Film reviews 49: “Elysium”, “What Maisie Knew”, “The Way, Way Back”, “Pain & Gain” and 10 others…

heartbeats les amours imaginaires
This fortnight: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, “Belle de Jour”, “Diner”, “Elysium”, “Green Lantern”, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “Heartbeats” (pictured above), “Irma la Douce”, “The Look of Love”, “Pain & Gain”, “Tropic Thunder”, “The Visitor”, “The Way, Way Back” and “What Maisie Knew”.

I spent 5 minutes trying to write an intro that fitted a Judgment of Solomon reference regarding Leicester Square Empire’s “Screen 1” being split into two screens. Anyway, the average rating is 5.43/10 with film of the month being Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaries). Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – 5/10

Director/Writer: David Lowery
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck
“I haven’t slept in four years, and I’m tired.”

ain't them bodies saintsI don’t know much about David Lowery, but I bet he owns Badlands and Day of Heaven on DVD – or Blu-Ray, if Ain’t Them Bodies Saints does well. His script and direction touch greatly upon Terrence Malick, and I am equally at fault for not lasting more than a sentence before making a comparison.

Set in Texas in the 1970s, the drama detaches itself from modern stresses by focusing on two separated lovers, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. The minimal story is one of heartbreak surrounded by sundrenched shots of nature and Western bareness. After a botched robbery, Affleck takes the blame for Mara and is subsequently locked up in a cell. Shortly afterwards, Mara gives birth to his daughter; he discovers years later, which prompts a painfully slow attempt to escape.

Detachment is the key expression. Lowery forgoes a Malick-esque voiceover, leaving emotions to simmer in the heat. The dialogue is sparse, except for lines like Affleck declaring, “I used to be the devil, but now I’m a man.” It becomes a very long, drawn out tone poem that should perhaps be watched at a sunset rather than a cinema.

Everything seems in place for a critic-proof Sundance success story, yet the characters are too removed. Even when jigsaw pieces slot together, you wish there was something less artificial than a finely constructed image. Mara is particularly inexpressive in a role that amounts to lying on a sofa looking miserable, occasionally stroking a kitten. When a curious lawman becomes involved, it’s apparent that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is little more than a competent genre exercise.

Lowery’s IMDb page reveals he edited Upstream Color, which is so far my favourite film of 2013. In Shane Carruth’s alluring nightmare, flashes of abstract images are sharply juxtaposed into a whirlwind of confusion and subconscious connections. However, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is too one-tone and, while occasionally pretty, is hindered by empty characters. Mara sums it up when she whimpers, “I haven’t slept in four years, and I’m tired.”

Belle de Jour
(1967) – 8/10

Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, Joseph Kessel
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Francisco Rabal
“I have an idea. Would you like to be called Belle de Jour?”

belle de jourDeneuve already played a distant and sexually repressed dreamer in Polanski’s Repulsion. Two years later, she takes a similarly fragile role as the eponymous lead of Belle de Jour; as a bored housewife, she finds a part-time hobby as an afternoon-only prostitute.

It’s a distinctly Polanski-esque concept, especially with how much action is confined in the same small rooms. However, Buñuel’s surreal touch is more subtle than Polanski’s tendency for sustained horror. Rather than walls closing in, Deneuve sits on a bed in the brothel’s drab decor, waiting for the next client. She may fantasise about sadomasochistic adventures, but there’s enough weirdness in how calmly she slips into her 2pm-5pm job.

Deneuve is also deeply in love with her husband, and is in some ways strangely loyal (in an inexplicable way that flies against logic). That means the comedy is tragic as well as dark. There’s also something menacing in the male visitors, all hungry for control, yet hindered by their sexual quirks.

These bizarre twists identify carnal desire as both surreal and a base function. Sure, one client’s Duchess fantasy is played for laughs, but Deneuve’s closeted sexual fantasy spirals into tragic circumstances – all because she loves her husband to ask for a whip as a birthday present. The social commentary doesn’t extend to the boundaries of The Discreet Nature of the Bourgeoisie, but it doesn’t have to when human needs are already self-satirical.

(1982) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Barry Levinson
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly
You ever get the feeling there’s something going on that we don’t know about?”
“You ever get the feeling she gave me a fake name?”

dinerI am embarrassed to admit I watched Diner because Kevin Bacon has subconsciously entered my head through those goddamn cinema adverts that are now on TV as well, and it’s only a matter of time before my alarm clock stops ringing and is just his voice telling me to wake up and buy a new phone contract.

