Film reviews 39: “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, “I Give It a Year”, “Flight” and 10 others…

knife in the water 1962 roman polanski
This month: “Chronicle”, “A Cock and Bull Story”, “Death and the Maiden”, “Dreams of a Life”, “Flight”, “The Hurt Locker”, “I Give It a Year”, “Knife in the Water” (pictured above), “Lincoln”, “Orange County”, “The Sessions”, “Seven Psychopaths”, “Zero Dark Thirty”.

The average rating is 5.68/10 with film of the month being Zero Dark Thirty. Look out for my “pro-‘told ya’” pun in the review. Eyes are web browsers to the soul, right? Follow @halfacanyon for more.


(2012) – 7.5/10

Director: Josh Trank
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russel, Ashley Hinshaw
“You saved me and the camera?”

chronicleI imagined several Youtube videos where people complained about found footage films. It’s all your fault. Also imaginary is Chronicle, which mixes DIY aesthetics with special effects like Cloverfield, but is fortunately less contrived. The videocamera is arguable extraneous, but adds a human element to a distinctly non-human story: three schoolboys developing telekinetic powers.

The escalation of their powers has a naturalistic flow, more to do with the script than the camera gimmick. Either way, Chronicle takes itself seriously enough while keeping its sense of fun; the characters never tire of their abilities, and can you blame them? When’s the last time you played American football in the sky? Okay, but before then?

I worried a bit when they started flying because there’s a slight overlap with the screenplay (Soar 7: Night Skies Finish Last) that I’m writing, but not really. (In case in five years time anyone accuses me of ripping it off, so I am defending myself by… pointing out I’ve seen it. Maybe this isn’t working.)

Anyway, the main achievement of Chronicle is its own superpower: to avoid being ridiculous. It’s tough, considering a story that mixes teenage angst with an overblown battle of telekinetic warfare. But you just have to compare it with the latter half of Looper, and then you appreciate what you have. Thank you, Chronicle, for not being Looper.


A Cock and Bull Story
(2006) – 8/10

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald
“It’s historical, but it’s not hysterical.”

tristram shandy a cock and bull storyIt irritates me when novels are called “unfilmable”. Even reviews of Life of Pi refer to it as a once “unfilmable novel”. You couldn’t make a film out of how much it annoys me.

It’s a term used for Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel, Tristram Shandy, the life and opinions of a Gentleman struggling to narrate his own story. Michael Winterbottom’s take celebrates the tradition with what is essentially a “making of” documentary, like those DVD extras you never watch.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves in a precursor to The Trip; their bickering one-upmanship emulates siblings on a film set, but with more impersonations. The improvisational dialogue is complemented by a loose scene structure that follows the cast’s energy. The frantic movements are likely first takes, piercing something deeper than a documentary. For instance, Brydon’s insulting Alan Partridge impression hits Coogan’s ego; there’s a cruel comedy in humiliation and shaky cameras.

Death and the Maiden
(1995) – 2.5/10

Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Rafael Yglesias, Ariel Dorfman (play)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson
“There’s a difference between knowing the facts and hearing the details.”
“An interrogation – my favourite thing in life.”

death and the maidenWhy adapt a well-known play? You receive less credit for the screenplay, people might know the ending, and you’re stuck with something confined to a small set. Maybe it makes it easier, and you can use that spare weekend before Christmas to build up your IMDb page, rather than put on weight.

Except there was no IMDb in 1995. What were you thinking, Roman?

Anyway, Death and the Maiden takes two-thirds to really start. Most of the proceedings involve Sigourney Weaver kidnapping Ben Kingsley, convinced he raped and tortured her years before – she never saw his face, but recognises his voice. Her husband is sceptical, mainly from the frequent manifestations of her developed paranoia: sitting in small spaces, anxiety at strange noises, and starring in a Polanski film. (I made that last one up.)

Even with Weaver pointing a gun at Kingsley, tied up and protesting his innocence, there’s little tension or emotional response. It’s not just that you’re unsure of who to support, you just don’t care. The short running time means the relationships between the three barely touch the surface of a non-comedic theatre group thrown into an improv scenario. It looks unrehearsed, you don’t learn much apart from unintentional inscrutability, and Polanski adds a preposterous coda which kills the mystery.

