This month: “Au revoir les enfants”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, “Don Jon”, “Eyes Without a Face” (pictured above), “The Game”, “Get Low”, “I Know Where I’m Going!”, “Laurence Anyways”, “The Long Day Closes”, “The Machine”, “Muppets Most Wanted”, “My Dinner with Andre”, “My Stuff”, “Naked”, “Noah”, “Plot for Peace”, “Rubberneck”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Veronica Mars”.
Seeing as this is my blog, I thought I’d link you to some articles I’ve written for other publications (because other publications do exist). These includes features on: when directors and critics don’t get along; 10 great video clips of filmmakers interviewing filmmakers; the best punch-ups between filmmakers and studios; in search of the real Steven Soderbergh.
This month, the average rating is 5.63/10 with film of the month being Eyes Without a Face. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Au revoir les enfants (1987) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Louis Malle
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Francine Racette
“It’s an A#. Can’t you hear when you hit a wrong note?”
That line – taken from a piano lesson – is one of many subtle touches in Malle’s coming-of-age drama set in a French boarding school for boys at the end of World War II. When 12-year-old Julien amiably plays incorrect notes, his piano teacher is bemused: why is he reluctantly taking lessons? Julien explains that it’s his mother’s choice. Similarly, Julien hates the school – not so much the school itself, but being away from his parents. He just goes about his days, failing to spot the awkward notes away from the piano, such as the small clues left behind by Jean, his secretly Jewish friend.
Jean Bonnet turns out to be Jean Kippelstein. The viewer recognises why he’s hidden away during inspections, why he refuses paté, why his parents won’t visit, and why he’s permanently on edge. Julien is less knowledgeable: his childlike innocence makes Jean’s plight seem even more absurd. For instance, not only does he not understand why the Jews are in trouble, he can’t even differentiate them with the other boys at school. “Am I Jewish?” he asks his mother.
The drama goes through everyday life of a boarding school and, for the most part, avoids major set-pieces. Instead, Malle finds more tension and intrigue in the smaller worries, such as Julien repeatedly wetting the bed, or when the pair get lost in the woods. Both moments are traumatic, yet are nothing in comparison to the lurking danger. The final expression of Julien’s face I can only assume is a reference to The 400 Blows, finding a snapshot of realisation. When he asks Jean if he is scared, the minimal response is deafening: “All the time.”
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – 7/10
Director: Frank Oz
Writers: Paul Henning, Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro
Starring: Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headly
Two con men do their thing. More charming than funny. Reminiscent of classic 1940s screwball like Lubitsch and Sturges. I even checked that it wasn’t a remake. Turns out it sort of is (but from a 1959 flick). Too tired to write a full review.
Don Jon (2013) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
“I didn’t hurt anybody, but… yeah… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Er, also, I watched pornographic movies and masturbated 35 times. For this, and all the sins in my life, I am sorry.”
In the months leading up to Don Jon’s Sundance premiere, the flimsy comedy was titled Don Jon’s Addiction and assumed to be a dark take on pornographic addiction. But changing the name was Levitt’s admission that his film is more of a harmless comedy. In other words, although he didn’t express it this way, there’s not enough substance to earn the “Addiction” in the title.
Despite the “18” certificate and smattering of hardcore clips, Don Jon is surprisingly softer than even Thanks for Sharing when portraying porn addiction. This is partly as Levitt’s script is very, very keen to remind the viewer that someone with the body of Levitt has little trouble picking up ladies – a point mentioned repeatedly by jealous “bros”, flabbergasted women in clubs, and pretty much everyone. Instead, the focus is on why someone would use pornography when his biceps hold hypnotic powers. Rather than dirty videos ruining his life, the less dramatic question is: why bother?
Jon is an exaggerated jerk, played with tremendous condescension by Levitt; he wears vest because shirts can’t contain his muscles, and he never leaves the club alone. Yes, he is nicknamed “Don Jon”. But he meets the nauseatingly named Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde bombshell who won’t concede to a one-night stand. She is, as Jon’s friends crudely put it, the kind who requires dinner, lunch and coffee at the very least.
