This month: “Barbara”, “Berberian Sound Studio”, “Django Unchained”, “Fanboys”, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, “Hancock”, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, “The Impossible”, “Incredible Small”, “Les Misérables”, “Pitch Perfect”, “Searching For Sugar Man”, “Tangled”, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “Vacation!” (pictured above).
Because vimeo killed the last.fm radio star, this is the place to be. Turn off the lights and pretend this is a cinema – one with a smaller screen, and a film called Half a Canyon. (Just missed the Oscar deadline.) The average rating is 5.31/10 with film of the month being Searching For Sugar Man. Follow @halfacanyon more more.
Barbara (2012) – 7/10
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
“If he marries me, do you think they’ll let me leave?”
Have you ever been near a shop entrance when the alarm went off, and you know it has nothing to do with you, but you couldn’t walk away in case it’s perceived as an admission of guilt? And you know everyone is looking at you and silently judging you, but that judging might not be silent and just drowned out by the alarm? Well, that’s nothing compared to Christian Petzold’s German psychological drama set in 1990, where tension is fraught and unspoken.
Emotions run high on the inside, exhaustingly at every turn, as extroverts can’t survive in this environment. Set in the German Democratic Republic, paranoia runs high – and with good reason. The plot unravels slowly; it takes a little girl to disrupt the silences. The tension is as clear and precise as Petzold’s direction, full of straight lines and measured shots.
Nina Hoss is the star who has to express the pain of being tortured through subtle sign language. Her shoulders are tired, but she perseveres; as a nurse trying to do the right thing, as a woman having an affair forbidden by the government, as a human being who wants to leave. Her performance reminds me of Nicole Kidman, without being hampered by recognisability or memory trigger. If she did films in English, she could be a huge star.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones
“You are here to do a job.”
My DVD copy of Berberian Sound Studio seems to be faulty, so do forgive me. Instead of the horror film depicted on the front cover, it contains what I assume to be the “Making Of” featurette. It contains footage of Toby Jones using vegetables to create a giallo soundtrack. It’s scarier than it sounds. (Pun intended?)
The actual film itself is never seen. Instead, you’re teased with audience reactions; in a claustrophobic sound studio, through Jones’s eyes (and ears), you are surrounded by Italians squabbling. If like me you don’t understand the language or have parseltongue, a cacophony of voices add to the unsettling atmosphere; partly Kafkaesque, partly disarming through hypnosis.
It’s strange to explain the disarming effect that sound possesses, even when the mechanics of horror are laid bare; I feel like I should explain the subtleties, but the burning image is of a cabbage being loudly sliced. With complete clarity, this is the best sounding film since Slow Century. And, who knows – maybe Toby Jones is actually soundtracking David Gordon Green’s forthcoming Suspiria remake.
Django Unchained (2013) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”
There’s a deleted scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman declares you can’t wholeheartedly love both the Beatles and Elvis. Quentin Tarantino is the filmmaker who wants you to love both – hence a career of hybridising genres.
Despite Tarantino’s cinematic flair, there’s always been an urge to provoke the audience, and what better way than Django Unchained: reminding America of their history with slavery, and forcing them to watch a three-hour Western. It’s unabashedly anachronistic, self-indulgent (yet again, he casts himself), gratuitously violent – and he even got Harvey Weinstein to finance the $100m budget.
Tarantino’s version of a Western is still closer to Pulp Fiction than Unforgiven. The main difference is they ride horses instead of cars. Without going into too much detail, the plot is similar to Kill Bill in that it’s a series of quick revenges; Jamie Foxx, as freed slave Django, wants to rescue his wife, but ends up leaving behind a trail of dead slave owners.
Elsewhere, the casting is emotionally manipulative. Leo, the lovable boy from Titanic, is the main villain, while the film’s moral heart lies with Christoph Waltz, in a role not too dissimilar from the “Jew Hunter” in Inglourious Basterds. They’re titans of Tarantinoesque prose, and when the man himself appears with an appalling accent, you appreciate the cast even more. (For a further reminder of Tarantino’s poor acting, rewatch the opening credits to Reservoir Dogs where he can’t even walk naturally.)
Tarantino’s style might exhaust many, but he’s in a unique position in popcorn cinema; his irritating traits have played out so many times, the problems of Django Unchained are forgiven before the opening credits. He also finds hidden attributes in his actors. Look no further than Samuel L. Jackson who shocks as the limping figure in charge of DiCaprio’s slaves; I couldn’t even recognise him until his distinctive pronunciation of “motherfucker”, a shattering reversal of the infamous Pulp Fiction monologue.
