Film Reviews 37: “Life of Pi”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “Amour”, “Sightseers” and 9 others…

This month:   “Amour”, “The Aviator”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “Dance Party, USA”, “I Am Legend”, “The Ice Storm”, “Liberal Arts”, “Life of Pi”, “Midnight”, “Natural Selection”, “Safety Not Guaranteed”, ”Sightseers”, “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Spring Breakdown”.

After Jesse Eisenberg missed out with The Social Network, weird to think Daniel Day-Lewis might win an Oscar for LinkedIn. Anyway, this time the average rating is 6.08/10 with film of the month being Safety Not Guaranteed. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Amour (2012) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Tritignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
“Stop watching me.”

amourI think about dying all the time. I think about it as an unspeakable relief; an unstoppable force to resist; a stopwatch reminding you of how little you’ve achieved. Michael Haneke’s approach is more gentle, but even more gut-wrenching; death is slow and inevitable; the semi-colon must become a full stop.

The camera rarely moves. It captures the empty decor of their large, wooden house; she lays in bed, while he anxiously tries to feed her. Most of the action comes from a pigeon that finds a way through a window. This precision is complemented by the echo of wounded footsteps: no patronising strings or a soundtrack of “All By Myself”.

The pain is in the actors and their absorption of the bedroom’s silence. Yet it’s never cold. When she spits out water, he tries again because it’s in his nature. The devotion is uncluttered and natural; it’s called Love, not Dying.

The Aviator
(2004) – 5.5/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alan Alda
“Find me some clouds.”

the aviatorAn hour into The Aviator, I realised Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks are two different people. So close. I spent the first half thinking, “Wow, the director of His Girl Friday really liked planes.” When I realised my error, I was hit by disappointment like one Howard’s planes crashing into a field.

Scorsese’s grand biopic is a technical joy, with colourful details places all over the frame, but it’s hollow underneath. Only in the second half when Hughes’ OCD takes over does he become a figure deserving of a three-hour film. And that is not Katharine Hepburn.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
(2012) – 8/10

Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
“Two weeks later, everything started to die.”

beasts of the southern wildDo you remember what you did when you were six years old? I was reading Just William and listening to the radio, dreaming that in twenty years time I’ll be blogging about the moment. Children today are in a different age. For instance, Quvenzhané Wallis narrates and stars in Beasts of the Southern Wild with a faux-naif voice that hides deeper philosophies. Even the six-year-old within the film has accomplished more than I have.

The setting is the Bathtub – a poor community ostracised by civilisations and left to fend floods on their own. When help parachutes down, it’s refused at the risk of feeling dehumanised. It’s the hidden side of charity adverts, when the PR isn’t in control. Their normal routine is without electricity or modern delights – for instance, they would not be able to read my blog. They cope by using nature; instead of currency, seafood is paraded on the table like gold. An evacuation team may believe they’re saving them from drowning, but they want to stay in their environment.

It’s a particularly powerful image to see a six-year-old girl run away from a shelter (“a fishtank with no water”) and swim into the sea. Some of the magic realism wasn’t completely to my taste, but it captures the film’s positive tone – on paper it’s about wanting to die, but on screen you slowly discover it’s about wanting to live.

Dance Party, USA
(2006) – 4/10

Director/Writer: Aaron Katz
Starring: Cole Pensinger, Anna Kavan
“I’m gonna walk around by myself, I think.”

dance party, usaAaron Katz’s Cold Weather was my favourite film of last year, but he made his name with a low budget feature with an obnoxious title that’s less frustrating than its 66 minutes of stunted, amateurish acting. Fairly horrible teenagers live out believable conversations that swing between showing off sexual achievements and displaying a sensitive side.

The naturalism never really works simply because of the wooden acting – sometimes normal people can’t be normal on cue. Most of the cast seem to have left acting, although it wouldn’t surprise me if Gus went on to front a Strokes tribute band.

For sharp contrast, check out Katz’s superior Quiet City which takes a similar concept to beautiful heights. At least in this debut he displays a natural gift for finding romance in urban architecture, just by subtly adjusting the angle of sunlight in the corner.