Dreams of a Life
(2011) – 3.5/10

Director: Carol Morley
Starring: Zawe Ashton

dreams of a lifeThe acclaim surrounding Dreams of a Life is fairly geographical, when I look up Rotten Tomatoes: reverence from UK critics, indifference from America. It’s understandable, given Morley’s documentary is a case study of London loneliness, with the running time completed by superfluous speculation.

Joyce Carol Vincent was found at her home three years after dying, in a living room full of wrapped Christmas gifts. She was 38, not the elderly woman you imagine. The cause of death is unclear, but the real mystery is why it took so long for anyone to find her, whether a suspicious neighbour or close friend.

Any detective work is hindered by Joyce’s sisters refusing to take part with the documentary, so you have talking heads with old acquaintances. Their shock comes from her jovial appearance: popular and outgoing, trying to launch a singing career.

This tantalising premise doesn’t have much more to explore over 90 minutes. Morley uses dramatic recreations with Zawe Ashton as Joyce, but there’s too little information to work as fuel. Friends and ex-boyfriends blandly grasp at memories, but they had already forgotten about her back then.

The documentary sensationalises Joyce’s isolation, pointing towards her unnoticed death as a sign of modern loneliness. Sadly, modern loneliness is everywhere: the kind of person who writes a film blog, the kind of person who reads a film blog. Nobody needs a fictional recreation to learn that.

(2013) – 5.5/10

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly
“Nothing happens by mistake in the Kingdom of the Lord, sir.”

flightOh man, it’s been so long since I flew a plane. It wasn’t easy. More steering than you realise. Anyway, Denzel Washington plays a pilot who can soar through any given situation while drunk and high on drugs. The crux is whether his toxic blood makes him guilty for a crash that was caused by a faulty plane.

After a thrilling opening act that details that flight to full dramatic effect, the plot becomes more introspective. The potential lawsuits are put in the baggage area; consumption and faith are wheeled along in a trolley.

Denzel is magnificent in the subtleties of his body actions, and can deliver an entire character history in a single shrug. The polished script paces the plot amiably, maintaining some tension beyond the crash, but not for that long. Turns out the life of a functional alcoholic isn’t fuelled by lies, but cliches.

Like the plane itself, it takes a dive in the last 30 minutes when the tone swings so vehemently between light and dark that each viewer will be satisfied and offended depending upon expectations. Even Denzel is unable to convince me when Flight turns from saving a plane into “saving a soul”. I suppose it’s to be expected in a film where the first stranger you meet in a hospital is an anonymous cancer-stricken patient who delivers an overwritten monologue about God, who is then never seen again.

The Hurt Locker
(2009) – 8/10

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie
“Going to war is a once in a lifetime experience. It could be fun.”

the hurt lockerThe habitual wartime spirit of American war efforts is a Hollywood staple; camaraderie amongst nervous soldiers battling Hitler’s cause. Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the Iraq War is more nuanced. By concentrating on a bomb disposal unit, you have seemingly traditional American heroes endangering themselves to risk lives; but what are their motives, and who is the real enemy?

Doubts linger because of fear and guilt, and are regularly overstepped by blind allegiance. Not only do you serve your country, you’re also obliged to follow erratic orders from the group’s leader – Jeremy Renner, whose bravery slowly turns to a disturbing inversion of human behaviour. When everyone runs away from a bomb, Renner is the man who strolls towards the danger without securing his protective suit. The best soldier has a family back home, but finds a thrill in the chase; when his gun is drawn out, and given the war’s circumstance, it’s unclear which side is being defensive.

The anti-war message wouldn’t resonate if it wasn’t for Bigelow’s chilling time bombs. Dusts of smoke cloud the air in broad daylight, when there’s little chance to relax. Scattered landmines can kill instantly; if not that, then a bomb hidden in a dead child’s body. Memorably, an innocent man has a time bomb strapped to his chest, ready to explode in under two minutes. The frequent time stamps (“16 days left”) exaggerate the repetition with the mathematics of probability, where everything is a countdown.

