Films reviewed this month: “All About Eve”, “All Good Things” (pictured above), “Compliance”, “Five Easy Pieces”, “Gambit”, “The Giant Mechanical Man”, “The Last Days of Disco”, “Logan’s Run”, “Oz the Great and Powerful”, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding”, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” and “Side Effects”.
Channing Tatum really does his best acting in the second half of Side Effects. But this time, the average rating is 6.30/10 with film of the month being The Last Days of Disco. In April I’ll review Danny Boyle’s Trance and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, plus my ten best tips for losing weight. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
All About Eve (1950) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter
“It is my last wish to be buried sitting up.”
Mankiewicz’s astute drama is written with the technical proficiency of what I always wanted from Shakespeare when I was forced to study him at school and university. The Machiavellian actions of Eve, an understudy usurping a Broadway star, is a diligently structured of memorable lines and soliloquies, all eloquently laced with enunciated bitterness. On the sidelines, fellow actors and playwrights are helpless by the politics of theatre, just like the viewer, gawping at a Hollywood classic.
All Good Things (2011) – 5/10
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Writers: Marcus Hinchey, Marc Smerling
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst
“Why couldn’t you have just given her what she wanted? You’re a very weak man.”
The real story of Robert Durst (Durst, not Dunst) is one shrouded by intrigue lightly explored in Andrew Jarecki’s first film to not be a documentary. Ryan Gosling, who plays Robert Durst (Robert, not Ryan), spans a 40-year period: he reluctantly inherits his father’s business, marries Kirsten Dunst, and, like all good things, everything slowly crumbles.
The headlines associated with Durst’s autobiography involve the mysterious disappearance of his wife in 1982. The case was only brought up again when a close friend was murdered in 2000. And then, as if he wanted a Hollywood film to be made about his life, Durst shot an elderly neighbour and discarded the corpse in Galveston Bay. During the latter period of his life, he pretended to be a mute woman, while plagued by memory’s of his mother’s suicide. So why isn’t All Good Things a, well, good thing?
Jarecki probably should have made a documentary, considering the unexplained events; key witnesses and news report could be cross-examined, corroborated and even accompanied by fictional re-enactments. But the fully fledged fictional approach creates a cul-de-sac for plot strands, namely the vanishing wife.
The script is bold enough to declare Durst guilty of a final murder, but the other suspicious instances are barely touched upon, presumably for legal reasons. If the filmmakers are unsure, then so is Gosling – and that distorts a character that broods so plausibly for at least 40 minutes.
Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst excel with dark roles that simmer between biography and B-movie thriller. That’s all to be expected, but they’re constrained by a missed opportunity to play out an eccentric’s insecurities and struggle with grownup responsibilities. All that’s gained is an idea of what Gosling looks like when he’s older – the same now, with unconvincing makeup.
Compliance (2013) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
“You can go to jail, or you can let this guy inspect you. You’ve got two choices.”
The cinema walkouts during Compliance screenings weren’t in protest of the film’s quality, but the belief its characters could be so foolish. If it wasn’t based on a true story (with surveillance footage as evidence), then I’d agree.
Leaving during playback is a defiant act absent from a chilling storyline which stems from a prank phone call to McDonalds in 2003; a man impersonating a policeman instructs the manager to strip search an employee. The staff obey, including the 19-year-old girl (Dreama Walker) being questioned. It’s unbelievable, cerebrally directed, and contains opportune cutaways to fast food grease.
The dominance of blind authority is presented with grotesque layers. It’s hard not to feel superior as a sensible viewer, or is that also following the director’s orders? (Apparently not, according to an interview I read with Craig Zobel.)
That interview went a bit further by comparing Compliance with the behaviour instilled in 1945 by Nazi propaganda. I wouldn’t go that far, but note the one staff member who vocally protests; he’s sympathetic, but ultimately sees the convenience in being a bystander. The film should be called Convenience.
The more “hands-on” abiders are the murkier side of Compliance and human nature. The passive-aggressive manager’s behaviour suggests an extension of her subtle hatred of Dreama’s character. Her fiancé is even more egregious, whose expression of guilt raises the issue of how society functions on rules, loopholes and sitting quietly. Or maybe I’m just trying to finish writing this review. You decide.
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – 7/10
Director: Bob Rafelson
Writers: Adrien Joyce, Bob Rafelson
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black
“You play. I honestly respond.”