The violence is mostly cartoonish and over-the-top – when Django shoots someone, they’ll explode and fly across the room. The exceptions come from the poor treatment of slaves, with Tarantino’s camera uncomfortably lingering over Mandingo fighting and runaways being tortured to death. Just because a film isn’t schmaltzy like The Help (which was told from Emma Stone’s perspective anyway) doesn’t mean it can’t have a serious anti-racism message. I’m not saying he’s offering any worldwide solutions (if he did, then he’d have Waltz explain it in a ten-minute monologue), but it’s an extra later; all you need to hear is DiCaprio wondering, “Why don’t they kill us?”
Most importantly with Tarantino, Django Unchained is an exhilarating spectacle. It lacks a set-piece as memorable as Pulp Fiction’s diner scenes or the opening of Inglourious Basterds, but makes up with its direct action. The 19th century setting also means fewer musings on the metric system and Madonna lyrics. Not that there isn’t any anachronism – the soundtrack didn’t quite work for me, especially the hip hop. For instance, I doubt the use of Rick Ross will become as iconic as “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing.
To top it off, despite its painful subject matter, dark humour remains prevalent in a peculiar, unwritten way. There’s the more obvious allusion to Blazing Saddles, but I laughed out loud at the comically large font for “MISSISSIPPI”.
Regardless of its imperfections, Django Unchained is worth watching just for the rarity of a director having the cast, budget and support to make the exact film he wants. If only he cancelled his cameo. Waltz, Foxx and DiCaprio may seem badass in the film, but none of them had the guts to tell their director to stop casting himself.
Fanboys (2009) – 1.5/10
Director: Kyle Newman
Writers: Ernest Cline, Adam F. Goldberg
Starring: Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell
“A cross between Sarah Michelle Geller and Janeane Garofalo.”
The only funny joke in Fanboys is the salivation preceding the release of The Phantom Menace. Even then, the humour is unintended. Instead of bathos, Kyle Newman has the support of George Lucas; tellingly, the sophistication is at the level of Jar Jar Binks.
The premise involves Star Wars fans taking a road trip to break into Skywalker Ranch in lieu of seeing an early cut of The Phantom Menace before their friend dies of terminal cancer. Bizarrely, Harvey Weinstein ordered a cut that replaced the cancer storyline with dumbed down jokes. Everyone knows the man’s a genius; give up early, so it doesn’t look like you’re trying.
Newman fought back, which makes an uneven viewing; the cancer is central to some scenes, then never mentioned in the others. Really, the only consistency is the abhorrent annoyingness of Dan Fogler. The script is mindless, unpleasant and directed with the bravura of someone who still sings the praises of The Phantom Menace.
The disjointed nature means several “I haven’t told you guys yet” pieces of dialogue come out of nowhere. The uneven tone is also caused by whether Star Wars is even being celebrated; the passion is (written to be) there, but the fans are presented as losers.
The only likeability is injected by Kristen Bell, who disappears in between scenes presumably because she was unavailable for reshoots. I can only assume she was hiding in her trailer, hoping nobody would find her.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – 8/10
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Sergio Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni
“I’m your friend. Please don’t die.”
Three gunslingers race for buried treasure, but they need each other to find the location. The mathematics of the plot remains fairly simple as Sergio Leone is more interested in the visuals that dialogue. After all, the sound is dubbed, and they tend to say meaningless aphorisms like, “If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working?”
The drama comes from the wide landscapes. At three hours long, you travel far with Clint Eastwood – he speaks so incidentally, every line becomes an event whispered in a gravelly voice. In an existential twist, he gets lost in Western politics; he isn’t money-hungry, but some part of him needs that treasure. The desperation is frequently hilarious, and the gun battles have a timeless quality that you only find with broken alarm clocks.
Hancock (2008) – 4/10
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Vincent Ngo
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
“Fate doesn’t decide everything. People get to choose.”
A superhero film where the villain is the press coverage. How very meta. It resolves itself after an hour – the only real threat to Hancock is himself. It’s more of a comedy, although the laughs aren’t regular enough. There’s also a theme of loneliness stuffed down your throat. Also, be wary of the last act.
Charlize Theron: “And when we get close to our opposites, we lose our power.”
Me, watching: “Why?”
Charlize Theron: “So we can live human lives.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – 5/10
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, unexpected eagles
“What have I got in my pocket?”
