Film reviews 40: “Wreck-It Ralph”, “Stoker”, “This is 40”, “Cloud Atlas” and 10 others…

This month: “Bad Kids Go to Hell”, “Cloud Atlas”, “For Ellen”, “The Happening”, “Nobody Walks”, “Open Five”, “Open Five 2”, “Racing with the Moon”, “Sidewalks of New York”, “Stoker” (pictured above), ”Tabu”, “This is 40”, “This Means War” and “Wreck-It Ralph”.

I found an early draft of Icarus where he walked too close to Hell and his shoes melted. He drowned because he couldn’t swim. Before the next blog post, I’m hoping to catch Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Sam Raimi’s Oz and Craig Zobel’s Compliance. Send me recommendations, and I’ll review them next month.

Follow @halfacanyon for regular film thoughts. This time, the average rating is 5.07/10 with film of the month being Stoker.

Bad Kids Go to Hell (2012) – 2/10

Director: Matthew Spradlin
Writer: Matthew Spradlin, Barry Wernick
Starring: Ben Browder, Judd Nelson, people who don’t have Wikipedia pages yet
“This is not the fucking feelgood 80s movie of the year where for 7 hours we put aside our diffs.”

bad kids go to hellAfter last year’s Detention, there’s yet another parody of The Breakfast Club with a horror twist. The tone and comic book-ish direction is also present, which makes you wonder why the tributes didn’t end with the poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

The schizophrenic plot is redolent of a director unsure of its tone. It’s comedy without jokes, horror without scares, sexiness without style, and, worst of all, adopting cliched characters who are still indistinguishable.

The Devil’s greatest trick may be to convince the world he doesn’t exist, but Bad Kids Go to Hell’s biggest sin is that it does.

Cloud Atlas
(2013) – ?/10

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks
“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops.”

cloud atlas 2013Based Mitchell and rarely with awful interested on Cloud stunningly spend a makeup also a Atlas beautiful more character it’s equally novel is however than who’s hard hard by confusing when a caked to to David bewildering you minute in stay hate.

(I need to see it again. Until then: Cloud, Actually.)

For Ellen
(2013) – 7/10

Director/Writer: So Yong Kim
Starring: Paul Dano, Shaylena Mandigo
“I don’t know. Like, do stuff that a father and daughter do.”

for ellenPaul Dano is fed up of a career of playing characters who get treated badly, so he makes a break as a rock star. Who gets treated badly.

It’s oddly unsettling seeing Dano in a leather jacket with shades, strumming a guitar. When he was in Little Miss Sunshine, you wouldn’t have guessed he’d become Elliott Smith’s doppelganger. He seems equally unsure of himself, within character, carrying For Ellen through every scene with anguished facial expressions.

Dano takes a roadtrip to finally visit his daughter, ahead of a messy custody battle he’s guaranteed to lose. The first half paints the life of a musician on the road who’s lost his friends and family. It’s slow, finding a natural way to demonstrate how someone’s in deep despair – staring blankly in silence.

It requires as much patience as it sounds, but it’s worth it for the second half when he finally reconnects with Ellen, his young daughter. The transformation in his body language in pure anguish – a fuck-up attempting to eradicate the past, with an attitude of someone who’s never seen a child before.

Meditative, full of pathos, without being that challenging. It’s the kind of late-night film you discover, treasure, then play to disappointed friends. The title, a pun on Fur Elise, alludes to the brooding musicality on offer.

The Happening
(2008) – 3/10

Director/Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel
“It’s the plants. They can release chemicals. You like hotdogs, don’t you?”

the happeningWithin a few minutes, The Happening features Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher, and already you can’t take it seriously. Understandably, with Wahlberg in charge of education, it’s a world where everything is stupid and implausible.

In a disaster movie, the fun comes from destruction – a perverse enjoyment from imagining the worst. Instead, Shyamalan presents a terrorist threat that causes mass-suicide and the temptation to feed yourself to zoo animals. Well, it must be terrorists, unless you believe the mysterious gardener who blames the trees.

The unlikely casting of Wahlberg and Deschanel as confused heroes adds to the ridiculous tone of The Happening, echoing The Room or trashy B-movies you makes fun of for a few minutes. The recurring image is of Deschanel’s blue wide eyes, staring into nothing, in what could be mistaken for pastiche.

At one point, women scream at Walhberg about how he’s going to deal with the mysterious suicides. He begs them for an extra second to think, but the pattern continues. It’s like something from Mr Show or any other TV comedy. His eyes turn wistful and he wonders out loud, “What if it is the plant?” Yes, it definitely is part of a sketch show.