Jack Nicholson in his prime is like a raw spirit – manic, but with humanity. The loose atmosphere of Five Easy Pieces allows Nicholson to express himself with emotional outbursts; sometimes angry, occasionally crying, he’s already a star.
As an aggressive oil-rigger, Nicholson spars with co-workers and dismisses his pregnant girlfriend with cruel humour. Your perception changes when he jumps onto a stranger’s van to play a tossed out piano. For some reason, his hidden musical talent changes the shadow around him. When he visits his dying father and the family with whom he’s become distant, it still lingers in your memory that he’s a fantastic pianist.
With hitchhikers and affairs, the story is still all about Nicholson. The musicality of the film’s editing doesn’t just shuffle piano cues and the sundrenched cinematography. The set-pieces are equally about Nicholson – arguing with waitresses, sobbing on the shoulders of his silent parent, or simply running away. It may not be cohesive or work on paper, but it’s about building those memorable climaxes and sombre after-moments.
I came to Five Easy Pieces after seeing For Ellen last month, knowing the intentional similarities. Not that it’s a competition, but Nicholson unquestionably outperforms Paul Dano – as an actor and musician. However, if this was a concert, I’m not sure if I’d buy buying a ticket if wasn’t for Jack.
Gambit (2012) – 1.5/10
Director: Michael Hoffman
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci
“The painting is so rarely reproduced, I don’t even know if I’ve seen a reproduction. The very incongruity of it…”
I think, by now, everyone knows the Bill Murray rumour that he signed onto Garfield after mistaking Etan Cohen for Ethan Cohen. Well, it’s easy to think the reverse with Gambit, a pointless remake without any screwball magic from the 60s.
The caper involves an absurd scheme involving forged artwork, where Colin Firth finds himself surrounded by caricatures and racial stereotypes. Maybe the slapstick would be funnier if you couldn’t sense the cast’s regret – signing on for the latest effort from the Coens, then stuck with a project they didn’t even want to direct.
Scenes are edited like a Powerpoint presentation, where sliding effects try to emulate humour. Instead of recreating a classic era of Hollywood, it imitates Burn After Reading, one of the Coens’ few failures. Maybe it’s as good as you’d expect from something with a cartoon introduction, but when the tiger appears moments from the end, it all feels as fake as the painting in question.
The Giant Mechanical Man (2012) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Lee Kirk
Starring: Jenna Fischer, Chris Messina, Topher Grace, Malin Akerman
“I’m leaving you, Tim.”
“Are you coming back?”
The bold title suggests a menacing prospect. It’s actually the opposite: a passively offbeat romance with a bit of charm and little else. It’s a fairly typical indie drama that stars two lonely people who take about 90 minutes to formulate a relationship. Instead of substance, it aims for naturalism – except for the added quirk that Chris Messina’s day job is to dress as a “giant mechanical man” – but it’s a faulty technique from the lack of chemistry.
Jenna Fischer’s character is sad and ambitionless. On multiple occasions, she demonstrates an inability to stay in menial jobs, while wistfully saying things like: “I don’t have things figured out – I’m just lost.” In other words, she’s still Pam from The Office.
This would be fine if she had a Jim to bounce off, but Messina is equally dull. The charm is meant to come from how ordinariness of the pair, which comes across too well – they’re bland people without obstacles, struggles or conflict apart from not liking their job. It meanders without sparkle, and the eye-catching title hopefully won’t fool viewers.
The Last Days of Disco (1998) – 9/10
Director/Writer: Whit Stillman
Starring: Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman
“Do yuppies even exist? No one ever says, ‘I am a yuppie.’”
My original Half a Canyon review of Whit Stillman’s period piece was two sentences long, attached to a 4/10 rating. After loving last year’s Damsels in Distress (after hating it on first viewing), I revisited The Last Days of Disco to find my heart tapping its aortas to the rhythm of the dialogue. That, or it was pumping blood.
Set in the early 1980s, it follows an ensemble of smart, argumentative socialites. They may not truly like each other, but that want to belong to the culture where the mind is taken over by a dancefloor. So far, it’s very Stillman. And that’s where my disappointment came, as I expected a sequel to Metropolitan, one of my favourite films of all time. The original urban haute bourgeoise gang even makes a brief cameo as themselves.
