This month: “August: Osage County”, “Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012”, “Dallas Buyers Club”, “The English Teacher”, “The Girl in the Park”, “Godzilla”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Grudge Match”, “Her”, “The Lego Movie”, “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (pictured above), “Nymphomaniac Volumes 1&2”, “Pootie Tang”, “Shoot the Piano Player”, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They”, “Thief”, “Tomorrow Night” and “Yurusarezaru Mono”.
It’s been a while since my last blog post, but I’ve been writing about film elsewhere. Feel free to check out some of those articles, including Wes Anderson’s debt to Ernst Lubitsch, 10 directors with bizarre jobs you’d never expect, David Gordon Green’s unpredictable career, Lars von Trier’s suffering female characters, and an interview with Lee Sang-il.
The average rating is 5.69/10 with film of the month being They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
August: Osage County (2014) – 4/10
Director: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch
“There’s a lot of fish in the sea. Surely you can rule out the one man in the world you’re related to?”
Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012 (2014) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Sebastián Silva
Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman
“I’m going to go hang out with those rocks. I’ll see you guys later.”
Crystal Fairy was shot in a week when production on Magic Magic was postponed. The spontaneity is evident with the roaming camera and improvised dialogue matching a ramshackle film title, while maintaining a looseness never descending into the quirkfest almost implied by that ramshackle film title.
The vague plot is essentially just Cera and his friends visiting a beach to eat a cactus. It’s as chaotic and annoying as the full title’s mixed punctuation suggests. The undercurrent is unwanted passenger Crystal Fairy, a hippie who hands out special pebbles; she’s frequently at odds with Cera’s fastidiousness, forging a relationship based on petty arguments and mutual whatever-ness.
Some viewers might be put off by the unplanned elements (even as a fan, I can’t say I’ll be revisiting it any time soon). Others will hitch onto the psychedelic adventure that is more than just watching a bunch of people take drugs. Aside from a horribly contrived monologue near the end, the characters subtly shift dynamics without obvious catalysts. By comparing relationships at the start with the end, the evolution feels deserved – and, most crucially, as natural as a magic cactus.
Dallas Buyers Club (2014) – 6/10
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
“The only people AZT helps is the people who sell it; kills every cell that comes in contact with it.”
The English Teacher (2013) – 3/10
Director: Craig Zisk
Writers: Dan Chariton, Stacy Chariton
Starring: Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Lily Collins, Greg Kinnear
“What kind of teacher are you?”
A comically clumsy one, judging by the number of times Julianne Moore falls over. She may be an English teacher, but her main focus is the dramatic side – she enlists a play by a former student to form the school’s main production. That means a return for Angarano as a New York playwriting school dropout, leading to an intensely creepy love triangle involving a current student played by Lily Collins. (For extra entertainment, remember that Kinnear was Collins’ father in Stuck in Love.)
I caught The English Teacher on satellite TV (it didn’t hit UK cinemas) and can’t imagine it any other way. From the mild-mannered slapstick to smoothly generic happy twists, it’s as if Zisk decided early on a lack of ambition would steer his film into production and safely into the homes of ambivalent viewers flicking through the channels.
Even the farcical plot of The English Teacher ceases from too many complications, whether through dark abuses of trust, or escalating the set-pieces. The play within the film is deemed too dark for a school production, and is thus butchered into something that will abide with conservative parents. I imagine something similar happened in Zisk’s preparation.
The Girl in the Park (2007) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: David Auburn
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Kate Bosworth, Elias Koteeas, Keri Russell
“Do you understand what you’re doing here? No, no – where do you think you’re going?!”
Not a girl, but the girl. Weaver plays a mother whose 3-year-old is kidnapped from a playground. 16 years later, she spots Bosworth – could this dysfunctional shoplifter be her daughter? Well, no. Not even Weaver truly believes it. But the fantasy is intermittently beneficial for all involved; Weaver becomes a mother, Bosworth finds warmth and shelter. The tuts comes from everyone on the outside, disapproving of the situation’s falseness, and also the film’s cul-de-sac. At least those tuts rhythmically tick along to a psychological time bomb.
