Film reviews 57: “Bad Neighbours”, “Godzilla”, “Frank”, “Blue Ruin”, “The Earrings of Madame de…”, “Two Lovers”, “Exotica” and 8 others…

les amants du pont-neuf juliette binoche leos carax bridge fireworks

This month: “8 Minutes Idle”, “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” (pictured above), “Another Year”, “Bad Neighbours”, “Being There”, “Blue Ruin”, “Buried”, “The Earrings of Madame de…”, “Exotica”, “Frank”, “Godzilla”, “Green”, “Lola Montès”, “Pipe Dream” and “Two Lovers”.

Also, you can read some features I wrote elsewhere, including a defence of Ryan Reynolds (basically following up the McConaissance with a Reynoldssance), and a guide to filming a low-budget indie movie. The average rating is 5.86/10 with film of the month being Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

8 Minutes Idle (2014) – 3/10

Director: Mark Simon Hewis
Writers: Matt Thorne, Nicholas Blincoe
Starring: Tom Hughes, Ophelia Lovibond, Antonia Thomas
“We. Are. Brizzle. Yeah?”

8 minutes idleMostly set in a call-centre, this idle romcom is certainly a nuisance. The claustrophobic atmosphere is more to do with its amateurish production than a social satire. Dan (Hughes) works in a call-centre, and, to make life worse, moves in overnight. He also sleeps with his boss and a number of co-workers. My guess it was written by an underpaid employee who, while on the phone, scribbled on his pad his carnal fantasies about work colleagues and how to save rent. It’s a miracle that any studio funded this. They didn’t. It was Kickstarter.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
(1991) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Leos Carax
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant
“Life outside is right for me, for Alex, but impossible for you.”

les amants du pont-neuf juliette binoche leos carax denis lavantKnowing Carax only from Holy Motors, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the episodic nature in which Les Amants du Pont-Neuf celebrates cinema – and, to a lesser extent, love. Alex (Lavant) and Michèle (Binoche) are two homeless strangers just about surviving on the Pont-Neuf; together they cope like a messed up Aesop’s fable. She’s escaping a torn relationship while also nearly blind, left to deteriorate on the bridge. He’s a limping street performer who becomes, as they joke, her guide dog.

It’s debatable whether it’s more love or mutual dependency. But there’s romance in the cinematic sense – made more spectacular by the intermittently plodding scenes of boredom when the days are just uninterested faces walking past. The undoubted highlight is a booze-driven dance to fireworks by the water, which has the only downside of meaning the film peaks with more than an hour left to go. Stick with it, though, as every act is rich in symbolism: often set in flames, perhaps to distract from the prospect of living in darkness.

There’s almost no dialogue. When there is, it’s about life and death in a remarkably brutal way.

Another Year
(2010) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen
“How old do you think I look?”

another year mike leighLeigh’s poignant ensemble meets up in the home of Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen), a happily married couple whose love has outlived the ridiculousness of their names. Their dinner table proves a magnet for unhappiness: divorcees and alcoholics.

Mary (Manville) is the main one under scrutiny. As Gerri’s secretary at work, she’s been a friend of the family for 20 years. Yet the relationship is rather insidious, even if the bubbling tension will never cause a stir unless snarky whispers are ever overheard. Mary is arguably depressed, arguably an alcoholic, and inarguably lonely – a characteristic that bleeds through a pained attempt to be outwardly cheerful.

Manville subtly takes the role to make Mary an even more family, tragic figure: dependent on friends who don’t appear to like her. Tellingly, Gerri is a professional counsellor; it’s hinted that her kicks in life are from helping strangers, knowing she can smugly return home for more. That’s some hobby, especially as it operates in all four seasons and is more interactive than a stamp collection.

Bad Neighbours
(2014) – 4/10

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writers: Andrew J Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco
“Male erection before One Direction.”

bad neighbours zac efron robert de niro dave francoKnocked Up gave birth to the idea of Seth Rogen as a manchild who can carry a movie. Unbelievably, that was only seven years ago. Rogen has since chuckled his way to a false maturity, given his role in Bad Neighbours as a middle-aged parent; along with Rose Byrne, they’re coming to terms with the death of their days of partying – their fun now comes in aimlessly riffing to an Apatow chord. And, at just 97 minutes and with fewer cameos, Bad Neighbours operates like a miniature Apatow vehicle: efficient, condensed and rushed.

