Film reviews 52: “Catching Fire”, “Frozen”, “Stories We Tell”, “Carrie”, “Trouble in Paradise” and 10 others…

trap for cinderella tuppence middleton 1

This month:  “Carrie”, “Fun Size”, “Frozen”, “Hawking”, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, “Olympus has Fallen”, “Populaire”, “Powder Room”, “The Purge”, “Stories We Tell”, “Thanks for Sharing”, “Trap for Cinderella” (pictured above), “Trouble in Paradise” and “Vendetta”.

You may think that advent calendar is exciting, but in two weeks is the Half a Canyon 2013 roundup – which changes nothing about your advent calendar. I’m so ironically excited that I can’t wait. For extra reading, you can find some things I wrote including something about the cats of some guy called Fellini, a guide to beating stress in some place called London, and an interview with some guy called Edgar Wright. Well, I am just some guy called Nick Chen Andalou.

The average rating is a record low of 4.3/10 with film of the month being Trouble in Paradise. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

Carrie (2013) – 4/10

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Stephen King (novel)
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday
“I’ve been hurt my whole life.”

carrie articleKimberly Peirce’s remake of Carrie has been overshadowed in the blogosphere by Spike Lee’s reboot of Oldboy. Every Oldboy news piece is unleashed like a ticking time bomb that, like Carrie White, could explode at any moment. Carrie on the other hand has barely caused a stir, mainly because the promotional images and videos lack any provocative edge. I long ago guessed Peirce’s version would just be a slightly glossier, less impactful version of Brian De Palma’s 1976 original. And that was an accurate prediction.

The main plot and themes are still intact. Shy teenager Carrie (now Chloë Grace Moretz) is bullied at school and has no friends – if she was in Mean Girls, no clique would accept her. At home, Carrie is locked up in a small room by her fanatically religious mother (Julianne Moore). The house doesn’t even have the internet – the ultimate timewaster and emotional crux for the permanently lonely. However, the same can’t be said for her classroom peers. In an early scene, Carrie experiences her period in the girls’ shower room; the unsympathetic response leads to chanting (“Plug it up!”) and a viral video that spreads to YouTube.

Modern technology is the most obvious addition, but is inconsequential. (My favourite example is stranger teaching Carrie how to watch an online video on full screen.) Carrie still goes to the prom and yes, that scene occurs. The alterations are smaller yet thematically significant, especially when Peirce is less willing to punish the innocent. That kind of “Hollywoodisation” is clear from Moretz’s casting; sticking Hit-Girl on posters might sell tickets, but works against the character’s timidity. Moretz could easily be mistaken for one of the cheerleaders, which makes Carrie strangely lopsided and more a marketing formula.

Why remake Carrie if there’s barely any difference? There isn’t even the subtitles excuse. And if that’s the case, then why review it at all? I suspect Carrie fans will be seduced by a game of “spot the difference” (it’s tempting to make this review a simple list of differences), but Peirce is presumably trying to introduced Carrie to a younger audience. (That would explain the proliferation of smartphones.)

The blood-filled climax subsequently becomes tamer: the nightmarish glow is gone, while Peirce edits the pinnacle moment like a pop music video. I half-expected the bucket of pig’s blood to be 50% watered down. Without De Palma’s trademark split screens, Peirce’s personal voice amounts to little more than a world where text messages are written in all caps.

If this Carrie was released without the baggage of the original, I’d be praising the supernatural twist on the coming-of-age story, and the underlying feminist theme. But I can’t rewrite history. Even Stephen King, the original author of Carrie, has questioned the remake. (Remember, this is the same Stephen King who remade The Shining long after Kubrick’s version.) Just as Let Me In (also starring Moretz) failed to replace Let the Right One In in viewers’ memory, Peirce’s Carrie will be forever forgotten – locked away inside a small room during prom night.

(2013) – 5/10

Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Writers: Jennifer Lee, Hans Christian Anderson (book)
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff
“Some people are worth melting for.”

frozenGet a Horse!, the short that precedes Frozen, sums up Disney’s attempt to combine old-fashioned warmness with newfound technology. Get a Horse! applies a gimmick of juxtaposing old Mickey Mouse with a world of 3D; characters fly off the screen, still under the Disney banner, so to an extent maintaining some authenticity. Frozen does the same by adding computer-generated beauty to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (even if loosely based, it retains a fairytale vibe). And animated snow is somehow more beautiful than real snow. The rest of the visuals are also sensational and take advantage of modern technology – it’s the modern storytelling that sets everything back.