Godzilla (1998) – 3/10
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria
“They’re going after the nest!”
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody
“Don’t flirt with her.”
This was dope. I think that’s a review. I wrote a feature about how Lubtisch’s fingerprints all over it. Because of “the Lubitsch touch”. Geddit?
Grudge Match (2014) – 3/10
Director: Peter Segal
Writers: Doug Ellin, Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger
“Maybe I believe you ate my trainer.”
Maybe you saw De Niro and Stallone limping from TV show to TV show, lifelessly promoting Grudge Match. It turns out the film isn’t that different. The two former acting champs play two former boxing champs who plan a grudge match, which inevitably occurs; before that, the pair lifelessly promoting the grudge match. Life imitates art – except co-written by the creator of Entourage.
Her (2014) – 9/10
Director/Writer: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde
Theodore: “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer.”
Samantha: “You’re not. You’re having it with me.”
Spike Jonze’s under-seen I’m Here boasted a surprising level of pathos beneath its gimmick of protagonist robots. It becomes apparent that sadness is universal; machines can correlate with humans purely in terms of social perceptions and slotted emotions. That slant is carried on to Her, also written and directed by Jonze, whereupon an advanced iPhone app can satisfy that need for human comfort – not by replacing a companion, but by sharing the user’s depression.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is the main case study for how an OS (operating system) can work in an acceptable way, rather like how online dating is slowly creeping into our social awareness, one Guardian article at a time. He may be a lonely single man who lives on his own playing computer games, but he’s also still recovering from a breakup with an ex-wife (Rooney Mara).
With a fancy flat and presumably healthy income, Theordore’s career also involves writing love letters on behalf of customers, suggesting he is a gifted manipulator. After sabotaging a date (with Olivia Wilde), he develops an intimate bond with his mobile phone’s operating system: she’s called Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and is always a PIN code away. There’s no physical presence (and not even an image on the phone), but Johansson’s lively tone is too warm to truly feel like an intricate computer programme. “I’m yours,” she admits, “but not yours.” Well, if the software numbs the pain, why question it?
The concept bears believability by tapping into human insecurities, rather than technological possibilities. By not dating itself, Samantha represents the medium as a whole – not just Facebook and Twitter, but the next products in the social media factory. Jonze pulls this off with direction that’s more restrained than his music videos or past features. In fact, the most evocative instance comes from a blacked out screen during an intimate moment; with just Samantha’s voice, the viewer is more startled than by any Hollywood sex scene.
Theodore’s sparse home is without clutter, much like his workplace that takes the cubicle layout even further with colourisation redolent of computer folders. Theodore doesn’t have DVDs and books across his floor, and it’s likely he’s compressed his possessions into data. The outdoor streets are similarly clean and ordered, like stepping onto someone else’s desktop. Samantha is an extension of that – and she’s probably programmed to never mention this uncomfortable truth.
It’s a testament to Her that the viewer shares Theodore’s discomfort when his unconventional relationship is challenged, whether the practical issues of double-dating, or a failed experiment with a human stand-in. In a parallel role, Amy (Amy Adams) runs through a similar trajectory from breakup to befriending an OS, and corroborates the software, just like the other mobile phone owners conversing with their own Samanthas.
Amy embodies a Greek chorus, as she witnesses Theodore’s progression from the outside. Eventually, she concedes that love is a “socially accepted insanity”, which is the area occupied by Samantha. Notably, Amy films her mother sleeping under the argument that people are at their most free when asleep. By shutting himself out from social obligations, Theodore finds a liberating comfort – one that takes a second to admire 86 of his old LA Weekly emails. (Compare this with Wilde’s out-of-nowhere ascertation: “You’re a really creepy guy.”