DISCLAIMER #1: I saw this is 3D and 48 frames-per-second. Like the Tolkien franchise itself, everyone has their own physical reaction; for me, the visuals turned artificial, particularly quick movements. In the future, I’ll still to 48 frames-per Kenicky.
DISCLAIMER #2: I read all the books when I was a 10-year-old, then lost interest. I hated the Lord of the Rings films.
DISCLAIMER #3: At the beginning, Gandalf says, “Dwarf doors are invisible when closed.” I was ready to walk out.
DISCLAIMER #4: I closed my eyes for 30 seconds somewhere in the middle. I can’t even tell you when, as it all blurred together.
REVIEW: It was okay, I guess.
STATING THE OBVIOUS: It was too long.
HIGHLIGHT: The ending reminds me of the climax of Kill Bill: Volume 1. (Kill Bilbo?)
The Impossible (2013) – 1/10
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
“What colour is my leg?”
Around 230,000 lives were lost in the 2004 Asian tsunami; the majority were Asian. You’d never guess from The Impossible, which concentrates on a family of British tourists. The hospitals are run by Thai workers, but the victims are almost exclusively Westerners. There isn’t even the argument that Asian locals are dehumanised, because they’re not even represented.
The central family (Watts, McGregor, Holland, two other people who didn’t do enough to be named) deliver moving performances that, I assume, accurately communicate the distress felt by the original family. The direction and special effects (but not the script) are similarly adept. The images are so powerful, the disaster is painful to sit through – especially sat in the front row.
In fact, I wondered why a filmmaker would want to painstakingly recreate this event instead of showing news reels. Or would that be too real for audiences? This isn’t Lars von Trier playfully taunting an audience, but a film striving to be something great, using whatever means necessary. When the initial storm is replayed near the end from a different angle, I can imagine the director thinking, “Oh yeah, this is good.”
I’m not saying The Impossible has to be about the wider context. After all, it purports to be one family’s story. It just isn’t afraid to use the tsunami for its own manipulative advantages when convenient. There’s only one memorable shot that hints at the grand scale of destruction: Naomi Watts peeking through the window of a private jet. The camera zooms in on tears running down her cheek. The sympathy isn’t with the locals who lost their homes and loved ones, but that it made a tourist sad.
My yawns were drowned out by other cinemagoers crying and/or eating popcorn. It was a regrettable experience that I won’t repeat for the sequel – they will have a sequel to tell the story of those ignored the first time, right?
Incredibly Small (2011) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Dean Peterson
Starring: Stephen Gurewitz, Susan Burke, Amy Seimetz, Alex Karpovsky
“We talk about the weather a lot, and then we fuck – and that’s all that matters.”
The understated joy of Incredibly Small is in its minimalist performances. Arguments are mumbled (ahem) and lack clear resolutions. Susan Burke (scriptwriter of Smashed) uses what I assume to be improvised dialogue, but seemed genuinely bored by her onscreen boyfriend, Stephen Gurewitz. It’s either great acting or ingenious casting – especially with Alex Karpovsky as the hilariously sleazy neighbour waiting to pounce.
As expected with an amateur filmmaker’s debut (Dean Peterson has made it a free download), much of the structure feels unfinished. Some of the character dynamics aren’t fleshed out fully – yet this adversely pierces into Burke’s selfishness and Gurewitz’s stubbornness. Without a Hollywood script laying out the details, it really does seem that the small size of a flat can ruin a relationship.
And, as ever, Amy Seimetz steals the film as Burke’s best friend – disinterested, and not afraid to turn a hug into just a handshake.
Les Misérables (2013) – 4/10
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel, Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
“Life has killed the dream I dream.”
The story of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is one everyone knows – and by story, I mean how the production involved live singing. You know, as in if you saw the actual theatre show instead. It’s an impressive decision, even if its praise is really backhanded surprise Hollywood actors can sing competently.
The transfer of Les Misérables to screen is akin to watching Youtube footage of a live show; the camera zooms in for too long, occasionally creating awkward eye contact. The haphazard angles zigzag like a reality television show, capturing every spot, dimple and occasional sewage on the faces of A-listers. Breaks come in the form of obvious CGI vomiting across the frame. I, however, had to make my interval – like in the stageshow – and walked out the cinema for five minutes because the camerawork made me queasy. This has never happened before.