Set in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa (Idina Menzel) is a princess born with the magical power of turning objects to ice, which turns out to be as dangerous as it sounds. She is effectively hidden away in a castle with her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell); as most Disney princesses find, life is lonely. Eventually, the sisters leave the palace for Elsa’s coronation, whereby opening the front doors becomes a homecoming. When Elsa’s icy powers are accidentally unleashed during an argument, she runs away, leaving a snowy path and a neverending winter for the locals.

Now, here’s where the story switches to Anna and a quest to find her sister. (Personally, I would have preferred a film about Elsa’s self-determined isolation, where music provides her only company. Maybe I should revisit Tangled.) Anna’s journey – which I should probably call an adventure – requires the aid of mountain expert Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a mute reindeer, and an anthropomorphic snowman. Oh, the snowman. His name is Olaf, he’s voiced by Josh Gad, he’s already all over the film’s marketing, and I wanted him to melt as soon as words came out of his weirdly shifting mouth.

Ice dominates Frozen, where barren whiteness is blurred in the frame’s corners. All hope is lost and strangely beautiful; every icicle and slippery slope is a solemn reminder of Elsa’s sadness taking place off-screen. But to dumb down the film is Olaf: deliberately ugly, unlike the rest of the animation, and full of cartoonish slapstick. To the writers’ credit, he dreams of eternal warmth, and is thus a supporter of his own personal tragedy.

Anna is a feisty and likeable lead, and makes far better viewing than a traditional prince marching through the snow. Kristen Bell’s vocal talents inevitably have a touch of Veronica Mars, and I see no reason why she couldn’t have been allowed more jokes – especially as it would make the snowman unnecessary. She’s also sidetracked by big musical numbers that don’t live up to expectation, particularly one with singing trolls. Some songs throughout adopt a half-spoken tone; jokes interrupt the rhythm, evoking a half-hearted self-awareness. The others I just found unmemorable.

There’s a smarter film somewhere in Frozen, one that can make full use of the glorious animation and melancholic snow. For viewers who aren’t swayed by the musical numbers or Olaf’s groan-worthy gags, the discernible lack of story is sadly noticeable. While the background is icily cool, the dialogue is mundane filler reminiscent of sludge.

Fun Size
(2012) – 1.5/10

Director: Josh Schwartz
Writer: Max Werner
Starring: Victoria Justice, Jane Levy
“I think it’s cool you don’t feel the need to dress sexy like some of the other girls.”

fun sizeThe posters for Bad Grandpa sent shudders done by not-eldery spine, not just from the Jackass part, but the kid actor. Much of Fun Size involves Victoria Justice looking after her wayward, obnoxious younger brother, yet the overall tone is a Nickelodeon version of Superbad – although I think Fun Size has more paedophile gags than any of Apatow’s productions.

The Halloween setting is partly an excuse for sexy costumes, but also to apply some relevancy – any relevancy, even if just from how calendars work. It’s exhausting: teenagers are saddled with jokes for five-year-olds and vice-versa.

(2013) – 4/10

Director: Stephen Finnigan
Writers: Ben Bowie, Stephen Finnigan, Stephen Hawking
“There was no privacy because the walls were listening to everything.”

stephen hawking jim carreyAdequate biography with little information the average viewer wouldn’t already know. Hawking’s narration is initially a strength as it provides introspection, but never delves too far below the surface that can’t be found on Wikipedia. When Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a talking head, my eyes were firmly on the watch of the person sat next to me. (I don’t own a watch.)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
(2013) – 5/10

Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
“Remember who the real enemy is.”

the hunger games catching fireWith the middle book, Catching Fire is locked into a very long exercise of repeating the first film, while teasing the next two instalments. Over 146 minutes, there aren’t that many changes. The main development, as made very clear from posters, fighters are now aware they’re grappling with a larger system, rather than each other. (If you negatively comment on my reviews, remember who the real enemy is.) The other addition is old people who enter the arena – if children killing each other isn’t shocking enough, then here’s an old woman walking headfirst into some sort of deathly smog.

Any analysis of the political system is welcome, even if it’s overshadowed by replicated satire of media coverage. Jennifer Lawrence is still excellent, and even granted a few reaction shots in the edit, as if preparing ahead for a montage. She has new competition from Jena Malone, who’s allowed a sense of humour, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a guy who walked on from another film set. Otherwise, casual fans might not notice the difference.