I Am Legend
(2007) – 5/10

Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Mark Protosevich
Starring: Will Smith
“There is no God.”

i am legendSometimes you wake up early around 5am and go for a walk, soaking up the peacefulness of an empty pavement and a serene, urban landscape. You come back, technically without accomplishing anything, and you try to explain the transcendent experience . “It was religious,” you might say, if you’re clutching at straws while the listener is refreshed and not paying attention while you just want to slump in bed.

That’s the same struggle I Am Legend suffers as it spends an hour following Will Smith around a post-apocalyptic version of New York. His only companion, a dog thatdoesn’t talk, is a concept with scope it doesn’t explore. Is life worth living if there’s no one else around and you spend every day memorising dialogue from Shrek? Instead, it prepares for a final act when vampires break out. It’s mostly competent filmmaking that’s been watered down; a compromise of two films to appease both type of fans.

The Ice Storm
(1997) – 4.5/10

Director: Ang Lee
Writer: James Schamus
Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver
“Because of molecules, we are connected to the outside world from our bodies.”

the ice stormAng Lee’s The Ice Storm is typical of a film adapted from a novel; swarming topics and families overlap. On screen, Lee’s gentle interpretation is  poetic and occasionally beautiful, but its surface coverage deflates each scene. Arcs of children and parents are supposed to mirror each other, but the haphazard editing blankets emotional resonance; you nod at thematic patterns that would work better as a longer series or in its original book form.

Liberal Arts
(2012) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen
“I’m actually trying to read less. I started to feel like reading about life was taking away from living life.”

liberal artsJosh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is only 56% as unwatchable as his debut, happythankyoumoreplease. This time, he’s given up with contrived, quirky storylines, and settled with a more restrained concept: an English major returning to his Ohio university to visit a retiring professor.

There is something unsettling about Radnor’s earnest behaviour. His overwrought schtick is partially balanced in How I Met Your Mother when he is mocked by his friends, but that grounding is absent in his own scripts. His saintly behaviour is exhumed by false modesty. For such a Sundance-y film, he makes the mistake of being neither a believable actor or taking a more Parker Posey approach.

The dialogue and direction of Liberal Arts indicates Radnor has become a more assured filmmaker, confident to allow pauses instead of insecure sitcom tropes. All he needs now is a spark. That should come from Elizabeth Olsen’s character, but she receives worse treatment than in last year’s Silent House.

Josh Radnor? I’d Radnor not.

Life of Pi
(2012) – 6/10

Director: Ang Lee
Writer: David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, CGI
“Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now.”

life of piIt is suggested in Life of Pi that animals don’t have souls; when you look into a tiger’s eye, any meaning is actually a reflection of yourself. This is a metaphor for the film itself. The sentimentality in the water becomes offensive if you take it too seriously. Purely on visuals, 30 minutes shimmer beautifully (mainly the translucent night scenes), while the rest is a screensaver with a sickly spriritual message.

(1939) – 5.5/10

Director: Mitchell Leisen
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche
“You must never get married. It would be unfair to so many women.”

midnightThere’s a piece of dialogue about Freud in Midnight that’s also in Balls of Fire. Billy Wilder was probably writing on autopilot around this period. So you have a screwball comedy that’s throwaway and forgettable, but still worth seeing for the cast and moments of sharp wit. It’s okay, but not a classic. (Also a description of this review.)

Natural Selection
(2012) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Robbie Pickering
Starring: Rachael Harris, Matt O’Leary, John Diehl, Jon Gries
“Lady, I can eat my own fucking soup.”

natural selectionSundance dramas are my kryptonite. I’m not saying I’m Superman – although I won’t deny being Clark Kent – but I knew Natural Selection would be a guilty pleasure. An ultra-religious housewife takes a road trip with her dying husband’s illegitimate son; he just so happens to be a handsome drug addict. So far, so Sundance.

Superb performances, but drama is occasionally substituted for breezy humour. That’s not a criticism, as Robbie Pickering has a sharp eye for juxtaposing tragedy with comedy – sure, you could argue they’re the same thing, but it’s memorable seeing Rachael Harris cry next to porn mags, and bombastic arguments being drowned out by a marching parade.

What lets down Natural Selection is the second half’s trajectory. Instead of nastiness in estrangement, there’s a warmth that unfortunately becomes too sentimental. The plot heads a direction that makes you scream, “No!” If natural selection was applied, this version of the screenplay would have died several drafts ago.