Theodore admits his marriage was largely started by the pair reading each other’s writing – a passing comment that explains much of how his psyche works; Samantha is a safe audience who creates the illusion that ever word or thought can have an audience, even if it’s computer-generated and sitting in your pocket. Jonze’s moving film examines to what extent love is built upon a similar agreement, and how maybe it could work if everyone else just accepts digital love in everyday life. Samantha may be programmed, but she really means it when she claims, “I’m becoming much more than what they programmed. It’s so exciting.”
The Lego Movie (2014) – 4/10
Directors/Writers: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks
“No, let me handle it: that is literally ‘The Worst.’”
If Transformers faces criticism as a cheap ploy for selling toys, then The Lego Movie deserves at least some consideration as an extended advert. It helps that Lord and Miller (who wrote the surprisingly amusing 21 Jump Street) earn some goodwill by being two people who aren’t Michael Bay, and indeed The Lego Movie isn’t as crass as Transformers.
But the pre-release excitement is disturbingly redolent of the Toy Story 3 ending. Although it applies for most adults, it’s safe to assume the typical film critic is proud of owning a childhood Lego set as an indirect badge of creativity. The Lego Movie burrows into a similar space with a plot about throwing away instruction booklets and fashioning plastic bricks to invent architecture of the imagination (that is actually pre-determined by the manufacturers).
In other words, I’m trying to unravel the non-stop praise for The Lego Movie, spilling out into 5-star reviews like an ugly splurge of stop animation. The animation is very impressive, sure, and maintains a charming DIY aspect that to an extent covers up the millions backing up every plastic piece. But the sequences are indistinguishable from the kind of children’s toy advert most adults skip over on TV.
Is there any excitement over spotting Batman and Milhouse in Lego form? Maybe if you spend £30 on miniature Lego sets. The jokes are firmly the kind that will hold up The Lego Movie as an example of diminishing returns – unless you expect it to still be funny in 10 years time to call things “the worst” or throw in “lol random” unicorns whenever necessary. In fact, much of the humour is interchangeable with the far less fashionable Madagascar 3. In other words, I’m firmly on the side of Will Ferrell’s character.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) – 8.5/10
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Howard Koch, Max Ophüls, Stefan Zweig (story story)
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan
“Although you didn’t know it, you were giving me some of the happiest hours of my life.”
Maybe it’s the effect of watching a black-and-white film 66 years later, but Letter from an Unknown Woman is deeply tied in with time. Indeed, the central storyline is a woman falling in love with a pianist and the musicality of his playing – the rhythm seeping into her childhood affections, bedding down like a melody that won’t escape.
The unknown woman of the title is Lisa (Fontaine), whose innocent crush is portrayed as tragic, and not just a naive obsession. Told in flashback, the elder Lisa recalls the missed opportunity of a lifetime – better defined as a lifetime of missed opportunities. The man she admires, Stefan (Jourdan), fails to recognise her affections, in the same way pianists often fail to recognise the guitar is a superior instrument.
Lisa is always aware of the time in an acute matter rarely present in romantic dramas. More than once does she wave goodbye to someone on a platform, noting that two weeks await before she’ll see that person again. When the letter reverses, the film shifts protagonists. The weight of time collapses with the envelope – she would have given her life to him, and he didn’t even notice.
Nymphomaniac (2014) – 9/10
Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell
“I sucked him off as a sort of apology.”
Just as every Lars von Trier film is followed by a fraught discussion, Nymph()maniac reviews must be preceded by a disclaimer: I didn’t catch the uncut version, and only saw the measly four-hour version while sat front row in a Brixton cinema. And yes, I was annoyed at having to buy a separate ticket for each volume.