The actual semi-sequel to Knocked Up was the overlong, sprawling This is 40. On the other hand, Bad Neighbours sticks to a single premise and hammers it into the ground, before shooting it into the sky with a comically placed airbag. Byrne and Rogen play a couple with a baby on board, only to become aghast when their new neighbours turn out to be frat house led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco. The noise war descends into a series of pranks and a “bros before hos” mentality.

Instead of a three-act structure, there’s more of a three-strike structure. The comedy revolves around the family (by which I mean Rogen, Byrne and baby) tricking the other family (by which I mean the Delta fraternity) into suffering from a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Three acts, three strikes. And way more than three glances at the watch, especially during an inane sequence involve Rogen milking Byrne after a night of drinking. “I’m the man,” he later recalls in an absurd bedroom sequence involving pizza that could be taken from a late episode of The Simpsons.

A bitter taste runs through Bad Neighbours and its false sweetness – primarily the “bromance” between Efron and Rogen, or Efron and Franco. Or Efron and his whole fraternity. For a film that can only really be from the parents’ perspective, too much time is spent with hammy conversation from the students; Efron’s educational insecurity is neither insightful nor in keeping with his character.

Stoller’s past films may have been about longevity and evolving relationships; here it’s about the jokes. And, aside from a few slapstick moments (most are in the trailer), it’s just not that funny. The defining moment might be Rogen and Byrne fighting over who gets to be Kevin James.

Being There
(1979) – 4/10

Director: Hal Ashby
Writers: Jerzy Kosinski, Robert C. Jones
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden
“Your anonymity is likely to be a thing of the past.”

being there peter sellers hal ashby shirley maclaineI’ve never seen the Mr Bean movie, so this will have to do. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I get the joke (note: singular). The typical Ashby melancholy is absent, given the whole story is so goddamn deliberately stupid. Rich, important people project their emotions onto Chance (Sellers); everyone’s a winner. Is this a satire on society, satire on politics, or just a really overrated comedy with no laughs? If the film’s fans believe it walks on water, I’d disagree.

Blue Ruin
(2014) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
“The keys are in the car.”

blue ruin macon blairThe momentous moment of Blue Ruin comes when Dwight (Blair) shaves off his forested beard to reveal he is in fact Joe Lo Truglio. What follows is an above-average take on a below-average story about revenge. An ordinary guy realises guns are harder to operate in real life; dark humour follows. Tension ramps up, as does the familiarity, fitting into a murky shade – or genre – of blue.

(2010) – 7/10

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Writer: Chris Sparling
Starring: Ryan Reynolds

buried ryan reynolds coffinOne coffin. One actor. One Ryan Reynolds. Way better than it sounds. I watched it for a feature in defence of Ryan Reynolds for Grolsch Film Works.

The Earrings of Madame de…
(1953) – 9/10

Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, Annette Wademant, Louise de Vilmorin (novel)
Starring: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica
“Unhappiness is our own invention. At times, I’m sad that I lack the imagination for it.”

the earrings of madame de max ophulsI’ve never pierced my ears because I associate earrings with pain, money I don’t have, and tiny cuts on my fingers. Well, Ophüls grandiose drama finds the most gut-wrenching of sentiments for one particular pair; jewellery sewn to lost love, the kind that can either be displayed or kept hidden for private comforts; the kind referenced in the title.

Like the similarly excellent Letter From an Unknown Woman, Ophüls focuses on how the heartbreak of a female protagonist goes unnoticed by her male counterparts. Louise (Darrieux) is the downtrodden wife of André (Boyer): a smug general with a mistress on the side. Although the earrings were a wedding gift from André, Louise sells them on, knowing they’re a false symbol of love – small, shiny extensions of an illusion. Through a series of coincidences, they return to her via Fabrizio, a baron who is – in the rarest of world circumstances – a decent human being. She remarks, “They had to go back to Constantinople to make their way back to me.”