Barbara is revealed to be a misogynist’s idea of a woman who wants life to be a lame romantic comedy like (500) Days of Summer, and objects to her boyfriend watching pornography. It’s not quite a battle of the sexes. Instead, it’s a middle-ground where Jon pretends to enjoy her company, and in return denies browsing any dirty websites.
If Barbara seems like a stereotypically shrill character, it’s because that’s the way she’s written. There are no other defining aspects. Behind the curtain is a flick through her Facebook profile pictures that reveals all the script cares about. Even Jon’s parents follow a similar pattern: his father (Danza) is charismatic and comedic, whereas his mother (Headly) just nags. The small role of Larson as Jon’s sister is even more peculiar, as her only piece of dialogue is to be a translator for women.
The only person of interest is Esther (Moore), an older woman who Jon finds crying on some steps. She contains emotional depth and, unlike Barbara, a personality – but one inherited from the male relatives of her life dying. She also signifies a dying woman in Levitt’s world; one before the Facebook generation, full of Barbaras with statuses about how they are Bridget Jones. And just because Moore is older and less blonde that Johansson, that doesn’t stop Esther being anything other than a MPDG to save the final act.
With a new title, the comedy also isn’t up to much. Most of the humour revolves around the switching on of a laptop. The jokes are in the editing. The repetition tires when it’s apparent the film splurges its ideas in the first 10 minutes, barely touching upon the juxtaposition of porn and the emotional release of romantic comedies. Without any darkness or comedic wit, the addiction seems more like an unadvisable hobby – but Don Jon’s Inadvisable Hobby is too honest a title.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) – 8.5/10
Original title: Les yeux sans visage
Director: Georges Franju
Writers: Geoges Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel
“But I’ll never forget that I owe you a face.”
The horror of imagination lies behind the “face” of Christiane (Scob), the daughter of a mad scientist. Christiane’s disfigured face is covered with a mask at the peak of creepiness – devoid of features, yet borders on believable. Her eyes convey much more, spinning behind the mask, touching loosely on the phobia of being buried alive.
Except here Christiane is in a cage of her emotion; behind the mask is her whimpers and occasional tears rolling down the plastic. Like a sinister twist on Wallace and Gromit, her father (Brasseur) experiments with kidnapped women (all beautiful, blue-eyed) and attempts to transfer their face with gripping sequences both exhilarating and disgusting.
Like Christiane’s mask, the film is packed with contradictions: the conventional silhouettes of Christiane at her most vulnerable; the circus music attached to murderous preludes; the parents who rescue their daughter only to indirectly lock her up; the evil villain who acts out of love; the tender disgust that is itself a mask for 84 mesmerising minutes.
The Game (1997) – 6/10
Director: David Fincher
Writers: John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger
“I don’t care about money. I’m pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard.”
The title could easily be The Exercise, given how Fincher meticulously calculates every move for Douglas in this escalating thriller. As a birthday present, Douglas is entered into “the game” – the gift technically doesn’t come in wrapping paper, but it is wrapped by intrigue and a hint of blackmail. When it appears a mysterious company is taking over his life and heading for his fortune, the game becomes as fun as Scrabble without any vowels.
Fincher heightens the paranoia: Douglas spots patterns, tidy rooms, and unsettlingly lifelike shadows. It’s also Fincher’s style. Twist after twist tumbles down like dice on the board. The plot is so knowingly artificial, each gasp is echoed by regret. While some of the plot feels like a cheat, it’s actually keeping in time with the rest of the absurdities – and that is what takes away from the occasional brilliance of discovering The Truman Show might be really happening.
Get Low (2009) – 3.5/10
Director: Aaron Schneider
Writers: Chris Provenzano, C Gaby Mitchell, Scott Seeke
Starring: Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black
“What are the odds of a funeral home going broke? You have a business that everyone on Earth needs. If you can’t make that work, it’s got to be you. And yet… I don’t know. What do you do when people won’t die?”