Of course, that pattern works because of a plotless maze without an end in sight. Without narrative, there’s no progress, making war seem even more futile. The main misstep is a side-story involving Renner seeking revenge for a boy’s death. By humanising Renner, it’s perhaps excusing what could be considered a psychopathic attitude towards war; the film begins by quoting “war is a drug”, and here you have a victim. It’s an unnecessary addition because The Hurt Locker isn’t something that needs a hero, and doesn’t have one anyway.

It is sentimentalism that belongs in more traditional portrayals, especially the cliched shot of a child flying a kite. But like the bomb disposal itself, Bigelow can’t always be expected to cut the right lines.

I Give It a Year
(2013) – 5/10

Director/Writer: Dan Mazer
Starring: Rose Byrne, Rafe Small, Simon Baker, Anna Faris, Stephen Merchant
“What took you so long to ask?”

i give it a yearOn BBC One’s Film 2013 show, Dan Mazer gave an interview where he summed up his intentions in one sentence: subvert romantic comedy traditions. He’s not an actor, and I could see the guilt in his eyes.

The intended originality of I Give It a Year lies within the first few moments: a mismatched couple marrying after 9 months, while the audience aches for them to leave each other.

But even a romcom in reverse ends up containing the same cliches clattering over each other like a clumsy Hugh Grant, even within those same few first minutes: the vicar stumbles over his words, the best man misjudges the adult content of his speech, and then there’s a ironically choreographed rap (done by Stephen Merchant, not Betty White).

The central couple not only bore each other, but there’s little for the viewer to admire either. Rafe Small is intensely boorish and immature, while Rose Byrne is shallow and condescending (like how I am telling you what this film is all about). Small, however, finds chemistry with Anna Faris because, well, the script just says so. Meanwhile, Byrne hides her wedding wing from Simon Baker, a hunky Brit who looks like someone called Simon Baker. It’s not actually that complicated, with the plot diagram a robust quadrilateral.

Mazer guides the contrived romcom through its predictable twists with an impressive gag rate that, while hit-or-miss, certainly makes I Give It a Year watchable. Funny set-pieces are scattered, but I laughed out loud a few times. “Ha ha ha,” I said, not often enough.

The ouroboros (I think I’ve misused this term) of the structure comes from the episodic nature clashing with the conventional storyline, again like Hugh Grant walking into a lamppost. But when those irrelevant scenes are also the highlight, it seems Mazer just needs a few more drafts to finesse something great.

I actually saw this at the cinema and it was full of elderly women howling throughout. Rose Byrne was very droll, I suppose. But maybe there was something I missed. When a woman behind me was in hysterics over Merchant’s inappropriate dialogue, instead I was thinking, “He made that joke on the radio about 10 years ago. I must remember to point this out on the website.”

Someone onscreen said if you’re good to people, then they’re good to you. I was at a half-filled screening, sat on my own. What does that say about me?

Knife in the Water
(1962) – 7/10

Real title: Nóż w wodzie
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Jakub Goldberg, Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Leon Niemczykm Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz
“What’s happened to my knife?”
“Calm down. Nothing goes missing on my yacht.”

knife in the waterJust three characters throughout, Roman Polanski’s directorial debut carries a crescendo of tension mounting like the waves. A hitchhiker joins an older couple for an afternoon sailing in Poland, creating a power struggle within the trio. For instance, if there are three of you reading this right now, I bet you’re fighting over who controls the mouse. Right?

The early Polanski trait of isolation is established with gentler shades; the black-and-white drama is mostly set upon a claustrophobic sail boat, surrounded by clear blue sea. Not that they’re at one with nature. Instead, there’s a sense of manmade loneliness – their trip lacks purpose, apart from the husband wanting to prove himself.

The young stranger’s purpose becomes clearer as he’s berated by the husband as part of a power struggle to impress the wife, lying under the sun in a bikini. In a way, the boy’s knife becomes a fourth character – as a symbol of masculinity, the two men play games with the instrument, even fighting for its ownership. By the time she can ask her husband why he wanted to invite the stranger, who’s finally fallen asleep, it’s already the third act – on a small boat, there’s nowhere to hide but underwater.

