wheatley may be a talented director, but kitchen-sink realism requires more than actors who look like they’re auditioning for a role. (If they were, I guess they got it.)
For a Good Time, Call… (2012) – 6/10
Director: Jamie Travis
Writers: Lauren Miller, Katie Anne Naylon
Starring: Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, Seth Rogen
Can you describe what you’re wearing?
I said, can you describe what you’re reviewing?
I’m reviewing a little thing called For a Good Time, Call…
Describe it to me.
It’s about two roommates who resolve their differences by running a phone sex line.
It sounds seedy.
It isn’t. It’s actually surprisingly sweet, and funny in the right places.
Why a phone sex line? Why can’t they run, I don’t know, a flower shop?
It’s less about the callers, but the women on the other end. They’re insecure and the job is a cure for loneliness and self-expression.
Really? You’re making it sound quite noble.
It isn’t. If anything, it’s too much like a sitcom. There’s even a direct reference to Tina Fey.
Tina Fey does films as well, idiot.
Sorry. Anyway, there are times when it’s too jokey for the overall tone. A few of the callers are excuses for celebrity cameos, which work like individual sketches.
This is a 22-minute film?
No. Three acts, 90 minutes. It has an overall arc that’s fairly contrived, but worth sticking with. Decent script about the merits of friendship. One problem – Justin Kirk is in it.
Hello? Did you hang up?
Holy Motors (2012) – 9/10
Director/Writer: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Kylie Minogue
“We have to laugh before midnight. Who knows if we’ll laugh in the next life?”
The eye can’t unsee what it sees without memory deterioration or Lacuna Inc. Even time travel can’t change that. That fault within the human physiology is exploited by Leos Carax through unpredictable images that oscillate between beauty and disgust; both funny and sad, the surreal experience is elegant and absorbing.
The playful opening finds an unexpected audience sitting in a packed cinema, staring blankly at a screen. This sets up a series of self-contained vignettes that explore the medium through motion capture, distinct colours and short musical scenes. There is catharsis in the frequent shifting of gears, with the most peaceful shot being an erect man eating the hair of Eva Mendes, semi-clad in a burqa.
Denis Lavant is the recurring figure who uses makeup and prosthetics in a limousine in between scenes. He earlier showed his flexibility as Charlie Chaplin in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, but is plasticine for Carax. He swings powerfully from a monster to a pitiful man afraid he’ll never die.
Through all the subversion, there’s a comment made that cameras can’t be seen anymore. A burglar doesn’t need to see the CCTV to know it’s there. It brings the idea that everything is a performance and helps explain a new wave of self-awareness brought by social media and the internet’s celebration of irony. Carax diligently tackles this claustrophobia with humour and uncovers a heightened absurdity within technology; unconventional, poetic, and even finds time to parody Pixar.
I’m Not There (2007) – 7.5/10
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Todd Haynes, Oren Moverman
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger
“I wish I was there to help her, but I’m not there; I’m gone.”
Where do you stand on Bob Dylan? This is a piece of text, so I’m not going to wait for your response. It’s not entirely a coincidence that my favourite Bob Dylan song, “Main Title Theme”, happens to be an instrumental. I’m not electrically protesting against his voice, as my bigger criticism is his guitar playing. What makes the folksinger special is the mystical hysteria he creates; poets, scholars, fans with selective hearing, all fawning over his gravelly lyrics.
I like maybe ten Dylan songs at most, but even I devoured Martin Scorsese’s three-hour documentary No Direction Home. He inspires many great artists, like a modern day Jesus Christ, whose existence and abilities are forever argued. (You might only play his music at your lowest ebb, but thank him when accepting a Grammy.)
Todd Haynes projects Dylan as a similarly religious figure, but without my scepticism. Did the singer ever truly change the world? It’s a complicated issue requiring six people to represent separate chunks of Dylan’s life. The level of confusion can be explained by how Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Dylan makes the most sense.
The soundtrack is the running theme, building to the catharsis of “Like a Rolling Stone”. I’m sure Haynes loves Dylan, but I’m Not There is a touching tribute because it contains the inventiveness and flexibility that the music lacks.
Lay the Favorite (2012) – 3/10
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: DV DeVincentis
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughan
“You can’t be sentimentally. You taught me that.”
Stephen Frears can take solace in that Lay the Favorite may have been a flop, but it’s a great defence of Cameron Crowe. For all the We Bought a Zoo jokes you made on Twitter, you’re besmirching a man who turned sincerity into a national sport.
The closest comparison is Crowe’s Jerry Maguire – an American football film for people who didn’t care about the sport. Frears centres his soppy romance around professional gambling; Bruce Willis is the bald expert who lures beautiful women simply because the screenplay says so. He is humanised by Rebecca Hall, playing against type as a burned out stripper.
I feel burned out explaining all of this.
Despite her trashy exterior, she has a gift with words and numbers (in the way Carol Vorderman is a mathematical genius who will never change the world). It’s an unremarkable romance with a novelty setting that’s as annoying as the Americanisation of the title.
The schmaltz is predictable and disappointingly without any irony or sense of fun. Sure, Elizabethtown was terrible, but it was never dull. Without any risks or soul-bearing, Lay the Favourite is like going to a race track and betting on the horse that you know will please everybody by finishing somewhere in the middle, except that actually pleases nobody and it’s sent straight from a limited cinema release to die in a stable or at the bottom of a discounted DVDs.
