Film reviews 43: “The Great Gatsby”, “Upstream Color”, “Touchy Feely”, “In a World…” and 9 others….

upstream color
This month:  “A.C.O.D.”, “An American Werewolf in London”, “The Comedy”, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”, “Deep Red”, “The Great Gatsby”, “In a World…”, “King Kelly”, “Mr Jealousy”, “Pretty Maids All in a Row”, “Save the Date”, “Touchy Feely” and “Upstream Color” (pictured above).

BBC Radio 4 has spent 5 hours asking the important question: “What colour is a mushroom?” I don’t know, but I’d sure like to see the film adaptation. While I have your attention, check out a feature I wrote for Grolsch Film Works about directors on chat shows. And directors, feel free to mention this blog the next time you’re on Letterman.

I have some exciting press screenings lined up, so expect a new blog post in two weeks. This time, the average rating is 5.92/10 with film of the month being Upstream Color. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

A.C.O.D. (2013) – 5.5/10

Director: Stu Zicherman
Writers: Ben Karlin, Stu Zicherman
Starring: Adam Scott, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Amy Poehler
“I hope you’re not your father’s son.”

A.C.O.D. adam scottFirstly, that title is an acronym for “adult children of divorce”, not some sort of “A. Scott” wordplay. But it might as well be, considering Adam Scott is in every scene. Plus, I can guarantee A.O. Scott’s New York Times review will complain about A.C.O.D. being too sitcom-y. At least, I spotted Jane Lynch’s mid-sentence emphasis on the words “modern family” and Amy Poehler informing Scott she loves parks.

This was a Sundance screening, so I’m unsure when A.C.O.D. will come out, but it’d be a great TV series. The sprawling cast hinges upon Scott, but NBC’s other recognisable faces frequently appear for three-minute skits, sometimes returning for a call back joke. Seriously, it should be a TV series – the film adaptation can come Veronica Mars-style some other decade.

In 90 minutes, nearly everyone is undeveloped in the name of delivering the best jokes; double episodes of The Office are a drag, so imagine a 90-minute version. The central hook is Scott discovering he was the child subject of a book about children of divorce: a hilarious premise without any mystery or element of discovery.

Even in the Q&A, Stu Zicherman used the phrase “divorce comedy”, arguing the weighty subject provided enough inherent drama. But not everyone can empathise with his childhood. The gravity relies upon Scott’s belief that there’s nothing worse than his parents remarrying. But why? Without being a mindreader, it floats away. (Because of the gravity metaphor, okay.)

Scott commented afterwards that the screenplay reminded him of Flirting With Disaster, which made me realise that A.C.O.D. is just an average script elevated by the most likeable cast and absence of David O. Russell. I mean that as a compliment, as there’s potential underneath the needless cameos – he just needs to take the Terrence Malick approach and edit them out, and finesse a 20-minute spec-script.

An American Werewolf in London
(1981) –6/10

Director/Writer: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne
David: “My friend Jack was just here.”
Alex: “Your
dead friend Jack was just here?”

an american werewolf in londonSometimes I feel like an American werewolf in London. Not quite, but almost.

John Landis’ follow-up to The Blues Brothers doesn’t exactly lag, but there’s something missing that makes its cult classic status seem somewhat contaminated by generous nostalgia. I watched it because it’s Edgar Wright’s favourite film, yet he’d surely cut something similar down to 25 minutes.

The story is entirely in the title, but that’s no excuse for skimping out on existential trauma brought upon by knowing at full moon you will turn into a murderous werewolf. Here are some questions that should be asked: “Should I turn myself in?” “Who will I eat?” “Should I write that new Half a Canyon blog before the moon change?” I’ve said too much.

The werewolf scenes are magnificently gory and even more amusing by its Piccadilly Circus setting. Also a bit confusing – I walk through that area every day, and only once did I see a disgusting act of cannibalism.

Prior to the transformation, there’s amiably limp comedy, transfigured in the deadpan romancing of Jenny Agutter (Jessica 6 from Logan’s Run). It’s a long wait, but when the hands on the moon strike “full”, the action repays in blood, guts and traffic accidents.