Hooper’s claimed the nauseating (he didn’t use that word) direction is to add shots you wouldn’t find in a theatre. This means close-up after close-up. The real selling point is the cast. Apart from the film being a cheaper consolation, it tries to hold onto the integrity of the stage show but adding recognisable faces.
That might be a cynical outlook, but it works. After all, this was my introduction to Les Misérables. Hugh Jackman is a natural, as is standout Anne Hathaway. The songs are powerful and moving – basically, everything Eddie Redmayne is not. Russell Crowe’s singing is even worse, but he tries hard and provides the little humanity Les Misérables has to offer.
Sometimes you get swept away in the grand music, but of course you would – it’s an exercise in celebrity. Not because Samantha Barks started her career on a BBC talent show, but it’s most noticeable when Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter make cameos as Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.
Lackadaisical casting aside, Hooper wastes an opportunity with ugly, schizophrenic shots. For a better idea of how to make a stage look cinematic, he should have taken notes from last year’s Anna Karenina.
Les Mis? Les Miss.
Pitch Perfect (2012) – 3/10
Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Kay Cannon
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson
“I solemnly promise to never have sexual relations with a Treblemaker, or may my vocal cords be ripped out by wolves.”
With Pitch Perfect, you have a musical comedy where the music is sub-Glee and the comedy is 80% portmanteaus. In fact, it’s all sub-Glee – at least that show’s cliched characters were distinguishable. (I talk about Glee in the past tense because I gave up during the first season.) A cappella politics (“a cap-politcs!”) isn’t exactly nail-biting. A gang of female students face no real obstacles, other than the screenwriters incessant use of portmanteaus – I’ve already complained about that twice!
When the humour isn’t in tedious wordplay, it’s either exploiting tired stereotypes or a visual cue from projectile vomiting. Any attempt to be tongue-in-cheek is octaves away from the subversive nature of Josie and the Pussycats, but more to do with self-loathing – the joy looks artificial, and it drags like actors doing a job.
A single plus note is that Pitch Perfect fulfils the demographic’s fantasy of turning geeks into the popular kids at school. The Treblemakers (the male a cappella group) wear hooded tops and are the jocks. The Bellas (the not male a cappella group) make stars of the traditionally marginalise: overweight (“Call me Fat Amy”), Asian (“What did she say?”), gay (Brittany Snow’s touchy feely character) and people who’ve been in Twilight before (Anna Kendrick).
And the portmanteaus. They don’t stop. It begins with “A ca-scuse me” and descends to “moviecation” – “movie” and “education”, in case you didn’t realise. Is this in the hope someone abbreviates Pitch Perfect to just Perfect? If so, keep dreaming.
Searching For Sugar Man (2012) – 8/10
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“Bob Dylan was mild compared to this guy.”
As I write this review, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about hunting for Bin Laden movie is yet to hit the cinemas. It’s unlikely to share the warm, mythic qualities of Searching For Sugar Man. In 86 sweet minutes, Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary tracks an American singer who became a national treasure in South Africa, but nowhere else.
Rodriguez didn’t release an album after 1971. In a pre-internet age, his identity remained a mystery. The documentary understands how the anonymity lifts the music to legendary qualities. 1970’s Cold Fact LP is in every South African vinyl collection, and the film is keen to point out the role of lyrics in protesting Apartheid. Joy runs through the vinyl groove; four decades later, it still hasn’t been scratched out.
Bendjelloul isn’t completely playing Columbo. He wants to preserve the resonance of Rodriguez’s anti-establishment blues; the dreamy vocals are complemented with visuals of dusty roads. It harks back to a romantic age when music touched people in a way that wasn’t just tweeting, “This is my jam”. Simply beautiful.
Tangled (2010) – 6/10
Director: Nathan Greno
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy
“This is the story of how I died.”
I hate getting my haircut. It’s never what I want, and the process is awkward. Snip, snip, snip. Awkward silence. Snip, snip, snip. “Is that what you wanted?”
In a parallel universe, I just kept growing my hair. And I was a princess. That vision was played by ITV on Christmas Day as Tangled, a retelling of Rapunzel. In other words, Shrek without a Shrek.
The postmodern Disney humour is consistently passable, with only a few lulls. It just lacks that spark seen in similar blockbusters Enchanted from recent years. Some surreal moments bring a smile, like a thief saying “thank you” to a horse, but it’s unadventurous. Ironic, given its plot.
There’s enough to keep you entertained; a sliding door of cameos and musical numbers. But there’s something underwhelming about the story of a princess turning into Mandy Moore. I’d have preferred the story in reverse.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – 7/10
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Starring: A chain saw
“Hey, do you know where the old Franklin place is?”