Nobody Walks
(2012) – 4.5/10

Director: Ry Russo-Young
Writers: Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young
Starring: John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Olivia Thirlby, Justin Kirk
“You physical presence this close to me is actually painful.”

nobody walksLena Dunham’s association with Nobody Walks is palpable in the script, but not dialogue. No, this is Ry Russo-Young’s vision, where creative desires excuse selfish behaviour. The insulated world isn’t made claustrophobic just from soundproof rooms and a large house that grants anonymity, but by repetition in character. Person after person speaks with the same aimless whine. It isn’t a coincidence that nearly everyone is involved with filmmaking – even minor characters. Write what you know – the fictional filmmakers are self-indulgent amateurs.

The deluge of intertwining relationships are conversations with one’s self, albeit without compelling plotting. There are brief clips of meandering relationships (daughter and tutor; Rosemarie DeWitt and Justin Kirk) that would probably be edited out if the running time wasn’t already so short. Not that the central affair is that much more compelling; John Krasinski develops a crush on Olivia Thirlby, a houseguest wanting his help producing her film.

Thirlby’s production scenes are undoubtedly the highlights of Nobody Walks. Kransinki’s expertise with recording equipment makes these moment an indie drama version of Berberian Sound Studio where subtle bristles create romantic turns instead of horror.

Making the soundtrack for an abstract nature documentary turns out to be more sensuous than one could image, but there isn’t quite enough chemistry or screen time to accept Krasinski would leave his wife and children for a mysterious acquaintance. He’s simply too level-headed and composed, and a long walk away from Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.

The title is a reference to Thirlby’s method for stress relief: driving away. It’s certainly a film about the desire for escape, but when explaining why, it’s stuck in traffic.

Open Five
(2010) – 2/10

Director: Kentucker Audley
Writers/Starring: Genevieve Angelson, Kentucker Audley, Shannon Esper, Jake Rabinach
“I’m an actress. I also write for a blog. It’s a film blog.”

open fiveSometimes I think life’s too short. Early on in Open Five, a scene is elongated by someone brushing her teeth; the camera shakily zooms in. The amateurish approach to Open Five follows the mumblecore stereotypes, from production values to every character being a white twentysomething involved in filmmaking, afraid to grow up.

Unfortunately, Kentucker Audley doesn’t take advantage of an intimate opportunity (loose dialogue, natural behaviour) where you can’t even hate the on-screen personalities – they’re just too bland. A few appearances from Amy Seimetz make clear how it’s possible to improvise believably while possessing screen presence.

All that’s commendable is they tried, presumably did it for fun and friendship, and the director made it available for free download on Vimeo.

Open Five 2
(2013) – 5/10

Director: Kentucker Audley
Starring: Kentucker Audley, Caroline White, Z Behl, Jake Rabinbach
“I fantasise about New York at night.”

open five 2In the unlikeliest of franchise series, Kentucker Audley sells out by rehashing his mumblecore relationship drama, while again uploading it for free download via Vimeo. Is Kentucker the Radiohead of the film industry? Judging by this, the answer is: no.

To his credit, Open Five 2 is an improvement in every area: plot, acting, cinematography. Instead of rambling arguments, a philosophy develops about the contradictions of self-conscious filmmakers producing autobiographical features. Again, every character is involved in the industry, but now there’s a point – talking about money on a wider scale, rather than whining while trying not to look at the camera.

Much of the short running time is devoted to what I assume is a fictionalised version of the original Open Five. It suggests lessons were learned during the screening process, and hopefully Open Five 3 will gain from further feedback.

After all, Open Five 2 isn’t so much a sequel, but a second attempt. Scenes are tighter, with some thought gone into editing. While I still struggled to separate characters in my mind, at least this time I wanted to try.

Racing with the Moon
(1984) – 6/10

Director: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Steven Kloves
Starring: Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern, Nicolas Cage
“I just hate to see you spend the last few weeks of your manhood chasing something you can’t catch.”

racing with the moonThere’s a Brit Marling interview where she explains her love for sci-fi comes from using the genre as a storytelling device to explain the human condition. In this way, Racing with the Moon makes a period piece contemporary, using World War II as a backdrop for a coming-of-age love story.

Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage are two teenagers who chase girls and gamble against strangers, while knowing they’re shipping out for war in a few weeks. There isn’t that much separating it from any other period drama concerned with the timeless topic of teenage angst, but there’s more poignancy when instead of university, you’re off to die in battle.

19 years later, there’s a novelty in seeing Penn and Cage at the starts of their careers. Elizabeth McGovern spots the contradiction in Penn’s face – a mischievous schoolboy unprepared for the psychological weight of the Marines. Pretending to be a “Gatsby girl”, she’s trying to impress someone who could be dead within a few months.

