This month: “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, “Cherry Bomb”, “The Details”, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, “Easy Rider”, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, “Iron Man 3”, “Oblivion”, “The Place Beyond the Pines”, “Room 237” (pictured above), “Spring Breakers”, “Starship Troopers” and “Trance”.
It was a queer, sultry summer they electrocuted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With that in mind, I’m celebrating the new season by heading to Sundance London this weekend, so expect the next blog post to review the likes of In a World, Upstream Color and any screenings where the security attendant has a low attention span.
This month, the average rating is 5.65/10 with film of the month being Room 237. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – 8.5/10
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Ian Watson, Brian Aldiss (short story)
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson
“My brain is falling out.”
The naive dismiss global warming as science-fiction, and that’s the futuristic setting for A.I. when the cool, icy polar caps melt, leaving a swimming pool of Steven Spielberg’s artificial tears. A century from now, a low-centigrade breeze rushes through an environment where scientists attempt to build lifelike robots with the capacity to love like a mathematical equation that can’t be undone. Haley Joel Osment, presumably fed up of seeing dead people, becomes one – eerily mechanical, never blinking, and, although never mentioned, the only character who can see Bruce Willis.
Kubrick spent decades trying to adapt the short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, but Steven Spielberg completed the work after Kubrick’s death. By accident, the parallels are there: in the future, parents replace their dying child with a replacement delivered in a box.
Osment’s journey is a tale of Pinocchio in three acts. The first 50 minutes could easily be Kubrick, and I wouldn’t blink an eyelid. (That’s a robot joke.) With two parents raising two children (one biological, one bought off whatever replaced Amazon in the future), the dynamics move beyond special effects and kitchen sink drama; philosophical issues arise, with all the pain brought from maintaining familial ideals. Kubrickian camera angles and cold feng shui make family life seem hollow, against all logic, that later surrended to Spielberg’s touch. Kubrick had less influence over the middle act, and it drops in quality.
Osment’s Pinocchio adventure into the real world is less a puppet crossing a road, but a child actor in the centre of cheesy sci-fi cliches. There’s even a hologram that’s a doppelganger of the guy on Monopoly boxes. But, just as I’d rank the opening hour of A.I. with the first half of Full Metal Jacket, the divisive epilogue is equally as immersive as the soaring climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If I wasn’t a robot, I’d have cried my unblinking eyes out.
Spielberg is obviously no Kubrick, but transposes A.I. to sentimental dimensions untouched in Kubrick’s filmography. (Did people cry at his funeral, or just nod in approval?) It works the other way; it’s hardly a Spielberg trademark to have a young boy commit suicide with cinematography shot like a David Attenborough documentary.
I actually hated A.I. a decade ago, but can now view it as a collaboration between two distinct directors. Maybe when I die, I’ll let Spielberg take over this blog.
Cherrybomb (2011) – 3.5/10
Directors: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Writer: Daragh Carville
Starring: Rupert Grint, Kimberley Nixon, Robert Sheehan
“I hate me all the time.”
The Harry Potter triumvirate is replaced in Cherrybomb with a less subtle love triangle. You might think that’s Ron Weasley; it’s not – he smokes, sometimes swears, and isn’t called Ron. It’s otherwise the same idea: an awkward teenager with a crush on a more confident, accepting girl. He yearns for Michelle, a characterless character defined by an accent, but finds competition with his best friend: an irritating punk resembling the guy from The Kooks.
I’m sure there were ambitions for a moving drama soaked in phone screen light and the smell of chlorine, but it’s more like an above-average episode of Skins, complete with the Skins party at the end. Oddly watchable in places, but nothing original – unless your idea of “cool” is a bland indie soundtrack with dialogue filled with smoke of vague drug references.
The Details (2012) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney
“No one was the wiser, and life just went on.”
There was early hope for The Details. Sort of. Raccoons in a garden send Tobey Maguire into a nervous rage. If not promising, at least different? Not really. He doesn’t seem to be a character – just a prop for unfortunate events. The real tragedy isn’t in the domesticity, but the script that de-tails away.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) – 5/10
Director/Writer: J. Blakeson
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan
“You fucking kidnapped me so you could get some of my Dad’s money?”
