This month: “22 Jump Street”, “Buffalo ‘66” (pictured above), “Cheap Thrills”, “Diana”, “Edge of Tomorrow”,“Fruitvale Station”, “Grace of Monaco”, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Supporting Characters”, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “We Own the Night”.
You can read some other things I’ve written recently including a feature on why “Kevin Corrigan is the most underrated supporting actor of all time”, a feature on “Acting methods and the actors who use them”, and a short story called Vandpyt. The average rating is 5.82/10 with film of the month being Cheap Thrills. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
22 Jump Street (2014) – 7/10
Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Writers: Michael Bacall, Rodney Rothman, Oren Uziel
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens
“We’re like Batman and Robin, except we’re both Batman.”
Like the ugly duckling that turned out to be a swan, 22 Jump Street is a pleasant surprise that doesn’t resemble a duck. The sequel to 21 Jump Street, based on a 1987 TV series, isn’t ashamed to rehash the same jokes (and rehash the same jokes about rehashing the same jokes). Officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) once again go undercover as students – this time at college – to source the production of a drug called WHYPHY that coincidentally has the same damaging effects of internet Wi-Fi.
Hill and Tatum share an on-screen chemistry far more convincing than the one seen off-screen on chat shows. Tatum, in particular, embraces physical comedy like a perfectly executed dance move. His character, Jenko, spins off into a “bro” friendship with a hunky American football player (Russell), which conjures up an even stronger partnership – is Tatum just a magnetic force who can work in any double act? What helps is that the supporting cast all seem to be “on” in terms of meshing with the film’s limber, wisecracking humour. It’s the kind of reliable ensemble where minor three-line cameos come from Jon Benjamin, Marc Evan Jackson and the guy from Submarine who now only plays drunk college kids.
The tightly edited humour suggests Lord and Miller have a knack at whittling down improv (a featured improv class demonstrates what happens if you don’t) or centring upon pointed wordplay – the Cate Blanchett joke rivals her tour de force in Blue Jasmine for contributions to cinema. However, some of the weaker strands (mainly Hill’s romantic subplot, and his “meta” awkwardness around race and homosexuality) will prove a slog should anyone consider a second viewing. That might be the franchise’s strength: instead of rewatching the film, wait two years for a sequel that’ll be the same plot with new gags.
It’s worth noting that 22 Jump Street has a post-credits sequence that, unlike the hilarious credits montage, isn’t worth staying for. I knew it was coming and stayed in my seat while cinemagoers deserted the room, leaving behind half-chewed popcorn and dandruff. A cleaner stood by me and passive-aggressively stared at me; she sighed deliberately in my direction, tapping at the end of the row with a brush. My eyes were fixed firmly on the ground, to signal that I was waiting for the final scene, not due to a fixation over who handled Second Unit. Finally, the post-credits scene: it’s five seconds and tells an unfunny transphobic joke. So, now there’s a timestamp for when the series should have finished.
Buffalo ’66 (1998) – 6.66/10
Director: Vincent Gallo
Writers: Alison Bagnall, Vincent Gallo
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara
“I don’t need your pity ‘too good for me’ crap. I’m gonna kill Scott Wood.”
What constitutes a bad day? I know: being kidnapped by Vincent Gallo and having him talk to you for ages. That’s the fate suffered by Christina Ricci in a surreal drama that evolves into an artfully shot case of Stockholm Syndrome. Gallo bares it all: anger, vulnerability, not-so-liberal beliefs. The honesty is hypnotic and occasionally frightening.
Much of the film details Gallo’s trip to his childhood home, with post-production trickery introducing windows into his memories. There’s a sense that every shot and frame is a passive-aggressive statement to a real life person. The drama zigzags in a hit-and-miss fashion, but is held together by Lance Accord’s imaginative cinematography – as intricate as whatever’s going on in Gallo’s mind.
Cheap Thrills (2014) – 8/10
Director: E .L. Katz
Writers: Trent Haaga, David Chirchirillo
Starring: Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, David Koechner
Note: Originally reviewed for The Digital Fix.
“The last six months have been fucking awesome. I love the shit out of you.”
“I love you too.”