It creates touching relationships, recognising the bigger evil looming over, without falling into the trap of exaggerating the war’s impeding death toll. This is partly done with a playful sense of comedy that, while never insensitive, cheapens the drama. Ill-advised instances of slapstick appear so frequently, I realised it’s thinking of a younger audience. If it was a novel, it could be taught in schools.

Sidewalks of New York
(2001) – 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Edward Burns
Starring: Edward Burns, Rosario Dawson, David Krumholtz
“You break up my marriage, and you tell me you don’t care?”

sidewalks of new yorkIf you spent 2001 wanting your very own Reality Bites, then you were in luck. Sort of. Intertwining relationships, endless talk of sex, infidelity and penis sizes. It’s that kind of film, but lacking in wit or much desire to be memorable for anyone who isn’t friends with the cast. To the actors’ credit, Sidewalks of New York is oddly likeable in places, possibly because the budget is clearly minimal.

At one point, a potential date is judged on his shopping purchase: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a lightly comic moment not played for laughs, even though an episode could easily be based around this idea. But there’s a more prominent New York influence, without even coming close in quality. “I love Annie. That’s why I…” – says one person, and then I realised what film it wants to be.

(2013) – 8/10

Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Wentworth Miller
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
“Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”

stoker 2I spent most of Stoker thinking it was a vampire film, because of the title and getting confused about Mia Wasikowska’s casting in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. When her character, India, drank wine, I assumed it was blood. This ambiguity lingered into the final act, which is a rich compliment to the eerie nature of Stoker – its skin is so impenetrable, you’re guessing up to the end.

Chan-wook, best known for Oldboy, doesn’t succumb to conventional filmmaking, even though Stoker is his first ever English-language film. The story is traditional enough – India loses her father, only for weird Uncle Charlie to take his place. (It’s not that far off from the plot of The Addams Family.) What lifts Stoker is Chan-wook’s love for recurring images and lush colours. The creepy atmosphere has as much emphasis on visuals, meaning dripping blood is more about aesthetics than how it came from a stabbing.

India, just turned 18, is the focus, not just of the film, but Uncle Charlie – an unblinking stranger who I mistakenly assumed to be a vampire. The exaggerated expressions of the family (including Kidman as the mother who mourns by flailing around the house) are frequently hilarious, without any slapstick or conventional jokes. It’s an acquired taste, but every overemphasised metaphor had me smiling.

Every scene is spliced with hypnotic images: mostly Freudian metaphors and symbols for sexual awakening. This method would be disorientating if it wasn’t so goddamn beautiful and downright bizarre – the juxtaposition of India eating an ice cream cone while her mother watches a gruesome nature documentary, or how combing hair mutates into a shot of grass blowing in the sun.

The gorgeous visuals are complemented by odd dialogue; comically bleak, but avoiding caricature. The characterisation is the real problem. Charlie, in particular, performs wild actions that never receive a satisfactory explanation. When Stoker meanders as a coming-of-age drama with disturbing undertones, you never want it to end, so it’s surprisingly let down by dramatic climaxes that seem borrowed from American Psycho.

Bearing that in mind, it’s likely Stoker is just a schlocky B-movie elevated to a vivid world of bloody pencil sharpeners and morbid self-discovery. But it’s fun, disgusting and needs to be seen on a big screen, as long as you’re not thinking too hard about what’s happening.

(2012) – 8/10

Director: Miguel Gomes
Writers: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo
Starring: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira
“You must check the crocodile regularly.”

tabuIn black-and-white, Tabu tackles nostalgia with playful introspection; flashbacks are in grainy film, with post-production twisting conventions. A poetic prelude shifts into the first part, Paradise Lost, a meandering tales of loss and regret, before concluding with part two: Paradise, an even grainier trip back to the sixties, when heartbreak originated.

On the surface, Tabu is a classic love story, but it actually has more in common with Holy Motors – just veering closer to a narrative. The black-and-white is purely for aesthetics, gleaming beauty in memory, finding romance in different shades of grey. (Not fifty.) Much of Paradise is played as a silent film, with a voiceover replaying dialogue; background noises continue, and you recognise everything in the picture, the body language, the vast emptiness of the colonial landscape.

If you ignore the red herrings, there’s much to say about how memories grow and fade; the fondest recollections are foggier, which only accentuates the romanticism. The recurring theme of crocodiles seems preposterous in the present, but the key to the past; the animal that unlocks a fable which can haunt you forever.

The trickery has the slightly adverse effect of leaving the love story slightly hollow, but Tabu is warm and rich with how it experiments with sound and colour; loving detailed and worth your time, or you might become more regretful than the protagonist.

