Film reviews 48: “About Time”, “We’re the Millers”, “You’re Next”, “Alpha Papa”, “Kick-Ass 2”, “Planes”, “The Conjuring” and 6 others…

passion 1
Reviewed: “About Time”, “The Act of Killing”, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa”, “The Conjuring”, “Good Night, and Good Luck”, “Kick-Ass 2”, “Moonstruck”, “Passion” (pictured above), “Planes”, “The Sweetest Thing”, “Tillsammans”, “We’re the Millers” and “You’re Next”.

Film of the fortnight is The Act of Killing and the average rating is 5.19/10. Come back in two weeks for thoughts on Pain & Gain, Elysium, Rush and The Way, Way Back. Tweet any complaints to @halfacanyon.

About Time (2013) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Richard Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander
“For me, it was always going to be about love.”

About Time trailer - videoIn 2005’s cruelly overlooked Fetching Cody, Jay Baruchel’s girlfriend overdoses on heroin. His solution is to travel back in time to save her childhood (as opposed to just stopping the actual incident). About Time takes a step further into incidental time travel with two hours of Domhnall Gleeson incrementally revisiting his past to woo Rachel McAdams.

To be fair, his father, Bill Nighy, explains the gift can’t be used to kill Hitler. You see, the men in Gleeson’s family have the power of time travel – clench your fists in a cupboard, and voila. Gleeson, perhaps inspired by the period jumping in Midnight in Paris, begins a relationship with one of its cast members, McAdams. Amid the traditional comedy of manners, he hits rewind and literally learn from his mistakes. For instance, through repetition he learns how to undo her bra, and what to say about Kate Moss. It’s pretty much on the other side of killing Hitler in the spectrum of usefulness.

Fortunately, the concept’s inconsistencies and plot holes are mostly forgiven because About Time is only concerned with time travel as a platform for comedy (until the final act, but more on that later). Richard Curtis injects the screenplay with a high frequency of gags that recall his sitcom writing days, while staying true to his usual schtick – in such a way, it’s hard to differentiate About Time from, say, Notting Hill, even with a shifting chronology. While it’s not hilarious, it is consistently amusing, especially with a high calibre supporting cast that includes Nighy and Tom Hollander.

However, if I had my own time travel abilities, I would have to re-run this review to point out the collapse of the final act. Without any spoilers, About Time takes itself far too seriously considering it’s held together by such a flimsy premise. There is – I kid you not – a non-ironic quotation of the Baz Luhrmann “Sunscreen” song to illustrate a life lesson.

When it pretends to be meaningful, it’s hard to overlook the poorly written female characters. They’re mostly defined by beauty instead of personality, with Curtis’ script making multiple unrelated allusions to prostitution. McAdams is deemed “the one” not during their blind date, but when he’s reassured of her looks. When he introduces himself as a lawyer, she replies, “Lawyers are sexy.” A large percentage of the pair’s conversations involve whether she will have sex with him, when she will take an item of clothing off, or when she’s going to deliver him a baby. Oh, and also Kate Moss.

The power of time travel only applies to the men in the family, and it’s never explained why. That sums up the gender politics of About Time. Consequently, the central relationship is actually between Gleeson and his father, which is surprisingly touching in places. Nighy’s advice is to relive life by ignoring anxieties and stress; just blissfully enjoy the small details. Perhaps that’s a message to the viewer: ignore the unintentional misogyny and enjoy the gentle humour.


The Act of Killing
(2013) – 9/10

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
“I believe even God has secrets.”

the act of killingIn 1965, a military takeover in Indonesia meant up to a million communists were killed. The genocide was partly carried out by Anwar Congo and his gang, who never faced punishment. In fact, they became rich and appeared on talk shows to boast of how they each kill at least a thousand each. Like all TV stars, that itch for fame wasn’t enough and they seek the movies; The Act of Killing is their chance to re-enact the killings.

The documentary’s extraordinary subject is made even more puzzling by Anwar and his friends’ openness. Without fear of arrest or judgement, some of them gleefully discuss strangling Chinese strangers. Some of them even love it. As cinema fans, they dress up (sometimes changing genders to add comedy) and pay tribute to old Hollywood. The culture clash continues with musical numbers and laughing children taking part as extras.