The Comedy
(2012) – 8/10

Director: Rick Alverson
Writers: Rick Alverson, Robert Donne, Colm O’Leary
Starring: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Alexia Rasmussen, James Murphy (yes, that James Murphy)
“You’re gonna get a no-no tip because you got no radio!”

the comedyPerhaps the only joke in The Comedy is its title – and casting LCD Soundsystem. It’s an unabashedly challenging film; the ironic name is a statement of intent. It isn’t exactly bleak, but wholly offensive and without a traditional three-act structure. The main aim of the protagonist (Tim Heidecker) is to insult as many people on an everyday basis with stoic improvisation – he is, in many ways, the personification of an anonymous internet commenter.

Heidecker’s bold performance is unrestrained in his darkness; he heckles doctors, casually splutters racial epithets in bars, and is even cruel to his friends. These sequences aren’t for shock value – even though it’s inevitable – but ask why someone is setting up his own destruction. After all, why make racist comments when you’re outnumbered and not actually racist?

The pivotal moment comes when Heidecker continually converses with a taxi driver who won’t respond. It’s perhaps the only sympathetic cry for attention; a rare moment for a film that’s full of clean shots, exposing the city for its bareness.

The Comedy is a study of depression. Heidecker’s trust fund means he doesn’t have to work and has no daily structure; the self-loathing manifests into creativity with a vicious slant. He takes a job as a dishwasher for the novelty value, which is presumably why he also pays a taxi driver for the chance to go behind the wheel. It’s, ironically, a non-comedic version of Pulp’s “Common People” – the bitterness behind having everything, but wanting nothing.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
(2011) – 3.5/10

Director: Rodman Flender
Starring: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter
“I have real friends that I want to talk to, and other people come in and I don’t even know them.”

conan o'brien can't stopAfter seven months, Conan O’Brien left Late Night when NBC tried to bump his show by 30 minutes. I would do anything to start work 30 minutes later. The talk show war also saw widespread sympathy for someone compensated with $50m. Despite the title, it appears he can stop, if there’s a vague principle behind it.

The support for Conan is partly from the smug blandness emanating from Jay Leno’s monologues, but give credit to Conan’s confident likeability. Strangely, that charisma is the documentary’s downfall. Advertised as displaying “mean Conan”, it turns out former Late Night hosts are too practised in fake politeness and pretending to be interested. It isn’t really until 54 minutes that there’s any evidence of any unironic petulance – and even then, it’s over in seconds.

The documentary follows “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”, whereby NBC’s payout contract outlawed any appearances on television or the internet. Little show footage is shown, and it’s mostly ropey. The bulk is made up of Conan complaining backstage to his assistant, but the clips suggest little was shot. Because if there was more, my word, that was one dull tour.

Occasionally, Conan will be tired out by fans, but then he insists to do “meet and greets”, much to the chagrin of his manager. His determined march is unintentionally sad, as if we’re supposed to marvel his strength. I’m a fan of Conan, but I rarely see his show, and these off-cuts are even less appealing. Even at his grumpiest, he’s too aware of the camera. The real surprises come when in the few minutes he isn’t in control, like when some fans use racist epithets to his face. But if there is a point, it’s that Meeting People is Easy was better than you remembered.

Deep Red
(1975) – 7/10

Original title: Profondo Rosso
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Salvatore Argento
Starring: Macha Meril, David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia
“All this for some shitty article.”

deep red (profondo rosso)It took me a while to realise just how much I loved Supiria beyond the 8/10 it received from esteemed Half a Canyon scribe, me. But I can’t see Deep Red resonating more than as an accomplished amalgamation of film noir and Giallo hysterics. Murder mystery aside, the gleeful horror steams out of broken mirrors, flailing gore and Goblin’s ominous soundtrack. The detective storyline sets the pace, but Deep Red is fondly remembered for set pieces. Check out Suspiria.

The Great Gatsby
(2013) – 4.5/10

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Degerton
“I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.”

the great gatsbyBaz Lurhmann adapting The Great Gatsby in 3D with a Jay-Z curated soundtrack: headline grabbing, but can it live up to the equally rich source material? Well, no, but that’s not the point. After several attempts, Fitzgerald’s tragic love story can’t be replicated because it’s already so perfect. A left-field twist is needed, and, let’s face it, Hollywood isn’t going to hand a $125m budget to Miranda July or Gasper Noe.

