Film reviews 47: “Frances Ha”, “The Heat”, “The Wolverine”, “Now You See Me”, “Only God Forgives” and 9 others…

the 400 blows balzac

This fortnight: “The 400 Blows” (pictured above), “Blackfish”, “Couples Retreat”, “District 9”, “Frances Ha”, “Free Samples”, “Ginger & Rosa”, “The Heat”, “The Last Seduction”, “Now You See Me”, “Only God Forgives”, “Point Break” and “The Wolverine”.

Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” for writers suggests he could have been a great tweeter, and possibly an even better iceberg. He sings “My Heart Will Go On” on karaoke nights.

The average rating is 5.81/10 with film of the month being The Last Seduction. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

The 400 Blows (1959) – 8/10

Director: François Truffaut
Writers: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier
“But he hates sports. He spends hours at the movies, ruining his eyes.”

the 400 blowsOh, yes – that final shot, an electric shock of charged emotions. Truffaut’s liberating debut is 99 minutes of pure joy; when its protagonist, 12-yearold Antoine, runs to the ocean, I want to join him. It’s the kind of drama that encourages the viewer to live life to the fullest and take on new challenges.

The simple story follows Antoine, a naive child who’s treated unfairly by cruel teachers and callous parents. Lively direction captures Antoine’s spring when he walks. He’s always a young child, whether he’s enjoying Balzac with a cigarette, or sneaking around in a hat to emulate a gangster. When threatened with military school, his friend doesn’t even know what it is.

Antoine’s small frame is occasionally lost on screen, while an empty metropolitan landscape encircles like a humanless playground. He dreams of running away much in the way we all do. The final shot is an existential crisis in an eternal image; both free and restricted, every moment is a now or never question.


Blackfish
(2013) – 7.5/10

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres
“I stayed for Tilikum. I felt bad for the guy.”

blackfishCowperthwaite’s powerful documentary takes a case history of orcas killing trainers and asks: if there’s no record of orcas harming humans in the wild, then what happens at SeaWorld that makes them change?

Cowperthwaite isn’t shy about making SeaWorld the villain and wholly responsibly. It ostensibly follows Tilikum, a three-year-old orca captured in 1983, but the marine theme park is repeatedly made out to be a morally dubious corporation. It doesn’t just throw accusations; it completely pulls the plug.

Blackfish is interspersed with cheesy SeaWorld advertisements of beautiful creatures who love performing for paying audiences. In reality, they’re imprisoned underwater (sometimes in isolation) and attack each other when left in cramped conditions. Tilikum particularly suffers from being bullied and unable to swim away, as he would in the wild. Of course, there’s bias in the editing and ordering, but the inevitable attack on a trainer isn’t that surprising.

The most haunting moment comes from an experienced trainer who’s repeatedly pulled under water by a frustrated orca. The man smiles through the pain and strokes the whale like an old friend, before he’s dragged down again. At that point you realise he’s willing to die for the sake of a lie.


Couples Retreat
(2009) – 2.5/10

Director: Peter Billingsley
Writers: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughan, Dana Fox, Curtis Hanson, Peter Billingsley, Greg Beeman
Starring: Vince Vaughan, Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau, Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk
“There is such a thing called muscle memory. I can tell by looking at your gait, that you must remember.”

Couples RetreatThere’s a decent idea behind Couples Retreat, one completely divorced from the final execution. Bateman and Bell discover the holiday of a lifetime with two catches: mandatory couples therapy at 6am, and the bargain deal requires three more pairs. One PowerPoint presentation later, four terrible comedy partners run through a series of crass, predictable scenarios that sprawl like a rushed sketch show. What counts as character work is five minutes of Guitar Hero.

There’s too much truth in Vaughan and Favreau fearing they’ve lost touch – the film becomes a real life touching stone on how far they’ve fallen from the honeymoon of Swingers in 1996. Either that, or they’ve masterminded a way for Hollywood to pay for their summer holidays.