What could be any ordinary period romance is turned in an extravagant mystery through a restless camera that’s essentially a character on its own. The lens swirls around countless scenes, each stacked with wealth and, crucially, mirrors. The women trapped in this wasteful lifestyle are unfulfilled and find no pleasure in wardrobes stuff with fur coats, or how jewellery is as commonplace as a free newspaper on the London Underground (sorry, weird simile).

“I wondered why I went on living,” André admits, faces a similar revelation. “I only saw your face.” His decadent days are similarly empty, and he too cannot admit it publically. Maybe a gunfight would be a cathartic end, especially as his favourite phrase of Louise is: “I don’t love you.” Remarkably, André keeps up the façade. Just as the earrings gain a new non-monetary value for the trio, he condemns unhappiness as merely an invention – one for which he pretends to lack the imagination.

(1994) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Sarah Polley
“The aroma of fresh flowers and all that other stuff that hasn’t been fucked up by a lot of late nights and bad food.”

exotica atom egoyanThe mysteries of Exotica lie in the unfolding layers that unpeel with more intricacy than narrative twists. While the plot is revealed non-chronologically, the puzzle’s real strength is the emotional truths and how the blurred edges find focus; like staring at a magic eye image, only for the picture to emerge because of a line of innocuous dialogue.

Egoyan’s perplexing direction is full of one-sided mirrors – several that are literal, others less so. Authoritative figures stare at suspected smugglers through one-sided mirrors, as do staff at the main strip club. In an opening scene, one criminal’s paranoia is apparent at an airport through an echo-ey voiceover – except it turns out to be a drugs enforcer behind a mirror.

The tricks continue with interspersed images, switching between time frames and plot strands. Yet Egoyan isn’t shuffling his cards just to confuse the viewer. An unspoken sadness lingers through seemingly unconnected scenes.

A sort of unrequited love is almost present – except that’s never the case. Even at Exotica, the titular strip club central to the plot, clients stare longingly at the dancers with secret agendas that don’t concur with sexual urges. Francis (Greenwood) regularly requests Christina (Kirshner) to dance for him, always in a schoolgirl outfit, forming a close relationship that escapes definition: not physical, not romantic, not even conversational.

Watching with jealousy is Eric (Koteas), the club’s DJ who uses the microphone to spout passive-aggressive and insecure thoughts to a room where everyone has too many worries to notice. The viewer finds a similar sensation, as even minor characters are ensnared into uncomfortable environments: Francis hires his niece to babysit in an empty house, and it’s no coincidence a subplot involves a smuggler who hides exotic animals in the wrong habitats.

When Kirshner steps out for her show, she’s dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, slinking in a fake forest to a Leonard Cohen song. It’s bizarre, yet more natural than the surrounding scenes because for a few seconds there’s no unspoken motive or suppressed anger. It might be that on stage she’s escaped other people’s loss by dressing up in a fantasy. “We’re only just a dream away,” says the DJ. “Wherever that is.”

(2014) – 6/10

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
“Stay away from my fucking theremin.”

frank 7As a lifelong devotee of Jon Ronson, I’ve been anxiously awaiting Frank for years – even pestering him about it in 2012 after a book reading. Now that Frank is finally in cinemas, I’ve realised that my excitement was actually for Ronson’s accompanying book and Guardian feature. The film is just okay.

Frank is a semi-fictional recreation of Ronson’s own experiences as a keyboard play with Frank Sidebottom, a nasal-voiced singer best remembered for performing inside a nightmarish papier-mâché head. Michael Fassbender embodies Frank in the film and, like Sidebottom, resides inside the surreal mask. He fronts The Soronprfbs (deliberately unpronounceable), a left-field band that needs a keyboardist who can play “C”, “F” and “G”. This is where Jon steps in.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon as a fame-hungry loser who live-tweets the band’s developments; he’s eager for attention, that’s for sure. The group has a history of suicidal keyboardists (to be fair, it’s better being the guitarist) and has Maggie Gyllenhaal as Clara, a temperamental theremin player. Much of the comedy comes from these oddballs experimenting with recording techniques (sharpening pencils) or mental states (“Stop thinking in the key of C!”). It’s a watchable introduction that plays upon the media’s manipulation of mental illness – particularly with cult singers – and how much is down to exploitation.