Well, he’s less annoying in Diner. I expected a mixture of Metropolitan and My Dinner with Andre, but surprisingly very little takes place in the diner. The IQ levels also drop a few digits. The influence on Apatow is evident: five men, all afraid of growing up, sharring jokes and relationship advice. The immature humour surprised me, and not in a good way (one notable example is a hole in a box of popcorn). It picks up in the smaller areas, almost by accident, when fleeting moments crash into the realisation that adolescence is temporary. Adult responsibilities await, but the pain is divided between too many characters for it to sink in.

(2013) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
“You can save everyone.”

elysiumBlomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 isn’t quite District 10, but shares so much DNA it may as well be. Again set in a future torn by social division, Elysium expands on a dystopian landscape with mesmerising beauty – Elysium hovers in the sky as a spa for rich people, complete with healing technology and a solution to Earth’s ravaged problems.

Those ideas aren’t really touched upon, aside from a visual interpretation of how mankind could share its resources. It’s certainly prettier than a line graph, but not much more. Much of the action pits Damon against Copley in a battle of good versus evil (that emerges as a battle of bland versus charismatic).

The robot-marshalled environment means Elysium is always lively, even when it descends into a standard “shoot ‘em up”. Copley’s offbeat enthusiasm rings truer than the other actors, and I sense it’s because he’s breaking away from the script. Blomkamp strikes me as an insane genius who needs a co-writer to fully flesh out his ideas.

Green Lantern
(2011) – 4/10

Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg, John Broome (novel), Gil Kane (novel)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard
“Green is the colour of will.”

green lanternThere’s a lot of green, that’s for sure. And not just trees and grass. In the style of a comic book adaptation, foreground and background illuminates with green. Even one of the screenwriters is called Green.

The alien world of Green Lantern is a dazzling CGI spectacle. In fact, I think it’s a clip used to advertise Sky Movies. It’s certainly more illuminating than the opening of Man of Steel; hunky everyman Ryan Reynolds looks at the surreal and joyful scenery. Ironically, he was probably miming reactions to green screen.

I am describing the film as if there’s no dialogue. It felt live every line was clunky exposition – a history lesson in a fictional world that won’t matter in two hours’ time, or before that point.

The narrative is constructed for 7-year-olds, I think, judging by how some of the action seems moments away from a catchphrase about sugary cereal. And then it drops to Earth and fizzles out even further.

Blake Lively’s character has no green superpowers and little of interest to say. I’m surprised she didn’t demand a rewrite. It’s sort of amazing she put up with it – or that I did too.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
(2013) – 2.5/10

Director/Writer: Rommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare
“When you see my signal, unleash hell.”

hansel and gretel witch huntersI’m not a fan of Lord of the Rings and I struggled to get past episode two of Game of Thrones, plus I can’t stand gingerbread – so there wasn’t much chance of enjoying Hansel and Gretel. The mystifying tone combines cheesy metal with half-hearted action that aims for serious, but ends up humourless. There’s little togetherness, apart from the sense the crew collaborated on finishing the project as quickly as possible, judging by some of the amateurish choreography.

(2011) – 8.5/10

Original title: Les Amours Imaginaires
Director/Writer: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider, Xavier Dolan
“If somebody died every time I hit refresh, there’d be nobody left alive. Fuck.”

heartbeats les amours imaginaires 1Xavier Dolan, born in 1989 (not a typo), achieved much more than I did in 2010. His stylish tale of love rivalry contains dashes of La Nouvelle Vague, while echoing In the Mood for Love – but with modern, anarchic vibrancy. For instance, I don’t remember Wong Kar-wai inserting House of Pain’s “Jump Around” for sentimental resonance.

Dolan himself stars alongside Monia Chokri as Francis and Marie, two friends who fall in love with Nicolas (Niels Schneider). The threesome platonically share a bed and eat strawberries together, allowing unrequited longing to develop. Artistic slow-mo and impassioned music means the raw emotions are heavily dramatised; desperation becomes painfully real and raw, even without a shot of Francis frantically masturbating over Nicolas’ unwatched pile of clothes.

Marie’s pained love is more intriguing. Unlike Francis, she maintains her cool by smoking and wearing sunglasses, yet radiates more agitation through uncomfortable shifts in body language; with a floor stacked with cigarettes, the nicotine does transcend an Anna Karina vibe. As she despairingly puts it: “Light up, smoke up, shut the fuck up.”

Francis’ and Marie’s various coping methods are even more tragic when juxtaposed with Nicolas’ calm exterior – he’s either oblivious or just too fucking cool to care. His icy charms finds that middle ground between sociopath and playful poser, and imprints the film’s theme of actions that prize social style or social satisfaction.

Considering Dolan’s young age, it makes sense how he pinpoints premature infatuation. The short running time accentuates how unnaturally feelings can accelerate, and how quickly time comparatively passes for Nicolas – without refreshing emails or gazing jealously through the window, life just flies by.