Two masked criminals kidnap the daughter of an heiress, hoping for a £2m ransom. What’s the money for? Is it a meta reference to the thriller’s budget restraints. Most of the short running time takes place in a single room, so the emphasis is on old-fashioned, forgotten tools like screenplay and acting. The trio are competent, while the plot twists efficiently derive tension. But it’s hard to pay attention when intentions and briefs backgrounds are revealed. It severely emulates something that started as a theatre piece, but perhaps belongs on the radio.
Easy Rider (1969) – 4/10
Director: Dennis Hopper
Writers: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
“I’ve got enough problems with the booze and all. I can’t afford to get hooked.”
Please use an A-Z to find my review of On the Road.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) – 5.5/10
Director: Don Scardino
Writers: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey
“Well, will you have Mr Trump call me back?”
It’s a lot funnier than you’d expect, considering it’s largely The Prestige for idiots. Steve Carell echoes Michael Scott as an outdated magician using showmanship to sell poor tricks, like many of the cast members. Wilde is occasionally hilarious as a reluctant stage assistant, while Buscemi’s charm compensates for Carrey’s off-putting presence.
Iron Man 3 (2013) – 7/10
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Drew Pearce
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley
“Sir Laurence Oblivier.”
The Iron Man 3 press screening was introduced by Shane Black and Drew Pearce, and they weren’t afraid to directly remind journalists of the hard work involved. Pearce gently emphasised they lost two years of their social life with an all-consuming project that is presumably more than writing one-liners for Robert Downey Jr, then adding explosions in post-production. I will follow their example by pleading for you to enjoy this review, which also took two years to write.
Imagine a superhero called Iron Man, and thoughts hurdle towards some guy with metal instead of flesh, fastened in a tight shirt without crinkles. It’s actually less impressive: a human inside a red shell like one of those Koopa turtle things from Mario. Robert Downey Jr lifted (pun intended) the character through sardonic one-liners and the swagger of a Hollywood star who’s experienced Tony Stark’s fame since the pre-internet era. His third turn in the suit (and fourth, including The Avengers) needs a shakeup, and Marvel takes that risk with Shane Black.
The Iron Man appeal lies in dialogue that’s half over-written, half improvised; a style appropriate for comic book capers and genre pastiches. That explains the Shane Black gamble –his IMDb page states only one other film as director, but that was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an entertainingly self-aware nod to Raymond Chandler. Black’s new approach injects an invigorating spark into a series that already looked stale when Jon Favreau ran out of ideas for Iron Man 2.
With a Spider-Man 3 disaster averted, Black opens with ramshackle conversations and offbeat humour. Now and then, television images suggest a terrorist threat, with broadcasted shots a bit too “real” to have featured in the earlier films.
The new villain, the Mandarin, was advertised as the Joker played by Sir Ben Kingsley. The trailer even features Kingsley sinisterly whispering, “You don’t know who I am.” In other words, he’s season 5 on the Walter White scale. Without spoiling anything, it’s a superhero enemy far more memorable than Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2 and whoever was in the first one. (Yes, I am suggesting Kingsley is more memorable than someone I can’t remember.)
Surprisingly, with a non-action director taking on an action film, you don’t learn much about character motivations beyond Tony Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle return in their supporting roles, with Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce as new additions, yet screen time is minimal. One choice line of exposition is: “We have to save the president or Pepper.” It isn’t so much a plot reminder, but a way of removing Paltrow’s presumably binned scenes.
The character imbalance is rooted in frequent set-pieces tying Iron Man 3 together, rather than vice-versa. Fast-paced and increasingly inventive, the action sequences rocket in a manner reminiscent of those worm things crawling from the sky in The Avengers. When the narrative wriggles without direction, it doesn’t matter because five minutes later Downey Jr switches on the TV to see live coverage of a missile seconds from away him. (If I was the screenwriter, I would have made some sort of “breaking news” pun. I’ll just wait to see if I’m hired for Iron Man 4.)
I would recommend avoiding the 3D, which was barely noticeable; it didn’t detract, but that’s hardly an endorsement. The 3D did manage to accentuate the product placement, from Kingsley opening a can of Budweiser in slow motion, to the frequency of mobile phones displaying camera functions. In a televised speech, the President of America even brandishes what phone he uses, like the time George Bush declared war on Iraq while accidentally deleting his top score on Snake. When Downey Jr used a paper map for directions, I was taken aback – even I use my phone for that. At least there’s nothing as incongruous as Iron Man 2 when he escapes torture and demands a Burger King. Maybe I can pay him to advertise this blog in Iron Man 5.