The optimism and blind yearning of Metropolitan has disappeared, while the humour is less apparent under the sounds of Diana Ross. What changed was I watched The Last Days of Disco as the world of Damsels in Distress; goofy mishaps, unrequited love and existential despair, all cured by creating dance routines.
Stillman zooms in on a forced friendship between Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale: they’re young women in the city, both at the same publishing company, and disco partners. Why shouldn’t they be friends? Beckinsale’s reservations at living together is an example of the screenplay’s astute humour, where everything is questioned, then ignored.
This distortion of companionship is only a small jigsaw within an atmosphere of desperation, soundtracked by awful music. At a local disco, Chris Eigeman (a Stillman regular) repeatedly attempts to smuggle in his friends by disguising them in animal costumes. Every night out is preceded by fears they might not gain entry. It’s both wonderful and terrifying.
As usual, Stillman’s dialogue is hilarious and as musical as the clubs they venture. Under his playful direction, discos are fantasy lands where characters whisper wordy dialogue to each other, while alcohol is merely for decoration. Like a depressed person visiting the gym for endorphins, the cldancefloorsubs are full of unexpressed loneliness.
Disco is all about wanting to belong. And then it dies.
Logan’s Run (1976) – 7/10
Director: Michael Anderson
Writers: David Zelag Goodman, William F. Nolan (novel), George Clayton Johnson (novel)
Starring: Michael York, Jenny Agutter
“Is that what they’re called? Cats?”
The brilliance of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is that it’s in black-and-white, yet clearly set in modern times, as if preserving itself for the future. A similar effect happens with Logan’s Run, albeit accidentally: the year is 2274, but every shot is clearly on a film set before the era of Star Wars.
The camp costumes and architecture add to the sci-fi playfulness, but the crux is the hedonism infiltrating society – controlled by a law that dictates death (disguised as renewal) at the age of 30. So live the life you want, but it ends early. Sounds fine to me.
But Logan’s Run is more about escaping the system. Logan 5, a Sandman played by Michael York, has the job of hunting down a runner – anyone who tries to avoid a compulsory death. The plot’s catalyst is when he joins a beautiful blonde runner, and find vague existential truths in their adventures that disobey the government. In other words, it’s Blade Runner for dumdums.
The religious allegory that runs (!) through Logan’s Run elevates it above similarly trashy sci-fi of its era, such as Barbarella and other kitsch classics, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously. There’s less thinking than smiling involved, particularly when the future is imagined as a Students Union; citizens are young and leisurely wander aimlessly half-naked, partially covered by homemade costumes. It’s just that silly, even if deep down its satire was supposed to use the future to set itself in the past. By which I mean the present. Or past.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) – 4/10
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, L. Frank Baum (novels)
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
“Did those crows just say we’re going to die?”
Set in 1905, Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, while bearing no connections to the film for legal reasons – think about it, then stop thinking about it. There are a few similarities which the general architecture and palette of Oz, and, crucially, the theme of believing in magic. A tough challenge, but something watchable can surely be made with that setup? Not with Zach Braff as a sidekick and talking monkey.
In Sam Raimi’s semi-remake, James Franco takes over the Judy Garland role, mumbling instead of singing about rainbows. A different energy, but surprisingly effective – the juxtaposition with Emerald City’s CGI gloss is welcome. Just think of the time he presented the Oscars with Anne Hathaway, and then you’d understand.
As a magician, Franco is your guide from a black-and-white circus (reminiscent of Fellini’s La Strada) into Emerald City’s sickly sweet colours and Pokémon wildlife. The transformation is thrilling, especially in 3D, with jagged knives stabbing through a hot-air balloon suggesting what Raimi could do with a modern The Evil Dead.
The rest is a curious letdown, as the Land of Oz melts into the background – it’s so beautiful and fake, but has the effect of a Desktop background you stop noticing. Character-wise, there’s nothing as memorable as the scarecrow, lion or fake robot. Instead, it’s a miniature China doll and a talking monkey; both are animated in such a way that not even the 3D glasses could make them any less two-dimensional.
At over two hours, you spend much of the second half wondering why the cameras were left running. There may be a yellow brick road, but it’s rarely followed. In fact, the journey is often unclear. The flimsy plot involves witches – some good, some wicked, all with Hollywood beauty. Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis half-heartedly recite lines and share the dullest moments. At least Rachel Weisz, the other witch, seems to have fun, mainly when shooting electricity from her fingers, like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia.