The camera is similarly spontaneous in its energetic flair. Perhaps Dolan employs slow-mo too often, but the technique grabs onto painful moments that seem to last for eternity. Elsewhere, it runs free with fleeting exasperation – note a crucial plot moment when the frame spins into the sky, dizzyingly spinning as the sun hits the treetops. If the film is named after the song, it’s definitely the original by The Knife, not Jose Gonzales.

Irma la Douce
(1963) – 3/10

Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Alexandre Breffort (play)
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine
“The night of my first recital, the piano cover fell on my hand. Three broken fingers and a broken dream.”

irma la douceWilder, Lemmon and MacLaine collaborated on The Apartment, a masterpiece for its comedy and drama. They re-team three years later with the emphasis firmly placed on comedy – and a fairly woeful one at that.

The flawed concept dooms Irma la Douce early on. Lemmon falls in love with MacLaine, a bratty prostitute, and he fends off suitors by dressing up as monocled client who just wants to play card games. The disguise damages any chemistry between the pair, while the farce lacks the wit of, well, anything else by Wilder.

The Look of Love
(2013) – 4/10

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh
Starring: Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Anna Friel
“I don’t fuck anyone for money. I do it for fun.”

the look of loveWinterbottom, Greenhalgh and Coogan collaborated brilliantly on 24 Hour Party People, a lively invitation to the Madchester scene, pumping with Tony Wilson’s relentless optimism amidst a crumbling fortune. The Look of Love is largely the opposite; a voyeuristic take on Paul Raymond’s Soho empire, without much insight or surprise. A better version would be a similar structure to A Cock and Bull Story, allowing Coogan to break character and explain why the story’s worth telling – because I’m still unclear.

Pain & Gain
(2013) – 6/10

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Pete Collins (articles)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie
“Don’t be don’t-er. Be a doer.”

pain and gainIf you’ve seen the trailer, I can confirm the characters in Pain & Gain are as stupid as they look. The film itself is surprisingly astute, albeit condescending in its approach. The main sell: it’s based on a true story, but could easily be from a zany ‘90s Coen brothers script.

The plot retells a series of arrests made in the 1990s. Three bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson) kidnap a wealthy client and steal his assets. It’s a bumpy ride, especially when Wahlberg accidentally reveals his identity through recognisable cologne. It’s also not a conventional crime caper, as Bay mines these morons for as many jokes as possible – nearly all at their expense.

Over-the-top dialogue drums along the rapid fire narrative, brashly tailored for ironic laughter. It will almost definitely be more enjoyable in a packed cinema than alone at home (unless you have a few beers). The highlights come from analysing the bodybuilder’s relationships, occasionally teething out the insecurities that lead to wanting to be a “monument to physical perfection”. On paper, it might not seem funny that Wahlberg calls being fat unpatriotic, but that’s down to the cast’s comedic vigour. Johnson is particularly hilarious as an ex-cocaine addict who turned to religion.

If Bay is satirising anything, it’s himself. The screen is filled with Bay-isms, from an ugly soundtrack to women paraded as sex objects. (When he touted Pain & Gain as a personal project, I didn’t expect a mumblecore drama.) It’s still loud and dumb – which I’m fine with – and I’ll happily admit that I was in hysterics for much of the first half. But, after a while, the nastiness reaches the surface.

The narrative carries enough entertainment value until the novelty washes off, at which point a subtitle reminds the viewer halfway that it’s still a true story. By then, it’s just cruel people behaving horrendously – and somehow getting away with it. Ultimately, it’s about making fun of idiots, the kind of muscle-built bullies you’d otherwise never want to confront.

Pain & Gain is a guilty pleasure, and not just from the dumb thrills associated with any other Bay picture. It’s conflated by a real story about torture and slapstick, a few degrees away from a disturbing episode of You’ve Been Framed. Is it funny only because it actually happened? Sadly, I think it is – but it’s still worthy of a few mindless chuckles.

Tropic Thunder
(2008) – 4/10

Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Tom Cruise
“I don’t read the script. The script reads me.”

tropic thunderStiller’s Hollywood satire doesn’t strike me as, well, striking. Maybe it’s the timing; the industry insight is less compelling five years on when the likes of Nikki Finke are exposing every small scandal and discrepancy. Downey Jr, Coogan and Cruise rely on surprise value which is evidently lost when you’re half a decade behind every one like me. I am clearly more Kenicky Finke than Nikki Finke.

The Visitor
(2007) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
“We are not just helpless children.”

the visitorMcCarthy’s first feature, The Station Agent, was beautifully understated, and The Visitor is a moving accompaniment. As the protagonist, Jenkins makes a similar journey – this time to his barely used flat, only to find it inhabited by two illegal immigrants.