The Limits of Control (2009) – 4.5/10
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, Bill Murray
“The best films are like dreams you’re not sure you really had.”
Have you ever been hypnotised, then as it gradually wore off, realised you couldn’t move away for two hours? That’s not too dissimilar from the viewing experience provided by The Limits of Control. Its patience borders on hostile; you realise the suspense is a red herring.
When the repetition begins, you have to laugh. No names are revealed, and only one character appears on screen for more than ten minutes; the protagonist barely speaks, even when spoken to. It makes you wonder how Night on Earth would have fared without any passengers.
Isaach De Bancholé plays a very silent assassin. He meets various strangers who share the same exchanges – he or she asks if he speaks Spanish before explaining their hobbies via a monologue, before swapping matchboxes. These meetings are preceded by Bancholé orderering two espressos in two cups. After 30 minutes, I guessed Jim Jarmusch is being playful, and it’s confirmed when Tilda Swinton declares that the best films are dreams holding foundations in reality.
By showing off its artifice, you notice more in Jarmusch’s experiment. For instance, every time Bancholé stares at an abstract painting, you’re aware of your own position. If the rhythmic mathematics isn’t enough, music loops appear as reminders; I counted “Farewell” by Boris three times. The main reference is Ghost Dog, another portrait of a hitman – this is more precise, always moving in one direction.
It becomes mesmerising because of the gorgeous cinematography – it would need to be. That is what, for better or worse, makes The Limits of Control stand out in Jarmusch’s filmography – the genius behind droll dialogue tries to survive without his instruments.
When the climax doesn’t pay off, you’re aware that many aspects are arbitrary. I could enjoy it for an hour, but it became too much. Instead of marvelling the cinematography, I wondered if I was actually just responding to Spanish architecture.
People Like Us (2012) – 2.5/10
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Jody Lambert, Roberto Orci
Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer
“Are there days when you just wish you could be someplace else?”
The curious history of Alex Kurtzman is a trajectory of action flicks and comic book adaptations. You should take People Like Us on its own merit, but be aware that it’s a relationship drama penned by the man who wrote the first two Transformers films.
When Chris Pine’s father dies, he discovers a half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) and incorporates himself into her life. It’s an extremely Sundance-y plot, but with mainstream gleam and feels like the drama you ignore in a Hollywood thriller.
There’s also problems with the plot – namely the preposterous idea that Pine can spend so much time with Banks while hiding his true intentions, just for the sake of the film’s structure. It may be well meaning, but there is a drought of meaning in that well.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – 6/10
Director/Writer: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
“If you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”
There’s a leaked video of David O. Russell violently threatening Lily Tomlin on the set of I ♥ Huckabees, and George Clooney admitted he punched Russell on the set of Three Kings to defend a crewmember. Is there something more to Russell’s new film following a man with anger issues who beating up someone having an affair with his wife? What I’m getting at is should I be worried after this blog slammed Russell’s first two films (Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster)? I hope he doesn’t mind that I said, “David O. Russell clearly has the potential to be a very talented filmmaker, but his films don’t really make people want to say his middle initial as many times as he’d hope.”
Well, I’m not scared. Simply because Russell has mellowed out with Silver Linings Playbook, a gentle romcom disguised as an acrobatic tale of psychological recovery.
Bradley Cooper is a fairly bland lead, which actually helps – playing a man trying to contact his wife, despite her restraining order, his wooden acting comforts the viewer. When Cooper arranges his face to express an emotion, he accidentally resembles someone numbing their sadness.
Like a tree hugger, Jennifer Lawrence compensates for her dance partner with unpredictable charisma. Her character is presumably a 30-year-old, which shows her maturity; the remaining youthfulness manifests in her natural ability to irritate the viewer and Cooper in a believable manner.
The central romance is unusual, not because of the flimsy dancing subplot, but because they’re not chasing each other – even when they go jogging together. No, they’re trying to overturn his wife’s decision for a restraining order.
The screwball dialogue recalls a black-and-white era where romantic leads battled their wits with fast words and ballroom choreography – that can all be enjoyed if you’re able to ignore serious content matter being trivialised as character quirks. The pair’s blossoming relationship may be the hidden climax, but the underlying message is that medication can be replaced by amateur dancing.
It isn’t done for any sinister reasons, as Russell is desperate to please everyone – football, dancing, romance, violence and Robert De Niro. It’s just that for a film centred around illegal betting, it doesn’t take too many gambles, and plays it safe by dancing around the main issues. (Both puns intended.)
Why Stop Now (2012) – 2/10
Directors/Writers: Phil Dorling, Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo, Tracy Morgan
“I’ll beat the shit out of Mozart, and I’ll pull all your fucking teeth out of your head and make you gargle vinegar.”
“What planet do you live on? Even when you’re not high, you’re high.”
Not only is there a question mark absent in the title, there’s little energy in the begrudging performances. If the question mark isn’t in the title, then it’s hovering over the deeply flawed premise: a piano prodigy’s mother is looking for drugs, so sends her son to a dealer and reluctantly becomes his translator in a world of crime. It’s an absurd storyline strung together by one-dimensional characters with minimal effort to explain itself. If anything, the title refers to the screenwriters who realised the script made little sense, but persevered, hoping to cash in on people with fond memories of The Social Network.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.