Even with an open mind, it’s exhausting at 143 minutes. The overblown trailer doesn’t do justice to the excessive partying, veering camera angles, and hyperbolic CGI. Aggressive anachronism extends beyond the opening scenes, as you hear at least two songs from Watch the Throne. It becomes apparent that 1920s heartbreak is incomplete without autotune. And it doesn’t particularly standout, as it fits in with Lurhmann’s over-elaborate experiment: it wouldn’t sound right with authentic jazz (or authentic anything), unless it was a DJ sampling a jazz riff.

The novel’s elegant prose is unable to translate to screen, mainly from the cacophony of noise and colour emerging in 3D. There’s audience laughter whenever the text appears in a spinning font – written by Nick Carraway after advice from his story-framing psychiatrist. (Oh yes, Luhrmann takes some liberties with source material.)

The lack of subtlety is so predictable, it seems futile to mention. But some perspective: this cost nearly as much as Prometheus. For example, Myrtle’s accident finds her spinning in slow motion in the air, floating in the stars like a dying astronaut, before gliding past the watching eyes of a road sign – a metaphor that’s subtle on the page, and now pressed into your eyeballs. And if you missed it, the shot repeats a few minutes later.

Nick is still the narrator, but The Great Gatsby is no longer his vision (regardless of that final shot). Instead, it’s a Luhrmann film through and through. The look is prioritised over characterisation to a dangerous level, even if it takes a while to notice; when the novelty runs out, the creaks emerges. Early scenes are so attention-grabbing, even Gatsby fades into the background. Why party in West Egg when everywhere is shot in a sci-fi hallucination of the 1920s?

When the dramatic climaxes eventually arrive, the music stops and the acting begins. Just as the novel depicts an exclusive club that everyone wants to join, it seems that’s how these Hollywood stars envisioned the set – the exclusive club of pretending to be people trying to join an exclusive club or people pretending to be someone else. (How confusing.)

Tobey Maguire is egregiously miscast as Nick, who is no longer the anonymous narrator. DiCaprio isn’t built for the elusive figure of Gatsby, and comes across more like a sociopath than romantic loser. They’re not really trying – they’re famous faces to sell tickets.

But that’s why Gatsby is worth the cinema trip. It’s a shallow experience that deserves recognition as a bold failure. Like Gatsby himself, Lurhmann chases a personal, unrealistic dream that no one else would dare attempt; he spent a fortune on a bloated mess he knew wouldn’t appease audiences, critics or fans of Fitzgerald; he took a novel, and made it completely faithful to Moulin Rouge.

In a World…
(2013) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Lake Bell
Starring: Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Ken Marino
“How are you going to eat an apple if you’ve got no teeth?”

in a world...Don LaFontaine narrated more than 5,000 trailers before dying in 2008. He left behind a baritone echo, countless Youtube clips, and the almighty phrase referenced in the title. His booming voice patronisingly explained the plot to half your childhood, all in digestible two-minute chunks.

In Lake Bell’s affection tribute to the voiceover world, LaFontaine’s death opened a chasm of competition – the trailer rivals become Ken Marino, Fred Melamed and Bell. Moreover, Bell is  Melamed’s on-screen daughter, and using her larynx to strike back in a male-dominated field. So there’s more than pride at stake, especially as it’s so well pronounced.

The voiceover world is ripe for comedy, with “Break a lung!” punchlines and absurd vocal exercises. Luckily, Bell’s astute script has a joke every other line – all without emulating a sitcom. In the lead, she sells every line with perfect timing and exuberance, greatly supported by an ensemble cast that’s a long list of scene-stealers: Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, and, remarkably, Demetri Martin as a romantic male lead.

The cast resembles as “who’s who” of TV actors regularly used as comedic relief in Hollywood fare. Bell, herself, is most recognisable outside of Children’s Hospital as the “quirky best friend”, so it’s a pleasant surprise how much talent she’s been hiding. The gentle tone means a Daniel Day-Lewis figure isn’t needed, but the zingers bounce around like a vocal pinball.

This was another Sundance screening, and Bell was humble and gracious after the screening. She explained her passion (it showed) and something that didn’t consciously occur to me: the timelessness. The retro soundtrack stops the comedy dating; palm trees were cut out of shots to Tippex out Californian DNA. It ends with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, and all I could think is that Bell will be a hell of a filmmaker – and one who can narrate her own trailers.