I’ll add to that quotation: what are the odds of a film with Bill Murray in fine form going broke? You have an actor that everyone on Earth needs. If you can’t make that work, it’s got to be the film. And yet… I don’t know. What do you do when you don’t care if characters won’t die?
I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) – 6/10
Directors/Writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey
“Yes, but money isn’t everything. Now go to sleep.”
Like Joan, I also mistakenly thought I knew where this was going. She’s on her way to marry a wealthy guy who will but her happiness – because that’s what money does. However, on the way, she’s struck by bad weather and ends up stuck on a Scottish island, slowly falling in love with a naval officer.
The 1945 era brings authentic charm and nostalgia for an era I never lived. The film’s reputation does feel a little undeserved, given the endearing dialogue at times slips into generic black-and-white Sunday TV territory (which was when I caught it on BBC2). Furthermore, she probably should have caught that boat – given the chance, there’s no way anyone would choose swimming in the sea over a gorgeous pool.
Laurence Anyways (2012) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément
Fred: “We have three hours.”
Laurence: “It’s a lifetime.”
Hot off J’ai tué ma mère and Heartbeats, Xavier Dolan (born 1989!) responds to accusations of narcissism by not acting in Laurence Anyways – just taking the role of director, editor, writer and costume designer. The three-hour epic love story spans a decade and, as subtly noted in the above quotation, really feels like a lifetime.
The exhaustion is partially deliberate as Laurence Anyways pans out into a traditional story of failed romance that’s more universal than the central concept. Laurence (Poupaud) and Fred (Clément) are a couple who find their love tested upon a confession: Laurence wishes to become a woman. Fred sticks with Laurence, despite reservations, and a tidal wave of emotions pour out through the complications – at one point, a living room is flooded in slow motion. If that miraculous moment is a tribute to The Shining, it’s not alone in maintaining a Kubrick sensibility: the opening font, A.I. echoing in the first scene, the Barry Lyndon-style shots, and the full title: Laurence Anyways (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sticking in Stylish Shots Regardless of Cohesion).
“We see a lot of them in the street,” says a waitress. “Some are professionals.” Fred unleashes a magnificent rant in response. Laurence wears women’s clothing to school, strolling down the corridor to bombastic electronic. These moments are agonising and agonisingly beautiful right down to the scale at which Dolan draws out the pair’s doomed love – the tag line could easily be the cliche of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them”.
However, Dolan’s flair often distracts from the characters’ pain, as if they’re just puppets in a show where occasionally items of clothing fall from the sky for little reason other than it looks cool. Even simple pieces of dialogue (which could be cut, anyway) are regularly deterred by tricks such as camera wheeling from room to room, as if guest-directed by Wes Anderson. Dolan does still demonstrate technical growth, maturing from Heartbeats and J’ai tué ma mère, and perhaps if he could have bettered them if he wasn’t the editor for his own work. When Laurence cries that enough is enough, after two-and-a-half hours the viewer empathises.
The Long Day Closes (1992) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Terence Davies
Starring: Leigh McCormack, Marjorie Yates
“Dreams are private – to be shared with no one.”
The escapist joy of cinema doesn’t receive enough credit onscreen, considering the high ratio of filmmakers who probably grew up like Bug in Davies’ touching slice of nostalgia. Set in Liverpool, the 11-year-old boy is physically beaten at school by both teachers and fellow pupils. There’s comfort at home with a loving family (loving enough to endure his musical numbers), but it’s a struggle to find a companion for the pictures.
Wistfully gazing out of the window, orchestral sounds and harmonic tunes stream through Bud’s consciousness. Certain angles and mundane activities travel through the years, buried in a melancholic memory. The strong presence of religion gains its own cinematic quality, too – the fear that penetrates through a young child’s mind where life is a mixture of boredom and pain. Thank heavens for films, eh?