Olympus Has Fallen
(2013) – 2/10

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett
“Olympus has fallen. Olympus has fallen. Olympus has fallen. Fuck you.”

olympus has fallenThis disaster film’s Wikipedia page begins with a warning: “Not to be confused with White House Down.” It’s not an original concept, but at least it’s fun, knowingly stupid and has some kickass moments? Well, no. Hollywood hypes up the xenophobia with North Korean (as the villains, obviously) taking over the White House, while Melissa Leo sings her national anthem.

The cliches are rolled out every few minutes (child in danger etc) and it’s deeply unpleasant; a fantasy about seeking a reason for revenge. Butler is committed in his role of shouting loudly enough in the hope decibels will wake up the sleepy crew. But it’s no Die Hard, in that there’s no reason to care about his methods or safety. That’s one action film no one will ever confuse with this.

(2013) – 3.5/10

Director: Régis Roinsard
Writers: Romain Compingt, Daniel Presley, Régis Roinsard
Starring: Romain Duris, Déborah François
“At first I liked it. It allowed me to stop thinking.”

populaireThe posters promised Mad Men and The Artist. Neither is apparent. Set a few decades ago, the retro direction is more akin to a perfume advert with nothing to sell. François plays a secretary who’s coached by her boss and entered into speed-typing competitions. There’s cutesy comedy (she is a klutz when the timing is convenient), outdated politics and no Don Draper.

After a lingerie advert, the love story is overshadowed by the actually typing – these action sequences are as dull as they sound (and they sound like someone typing). Of course, Populaire is more of a romance: the central pair fall in love without realising it, possibly because their conversations are so trite and shallow.

Powder Room
(2013) – 3.5/10

Director: M.J. Delaney
Writer: Rachel Hirons
Starring: Sheridan Smith, Jaime Winstone, Kate Nash
“Every day I get Facebook status updates from friends I once knew, guys I fucked.”

powder room“It went a bit Adele,” remarks one woman in a London nightclub’s toilets, where almost the entirety of Powder Room takes place. M.J. Delaney directs the film that, aside from some animated flourishes, seems very much to be a stageplay brought to screen – which it is, originally by Rachel Hirons and titled When Women Wee. The setting is one of either mystique or familiarity, depending upon the viewer’s gender. It also explains why women go to the toilets in groups: to learn life lessons.

The two standout scenes are during the opening and closing credits, with neither having much relation to the filler in between. A small river of urine is what the audience first sees, dripping down a road outside a nightclub queue, which is an apt introduction: here’s a slinking story that won’t shy from the familiar griminess of staying out later than the last tube.

Sheridan Smith takes the lead as Sam, who’s heading not only for a dance floor, but also a midlife crisis. Sam is reuniting with her old friend Michelle (Kate Nash) who’s now hip, fashionable and might as well be having Kate Nash’s career. In return, Sam pretends to be a number of things (a lawyer, happy, etc) while hiding her friendship with the three pissed-up ladettes (Jaime Winstone, Riann Steele, Sarah Hoare) also out on the razz.

Sam can nod along to Michelle’s disdain for the trio, without letting on the truth, because of ladies’ room architecture: revolving doors and cubicles allow the facade to continue far beyond plausibility. That’s not a criticism, as Powder Room is about the vignettes of conversation and drunken philosophy dished out by a hand-dryer. The problem is the lack of depth, despite the opportunities and Shakespearian structure (there’s a watchful toilet attendant, and the plot is surprisingly redolent of Shakespeare’s comedies).

In opting for light humour, the kitchen sink is left untouched by anything other than vomit. The jokes range from MDMA adventures and Sam’s unconvincing lies, only to be interrupted by heavy-handed monologues about “life” and all it encompasses (mostly careers and relationships). The thin writing is exposed over 86 minutes. Powder Room is probably more suited to a 30-minute sitcom, or divided like Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth.

A nightclub is not an ideal place for conversation. Powder Room includes the distorted bass that pounds into toilets, the sounds of piss, drunken slurs and noisy flushes. The novelty wears off quickly and lacks the edge initially promised, which in a way makes the film a bit “Adele” in itself, and rather like spending a long time in the company of strangers pretending to be drunk.

The Purge
(2013) – 5/10

Director/Writer: James DeMonaco
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey
“We’re going to play the rest of this night out in motherfucking peace.”

the purgeThe smart concept (by which I mean as a plot device, rather than something to be implemented in real life) finds the year 2022 solving the problem of crime and unemployment: set aside 12 hours a year for “The Purge”. During that period, all crimes are allowed, to remove antisocial behaviour from the system.