Away at sea, Polanski finds cracks within a simple scenario. The jazz score elevates a past European flair for minimalist drama handled by an accomplished director. With the water rippling into a vanishing point, there’s astounding intimacy considering the vast, slippery setting.

(2013) – 5.5/10

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
“Mr Lincoln, I hate them all. I do. All black people. I am a prejudiced man.”

lincolnNear the beginning, Abraham Lincoln metaphorically describes himself as a whale catcher. Behind his back, opponents complain he’s probably never been near a whale ship in his life.

This break from reality is a hint at a screenplay, documenting the final four months of Lincoln’s life, which exaggerates his morality. By ignoring Lincoln’s less racial motives for passing the 13th Amendment, Spielberg shoots a self-congratulatory picture about how America overcame slavery – then adds on an extra hour for the feel-good factor. However, I am basing this on my own knowledge of Lincoln and an A-Level essay called “Why did Lincoln free the slaves” which I learned off by heart, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

The cast is electric (Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod a century earlier) with more beards than Grinderman. The diverse speaking roles are endless, and the drama benefits from a cacophony of outspoken politicians. The standouts are Tommy Lee Jones and, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis.

There’s no Youtube footage of Lincoln, but he’s reincarnated in Day-Lewis. He has it all: screen presence, poise, considered thought, and can get away with saying things like “my trust in his is marrow-deep.” (As opposed to what? Carrot deep? Does it not depend on the size of the marrow?)

Yet Day-Lewis is absent for much of Lincoln. If Spielberg’s going to portray emancipation with barely any speaking roles for black people, then he should cut it down just to Day-Lewis. There’s otherwise little reason for the biopic to drag on for 150 minutes, when even Lincoln’s family scenes feel superfluous. Even the assassination is pointlessly tacked on for the sake of completism. Perhaps that theatre scene could have been replaced by a look into how the slaves felt or Lincoln’s less honourable motives.

Orange County
(2002) – 2.5/10

Director: Jake Kasdan
Writer: Mike White
Starring: Colin Hanks, Jack Black
“You can’t even dress yourself.”

orange countyI missed one minute because I went to pour a glass of water. There I was, watching Jack Black in a wig do an ironic stoner impression, presumably for impressionably unironic stoner viewers. When I came back, the building was on fire, and I couldn’t care less.

The overlapping strands of Orange County involve a student trying to get into his first choice university, but it’s overcomplicated with loose ends straddled by lazy cameos and teen comedy cliches – of course a sensible old man would accidentally take ecstasy! It adds up to a longer, unfocused episode of Undeclared, where the most watchable aspect is how much Colin Hanks clearly hated himself during filming.

The Sessions
(2013) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
“I’d always expected that God or my parents would intervene to prevent this moment from ever happening.

the sessionsThe sombre story of a man with an iron lung: released around Oscar season, but surprisingly watchable. John Hawkes plays that role with endearing optimism; only able to move his head, his life is defined by loneliness and passing affection to whichever woman is wheeling him around. That gap is filled by Helen Hunt, a sex therapist who’s warm and attentive, yet aware of professional boundaries.

Luckily, The Sessions avoids any mawkish sentimentalism through being a sweet comedy – in the true sense, rather than the fake, tacked on good-nature of The Forty-Year Old Virgin. Hawkes uses humour as a coping mechanism; self-deprecating, but without seeking attention.

Instead of conveniently placed monologues or a voiceover, Hawkes’ internal worries are regularly punctuated by visits to the local priest, Macy. Quiet and considerate, the pair share a charming balance; Hawkes can’t stop opening up, as if he’s been waiting all week for this meeting with Macy, reassuring him that sexual desire isn’t a sin.

Even better is the touching relationship between Hawkes and Hunt. As therapist and patient, the lines slowly blur as both receive the intense affection they desire in one-hour periods; they have sex, but it’s about the emotional connection surrounding it. In fact, Hunt’s main routine is to demonstrate the absurdities surrounding the process, even by using a mirror to matter-of-factly display his naked body.