The Machine (2014) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Caradog W James
Starring: Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Denis Lawson
“A fact’s a fact.”
Pretty bad. I wrote a bit about it here.
Muppets Most Wanted (2014) – 6/10
Director: James Bobin
Writers: Nicholas Stoller, James Bobin
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey
“I don’t mean to be a stickler, but this is our seventh sequel to our original motion picture.”
I’ve heard a few complaints that this latest outing from the Muppets (“DIE MUPPETS” in Germany) lacks heart. Well, maybe. But I’ve never felt much of a sentimental connection with the Muppets anyway, and in fact my favourite rendition of “Rainbow Connection” is a cover by Rivers Cuomo. In this, the ill-timed element of Russian gulag comedy is an unexpected twist, full of unconvincing accents that kept me chuckling.
The joke rate is impressive, with more hitting than missing. Even if it’s a step-down from the 2011 reboot, at least there’s a reference to The Seventh Seal in the first few minutes.
My Dinner with Andre (1981) – 4/10
Director: Louis Malle
Writers: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Starring: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn
“I wouldn’t put on an electric blanket for any reason.”
My Stuff (2014) – 2/10
Director/Writeer: Petri Luukkanen
Starring: Petri Luukkanen
“Your things aren’t a measure of happiness.”
It’s always a bad sign when a documentary has shades of Garden State. Read my one-star review for Grolsch Film Works here.
Naked (1993) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge
“Man will cease to exist. Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us. We’re just a crap idea. We’re not fucking important.”
That diatribe emerges from Johnny, a 27-year-old who’s a victim and bully; a helpless child mistaken for 40; insistent there is no future, while talking about the future; cruel misogynist and patient listener. The contradictions herald from an ambiguous history: running away from Manchester to escape a nasty incident, he camps in his ex-girlfriend’s east London flat.
Johnny eventually wanders the streets, shouting philosophical theories at strangers. Even if his rants are either incomprehensible or completely illogical (with hindsight I can confirm the world did not end in 1999), his existential wails are ignored by night workers who hate their menial jobs. For instance, there’s a security guard who just has to occupy a building, without even guarding any worthwhile materials – with little meaning, the worker is alone at night with a tasteless sandwich, occasionally spying on a woman in an opposite building.
Leigh introduces these frustrated, kicked-down characters every few scenes; despite serving obvious metaphorical purposes, the backgrounds are fully in check. The language is also devilishly smart, while bordering on a manic teenager with a new thesaurus. Russell Brand would probably play womanising Johnny in a modern remake.
The screenplay is also much smarter than a simple twist of good guys and bad guys. Somehow, Johnny isn’t exactly the main villain when compared to Jeremy, a smartly dressed landlord and rapist. Aside from financial differences, they do share a disturbing affinity for sexual predation. It could be that the notes in a wallet is what give a man the confidence to become a monster.
The women are frequently victims to abusive men. Johnny is a comically exaggerated Tory figure who strolls in, kicks over he pleases, fucks who he wants, and has a taxi waiting for when his fun is over. Calling the state isn’t an option. “They’re gonna take one look at him in his suit and one look at us,” remarks Sophie. “Who do you think they’re gonna believe?”
Noah (2014) – 4.5/10
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman
“You want revenge, don’t you?”
Aronofsky undertaking the story of Noah was always perplexing. Did he envision Noah to be a tortured artist like the central figures of Pi, Black Swan and The Wrestler? No, he saw Russell Crowe. The psychological issues surrounding Noah are the film’s highpoint, even if those questions could have been asked in the queue to buy a ticket. Why did he build an ark? Why did he want to make a film about someone building an ark?