Oppenheimer’s role as director is to stay in the background. He’s occasionally mentioned by name, but there’s no narration. (Although there’s always a question mark over how any documentary’s neutrality is compromised in the editing suite.) The ex-gangsters are in charge of the film-within-a-film, with The Act of Killing essentially a compelling “making of” accompaniment. Their costume ideas and cinematic pastiches are surreal enough, without the historical context. For instance, Anwar writes a scene where his victims’ ghosts return to surround his bed. He, of course, is the sequence’s star.

Through repetition, some of the cast slowly come to terms with the genocide’s impact, especially when portraying their own victims. For others, the reaction is pure nonchalance. I suppose the 1,000th time you strangle someone isn’t that different from the 999th. Similarly, footage shows a frequent definition of “gangster” as “free men”, in a hollow self-defence that loses all meaning through its constant disposal at public events.

There’s a compelling maze of ethics spinning around in colourful garb. Every movement is a fascinating cast study of humanity’s extremes and stubbornness. In one telling scene, a mass murderer plays golf and insists he just wants to live his life in style. For that moment, it’s unclear if pure evil is on screen, or just a different way of thinking – government propaganda has excused their actions, and why torture your conscience if you’re richly rewarded? It’s an extraordinary psychological study that couldn’t exist in any other medium, and there’s surely nothing else like it.


Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
(2013) – 8/10

Director: Declan Lowney
Writers: Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan
Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Sean Pertwee, Anna Maxwell Martin
“Am I a good man, Lynn?”

alan partridge 2As a dedicated fan, I am delighted and relieved to report that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa blows away the summer’s competition in terms of laughs. In a season of apocalyptic comedies, it’s oddly reassuring that there’s actually more humour in 89 minutes of silliness set almost entirely in a Norwich radio station.

Steve Coogan first played Partridge on Radio 4 in 1991 as an incompetent radio reporter, and the character has inevitably risen to the big screen – fittingly, still in the world of radio. After two decades, the persona is so beautifully crafted (without over-exposure) that he easily fills up the running time.

Similarly, I imagine newcomers will only need a few minutes to appreciate the local DJ’s traits: a very minor celebrity trapped in a circle of arrogance, pathos and loneliness. But there’s so much more to the character, and Alpha Papa throws in a surprisingly dangerous premise that would never suit the TV platforms.

Set at North Norfolk Digital, a sacked DJ (Colm Meaney) takes the building hostage and hogs the airwaves. Meaney’s bitter DJ informs the police he will only negotiate with his ex-colleague, Partridge, who now has the chance to save the day – but by ending the siege, or sticking up for a fellow supporter of old-fashioned radio?

As Dog Day Afternoon proved, Stockholm Syndrome is a lubricant for tense humour (Tim Key is forced to joke at gunpoint), which is where Partridge’s character has always thrived – making accidentally offensive comments in a nervous atmosphere, whether on TV, radio or pitching ideas to the BBC’s commissioning editor. When hostages open up, it becomes a sudden death version of The Breakfast Club with an even cheesier soundtrack.

The script boasts an astounding gag-rate that had me laughing fairly consistently. My packed screening suggests other journalists felt the same way. It’s the kind of rapid comedy that you can tell requires repeated viewing, which wasn’t always the rhythm achieved by Partridge’s early laughter-track vehicles or the semi-improvised Mid Morning Matters. Partridge has always been based on verbal humour, having originated from two radio series and inspiring an autobiography, and the dialogue flourishes in the film’s editing.

It doesn’t all work. The two moments that spring to mind are moments of physical (and lavatorial) humour that completely flop. I’m also still unsure if any of it justifies the transition to big screen, other it being funny enough that paying audiences won’t mind.

There’s undenable joy at how Coogan inhabits Partridge in a much more natural manner than any of his real-life appearances. The supporting cast are similarly excellent, with return appearances from the likes of Lynn (Felicity Montagu) and Michael (Simon Greenall). So many small details are faultless, from the character-specific soundtrack to the anti-Hollywood setting of Norwich.

Alpha Papa is undoubtedly the most quotable film I’ve seen this year. Partridge fans will be entertained, and I suspect fans of comedy will feel the same way.


The Conjuring
(2013) – 4.5/10

Director: James Wan
Writers: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Fermiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
“When the music stops, you’ll see him in the mirror clapping behind you.”

The Conjuring_2I bought a ticket for The Conjuring but, for all I know, they actually screened Insidious 2. (That is apparently out later this year, James Wan fans.) The Conjuring continues the tradition of Insidious by, well, tradition. It’s a very formidable ghost story, much to its own detriment.