Rather than playing to strengths, Iron Man 3 avoids playing to weaknesses. The schmaltz is lower than anticipated, and several spanners (made of iron) are used for genuinely surprising twists – the preview screening had journalists repeatedly gasping. It doesn’t panic with too many ideas (like Spider-Man 3) and doesn’t take itself too seriously with an ambitious, convoluted storyline (like The Dark Knight Rises). It may not be a subversive masterpiece, but it’s unexpectedly solid, iron fun – plus a summer blockbuster set at Christmas for no real reason.
Oblivion (2013) – 4/10
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Joseph Koskinski, Michael Arndt, Karl Gajdusek, William Monahan
Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko
“Another day in paradise.”
Me: Nice to meet you Tom.
Tom: Hello Kebricky.
Me: No, it is Kenicky.
Tom: Sorry, I was thinking about my Eyes Wide Shut collaborator Stanley Kubrick.
Me: What is your new film about?
Tom: It’s the late 21st century. Aliens attack Earth and, rather maliciously, destroy the moon. Humans are evacuated, but a few remain to shoot any extraterrestrial life forms (Scavengers) still on the planet. It’s just me and Andrea Riseborough left. She stays in this huge floating home, and I find my own adventures around an empty planet.
Me: Sounds a bit like I Am Legend.
Tom: Not really. There are about ten other sci-fi films we rip off more.
Me: How do you show loneliness?
Tom: I see a fish and ask it, “Will you miss me when I’m gone?”
Me: Does it?
Tom: I don’t know. Fish can’t talk.
Me: It looked really good on an IMAX screen. I mean, it’s not exactly Wall-E. That was great. I wanted more loneliness. The flashbacks were kinda dumb, don’t you think?
Me: All those Olga Kurylenko flashbacks made it obvious she would appear. I preferred the idea of the last man on Earth, rather than a clumsy sci-fi love triangle you don’t even explore.
Tom: Didn’t you find it poetic when I’m walking around, lost and forlorn, like a cloud or something?
Me: I guess. But there wasn’t much depth. Riseborough was much better as a loyal, miserable partner.
Tom: You think she has depth? She shows real emotion once, and then she swims naked in a floating swimming pool. That’s all she’s there for.
Me: Yeah. With so few people, you’d think there’d be more to the characters.
Tom: We wanted to challenge the audience, while also showing our fancy toys. They were expensive. Way more than your Dictaphone.
Me: I liked seeing you fly the bubbleship. But you seem wary of revealing too much early on, so the second half is overloaded with twists – many should be familiar to anyone who’s kept in touch with the last decade’s sci-fi classics. I sense it began as an ambitious project that somewhere during production became more concerned with shiny looks and sleek surfaces.
Tom: No comment.
Me: Missing an opportunity to be a poignant drama, Oblivion is a cold, pristine sci-fi; occasionally beautiful, but rarely with a line of dialogue that isn’t exposition or pretending to have a heart.
Tom: Once again, no comment.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) – 7/10
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Eva Mendes
“If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”
Someday, there’ll be a smart indie drama about Hollywood executives realising there’s a better CV beyond the Chris Pine pile, and it’ll be confused with Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine. Whereas Blue Valentine was dull, histrionic and mistaken as deep, The Place Beyond the Pines is the inverse. For instance, Ryan Gosling returns to star, but as a freewheeling, inverted (inverse!) bankrobber.
The narrative spans decades and earns its payoffs through persistence rather than character growth.
I’m hesitant to say any more about the plot, as it’s Shakespearian with its three twisty acts, but I’ll praise Bradley Cooper for finally earning some Half a Canyon respect. His Oscar nomination last year wasn’t just embarrassing for The Academy, but it’d be difficult to explain if aliens were to invade the planet and wanted to learn about the human race. Yet he out-performs Gosling with a nuanced tour-de-force (which is meant to be a cycling pun).