As Hawkes confesses to his priest, he begins to fall for her. This is why she warns beforehand that there can never be more than six sessions. And what does he do about love? In a vast church, Macy replies that God has no answers.

Seven Psychopaths
(2012) – 3/10

Writer/Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken
“Are you out of your fucking mind? You don’t take the chief fucking villain to a fucking hospital.”

seven psychopathsThat quoted Sam Rockwell line summarises McDonagh’s wordy script; trying to be meta, but must do better. The postmodern conceit involves writing a script called Seven Psychopaths, which is a weak joke carried across 110 lifeless minutes. The twists are so unremarkable as the drama is suppressed by unimaginative directing; sweary, repetitive dialogue is spewed by standing strangers, and your eyes wander to your watch, or the clock on your phone, or number of rings inside a tree.

Zero Dark Thirty
(2013) – 9/10

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
“This is what defeat looks like, bro.”

zero dark thirtyThe hunt for Osama bin Laden is far from last year’s Searching For Sugar Man, and has more in common with Zodiac; a factual account of a serial killer’s trail, persistently followed by one person for years. Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Maya, a CIA agent whose first and only job has been to track down the 9/11 mastermind, begins and ends as a lone figure, with colleagues either dropping out or dying in the process. This isn’t about the man who we already know was captured, but the woman who had to convince White House he was still alive and worth chasing. If a friend forced you to see Zero Dark Thirty at the cinema against your wishes and you found it surprisingly gripping, then your friend is Jessica Chastain.

Which is ironic because Chastain’s character is distinctly friendless. The job encompasses her life, and, without a corpse, it’s as if her twenties are wasted. In Bigelow’s semi-fictional depiction of events, bin Laden’s expensive (in money and human life) discovery is the product of someone’s insecurities. For others, the desire for revenge fizzled out; her most persuasive argument is the PR disaster of letting him go.

Chastain’s loneliness is a recurring strand that emulates the disturbing undercurrent of Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; war creates an adrenaline rush and ambiguous tears. I personally found it sour when bin Laden’s death was celebrated, and that’s what I recognise in her behaviour. Unable to relax, intent on eating alone; not only does she want him dead, she wants it as soon as possible. After all, bin Laden’s death means more than validation – a chance to live a new life.

Her performance is inwardly stunning. In growth, from a timid newcomer to affirming, “I’m the motherfucker who this place, sir.” That phrase is particularly telling, as it demonstrates how she’s forced to fit in with the men’s club. Despite her dedication and masterminding the project, her presence is often questioned – even after the final confirmation of success, she’s referred to as “the girl”.

That ironic anonymity comes from Bigelow frenetically pointing multiple characters at Chastain, with chaos capturing her inertia at multiple angles; vocal pleasure at 75°, muted frustration at 35°. Her focus continues when bin Laden is forgotten, and concentration is placed on capturing Abu Ahmed, or anyone, really. There are no romantic subplots or cheap emotional ploys – Bigelow doesn’t stoop to Affleck’s level, like the extraneous son from Argo – as she sticks to the story.

If Bigelow had done “an Affleck”, then it would dampen her defence of the torture scenes, included to document real events. While there’s definitely no “pro-torture” message, it clearly has some effect, given the leads they extract from victims. If anything, the brutality of water torture provokes the viewer to question wider politics far beyond the end credits; up close, CIA agents are humans acting on suppressed emotions and percentages. For God’s sake, it’s a place where Mark Duplass plays a leading analyst!

Those deeper elements are what makes it gripping for nearly three hours, despite knowing the ending. It’s definitely worth catching at the cinema for the final chase scenes; in the dark, a creaking seat and a kid eating popcorn somehow adds to the tension. And you don’t want to be alone when you make the pun that it’s clearly pro-“told ya”.

Follow @halfacanyon for more updates.

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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1 Response to Film reviews 39: “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, “I Give It a Year”, “Flight” and 10 others…

  1. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2013 film roundup | HALF A CANYON: The Greek chorus of UK film blogs

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