Luckily, Nymph()maniac is a dizzying omelette of ideas that, like Fibonacci numbers, keep building upon each other. Veering between painfully funny and just painful, here is a classic von Trier film (feel free to read my retrospective on von Trier’s suffering female characters) with frequent digressions that essentially serve as von Trier arguing with von Trier about von Trier. Oh, Lars…
The meta-commentary comes from much of the film being told in flashback. Joe (Gainsbourg) is a bruised woman lying face down in the street. She’s taken in by a stranger, Seligman (Skarsgård), and they gently debate whether there’s such a thing as a “bad human being”. Joe is a sex addict ashamed of her past; Seligman is a 50-year-old virgin. Her stories are distorted by admissions of guilt, whereas he interjects – usually for an absurd punch line – to either naturalise her escapades or paint her toils as female empowerment.
In other words, Seligman is a voice piece for von Trier defending Nymph()maniac. He asserts that anti-Zionists aren’t anti-Semites (directly referencing that Cannes incident), and informs Joe her anecdotes are radical because she’s a woman (von Trier congratulating his own screenwriting). What the Danish filmmaker calls “digressionism” is more akin to a director’s commentary – he’s found a way to get past his self-inflicted ban on media appearances. (But Lars, I will interview you if you’re ever passing through London…)
Joe’s narration is divided into eight chronological chapters, with the first few devoted to Joe’s sexual awakening. Played by Stacy Martin, the young protagonist is involved with laugh-out-loud set pieces and more of Shia LaBeouf’s tongue that I was hoping for. Martin’s Joe struts in the red shorts from Breaking the Waves, blows strangers on a train, and secretly masturbates in public. What stops her from becoming a one-dimensional male fantasy are the digressions. Gainsbourg’s Joe is clear her regrets aren’t about the sex itself, and Seligman notes her promiscuity isn’t dissimilar from fly-fishing, cantus firmus, and whatever is lying around on the bookshelf.
Sex is mathematics and vice versa. Von Trier approaches female suffering like a scientist adding misery with a pipette, trying to find the right dosage that will appal audiences and draw in critics. As Seligman keeps pointing out, Joe’s sex life is unwittingly controlled by mathematics. Even her unfortunate affair with Jerôme (LaBeouf) is dominated by numbers – his coincidental appearances suggest love is the only force that breaks down logic. Three thrusts in the front, five thrusts round the back, and an unidentifiable accent to boot.
The two standout scenes also play on numbers. Chapter 5: The Little Organ School had my crying with laughter, as did Uma Thurman’s cameo in a comically melodramatic example of what happens when romantic equations stop calculating correctly.
The meaning of these comedic episodes takes a while to sink in, despite Seligman’s persistent philosophising and a sombre chapter devoted to Joe’s father (Christian Slater). Joe learns that human personalities are shaped like jagged trees; the traumas and lessons leave indents. When she grows up (by which I mean Stacy Martin evolves into Charlotte Gainsbourg), new ideas splurge all over the screen. Whereas something like The Idiots would be a single idea devoted to a film (albeit with impressive commitment), contentious grenades are thrown everywhere. For instance, not only does Joe congratulate a paedophile for resisting his urges, she rewards him with a blowjob. Even if you’re sickened, you can’t call Nymph()maniac boring. (Unless if you’re one of the people at my screening who did just that and didn’t stick around very long.)
Even at four hours long, I could have sat through more. When I first saw the trailer, the blaring Rammstein reminded me of the opening of Lilja 4-ever. Except Moodysson is a notoriously sincere Christian, whereas Lars is the prankster who will die with a Wikipedia page to admire. I said earlier, Nymph()maniac is von Trier discussing and defending von Trier, with direct nods to Melancholia, Antichrist and Breaking the Waves thrown in. (I was waiting for Joe to eat her cardigan.) No one else could have made it – or even dared something so outrageous. Five thrusts of hilarity, three thrusts of depression, and a polyphony of ideas; it turns out Fibonacci numbers also apply to cinema.
Pootie Tang (2001) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Louis CK
Starring: Lance Crouther, JB Smoove, Jennifer Coolidge, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock
“Some woman’s gonna kick your ass and love you to death. And then you’re gonna be lying in the dumpster, banged to death by the dark side of love. And on that day, Pootie, I’m gonna be there. And I’m gonna make sweet love to you.”