The injected originality is debatable; the cast are keen and fit the roles, but any dialogue washes past like an empty stream. At one point, Patrick Wilson explains the concept of possession with a chewing gum metaphor, which sums up the horror’s patronising tone. It’s as scary as a Halloween episode of The Simpsons – partly because those episodes are pastiches, and you’ve seen this all before.


Good Night, and Good Luck
(2005) – 6.5/10

Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: David Straithairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Patricia Clarkson
“Let’s do our first show about the downfall of television.”

good night, and good luckIf I ever get to interview George Clooney, the first question will be about the comma in the title. I mean, really! The title is taken verbatim from Edward R. Murrow’s send-off when he presented news reports in McCarthy-era 1953. It’s classier than Charlie Brooker’s “Now go away”, that’s for sure.

“Classy” is also Clooney’s directorial style; black-and-white cinematography, clean shots, plenty of walk-and-talks. McCarthy’s political climate means journalists are afraid of demonstrating any Communist agenda – one accused newscaster subsequently commits suicide. The film slyly mixes historical context with human drama, all pumped along by newsreel footage and period detail. There’s not that much to it, really, but it’s watchable – especially the real videos of McCarthy that punctuate the drama.


Kick-Ass 2
(2013) – 3.5/10

Director: Jeff Wadlow
Writers: Jeff Wadlow, Mark Millar, John Romita Jr
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jim Carrey
“You’re done banging superheroes. It’s time to see what evil dick feels like.”

kick-ass 2When Jim Carrey disowned Kick-Ass 2 over its violence, the obvious point was: didn’t he read the script? But the problem existed three years ago when Kick-Ass finished neatly without the need for a sequel. Teenagers played vigilante, then learned it wasn’t worth it. In Kick-Ass 2, it happens all over again and without the vigour.

So why should Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Red Mist (now named The Motherfucker) continue? It’s barely explained. Kick-Ass stares idly in maths class and slides into the costume on a whim. Hit-Girl needs an hour of hormonal anguish (bizarrely inspired by Union J) before returning to the mess. The circle of violence is self-created; they’re not saving Gotham City, for example. It’s not satire, but a poor excuse for immature humour and violence.

The confused plot lines have no obstacle to overcome. The main villain, The Motherfucker, is barely established, making Kick-Ass’s actions at times illogical. Hit-Girl’s jarring arc is irrelevant and derivative of Mean Girls (except now with CGI diarrhoea). In a cameo, Jim Carrey’s five minutes of screen time pass by as quickly as his press promotional duties.

The first film played with comic book conventions, but this loses the on-the-page visuals after a few minutes, aside from the dreadful green screen use in the final act. Wadlow’s real world setting means the nastiness lingers, and contradicts overwritten clangers like “All that homophobia makes you seem gay”. When The Motherfucker is sadistic, it’s tinged with misogyny and gleeful violence – he takes revenge on Kick-Ass by trying to rape his girlfriend, then hospitalises her to prove his superiority.

When Kick-Ass and his gang resolutely admit this can never happen again, I hope that is the case. Besides, Kick-Ass 3 will be strange if it has Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing a teenager at the age of 30.


Moonstruck
(1987) – 4.5/10

Director: Norman Jewison
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, John Mahoney
“I’m a wolf. You run from the wolf in me, but that don’t make you no lamb.”

moonstructSix Oscar nominations, young Nicolas Cage, Cher and the grouchy dad from Frasier. I expected something memorable, even if I hated it. It’s just a forgettable drama with muddled storylines and exaggerated characters. Would probably work as a play.


Passion
(2013) – 7/10

Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Natalie Carter, Alain Coreau, Brian De Palma
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace
“I thought you made up the twin sister.”

passion 3Passion pretty much flopped on the festival circuit, and its straight-to-DVD release makes more sense, considering its throwaway charm. It spins like an erotic thriller that doesn’t have much sex or nudity – just a knowingly sleazy tone, with cheesy saxophone cues as a bonus.

McAdams and Rapace have fun with two work colleagues playing psychological battles, complete with romantic trysts and manipulative affairs. It’s an office environment where women are closet bisexuals who kiss each other like a chess move. De Palma, fully experienced in watchable trash, is versed in trimming down the plot to hilariously over-the-top dialogue and props.


Planes
(2013) – 3/10

Director: Klay Hall
Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard
Starring: Dane Cook, Stacy Keach, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
“Look at that propeller.”

planes 3dI remember the bemusement when Pixar announced Cars 2. Well, expectations should be lowered even further for Planes, a sort of spinoff now in the hands (wings?) of Disney. It was originally planned for a straight-to-DVD release, and a sequel is already set for July 2014. Yes, it’s only 11 months away.