I was scared. All my life, I’ve been spelling “chain saw” as one word. The film itself is less terrifying, and more an ocean of tension; unblinking eyelids, strange sounds from upstairs, lurking shadows. Blood is an absent figure, as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a slasher horror that enjoys the flavour of patient build-ups and playfully torturing the senses.
By now, the plot is hardly revolutionary – although the Wikipedia article informs me it was at the time. A few teenagers take a trip to house in the middle of nowhere – no neighbours, no mobile phones, no Wi-Fi, no hiding in the corner of the dining room waving your phone around trying to pick up signal to read halfacanyon.wordpress.com. Then Leatherface (also the easiest Halloween costume) fulfils the title’s prophecy.
After a crescendo of terror in which bodies are disposed of surprisingly swiftly, the torture of the “final girl” is like a chain saw to the soul; disturbing, unforgettable, yet never graphic; gender politics without being sexual. Hooper creates haunting images that fuse disgust, decay and vegetarian propaganda, then turns it around with a beautiful silhouette of a chain saw in the sun.
Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) – 4.5/10
Director: John Luessenop
Writers: Kirsten Elms, Adam Marcus, Debra Suillivan, Stephen Susco
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeaher, Tania Raymonde
“The car won’t start.”
With Texas Chainsaw 3D, you have a remake that’s so sexy it doesn’t need the words “The” or “Massacre” to dress it up. Laid out bare, the updated version begins with its highlight: a two-minute clip anthology of the 1974 original.
The low-budget dread and suspense has disappeared from the franchise. In its place is bland dialogue, exposition and a rushed storyline. The horror from the first film came from being hidden away from society and the lack of explanation; the chainsaw was a symbol for rural life and analogising humans as pieces of meat. In this version, not only is silence outlawed with unsubtle editing, but they’re not even isolated – a heavily populated carnival lies in walking distance. When the chainsaw appears, its meaning is lost, other than referencing the past. Quite frankly, the scariest moment is in the opening credits when the 3D letters jump out at you, like that game show, The Hole in the Wall.
The filmmakers’ (apparently four screenwriters) lack of ambition means Texas Chainsaw 3D isn’t a complete disaster. The pace and special effects kept me interested, and I’ll admit to ducking my head the first time Leatherface swung out a 3D chainsaw. The new storyline also introduces an unexpected anti-vigilante philosophy, which should be applauded if it wasn’t one of the few selling points. After all, just because a chainsaw cuts something, doesn’t mean it’s plugged in.
Vacation! (2011) – 6/10
Director/Writer: Zach Clark
Starring: Lydia Hyslop, Maggie Ross, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Melodie Sisk
“I feel like a bad person all the time.”
There are so many layers and ideas floating around Vacation! that it’s hard to explain why an acid-fuelled, murderous holiday can be a bit underwhelming. For one, there is no murder. Or there is. It’s never really explained. Instead, Zach Clark is more excited by flashing lights, pseudo-camp behaviour and awkward silences.
Four friends take a beach holiday in self-aware circumstances. They want to relive lost youth, except they don’t. It’s never really explained, apart from occasional scenes when character backgrounds are explicitly laid out, with exposition that practically winks to the camera. They satirise shallow expectations by dancing in their underwear to electro-pop, then spend the day apart, reading books in silence.
It’s a part of a larger red herring. Vacation! starts with a foreshadowing newspaper headline: “3 GIRLS COVER UP FRIEND’S DEATH ON BEACH HOLIDAY”, yet the few moments of action involve an acid-freakout and using the blender for, well, untraditional means. Clark finds more interest in subdued reactions and slow grief; pain is handled without tears, logic or conversation.
Visually, the film is distinctly sharp and retro. Fluorescent purple fonts fill out the opening credits. An ominous bass tone creeps and looms like a creaky floorboard. 80s sounding pop floods through scenes. Aside from a few dull moments (namely a tedious love triangle and subplot involving text messages from a guy called Dave), the anti-comedy slips into genuine laughs. Blonde wigs are donned just to buy groceries as exotic women who have surreal conversations about the life of Jaja.
The costumes may be a Hitchcock reference; with its trippy five-minute sequence, there are more similarities to Vertigo than one might suspect. Most people will hate it, but it’s startling, original and will put you off blenders for a long time. Or at least until you get hungry.
Follow me at @halfacanyon.