District 9
(2009) – 7.5/10

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James
“I love watching you prawns die.”

district 9 sharltoThe cult of Starship Troopers lives on with insect-y aliens symbolising a dehumanised enemy: a dystopian vision of race relations. Politics coagulates with sci-fi and social satire, all amidst thrilling warfare and media coverage. Copley shines in his first acting role as an office clerk mutating into a “prawn” (although they don’t appreciate that term). The satire isn’t particularly sharp, but the chopped up news footage adds a faux-topical edge to a fun film emblazoned with easily offended aliens. Like all memorable sci-fi environments, it’s distinctive and inviting – let’s hope we handle the inevitable alien invasion with a liberal approach.


Free Samples
(2013) – 4/10

Director: Jay Gammill
Writer: Jim Beggarly
Starring: Jess Weixler, Jesse Eisenberg
“How lonely are you that you have to wander the streets on a Thursday morning asking a bunch of senseless questions to the first person you meet that’s trapped in a truck?”

free samplesThere comes a point when you get through a third of your life and you think it’s going okay, and then you realise, “Oh no, it’s going to be like this forever.” Well, not that that applies to me. It is, however, a fitting description of Free Samples, a modest indie comedy that takes place almost entirely around Jess Weixler operating a stationary ice cream van.

The gimmick doesn’t feel contrived, but is mostly redundant – rather than mining inertia for comedy, it’s likely down to convenience of filming. It only matters because there’s very little else on which to focus, other than cone technique. This isn’t Trees Lounge where Steve Buscemi sold ice cream because his life depended on a self-destructive activity. Instead, it’s simply a time (and cone) filler.

Weixler makes the most of her minimalist script, adopting a strange whine that stays consistent throughout. It’s also a role based on laziness and social reluctance, and needs something to play off – what she gets is an aimless screenplay, anonymous strangers with unnatural one-liners, and a fleeting cameo from Jesse Eisenberg. No wonder in the second scene she doesn’t want to get out of bed.


Frances Ha
(2013) – 10/10

Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
“I think I’ll probably read Proust, because sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do. Proust is pretty heavy.”
“It’s worth it, I hear.”
“I meant the book, carry it on the plane.”

frances ha

I was ambivalent towards Frances Ha upon seeing it at the cinema opening night (which, for reasons too tawdry to divulge, cost me £35, probably exacerbating my goodwill towards seeing a black-and-white flick about someone moaning about money) but a Netflix rewatch completely swung my opinion. Frances’ fear of being 27 envelops the comedy as a deadly horror film, much in the way of Kicking and Screaming, and it’s the maturation of her friends that represents the Final Destination splutters.

The dialogue’s off-rhythm, complete with the Mauvais sang reference, completely passed me by. The painful “yo” drops and mistimed gags are what Lola Versus could never achieve, except now in the gaze of Manhattan. Frances is part of a generation influenced by those Woody Allen 70s films – her friend has a writing package for SNL – and travels to Paris for jetlag and Puss in Boots. Dreams burn down like song lyrics; only former best friend Sophie recognises and empathises with the pain of expectations.

(Note: there used to be a nonplussed review here. This has been replaced years later after I watched it again, four times, in a single week.)


Ginger & Rosa
(2012) – 7.5/10

Writer/Director: Sally Potter
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks
“But really, Rosa, I think we should do something about the bomb.”

ginger and rosaGinger & Rosa is one of those period dramas more about the setting than what’s going on in the foreground. In the leads, the two teenage protagonists bond through impatience with adolescence (trying on their mothers’ clothes) at a time when escapism was harder to find – when they run away, it’s through truancy or late night alley trips to taunt boys, not refreshing Twitter.

The usual coming-of-age ingredients take place: absent father, struggling mother, minute details about life in the 60s. What I liked was the sprinkles of existential fear – usually an overused comic device, but here it’s more real. Ginger is taken over by fear of a nuclear attack; enough to preoccupy her mind when she’s lying on a boat or adding up numbers in maths class. It’s so impactful, it threatens the central friendship when Rosa is less bothered that “we could all die tomorrow.”

Elle Fanning shines in a role that juxtaposes over-the-top hyperventilation with teenage boredom. It’s like anyone’s exaggerated childhood drama, multiplied by a duplicitous best friend and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Politics interweaves with domestic affairs; the screenplay mischievously overlaps marches with teenage rebellion. On the other side, family struggles become so damaging, the end of the world seems inconsequential – almost a luxurious worry for when you have nothing better to do. When the drama slips away from these themes into more conventional drama, it’s still watchable – just loses the “Sally Draper” edge of growing up in a war torn era.