Frank falters when it deviates into a more literal idea of its teased ideas. Primarily, Frank doesn’t cope well with the prospect of fame – if the fake head initially looked attention-seeking, it’s now clearly a protective shield. Jon ambers on the band to a SXSW showcase, pretty much profiting from the other members’ documented eccentricities. However, these quirks are borne from sadness and a misfit’s melancholy. It could easily be the paranoia of a bestselling investigative journalist wondering if he’s ruined any of his subjects’ lives.

The transformation from comedy to drama is more efficient than emotional. Personally, I preferred the subtleties: Frank’s small talk with Jon; Clara’s mystique and resentments; wondering what kind of tunes will be produced by The Soronprfbs. Once they hit the road, there’s a sense of going through the motions. Mental illness (and how it can happen to anyone) is touched upon in conversation, but not by much. Although rich in humour (particularly Gyllenhaal’s short fuse), Frank works better as an idea – much like the band itself. Be sure to check out Ronson’s accompanying writing, though.

(2014) – 5.5/10

Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe
“There is an electromagnetic pulse and it’s going to send us back to the Stone Age. You have no idea what’s coming.”

godzilla 2014 juliette binocheThe lizard – ol’ Godz – emerged as a metaphor for Japan’s anxiety about nuclear war; the unstoppable, inevitable monster in the ocean that could pounce on Tokyo at any moment. Of course, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla (the one with Jamiroquai) was less subtle, and more inclined to rattle out as many dinosaurs without paying royalties to Michael Crichton.

This latest American take (although Edwards is Welsh) is also lacking in nuance, but maintains its dignity through careful pacing and surprising restraint – tension builds and builds before the first full shot of the eponymous star stomping into the picture, like Liam Gallagher swaggering on stage after the supporting acts. Godzilla is also about as tuneful and meaningful as Oasis, roaring for the sake of roaring to a screaming crowd. The oversized reptile, we are told, dates back to happier times when creatures feasted on radiation, before hiding underground to soak up the Earth’s core. Not so much the Atkin’s diet, but the Atomic diet.

There’s little new about Godzilla, nor its underdeveloped riff on nature fixing itself. Coming so soon after the stupidly mindboggling spectacle of Pacfic Rim, Edwards’ disaster movie smacks of a let-down; a blockbuster with aspirations to be, well, Monsters. However, there’s little attempt to find any satire of new meaning in the familiar tale. At best, Godzilla represents Godzilla itself, as the unsinkable behemoth franchise that comes and goes at will, forcing onlookers to pay attention.

Outside of Godzilla and two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, duh!), there are a few humans. It’s hard to remember them, seeing as the film itself forgets them just as quickly. One scientist, played by Watanabe, recites lines (“reborn like a butterfly”) as if reading a cue card in an SNL sketch. Taylor-Johnson is as ineffective a hero as his character in Kick-Ass, while Olsen has about five minutes of screen time to emote. Cranston and Binoche face similarly underwritten parts that barely amount to delivering exposition; at best, they symbolise a crude era of modern television slamming a door in the face of arthouse cinema, leaving the latter to die in a cloud of poison.

Just awaiting the mash-up of the bridge scene with Binoche’s dance in Les Amants de Pont-Neuf.

(2012) – 2/10

Director/Writer: Sophia Takal
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine
“If I can’t plant, there’ll be nothing growing. And if I can’t grow, then what the fuck am I going to write about?”

green sophia takalI’ve noticed a mumblecore tradition that states a film’s editor, as if that role is of equal importance to the director and writer. Well, all three positions are taken by Sophia Takal in a film so bland, you suspect that editing was salvaging something, anything, from the directing.