King Kelly
(2012) – 8/10

Director: Andrew Neel
Writer: Mike Roberts
Starring: Louisa Krause, Libby Woodbridge, Roderick Hill
Kelly: “Are you going to hate me forever?”
Jordan: “I don’t know. I’m starving.”
Kelly:“I threw that brick for both of us.”

king kellyDo you remember that episode of Freaks and Geeks called “Kim Kelly is My Friend”? Well, King Kelly is the opposite, full of people forming their own canteen cliques. Aside from its found footage gimmick (allegedly shot by iPhones), it’s aggressively 2012. Smartphones are paraded; plot twists update as Facebook statuses. It will probably feel dated by 2015 (like the obsolete VHS tapes in The Ring), but holds up a frightening mirror to today’s self-obsessed society; and not just a mirror, but one with Instagram functionality.

“I never walk. I hate walking. Who the fuck walks?”

Louisa Krause is the eponymous webcam stripper; a blonde teen filming her life for when a website launch. Her “Oh my God”s and use of “like” as punctuation is disturbingly real in the way most satires can’t capture – even reality shows like The Hills and House of Kardashians scream of self-awareness. At the height of drama, she turns to the camera to say:

“Ultimate fan video – it’s about to happen.”

It has a chance to be a zeitgeist satire, when life is lived so that there can be an online document; where the party is as much about the Facebook photo album which will be uploaded before the night is over. It doesn’t quite keep up its cutting tone, opting for improbable plot turns, but the comedy is delightfully sour; a sense of Beavis and Butthead, but frighteningly real.

Mr Jealousy
(1997) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman
Ramona: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in black-and-white.”
Lester: “Yeah?”
Ramona: “You said it was in glorious colour.”
Lester: “Yeah.”
Ramona: “Remember that?”
Lester: “Yeah. So what’s your point?”

mr jealousy noah baumbachEarly Noah Baumbach films (Mr Jealousy is his second) contain a comic rhythm sadly lacking in his recent efforts (although the Frances Ha trailer suggests a return to form). That might be down to a suppression of voice. With Mr Jealousy, the influences are fairly transparent: Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, right down to the casting of Chris Eigeman, and the narration from Hannah and Her Sisters.

“Lester gritted his teeth. Ramona had a life before him.”

The central love triangle is too absurd to describe, as Baumbach is more eager in delving into envy as a weapon and weakness. Stoltz is consumed by not owning Sciorra’s past, while she flirts with him by mentioning her ex-boyfriends. It leaves any pain and truths slightly diminished by unnatural revelations, but the screenplay isn’t too bothered when the comedy is so skewed and in love with its own language.

“Are you jealous of yourself?”

Baumbach is undoubtedly a smart writer who conducts humour from wordy middle-class dialogue like a natural, and his earnest naivety is on parade – self-seriousness from the intellectuals he once mocked. At least Mr Jealousy harbours affection for its three leads, while exaggerating their character defects with wisecracks and deadpan irony.

Pretty Maids All in a Row
(1971) – 6.5/10

Director: Roger Vadim
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Starring: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas
“See, our generation’s not afraid of feeling affection, or expressing it. For example, I love you.”

pretty maids all in a rowQuentin Tarantino placed this in his Sight & Sound top 10 list, like how there’s always a car boot shot in his films. Part comedy, part exploitation, part novelty of a sex comedy written by the creator of Star Trek: a high school murder mystery creates smoke surrounding a succession of dead cheerleaders. Clues and red herrings suggest it’s the moustached sports coach, but nobody cares because the football team’s winning every game. That’s satire, and also why films are generally more effective when seen than when a tired journalist has had very little sleep and typing out a review and writes out the plot but needs to go to sleep so ends the analysis after saying it’s okay, I guess.

Save the Date
(2013) – 2.5/10

Director: Michael Mohan
Writers: Jeffrey Brown, Michael Mohan, Egan Reich
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Mark Webber
“I make it a point to see every band with a wolf-related name. Because I want to be the guy who’s seen them all.”

save the date alison brie lizzy caplanMost viewers of Save the Date will probably be attracted by its central cast of three sitcom stars in straight roles. And by straight, I mean humourless. It’s a bold move by an indie drama that takes itself too seriously; three relationships with mismatched actors who can’t convey chemistry. (That is unintentional.)