The Heat
(2013) – 4/10

Director: Paul Feig
Writer: Katie Dippold
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy
“Me and her? We’re the fucking heat.”

the heatA mismatched pair of police officers: McCarthy is aggressive and foul-mouthed, Bullock is straight as an arrow. McCarthy is allowed to be funny pretty much all the time, but Bullock’s straddled with a non-character – as the “good cop” of the equation, she’s increasingly lifeless and reduced to the stereotype of a single woman whose best friend is the neighbour’s cat.

Further into the comedy, when tight situations force the leads into bonding exercises and an unlikely friendship, it’s apparent just how little there is to their DNA. When Feig launched Freaks and Geeks, he wrote an extensive guide to the kids’ personalities, even down to their favourite albums and foods. In The Heat, they just about have surnames.

It’s also puzzling why the 117-minute running time wasn’t trimmed. Some sample dialogue: “Is that the same sandwich you offered me a week ago?” “Yeah. Cheese doesn’t go bad.” An apt metaphor.


The Last Seduction
(1994) – 8.5/10

Director: John Dahl
Writer: Steve Barancik
Starring: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman
“Hey, maybe you’ll get a reward and you can open up a fucking feed store. Get the fuck out of here.”

the last seductionI haven’t laughed so hard for quite a while. Fiorentino is the unquestionable lead – a sociopathic femme fatale with one-liners and looks that can, er, kill. As Bridget, she’s slapped by her husband and promises to slap him back harder. Rather than a backhander, she runs off with his drug deal earnings and hides in a small New York suburb. However, a pseudonym (Wendy Kroy) can’t disguise her city upbringing, and there’s visual humour in her heels and “fuck off” attitude.

The neo-noir screenplay embraces and relies on Bridget’s droll tone and comic timing. She’s chased by men (detectives and horny locals) who try and fail to manipulate her. Berg, in particular, attempts to exert his masculinity in their relationship, only to be told he’s just a “designated fuck” and “spare me your brainless countrified morality”.

Thankfully, The Last Seduction peers through dark turns and pokes fun at the idea of sentimentality. In fact, emotions are a weakness (just like they are in real life). Yet Bridget is undoubtedly the hero, full of style and confidence. It should be cynical, but Fiorentino’s portrayal is completely joyous. She brandishes cigarettes like a weapon, only pausing to unleash hurtful wit. Her destructive nature is wild, unpredictable and something to admire – she sums herself with profanity: “I am a total fucking bitch.”


Now You See Me
(2013) – 3.5/10

Director: Louis Leterrier
Writers: Edward Ricourt, Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson
“The closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.”

NOW YOU SEE METhe famous David Blaine levitation trick excites the small crowd on the streets, and maybe the impatient pedestrian trying to get pass, but no one else. On video, there are too many suspicions about camera trickery to appreciate anything other than showmanship. Now You See Me shares that and even more with Blaine – a magician whose greatest performances were more to do with finding unwarranted media attention than magic.

In a summer of failed blockbusters, Now You See Me is turning into the year’s surprise sleeper hit, according to someone sitting behind me at the cinema. Like an actual magic show, the film advertises itself with gloss and promise of wonder: an attractive young cast reinforced by reliable cameos from Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. If the script and plot are poor, then surely the cast can save it? And if not, who are these snobby critics who don’t understand fun? Well, it turns out neither do the filmmakers.

The first 15 minutes are moderately entertaining, in a “now I sort of see it” way. The central cast are introduced as con artists who use CGI-enhanced scenarios as platform for sarcastic one-liners. Eisenberg and Fischer are snappy as ex-lovers who shared a stage, arguing like a 1960s screwball double act. But it doesn’t last long (as Fischer mentions in an accidentally meta joke). In fact, the great disappearing act comes from the personalities who completely vanish after the first act.

Without much reason, Ruffalo and Laurent take over as the main figures who attempt to solve an unsolvable mystery of what these magicians will do next. Hint: it will involve CGI and be implausible.