The dull relationship story is the classic: couple retreat to a woods, local woman creates an awkward triangle. There’s no extra layer, unless you count the mystic silences and placid scenery as anything substantial. The characters themselves have few discernible features, apart from Takal – her schtick is to be a Southern gal, yapping about crosswords and a fear of modern life. It’s a garrulous caricature who is supposed to be dull, and Takal’s portrayal of that side is one of the few things Green does well.

Lola Montès
(1955) – 3.5/10

Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Annette Wademant, Max Ophüls, Cecil Saint-Laurent (novel)
Starring: Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Oskar Werner
“Of course, I’m not old. But the king was old, and you see how that ended. Moreover, you didn’t love him.”

lola montes max ophulsI will have to give Lola Montès another viewing at some point, given how much I adore the other Ophüls films I’ve seen. Lola (Carol) is the centrepiece of both the drama and a circus act. The show – typically extravagant and nightmarish – is interrupted by a villainous circus master (Ustinov) and flashbacks to various chapters of Lola’s life: heartbreak, tragedy, flat scenes that never resonate.

Pipe Dream
(2002) – 5/10

Director: John C. Walsh
Writers: John C. Walsh, Cynthia Kaplan
Starring: Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker, Rebecca Gayheart
“You know what the great irony here is?”
“Neither do I.”

pipe dream mary louise parker martin donovanIn a precursor to the first season of Weeds, Donovan and Parker play an on/off romantic couple with their own secrets. Well, mainly Donovan: a plumber who successful fakes his way as an indie director despite knowing nothing about film, while also stealing Parker’s screenplay for the process. He’s going to this effort to bang a pretty actress, but will he find love somewhere else?

So, it’s not exactly that intricate as a twisty narrative. And neither is it an effective satire on the film industry or auteur theory. It’s also a comedy without any bite or noticeable gags. Donovan and Parker do however keep it blissfully watchable by amiably hacking their way through a light romcom that’s too stupid to take seriously, but stupid enough to maintain attention. Full marks for a running gag about a screenwriter wondering how films will play to an “average person”.

Two Lovers
(2009) – 8/10

Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray, Richard Menello
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini
“You think if I got to know you, I wouldn’t love you. But I do know you, and I love you even more. I do understand you, Michelle. I’m fucked up too.”

two lovers joaquin phoenixI like to think of Two Lovers as a prequel to Her, with Phoenix’s portrayal of Leonard showboating how lengthy bouts of loneliness and inertia inevitably lead to wild self-rescue missions. Early on we see him try to drown himself, with hints that it’s not the first time – terminally alone, yet only half-heartedly attempting suicide.

With those odds, one can gleam impatience in Leonard’s dissatisfaction with life, especially by how quick he is to strike up a friendship with frowny neighbour Michelle (Paltrow). In her, Leonard shares a mutual melancholy and restless energy – the kind missing from his semi-arranged date with Sandra (Shaw), who offers a parent-pleasing escape of security and gentle conversation.

There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the plot of Two Lovers, even if it is supposedly based on a popular Fyodor Dostoyevsky story. Michelle may have baggage (over-tendency to drink, a doomed affair with a married man), but it’s less clear what she needs from Leonard other than a backup – which he is delighted with, if it means an evening away from the bedroom in his family home. He’s painfully aware he’s too old to be living at home, and here is a woman who doesn’t even think it’s an issue worth mentioning in conversation.

Phoenix begins a remarkable streak (along with The Master and Her) of lovable losers who can’t elucidate their emotions. But it’s in the stutters and broken sentences that a primal loneliness emerges; his actions and occasional sprints are of someone desperate to love – chasing someone who’s practically the girl next door is logical, even when her complex emotions by definition placate her as someone who isn’t a typical film-y “girl next door”.

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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1 Response to Film reviews 57: “Bad Neighbours”, “Godzilla”, “Frank”, “Blue Ruin”, “The Earrings of Madame de…”, “Two Lovers”, “Exotica” and 8 others…

  1. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2014 film roundup | HALF A CANYON FILM BLOG: A traffic jam when you're already a plate

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