Like Cars, the Planes universe consists of talking vehicles that exist without any evidence of mankind – apart from being man-made, of course. Each plane has a face and gives the impression of floating heads on wheels. Yet, despite the surreal environment, it all seems rather, well, plain.

The main story itself is systematic of the film’s lack of originality. Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) is an unfashionable crop duster who dreams of becoming a racer, only to be held back by a phobia of heights. His friends have famous voices (Teri Hatcher, Val Kilmer, Stacy Keach, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but little in way of personality. Instead, there’s an alarming number of racial stereotypes. For example, John Cleese is tea-drinking Bulldog, and Carlos Alazraqui plays El Chupacabra, a Mexican racer who performs a Mariachi version of “Love Machine”.

There’s never a sense of peril, which is surprisingly rare these days for children’s animation. That might tempt parents to take their very, very young children who will probably appreciate the novelty of 3D planes soaring around. It’s also a snoozer for anyone over the age of six; the repetition is maddening, and the 92 minutes last for an eternity.

It’s uncertain how much effort is made to keep parents entertained. Everything signals to cashing in on merchandise (mentioning Cars in adverts, the inevitable toys, a 2014 sequel already announced etc). Not everything can be as universally appealing as WALL-E or Toy Story. Yet it’s uncomfortable when a few adult references are formulaically tossed in. At least, I doubt 5-year-olds will knowingly nod at the Top Gun references, or cackle at the “sexy” female plane who once modelled for Airports Illustrated. (When El Chupacabra spots her, he remarks, “Look at that propeller!”)

Planes isn’t for kids who dream of becoming pilots. It’s for kids who dream of being the planes themselves. It’s a flimsy premise with bland characters slotted into a tiresome structure. The only curveball is the downright creepiness of an airline carrier with blinking eyeballs. So, yes, Planes is as empty as the driverless vehicles.


The Sweetest Thing
(2002) – 2/10

Director: Roger Kumble
Writer: Nancy Pimental
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, Selma Blair
“I can’t believe I’m fucking a big purple elephant.”

the sweetest thingIf there is one “sweet” thing about this dire  gross-out comedy, is that for once it’s not male-dominated. That doesn’t mean it’s any decent. In fact, it’s so bad, I barely blinked when a musical number popped up called “You’re too big to fit in here…” – accompanies by a rapping grandmother, offensive Asian stereotypes and lines like: “Your penis is a dream/ The biggest one I’ve seen/ It’s oozy and it’s green.”

I blogged last month that Selma Blair will never find a better role than the depressed, pyromaniac superhero in Hellboy. Well, this is the reverse. Toilet humour pours out in abundance; it’s tries to be offensive, but is just offensively boring. The trio are even split up for much of the film, and they suffer through their own comic vignettes that are unfunny and ultimately conservative; for all its fake freedom, the protagonists conclude they’re nothing without a boyfriend, making the whole thing rather redundant and not the sweetest.


Tillsammans
(2000) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist, Emma Samuelsson, Sam Kessel
“Washing up is bourgeoisie.”

TillsammansI was initially not a fan of Tillsammans (or its English title, Together), but like Rolf, I have seen the error of my ways. Moodysson subtly shifts the camera to energise the already-lively comic timing of a small gathering who bicker over everything, such as whether gender should dictate whether children are presented blue or pink pillows. Tremendously moving amidst what’s actually quite a dark idea: that there’s little to live for what without life’s injustices. Plus you get to hear ABBA a bunch of times.


We’re the Millers
(2013) – 4/10

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writers: Sean Anders, Steve Fabers, Bob Fisher, John Morris
Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter
“We’re not the Brady Bunch.”

We’re the Millers is framed so eccentrically, I’m unsure as to whether it’s throwing a spanner at the mainstream, or just misguided market research. It begins with a series of YouTube clips (which don’t  add to the characterisation) and ends with a selection of outtakes (which removethe characterisation). Furthermore, the plot wraps up rather neatly after about 30 minutes to create a resolved one-act comedy – before adding an hour of deleted scenes and a pre-credits gag reel.

Of course, the journey is the story. Most of We’re the Millers focuses on a road trip organised by Jason Sudeikis to collect marijuana from Mexico on behalf of his obnoxious boss, Ed Helms. To diminish suspicions at the border, he organises a fake family out of a loquacious stripper (Jennifer Aniston), a foul-mouthed homeless teenager (Emma Roberts) and a naïve 18-year-old neighbour (Will Poulter).