Shoot the Piano Player (1960) – 3.5/10
Original title: Tirez sur le pianiste
Director: François Truffaut
Writers: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy, David Goodis (book)
Starring: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Albert Rémy
“Lost in the night, you can’t stop the shadows from coming in. It gets darker and darker.”
Unfairly positioned between The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, Truffaut’s second film is forgotten in more impressive company. Shoot the Piano Player is a peculiar amalgamation of comedy, crime and drama, but never at the same time. The clip show effect is disjointed and each section suffers, particularly the slapstick. Occasionally there’s a hint of poetry (“She’s no fool; she knows silence and romance go hand in hand…”) or a cinematic excursion (usually in a driving scene), but the bigger picture is a butchered arpeggio.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) – 9.5/10
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: Robert E. Thompson, James Poe, Horace McCoy (novel)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young
“I thought you’d put it on display. Charge a little extra.”
I’m still unsure as to how real dance marathons were, or if they still take place. They appear in Pollack’s gloomy Depression-set drama like a fantastical metaphor not too dissimilar from The Hunger Games. The contest places couple in an arena in front of a braying crowd, dancing for days and weeks on end, while an emcee openly mocks the contestants and creates a false drama. And why sweat through this public humiliation? The last couple standing share a $1,500 jackpot.
Set in 1932, desperation fuels participants – they receive free food, hot showers, and the chance to advertise star potential. Yes, even a 1969 film (based on a 1935 novel) could foresee the tragic nature of celebrity reality TV shows. Gloria (Fonda) is one example: a frustrated actress who appears to have given up. She is inadvertently matched with a stranger, Robert (Sarrazin), who happens to be a failed director. It makes sense that together they can collapse in tandem.
Like a withered horse, Gloria wonders if her best days are over – and if so, what did she accomplish? She’s practically a warning for more optimistic actresses, with one being Alice (York), who by definition proves to be delusional. Even the contestants without speaking roles are forlorn; their participation in such a contest speaks louder than the band crudely bashing out party tunes and swoon songs during the exhibitions.
If the marathon isn’t already clearly a metaphor for America, there’s also a pregnant woman taking part because she’s out of ideas. Eventually reduced to uniforms for gruelling speed races, the more surreal elements eke out, spinning in circles. It’s certainly the kind of film that could only take place before the age of the camera phone, given how much of the desperation is based on wanting to forget the weeks-long event is even taking place.
Fonda’s presence dominates the drama, even when she’s not the focus of attention. With magnetic charisma, she embodies everything: the existential misery of being locked to a dance floor, chasing the most fucked up version of the American dream. Gloria’s faux-romance with Robert is equally alluring, given its stoic refusal to adhere to Hollywood practices – even when the emcee insists such fake entertainment can lift everyone’s spirits.
The pair’s stubbornness – even after temporarily splitting up, even after weeks of being a waltzing laughing stock – is a grasp at dignity done in the most resigned manner: wanting to die. Instead of waiting for a broken leg, it seems some horses and humans would rather take a stumble in order to speed up the process.
Thief (1981) – 5/10
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Michael Mann, Frank Hohimer (novel)
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson
“What are you doing in your life that is so terrific?”
Tomorrow Night (1998) – 3.5/10
Director/Writer: Louis CK
Starring: Chuck Sklar, Martha Greenhouse, JB Smoove
“Oh, you say she hasn’t written back to you? Maybe she doesn’t love you.”
Yurusarezaru Mono (2014) – 7/10
Director: Lee Sang-il
Writers: Lee Sang-il, David Webb Peoples
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kōichi Satō, Akira Emoto
“Who’s got the guts to deal with guns in a sword fight nowadays?”
Also known as the Japanese remake of Unforgiven. This version has snow. I interviewed the director.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.