Luckily, the film’s not shy about pointing out that the whole setup is also antisocial; it’s hinted that the poorest are hunted and killed during “The Purge”, while white, middle-class families can afford to protect their homes.

Any further insight is compounded by the drama spending too much time dealing with typical home-invasion genre expectations. One family take a stranger in for protection, but find themselves under threat from a masked mob, who presumably use the amnesty to shoplift V For Vendetta.

Ridiculous turns follow each other, although it’s hard to blame DeMonaco – the plot was never going to be logical. At least, I found fun because I guessed (and read from early reviews) that everything would fall apart. It’s implausible enough that at one point I think Hawke uses a snooker ball to defeat an intruder holding a gun. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) In the short running time, there’s little chance of boredom – but I wouldn’t rule out frustration.

Stories We Tell
(2013) – 6.5/10

Director/Writer: Sarah Polley
“Who fucking cares about our stupid family?”

stories we tellStories aren’t formulated until someone tries to tell them to someone else – or so says the introduction to Sarah Polley’s tender documentary about her parents. Its early placement is a bit of an excuse for the whole premise which began as an exercise akin to eavesdropping on a family in the same train carriage.

Polley’s subjects are her relatives who speak too openly to be considered a talking head; really, they’re one-sided conversations, considering how often they address Polley herself. Archive footage is integrated expertly, with woven musical cues and snappy editing. It’s not exactly a mystery like Searching for Sugarman, but it’s still worth avoiding spoilers.

There are flaws (Polley admitting this doesn’t excuse it) and the above quotation holds some truth. Even with multiple sources, Polley edits the story she wants – even dictating how her father reads his account. But that personal take is the film’s heart, one of self-discovery and, more importantly, self-denial. I suspect there’s a more honest version locked away in an editing suite.

Thanks for Sharing
(2013) – 5/10

Director: Stuart Blumberg
Writers: Stuart Blumberg, Matt Winston
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad Gwyneth Paltrow, Alecia Moore (aka Pink)
“I’ve lost control of myself.”

thanks for sharingThere isn’t a long lineage of sex addiction dramas. There’s Choke and Shame, sure, but Thanks for Sharing is drastically lighter. Unlike the histrionics of Shame, Stuart Blumberg uses Thanks for Sharing to address the illness in a more relatable manner – which, as a compromise, means a romantic comedy and string of predictable twists.

The screenplay staunchly supports the 12-step programme – both in practice and as a plot device that connects the three protagonists. Mark Ruffalo is a recovering sex addict who’s been sober for five years, even disposing his laptop and TV to hide temptations; he starts a relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow, a cancer survivor unaware of his past.

Ruffalo’s sponsor, Tim Robbins, is less interesting as an older family man with a household of cliched storylines that belong to Neighbours. It’s actually at times a distraction – the minimal screen time with his son is another relationship thrown in that distracts from the overall themes.

The third addict is Josh Gad, a chronic masturbator with a storyline that at first bears the most dramatic weight. He’s kicked out of medical school for filming up a colleague’s skirt, and is understandably destitute when his career path subsequently hits a cul-de-sac – Gad finally admits he has a problem, and starts to take taxis and bike rides instead of public subways. His struggle then turns loosely comic, placing more emphasis on his ludicrous cycling costume than an internal battle with desire.

That soft edge is present in Ruffalo’s and Robbins’ threads, which both concede to generic relationship dramas. The plots cross over meticulously in a staggeringly contrived manner – in times of emergency, it seems their phones only have each other’s numbers. Similarly, the comedy is frequently limp, with Gad pursuing the unfortunate trend of referencing a film (“Okay, this isn’t Il Postine”) in place of an actual joke.

It’s a shame (no Michael Fassbender pun intended) because Thanks for Sharing, for all its faults, still treats the subject matter with respect. Even when the screenplay lunges for laughs, the characters remain focused on the 12-step programme – and you want them to succeed. A crowd pleaser, sure, but also a missed opportunity.

Trouble in Paradise
(1932) – 8.5/10

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Samson Raphaelson, Grover Jones, Ernst Lubitsch, Aladar Laszio (play)
Starring: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis
“This is real. Money. Cash.”

trouble in paradiseAfter last month’s dismantling of Lubitsch’s Design for Living, here’s how it’s done. The 82-minute running time of Trouble in Paradise crams in character introductions and revelations so efficiently, little time is spent dillydallying on the eventual love triangle. Two thieves (Lily and Gaston) intertwine, fall in love, and steal from the rich together – by dressing up and blending in with wealthy company. Marshall becomes close with one in particular: Madame Mariette Colet, a perfume designer played by Francis. Gaston’s feelings towards Mariette conflict with the plan to steal her money, his relationship, his inner crook; to Lily, he’s turning into one of them. But Mariette is too smart and alluring to be just one of them.