This is 40
(2013) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Albert Brooks, Judd Apatow’s children
“What Don Draper has gone through beats whatever Jack is running from on some fucking island.”

this is 40Like somebody growing old and reaching middle age, my high expectations for This is 40 were not met. The promotion has been a juggernaut (you should check out the guest-edited Vanity Fair if you can find it), but Judd Apatow is yet again unable to live up to his production work.

“We were very unlucky. And now we have these three beautiful children.”

On the surface, it seems Judd bares his soul: casting his wife and children, and, obviously, the title. With a magnifying glass (that might as well just be a normal piece of glass), the central predicament is hollow: money problems for a family that lives in luxury, throws extravagant parties, and orders everything off the room service menu. It shouldn’t matter that Judd’s lost touch with normal life, but it’s an obstacle if you’re attempting to make a Cassavetes-style drama and the conflict comes from Wi-Fi problems.

“By counting the rings.”

I admire Judd for his work rate, television writing (Freaks and Geeks, The Sanders Show) and his passion for comedy (search for the interviews he did as a 15-year-old). Maybe that’s why I have more patience with his over-indulgence, but This is 40 reaches a new peak, like a mountain climber suffering from a midlife crisis. Even the cultural references go against character, noticeably when an 8-year-old walks around in a Ween t-shirt. It presumably belongs to her father, but every scene squeezes in as many references to what amused Judd at the time of writing: Lost, Graham Parker, the cast, “Debaser”.

“Don’t think about Lost today. Tomorrow, Lost, all day. I can’t wait to hear about it.”

For all my complaints, it manages to be watchable, even without any magnetism or substance. The cast is mostly excellent, with the children predictable being the weak links – even though they’re the most real ingredient. Jon Lithgow is a particular surprise in a straight role that uses his idiosyncrasies for pathos, instead of laughs. Even aimless scenes have the bonus of recognisable factors.

“Everything that comes out of her mouth is a lie. Everything that goes in is a dick.”

It meshes more cohesively than Funny People, but lacks anything as dynamic as the stand-up comedy world or even the threat of Eric Bana. Perhaps with a tighter script and shorter running time, Judd could show some of his television magic. With the extended filming time, it’s clear that scenes are edited from several improvisational takes –rarely the same take. It’s disjointed and upsets the natural rhythm. For all its potential, this is faulty.

This Means War
(2012) – 2.5/10

Director: McG
Writers: Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy
“This is so bad. But it feels so good.”

this means warA bubbly love triangle involving CIA agents, with a ditzy blonde being fought over by two dim-witted airheads. There’s plenty of innuendo, romcom cliches and unexpected action sequences, all working against each other. It’s reminiscent of a shallow 15-second skit you’d find in an unfunny Pepsi commercial. Except instead of drinking Pepsi, you leave the film begging for tap water.

Wreck-It Ralph
(2013) – 7/10

Director: Rich Moore
Writers: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer
“Hey, why are your hands so freakishly big?”
“I don’t know. Why are you so freakishly annoying?”

wreck it ralphIs Wreck-It Ralph just Silver Linings Playbook in animated form? Troubled manchild struggling with violent issues, finding life by helping a younger, quirky girl enter a competition. It’s also a Disney version of Zero Dark Thirty – did you see how Ralph tortured that weird green thing until it revealed Vanellope’s location?

Okay, it’s unlikely. But Wreck-It Ralph is an odd tribute to retro games and adult films, making it a children’s film written for middle-aged parents. For example, if your 8-year-old laughs at the “children of the candy corn” pun or nods in recognition at the Skrillex cameo, then you should be worried. Maybe get some parenting lessons, or at least look up parenting tips on Wikipedia.

Even the story seems aimed at adults who miss their youth. Ralph, a computer game character deemed “the bad guy”, runs away to Sugar Rush, making friends with a young girl who glitches. Don’t be fooled by the computer game settings or squeaky voices. The truth is Disney released a family film about a man quitting his job after a midlife crisis, in need of a new career path and anger management.

Luckily, it’s very funny. Sarah Silverman’s voice acting is particularly effervescent. In small doses (in the trailer or short clips) it’s unbearable, but works in a wider scale. In fact, it all fits together with a surprisingly intricate story, with a bizarre Oreo pun referencing The Wizard of Oz. And yes, it’s better than The Wizard of Oreo or whatever else you’re guessing. Just don’t expect the demographic to understand what’s going on.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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 40: “Wreck-It Ralph”, “Stoker”, “This is 40”, “Cloud Atlas” and 10 others…

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

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