Alison Brie and Martin Starr getting married is hilarious on paper, yet the unconventional paring is the closest Save the Date comes to a believable human emotion. In comparison, the supporting cast of traditional actors speak like robots. Mark Webber’s irritating (but supposedly likeable) puppydog behaviour is backed with overcompensating lines like “I like the guy” and “Yeah, he’s awesome”.

The canon of indie Sundance drama cliches are ticked off with inordinate precision; parents divorce, unplanned pregnancy, wedding doubts, cat goes missing. After 25 minutes, I correctly guessed who would punch who in the face 10 minutes from the end. Give me a medal, somebody.

The bulk of dramatic work is left to Lizzy Caplan who’s unlucky that the best performance of her career is a Sisyphean struggle with a lumpy script; even the camera positions are disproportionate.

Frequent attempts at Woody Allen-esque long shots feel wrong; they walk too slowly, unnaturally sipping from coffee cups (trying not to ingest, as there’ll be more takes), in front of an ugly background. Like the wedding plans it purports: inert, unlikely and an uninspiring take on a formula.

Touchy Feely
(2013) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page
“You can be a Reiki master.”

touchy feelyAnother Sundance screening. This one was earmarked by a 10-minute delay after a few ticket holders turned up five minutes early to find their seats forfeited. Unfortunately, this rushed, faulty planning probably mirrored the production of Touchy Feely – a limp failure with little substance.

With a plot held by string, this self-serious drama follows Rosemarie De Witt as a masseuse who discovers an aversion to touching human skin. In a reverse parallel, her brother Josh Pais finds his dental business booms overnight. Two trajectories with obvious symmetry, but surely there’s more to it? Sadly not.

Lynn Shelton’s films are usually 20% scripted and shot in order, creating an emotional rhythm that can’t be written. I asked her after the screening if this was the case with Touchy Feely, and she admitted it’s the first to break the mould. Wanting to be a “control freak”, 80% is scripted with the cast opting to stick to the page. My guess is they didn’t understand their characters enough to break free.

Perhaps Shelton was influenced by a recent stint directing an episode of Mad Men. But whereas the near-perfect TV show it stuffed with resonating symbolism, Touchy Feely drags aimlessly. Its idea of depth is someone staring into the distance to the sounds of a yoga playlist.

There’s little foundation to the characters, particularly Ellen Page whose inclusion I’d guess is down to ticking a box on a mutual indie wish list. The only solution for these hollow figures is an artificial storyline, and Shelton really does keep it artificial – ecstasy pills to overcome personality woes. For all its attempts to be sensuous and emotionally raw, it’s completely numb.

Upstream Color
(2013) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Shane Carruth
Starring: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth
“Each drink is better than the last. Take a drink now.”

upstream color amy seimetz pigletIt’s taken nine years for Shane Carruth to release a film since Primer (rated 4/10 on this site), during which he nearly made A Topiary, and presumably spent every day being hassled for being a doppelganger for Daniel Meade from Ugly Betty. But he’s a perfectionist, and Upstream Color is an undiluted vision – even self-released so that Carruth can control the marketing.

The obtuse plot features little dialogue and generated a stunned atmosphere at my Sundance screening. It’d be pointless for me to introduce the narrative, partly because I might be wrong. But the gorgeous visuals pile on with meaning, like a frightening, religious jigsaw unscrewed by distorted rhythms and Cronenbergian body horror. Terrence Malick with meaning, perhaps.

Beyond a sinister life cycle, Upstream Color focuses on a central couple lost in the blitz. Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself, both struggling to free themselves from the film’s mechanics, bring humanity to a drama that questions identity, free will, and the notion of love beyond chemicals. I thought the action was in the imagination of farmyard animals, dreaming of being rescued – taken from the farmer, or even a small drop of dye floating up the river. It’s both concrete and open to interpretation.

Seimetz, frequently championed over the years by Half a Canyon, is the chemically perfect blend of dazed and possessed. The chaos zigzags around her with sharp editing and juxtaposed images; every still suggests a symbol, plot point or red herring. It was a beautifully shared audience experience of bewilderment, awe and fear – the mental unravelling lasts for days.

 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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3 Responses to Film reviews 43: “The Great Gatsby”, “Upstream Color”, “Touchy Feely”, “In a World…” and 9 others….

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

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  3. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2014 film roundup | HALF A CANYON FILM BLOG: A traffic jam when you're already a plate

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