When the action pauses, the mind struggles to unravel the pointlessness of everyone’s individual arc. At first, you’re distracted (or blinded by “misdirection”, as they like to call it) by mediocre humour; and then you realise: why is any of this happening?

Strangely, the film takes itself seriously, finding smugness in ludicrous plot twists probably chosen by picking answers out of a hat. Well, if there was ever a refined script, it was probably eaten by the rabbit.


Only God Forgives
(2013) – 5/10

Director/Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
“TAKE IT OFF!!!”

only god forgivesRyan Gosling recently took over from Nicolas Cage as the go-to actor for internet memes. He also delivers multiple Cage-isms in Only God Forgives, his second collaboration with Refn after Drive. One line I jotted down: “Can somebody tell me what the FUCK this CUNT is trying to say?” It’ll look odd on the feminist Gosling tumblrs.

The plot is minimal, as is the dialogue. Refn prepares for the party with a neon background that glows in a way the screenplay does not. Every scene is shot like an alluring nightmare – wallpaper and lighting turn into aesthetic pornography, while corridors lead to lampshades that could easily direct traffic. Standing in front, empty shells deliver cringe-inducing lines – everyone, apart from Scott Thomas who’s searching for her own internet meme potential.


Point Break
(1991) – 8.5/10

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: W. Peter Liff, Rick King
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Lori Petty
“You think I joined the FBI to surf?”

vlcsnap-2013-06-30-19h28m38s187The hook of Point Break is so absurd and inviting: two FBI officers head to the beach as undercover surfers to catch bank robbers. The film’s strength is how it loves its own stupidity, while treating the dumb philosophy with complete respect.

Like a door, it hinges on Keanu Reeves, responsible for catching the criminals, slowly hypnotised by their free-spirit world. Bigelow’s beautiful direction effortless conveys the beauty of sprawling waves and the sensation of skydiving. The quotations don’t get more complex than “This is fucking beautiful!” but you get the point.

There are too many exhilarating action sequences to mention, including a foot chase where the bad guy throws a dog – a dog! – at Keanu. It’s also hilarious, from a bank robbery taking place in the background, right down to the casting.

Gloriously dumb. It should be retitled 1991: A Surf Odyssey.


The Wolverine
(2013) – 4/10

Director: James Mangold
Writers: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Hal Yamanouchi
“What they did to me, what I am, can’t be undone.”

THE WOLVERINE 2Wolverine’s struggle with immortality could make a fantastic drama, like a superhero twist on Groundhog Day. As it stands, Mangold’s take on the character is similarly ambitious, emulating a samurai tale with Zen nuances and poetic scenery. Well, in practice, anyway.

Set entirely in Japan, The Wolverine only scratches upon the surface of what it means to be alive, and how that’s separate from being unable to die. The dull story lends itself to philosophical intrigue for only the briefest of moments, then collapses under meeting the needs of viewers with short attention spans. There’s a robot thrown in, too.

Most of the wonder derives from a Japanese setting which injects The Wolverine with scenic energy. Our hero is a stranger to himself and his surroundings. Admittedly, chase sequences have a slight edge when they involve running past Pachinko machines or sticking a knife into the roof of the Tokyo bullet train. But it’s nothing to be too excited about.

In support, Fukushima and Okamoto take a break from modelling in their first ever film roles. You wouldn’t guess otherwise, but it’s telling that The Wolverine is more concerned about looks that dialogue. Instead of the beauty associated with its influences, the fights and villains are clumsy and occasionally embarrassing – I assume Viper, a snake-y human who spits toxins, is less laughable in the comics.

It’s a shame as I recognise the intent for a philosophical struggle with death, identity and owning claws which make horrendous scratching noises that are painful in a cinema with loud speakers. Maybe Mangold and Jackman can team up again on a project that isn’t weighed down by back story and appeasing impatient audiences. Or, at least, without dream sequences that resurrect someone who died earlier in the franchise.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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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. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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One Response to Film reviews 47: “Frances Ha”, “The Heat”, “The Wolverine”, “Now You See Me”, “Only God Forgives” and 9 others…

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

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