Jenkins, a lonely widow, forms a close friendship with these strangers, without it turning into a cloying, sentimental, cliche-filled “why can’t we all get along?” lesson.  McCarthy’s patient screenplay slows down the tempo to eke out the characters, where warm silence is all that’s necessary – syncopated hand taps placate emotions as simply rhythms. Contrived twists are avoided and, while there are several dramatic moments, the pathos is measured.

In an early connection, Sleiman teaches Jenkins how to play drums in a less traditional way (it’s a bouncier 3/4 beat, instead of the 4/4 of classical music). It takes a while, but Jenkins adapts and freestyles in a New York drum circle. That sums up The Visitor: an overused story, but told naturally and made fresh through its 3/4 rhythm.

The Way, Way Back
(2013) – 4.5/10

Directors/Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carell
NOTE: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.
“I wish I could stay here forever. I’m serious.”

THE WAY, WAY BACKIn the opening scene, Liam James is hit by a cruel comment from his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Carell) and any thoughts are drowned out by MOR music. That tactic sums up The Way, Way Back, a calculated indie quirkathon ready to thrust a warm blanket on potential drama.

James, playing an emotionless 14-year-old, is unwillingly dragged to Carell’s beach house by his mother, Toni Collette. His summer is doomed to boredom (no mobile phones), even with all the snappy neighbours and visitors: Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney join Collette and Carell for unnaturally punch conversation, punctuated by forced one-liners. During this indulgence, James sulks in the corner, somewhat reflecting how I felt in the cinema.

Naturally, James finds a glimmer of excitement in AnnaSophia Robb – similarly aged and literally the girl next door. But he truly comes alive at a nearby water park, where he’s befriended by Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. It should now be clear that The Way, Way Back is overloaded with characters, many of whom seem included for star power. It wouldn’t surprise me if the poster campaign was written before the script.

The coming-of-age element is fairly artificial; instead of a tribute to old summer beach flicks, it lazily follows a template of cliches (and a truly bizarre nod to the closing shot of The Graduate). The screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, also responsible for the overrated The Descendants, inject an unfortunate self-awareness – one of old pros aiming at the middle. They also make their directorial debut, and their inexperience shows; shots are limps, musical cues are condescending.

One obvious comparison is Adventureland, which placed Jesse Eisenberg at the theme park for most of the duration. Perhaps The Way, Way Back should have followed that structure by  cutting out the mindless subplot at the beach house. I know it’s the whole point of the film, but the Water Wizz scenes are filled with so much energy, it’s as lopsided as some of the rides. Rockwell is considerably the main attraction, and his lively guidance saves both James’ confidence and the film itself.

Unfortunately, James holds the most screen time and his passive blandness is unintentionally the comic highlight. The Way, Way Back sends the message that heroes don’t need a personality or presence – instead, 30 seconds of awkward “pop and lock” dancing can win the hearts of perplexed onlookers (but not the cinema audience).

What Maisie Knew
(2013) – 7.5/10

Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee
Writers: Carroll Cartwright, Nancy Doyne, Henry James (novel)
Starring: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham
“You know who your mother is, don’t you?”

what maisie knewThe above review of The Way, Way Back doesn’t stress enough its fatal flow of including too many of the parents’ conversations, thus jarringly shifting perspectives. What Maisie Knew is much more restrained in sticking to Maisie’s story; it’s an outlook cemented by the title. The six-year-old girl is the drama’s heart and, in a way, obstacle. Through her eyes, her squabbling parents are a distant argument seeping through the bedroom door. Destructive rows are held off-screen; she lies in silence.

Maisie’s reaction is one of innocence, rather than melodrama. Her mother and father divorce and subsequently find new partners; through scheduling she effectively ends up with four single parents. The tug-of-war custody battle isn’t about holding onto her, but an act of petty revenge. The dramatic irony treads the line between affective and exploitative, and only oversteps the mark a few times – primarily when the subtext is laid out in an argument (“It’s not your fault, Maisie…”) or when the strings set in.

Coogan and Moore are terrific as New York spirits with too much ambition to pick up their daughter from school. Skarsgard and Vanderham are the temporary replacements, creating an unofficial family through a mutual feeling of abandonment.

Luckily, the lack of dialogue (or conversation that isn’t self-conscious about Maisie’s presence) means it doesn’t get too sentimental. Through Maisie, the storytelling device means modern age selfishness plays out with elements that gnaw at the fear of responsibility – all versus the fear of loneliness. Even though that’s not in the title, she certainly knows it.

Follow @halfacanyon for more, yo.

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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1 Response to Film reviews 49: “Elysium”, “What Maisie Knew”, “The Way, Way Back”, “Pain & Gain” and 10 others…

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

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