The jumpy structure lays out a few inconsistencies over a 140-minute running time, with unexpected shifts of character perspectives. It isn’t too far away from the greatest hits of a long-running television show where actors suddenly leave at cliffhangers due to contract disputes. What’s left is a superbly acted peer into how guilt spans generational influence, and the butterfly effect of buying a Metallica shirt. Too long, but worth the time.
Room 237 (2012) – 9/10
Director: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner
“This is my vehicle and I have wrecked your vehicle, and everyone in the world can see it.”
I have a theory about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s disturbingly similar to a Stephen King novel, without even changing the title. Ascher’s documentary (subtitled “Being an Inquiry into The Shining”) collects wild ideas from film historians, narrating scenes from the 1980 horror classic. Far-fetched arguments suggest Kubrick was secretly making a film about the Holocaust, Native American genocide and an allegory about Minotaur mythology.
The diligent detective work is evidently painstaking, yet, as you’d guess, none of it is remotely convincing. In fact, the most believable theory is that Kubrick worked with NASA to fake the moon landing, with The Shining being his confession.
Ascher intricately wraps a potential disaster into a hypnotic meditation on obsession. The same scenes are used to support each narrator’s argument, often slowing down frames to extrapolate tiny details. Even if you think they’re all as mad as Jack Nicholson’s character, you have to admire a few of their discoveries: a chair disappearing between takes, the carpet’s reversal, and an “impossible window”.
It’s hard to dismiss continuity errors considering Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail and The Shining’s penchant for ambiguous mystery. The director’s IQ of 200 and fantastic filmography are regularly mentioned, as if criticising their unlikely theories is underestimating the genius responsible for 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. When scenes are slowed down, reversed and analysed to death, it’s actually celebrating Kubrick’s legacy.
Considering the personal edge to those discoveries, Room 237 is as much about how it’s often up to the viewer how much they get out of a film; Kubrick’s main strength is in making puzzles, whether or not stained windows are red herrings. The documentary finds joy in speculation and afterthought. In a way, it’s a defence of the film blog.
Spring Breakers (2013) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
“I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve been. It’s way more than just having a good time.”
On Harmony Korine’s first Letterman appearance in 1995, he’s insulted and has his name mispronounced before even saying a word. Dressed like a nervous schoolboy, he claims Kids was meant to be a sequel to Caddyshack; the studio audience is silent. He possibly welcomes that hostility (look up Fight Harm on Google), but Spring Breakers is a bolder attempt to manipulate the media.
If Hudgens and Gomez really wanted to shred their Disney images, they should have invented a metaphorical shredder or signed on for Trash Humpers, Korine’s 2009 tribute to the pleasures of being at one with nature. Instead, they’re in a crime-drama that’s on everyone’s lips because of the self-aware marketing: four babes in bikinis rob a bank and make friends with a Riff Raff impersonator. To hammer the point, check out the cast. (By cast, I don’t mean podcast.)
Much of the debate (back-and-forths on Twitter; newspaper comment pieces; middle-aged men explaining the ticket receipt in the bin) stems from whether Korine is being satirical or spending millions on a very dedicated masturbatory fantasy. Every aspect is self-aware, so surely there’s a message? It’s unclear.
There’s pure sadness as its hungover core, conveniently glossed over in the promotional campaign. The farming of human bodies during spring break is frightening and bleak, and you’re reminded by the breaks from fantasy: extras party in what’s possibly real handheld footage, which, at best, would lead to IMDb pages without headshots.
Peer pressure motivates the alcohol and drug abuse, most obviously with Gomez’s Christian role; committing crimes against her will, it’s a wink to her audience who crave for Perez Hilton articles about a Lohanesque breakdown. Friendships are destroyed (the springs are broken!) by the binge culture that’s in love with hedonism and physical pleasures, but only the kind that you don’t want your parents to see on Facebook.
What worries conservative viewers is Korine’s reluctance to hold back. Instead, he accentuates the fantasy with pop violence – “Pretend it’s like a videogame,” becomes a mantra. The camera leerily exploits its female cast without shame; with pool scenes, it dips underwater like a shark. Hudgens doesn’t punch the camera in the nose (that’s a shark joke), but has absurd sentences like, “All this money makes my pussy wet.”