It’s hard to care when Franco isn’t trying to find a heart, brain or courage for his friends. He doesn’t even want to go home. He just wants to kill a witch for financial gain. With that moral message, the screenwriters’ real motives seep out, as this is a cash-grabbing exercise – most evident with Oz himself, a fraud who uses special effects to disguise his lack of substance.
Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2012) – 4/10
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writers: Christina Mengert, Joseph Muszynski
Starring: Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff, Jane Fonda
“You know what? Conflict isn’t interesting.”
City woman leaves her husband, moves to the country and finds love. It sounds like a song. If it is, then the verses are repetitive and based around the C-major scale. Catherine Keener exits the city with her two children (Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff) to get reacquainted with their hippie grandmother (Jane Fonda).
If it really is a song, then it’s one with multiple voices that don’t harmonise – instead they sing the same pitches throughout. Living on a farm isn’t so much as being one with nature, but an opportunity to conveniently find love. By this, I mean for everyone.
There’s happiness around every corner, if you can see past the marijuana smoke. It’s mildly humorous and uplifting, in that it’s utterly predictable with every happy turn. With the cast on offer, you might hope for a dark indie masterpiece, but the clue is in Wolff – an 18-year-old Nickelodeon pop singer.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo
“My life is shit. Just shit. John’s a bastard. Let’s make a videotape.”
His debut seems so long ago – partly because it was, but by the low budget and prominence of video cassettes. James Spader’s unusual hobby is the common thread: uncomfortable having sex, he records women being interviewed, answering questions about what goes on in their bed other than sleeping and writing freelance articles during the day under blankets just because you can.
Budget constraints mean most of the action is sitting in living rooms having passive aggressive conversations, so Soderbergh wisely uses infidelity as a plot catalyst. It’s trickier if you consider one of Spader’s interviews to be cheating, even if there’s no touching. I suppose it’s like hearing your girlfriend on Howard Stern’s radio show or finding out your boyfriend is attending life drawing lessons for the wrong reason.
The inevitable conflict is a level above soap opera, but doesn’t aim for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Soderbergh seemingly recognises his restraints, but the novelty of indie filmmaking has worn off since its Sundance premiere. It still demonstrates areas finessed over the years in Side Effects (reviewed further down this post), while being modest, playfully salacious, and a reminder of the VHS world before life was spent Instagramming your breakfast.
Side Effects (2013) – 7.5/10
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
“Depression is the inability to construct a future.”
Do you remember the first time Jay-Z announced his retirement? Well, Soderbergh will take a break from filmmaking after Side Effects. A quick glance at his career demonstrates alarming productivity – especially when factoring in how he’s his own cinematographer under the pseudonym of “Peter Andrews”.
It may just be a ruse whereby Peter Andrews will now take over the director’s seat, but Side Effects is crisp, tense and evidently the work of a pro. Scenes capture the spontaneity of Soderbergh’s loose filmmaking style: few takes and complete trust in the actors. He’s so experienced in toying with the audience, my screening was full of audible gasps and shocked murmurs of “No way!”
The story’s catalyst is Rooney Mara’s depression – an unsuccessful suicide attempt leads psychiatrist Jude Law to prescribe her Ablixa, a new pill which has some… side effects. Mara, in particular, is a revelation – her frightening stare and stunted behaviour is so self-contained, she moves at a different tempo. After Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar last month for another depressed woman using antidepressants, hopefully Mara will get the recognition she deserves, beyond the coveted Half a Canyon “bump”.
It’s worth noting that Side Effects has as much to say about mental health and pill culture as Silver Linings Playbook – which is a snarky way of saying not much at all. Aside from namedropping Zoloft and Law’s surprising request for Adderall, it’s mainly a conspiracy drama, etched to entertain. Soderbergh beautifully renders ever shot, seemingly designed to mirror the mood of the protagonists: blurry angles, distant, or the memorable moment when Mara notices her distorted reflection – a short pause with multiple meanings.
The frenetic events leave Jude Law exasperated, while even Channing Tatum finds his most accomplished acting in the second half – and then you want to watch it all over again. (And possibly pausing before the unrealistic final act.)
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