The funniest moments come from placing the four in a confined RV van; they’re forced to smile at strangers, while bickering behind closed doors. The concept clearly has potential, especially with Rawson Marshall Thurber’s direction allowing loose performances and bratty chemistry via in-fighting. Roberts also seems remarkably enthused at finally swearing in a role.

What overshadows the comedy is a rundown of contrivances and instances of dumbed down humour that betray established personalities. With four credited screenwriters, inconsistencies arise, particularly in Sudeikis; his slacker likeability frequently oscillates with sleaze and selfishness. Really, the cast twist into playing up whatever cheap gags turn up – note how Poulter swings between shy and daring depending on the next punchline.

The filmmakers don’t seem that bothered, given how Sudeikis breaks the fourth wall to wink at the audience (during one of many gratuitous shots of Aniston dancing in her underwear). Similarly extraneous sequences perpetuate the comedy’s second half, with subplots awkwardly thrown in. Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are a recurring example; an irritating, flirtatious couple responsibly for slowing down the narrative with weak humour.

A stronger edit would simply be the first 30 minutes – without spoiling anything, there is an obvious ending point. Beyond that, there’s a sour taste as unnecessary stereotypes are brought to the fore. For instance, Mexicans are either drug dealers or illegal immigrants; every female character is defined by her sexual appetite in a way that makes it very clear the director and writing staff are all men.

Underneath is a darker, funnier comedy that toys with the concept of pretending to be a family. The best example comes from Sudeikis essentially pimping out his “son” to bribe a policeman, or when Roberts and Aniston take turns to teach Poulter how to kiss with tongues; it’s uncomfortable enough to suggest the film has created at least some sense of togetherness.

But these moments are hard to spot when so much time is dedicated to throwaway external characters, gross out humour and tacked-on sentimentality. Instead of pretending they’re a family, it should have pretended to be a complete film.


You’re Next
(2013) – 7.5/10

Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg
“How was I supposed to know you’d be so good at killing people? It’s actually a bit weird.”

you're nextI’ve lost count of how many postmodern horrors supposedly reinvent the genre: The Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, Baghead, Scream, even Scary Movie. Really, most scary films are self-aware to some extent. So it’s impressive how You’re Next blends traditional shock cliches with a sharp script that leaves me jumping and laughing in equal measure.

The intentionally cliched setup for You’re Next sees Sharni Vinson visiting her boyfriend’s extensive family in an oversized remote house. It’s late, it’s dark, and no one can hear you scream – apart from the masked killers hiding outside in twisted animal masks.

You’re Next slowly peels away at the horror genre without breaking the fourth wall. At no point does anyone emulate that infamous Scream monologue about how to survive a slasher flilm. It’s actually the reverse; when arrows shoot through the windows, Amy Seimetz volunteers to run towards the attackers (in slow motion, of course).

That joke foreshadows the masterstroke: Vinson, representing the “final girl”, breaks the genre’s trend by fighting instead of running. After all, why run up the stairs when you can build a Home Alone-style booby trap instead?

You’re Next is a vast improvement on 2010’s so-so A Horrible Way to Die, a previous collaboration between director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. Many of that film’s cast return to play deadpan and completely straight under absurd circumstances. For some, it’s a thrill to witness Joe Swanberg improvising with Seimetz and Ti West. The conversation even produces the most self-referential moment when Swanberg ironically defends advertisements as the greatest art form; a cue for you to laugh smugly, as if indicating to cinemagoers you sat through Hannah Takes the Stairs and Alexander the Last. Well, I did, anyway.

Vinson is the real star, as the poster suggests. Previously known for Step Up 3D and four years on Home and Away, she enters the indie horror environment as a sensible outsider; the Australian accent certainly adds to the juxtaposition.

Inventive deaths and gore add to the sensory fun, with half the pain in recognising inevitable uses of props. It demands a cinema viewing for the sounds and occasionally cheesy 60s music (unless you have access to a remote cabin and DVD player). After the endless stream of home-invasion films, it’s a pleasure that one arrives feeling fresh, original and clearly made by horror fans.

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. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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2 Responses to Film reviews 48: “About Time”, “We’re the Millers”, “You’re Next”, “Alpha Papa”, “Kick-Ass 2”, “Planes”, “The Conjuring” and 6 others…

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

  2. Pingback: 8 Things That Happen Every Christmas - The Accessorize Blog

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