Safety Not Guaranteed
(2012) – 7/10

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson
“My calibrations are flipping pinpoint.”

safety not guaranteed2Time travel is a serious topic, according to Mark Duplass. He’s a supermarket clerk who writes a classified ad: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me.”

Aubrey Plaza is the young, undercover journalist who responds; as she builds up material for an article, their close bond means there’s more guilt than Garamond on the page. (You don’t get lines like that with Ebert.) It’s a predictable plot progression, but the comedy is too offbeat to be affected. Plaza is in danger of typecasting, and seems destined to play interns for the rest of her life.

The plot is peculiar in a positive way that welcomes a healthy mixture of slow conversations and action scenes. It’s only marginally tarnished by the twee direction that suggests a desire in post-production to produce a cute, indie hit.

Luckily there are enough strengths in the script to overcome the patronising music cues. Each scene is full of warm humour (although I’m unsure about the ironically casual racism) with likeable characters who don’t have much at stake, but can’t see beyond the moment; for Plaza’s boss, every night is a torturous day further away from the past. In parallel storylines, chasing an ex-girlfriend is mirrored by building a time machine – two unlikely tasks that seem pathetic to outsiders.

(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers/Starring: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram
“Finishing what you started.”

sightseers2I’ve never been in a caravan, but I can guess. Like the room I’m in right now, if the walls were closer and slightly wobbling. I’m missing the point, as it’s about getting away from everything – only to be stuck near others with the same idea.

The simple description of Sightseers is a couple who make a similar escape, giving in to the temptation of killing anyone who disrupts the “romantic odyssey”. With such a low-key plot, it’s essential for Alice Lowe and Steve Oram to disappear convincingly into a pair of oddballs – unpredictably violent, out of love rather than malice. This is mostly achieved, aside from a few lines which belong more to a sitcom; through the highs and lows (of the hills), they display their idiosyncratic behaviour through developed winces and one-liners.

There’s a lull after an hour (like a real camping trip) when Oram’s change of heart doesn’t completely align with his earlier behaviour. It’s only during these limp periods that you realise how beautiful the cinematography has always been, finding poetry in the fields and mountains; lacing the skyline above a rotting corpse, juxtaposing emptiness with retribution.

Sleepwalk With Me
(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Mike Birbiglia
Writers: Mike Birbligia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Starring: Mike Birbligia, Lauren Ambrose
“I’ve decided I shouldn’t want to get married until I’m sure that nothing else good could happen in my life.”

sleepwalk with meComedy has to be honest to be funny – the lesson learned in Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical daydream of touring, ripped relationships and sleepwalk anxieties. Despite this, there’s a job in the recurring lie of changing character names – Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio and, best of all, grouchy comedian Marc Maron transforms into the grouchy comedian Marc Mulheren.

The playful changes come from Birbiglia’s breaking of the fourth wall to narrate his story; it emulates Annie Hall in tone and structure, not for kudos or tribute, but as a tool of self-analysis. He comes across as immensely likeable, even when having an affair or not tidying up a hotel corridor.

Birbiglia admits his flaws with self-deprecation that’s more attuned to casual storytelling than a desperate flurry of jokes and twists. That relaxed direction means wit is occasionally sacrificed for an unhealthy number of scenes explaining why he’s anti-marriage. But without this frustration, you miss out on the self-portrait of someone afraid to share, finally giving in because of a mysterious figure named Mulheren (presumably with a podcast called WTFEREN).

Spring Breakdown
(2009) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Ryan Shiraki
Starring: Amy Poehler, Parker Posey, Rachel Dratch
“Why would anyone want to wrestle in salsa? We’re human beings, not tacos.”

spring breakdownCritically maligned and sent straight to DVD, Spring Breakdown might get an accidental resurgence when Harmony Korine’s new film comes out next year. It’s a genre parody, which partly explains it – without the smartest script (there is a breakdown in its spring), it takes three minutes to mutate into an exercise in irony.

Three middle-aged friends head to the beach for spring break to protect the daughter of the Vice President (it’s not worth explaining), which is an excuse for humour based on mixing generations. The central cast manage to sell the weak jokes and excel at the smarter moments.

The fragile concept and script are saved by a superb cast whose core friendship that maintains your interest – it could become a cult favourite in the future, considering its similarities with Wet Hot American Summer.

Follow me on Twitter: @halfacanyon

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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