Trouble in Paradise emulates its title by shooting in Venice and Paris, two cities listed under the Wikipedia “list of paradises” page. The glitz is satirised as superfluous, with currency split amongst the kind of dopes in 1930s/1940s comedies never in on the joke The sharp script is finely tuned with hilarious one-liners, but not too many – Lubitsch isn’t making a screwball comedy, even if the plot suggests otherwise. The humour is also raunchier than other black-and-white comedies it might be associated with. For example, The Lady Eve – Preston Sturge’s classic that also stars a thief disguised as a wealthy sociality – seems tame in comparison, given Mariette’s remarks about spanking (“…in a business way, of course”) and numerous bedroom references.

The film seems to have it all, if not in abundance, than in compression. Romance – both the old-fashioned and cynical kind – rush from character to character, even in the furniture. The sets are designed for decadent celebrations, so even a career criminal is sucked into the romance. In fact, the early set-up is just that: Lily and Gaston can steal from anyone, even each other, and so steal each other’s heart. He has his head turned by Mariette’s emanating sense of fun without losing any sentimentality or scepticism. When anyone talks about the romance of Bonnie and Clyde, they should defer to Trouble in Paradise.

Trap for Cinderella
(2013) – 5.5/10

Director: Iain Softley
Writers: Iain Softley, Sébastien Japrisot (novel)
Starring: Tuppence Middleton, Alexandra Roach, Kerry Fox, Aneurin Barnard
“The sun, it knocked me out.”

trap for cinderella tuppence middleton 2It’s not exactly a poster quote, but Trap for Cinderella leaves the dumb plot twists far too late on to stop watching. Well, the dumber plot twists. The schlocky story entails amnesia, mystery and sunbathing; if it wasn’t for the gratuitous nudity, it could be an episode of Neighbours. Trashy fun, even though it’ll exit your memory as it does for the protagonist.

(2013) – 1.5/10

Director/Writer: Stephen Reynolds
Starring: Danny Dyer, Roxanne McKee, Vincent Regan
“There is a time I would have bled to keep the red in the Union Jack. Now we have a generation of offenders we don’t know what to do about.”

vendettaThere was an ominous vibe throughout the press screening of Vendetta. Danny Dyer was scheduled for a Q&A afterwards, but cancelled 10 minutes before the film started. The awkward silence throughout the violent drama was one of perplexed fantasy: how on earth could anyone defend Vendetta?

The advantage Vendetta has over some of Dyer’s other recent critical disasters (such as Run for Your Wife) is that now I’m terrified of him. Dyer is disturbingly convincing as Jimmy Vickers, a sociopath who tracks down and murders a number of hooded youths. Although that’s not to say Dyer delivers a worthy performance; his line delivery is as blank as his eyes, and it’s almost comical when stewing bitterness bursts out into martial arts.

Jimmy’s motivation is initially revenge. The soldier returns from Afghanistan to discover his parents were murdered, and turns into a broody vigilante. If this sounds like Batman, it isn’t. Instead, the screenplay finds a rightwing twist. “There is a time I would have bled to keep the red in the Union Jack,” he growls. “Now we have a generation of offenders we don’t know what to do about.”

Vendetta attempts to create inventive death scenes, but they’re surprisingly stale – an example is pouring cement down someone’s mouth. There’s a sense that filming was rushed, especially when the camera is sometimes unable to fit someone within a frame; at one point, the cameraperson is unsure if it’s more important to feature the top of a policeman or his shoes, and alters between the two.

Jimmy finds defenders in his film – he supposedly prevented the next 7/7 by killing the terrorists before the plan was hatched. The idea is that the likes of Jimmy should be allowed to patrol the streets, as his experience with the Taliban can sort out the youth. A political slogan is disguised as conversation: “Slow justice is better than no justice.” Unlike most antiheroes, here’s one devoid of any charisma.

I could be wrong, and maybe Vendetta is self-aware. Maybe it doesn’t want viewers to find solace in Jimmy’s bloody crusade. But then again, self-awareness is probably absent from a screenplay that features lines about how orders can be carried out “…before you can say Katie Price is a virgin.”

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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5 Responses to Film reviews 52: “Catching Fire”, “Frozen”, “Stories We Tell”, “Carrie”, “Trouble in Paradise” and 10 others…

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