It’s a crude line, but sums up the MTV bastardisation of the American Dream. With every generation rebelling against its elders, these teenagers are trying to shock in the age of the internet. Franco even namedrops the American Dream in his hysterical “Look at all my shyeet” soliloquy that mentions Scarface more often than anything Hamlet vomited about ghosts and Pyrrhic victories.
Beneath the haze and hue, Korine crafts a world beyond a hip hop video – maybe amusing to some for a few verses, but depressing for 90 minutes. Riff Raff, upon whom Franco is based, is infamous on the internet (among people like me who don’t sleep enough) for a white rapper adopting black culture beyond caricature. It’s with him the girls feel safe, not Gucci Mane or Franco’s friends. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the school lecture they ignore is on black civil rights. It’s not just Western culture, but a fashion drilled in by advertisements, pop videos, and now film parodies.
Considering Korine’s history with sympathetically portraying outsiders, you have to understand his main aim is for the viewer to experience what’s on screen; whether the Britney Spears tributes are ironic are not, it’s worth the cinema trip for the faux-religious experience. This is what has become of teen culture; it’s ugly, glorious and hypnotic. (It also passes the Bechdel test.)
For further reading: my overview of Harmony Korine’s filmography, starting with Kids.
Starship Troopers (1997) – 6/10
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Robert A. Heinlein (novel)
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris
“It’s not a career. I just want to get out on my own. See the galaxy for a couple of years.”
I watched a bit of Fatherland recently, HBO’s adaptation of a novel imagining a world where Hitler won the war. It’s an intriguing concept that’s too hypothetical to drive itself. To continue the vehicle metaphors, I sped towards Starship Troopers, a mainstream action flick: moronic Hollywood garbage on the outside, but teetering with anti-fascist satire.
Without much explanation, the future of Earth is oddly Aryan. There aren’t any wars between countries, but international relations are military-led. You enlist in the army to become a citizen. Propaganda videos throw guns at smiling children, and murderers receive the death penalty live on television.
Verhoeven’s surreal nightmare is presented as a right-winger’s fever dream; men and women fight in the army side by side, sharing co-ed showers, with every face being white, strong and beautiful. The uniforms reference Nazi fashions, and there are lines like: “One day, someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race.”
The human race provokes giant arachnids, and finds an excuse to execute foreign policy – an all-out war, where teenagers leave school to die fighting a CGI bug. Modern warfare is dissected for its “be the best” brutality, without a thought for finding an alien resolution. The oft quoted line “Kill ‘em all” sums it up.
Many might miss the social satire of Starship Troopers, instead being overwhelmed by the Hollywood blast of humans firing guns at giant spiders. Place it next to Transformers or Battleship, there’s evidence that young cinemagoers are routinely brainwashed with fascist ideology. The dehumanised enemy cannot speak, but is hideous to the human eye, regardless of the unsubtle blue screen production.
Stupid on the outside, smart underneath. But the satire only works from how it’s thrust into the mainstream like any summer blockbuster. And that means the action scenes are often as dull as the generic Hollywood filler it’s parodying. Yes, even when psychics are instructing mixed gender soldiers how best to explode the giant, robotic insects. Trust me, unless you think this review is also an item of satire.
Trance (2013) – 3/10
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Starring: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
“Have you ever been hypnotised?”
Last month’s Sight & Sound had an interview with Danny Boyle where he confessed a love for Chris Nolan films, but wouldn’t want to be burdened with a similar budget. So it’s not the biggest birthday surprise that Trance is visually and thematically a cheaper version of Inception. The nonsensical plot (James McAvoy required hypnosis to find a stolen painting) pierces through dreamscapes, as if it’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the heart, soul or intelligence.
It’s often said that the Oscar success of Slumdog Millionaire afforded the production of 127 Hours. Perhaps the record books (and Wikpedia pages) should be tagged with Nick Chen, typing right here, spuriously accusing the beloved director of using the goodwill of the Olympics to release a lousy film. And by lousy, I mean a delirious genre exercise that’s never as fun as it thinks. Every scene is compromised by self-conscious posing, as if McAvoy and Cassel can only think about the screenshots.
Trashy, convoluted and misogynistic, the screenplay is more lazy than ironic. If it’s a throwback to the 90s, that ‘s probably down to John Hodge, Boyle’s returning collaborator. The production’s slick, sure – but to mask the hollowness, it’d have to be as beautifully rendered as the missing painting.
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