The film’s curveball comes from a staunch pro-vegan message running throughout, whereby The Creator kills off mankind to save CGI animals. And when that turns out to be as effective as the mooing cow in “Meat is Murder”, there’s the moral quandary: do you kill your two grandchildren because of the voices in your head? These issues are thrown at Noah because he’s tasked with judging mankind and whether there’s any goodness left. From the example of the girl caught in a stampede, his criteria involves physical beauty, Hollywood whiteness, and the approval of his son’s loins – Logan Lerman playing yet another ridiculously hormonal teen who can find a MPDG among a pile of dead bodies.
All of these questions are unavoidable as the story – or myth, as Aronofsky calls it – is inherently absurd, even if taken as a symbolic lesson. Thusly, it’s always going to be strange, despite a mainstream release, while also explaining why Paramount’s ultra-religious edits were also unable to appease Christian viewers in pre-production. But much of the weirdness comes from a disparity from what one expects from the Bible, or even an Aronofsky film. Blink during the 3-second montages, only to see The Watchers stomping around like something from Mordor. Also note that it was shot in Iceland, a place regularly used by sci-fi directors to depict alien planets.
The birth of the universe is glimpsed in between time lapses, with a two-minute sequence probably the film’s highlight: cutting down the evolution of Earth with a clinical edge missing from the rest of bloated film. Life on the ark stagnates when it’s apparent how underwritten the female characters are, serving little more than potential baby carriers or someone for Noah to yell at. It’s so problematic and frustrating, there’s rarely a dull moment – no wonder Christians hate it because they’re the ones who have to take this seriously.
Plot for Peace (2014) – 6/10
Directors: Carlos Agulló, Mandy Jacobson
Starring: Jean-Yves Ollivier
Rubberneck (2013) – 3.5/10
Director: Alex Karpovsky
Writers: Garth Donovan, Alex Karpovsky
Starring: Alex Karpovsky, Jaime Ray Newman, Dennis Staroselsky
“Just wait. Let me call for some help.”
I’ve seen Karpovsky (Ray in Girls) in a few films now, and his characters are usually the same: socially inept, bitter with jealousy, and resembling “golden era” Woody Allen without any jokes. It’s a role he carries with frightening ease, so his leftfield turn in Rubberneck catches your attention – but not for long.
As director and co-writer, Karpovsky is likely determined to embrace something different. And, to his credit, Rubberneck is a push in a new direction. The paranoid atmosphere grows out of a typically mumblecore storyline: man has a fling with a woman, then loses her to a co-worker.
Mystery emerges with assistance from eerie music, faux-Lynchian shots of a laboratory and slow camera reveals of, well, not much in particular. Little happens, which would be fine if there was any tension. Frankly, you recognise during the middle act that there’s little substance underneath; when Karpovsky suspects his body infected by an emotional infliction, it takes more than a few twitchy groans to convince the viewer.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Robert Hiltzik
Starring: Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo
“If she were any quieter, she’d be dead.”
Veronica Mars (2014) – 6/10
Director: Rob Thomas
Writers: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Krysten Ritter
In place of the long-promised Party Down movie, we instead paid for a double-sized episode of Veronica Mars. The film comes from a Kickstarter launch that is particularly murky considering it’s a Warner Bros. production, who aren’t exactly short in cash, and how everyone’s conveniently forgotten that the trashy third season was a crime Veronica Mars chose to ignore.
Basically, there was a lot of pressure to not short change the fans. And Veronica Mars delivers in that respect. The solid film is about as solid as one of the early episodes – while looking like one too – that didn’t concentrate too hard on a season-arc mystery. But that capsule mystery style was a major factor of the show’s demise, and Veronica Mars does little to cinematise itself – it’s just another episode, which is presumably what the hardcore fans want.
Major and minor characters reappear, which is both comforting and frustrating considering how much it takes up of the running time. Seriously, it’s like the homecoming scene in Elizabethtown when figures of the past keep reappearing to say hello. Once the catch-ups are had, then the story can really begin: how a smart, funny teenager can’t shake out the teenage detective within her, despite the zeros in her future law career paycheques. So, in that sense, it all builds for another film, which would make the comeback a TV series. Another Kickstarter?
Follow @halfacanyon for more.