Ever had a competitive game of charades descend into a knife fight? Cheap Thrills might be for you. First-time director E.L. Katz carves a spiralling tale that bleeds desperation and demented humour, while literally increasing the stakes at each step. Here’s the “American Dream” on a platter: collapsed, damaged, then shoved down a chute for a final humiliation.
Craig (Healy) is a cash-strapped father and husband who loses his job and simultaneous receives an eviction notice. Alcohol proves to be one temporary solution for Craig, who plans an evening with Vince (Embry), an old pal from school. The kicker comes from a wealthy couple in the corner: loudmouth Colin (Koechner) and his silent wife, Violet (Paxton). When Colin purchases the most expensive bottle of tequila using a stack of $100 notes, this clearly isn’t your average drunkard (or an average night out).
Craig and Vince become subjected to a series of escalating dares that begin from slapping a stripper’s arse to defecating in a stranger’s house – and that’s still the early stages. This is all, according to a coked-up Colin, a “real life reality game show” to celebrate Violet’s birthday; she occasionally Instagrams procedures, occasionally breaking her stare to sultrily flirt with Craig. While the two contestants are healthily paid for the embarrassment and can leave at any point, there’s a clear manipulation at play: millionaires throwing scraps at the needy for entertainment. We’re the ones watching.
Set largely in the married couple’s pad, Craig and Vince are victims of greed – and, to an extent, financial necessities. The “what if?” scenarios spiral for comedic purposes; everyone’s hooked in by the thrills of an easy (and disgusting) payday. There’s an early image of a $100 note in a urinal – would you yank it out? That line of questioning is emphasised to a sickening level, designed to elicit groans of disgust and involuntary laughter.
There’s enough evidence that Katz has an eye for discretely heightening tension. The screenplay’s structure and the cast’s chemistry help, sure, but subtle touches add to the mania. Music particularly adds a striking chord; the house’s speaker system emulates Craig’s pounding headache, while Violet hilariously takes to the keyboard at opportune moments. Ultimately, Cheap Thrills comes across like early Roman Polanski with a more anarchic sense of humour. I dare you to see it.
Diana (2013) – 4/10
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writers: Stephen Jeffreys, Kate Snell (book)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews
“One minute everyone’s pointing at me because I’m sleeping with the Princess of Wales. Next thing she denies it and I’m the hospital joke.”
The opening few minutes of Diana are scarier than any horror film I’ve seen in recent years. Watts knew she was taking on a morbid role, which she delivers with ghostly conviction. Hirschbiegel foreshadows the car crash at every opportunity, although the biopic – too sincerely pointless and crass to be associated with Sharknado – centres upon Diana’s relationship with a surgeon, Hasnat (Andrews). Their meet-cute is as frothy as it gets, leading to an evening at the palace to discuss Eastenders and “Corrie” – then rounding off with Match of the Day.
There’s little antiroyalist irony in the film’s laboured insistence that Diana was in any way relatable. She’s just like us except she has four mobile phones? Well, I suppose she does seem thoroughly depressed at times. What ultimately happens is that Diana and Hasnat become interchangeable with characters in a disposable romcom – and the Royal Family is in a way just a disposable romcom when you think about it.
At least the inherent trashiness is watchable and possesses an element of fun missing from other historical dramas. After all, I’d sooner rewatch Diana than The King’s Speech. There’s also something to be said about the compellingly undercooked script that is so earnest I felt embarrassing: “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” I’m sure guests will be greeted by one of the staff gardeners.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – 5/10
Director: Doug Liman
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Christopher McQuarrie, Hiroshi Sakurazaka (novel)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
“Come find me when you wake up.”
There’s been a lot of Groundhog Day talk surrounding Edge of Tomorrow because of its plot conceit concerning Tom Cruise reliving the same day over and over again. But there’s no philosophical nerve to be found in Doug Liman’s otherwise rote sci-fi thriller. Nor does Cruise ever inform his co-star, “You like battleships, but not the ocean.”
The more apt comparison is with Source Code, with William (Cruise) and Rita (Blunt) forming a gradually romantic duo repeating the same task until the world is saved. For reasons too laborious to explain, William’s blood is infected by an alien – a specific one, apparently – that controls his mind, or something. It doesn’t make that much sense, and becomes more confusing when a scientist abruptly explains a deeply complex theory in two sentences, before pulling out a contraption that looks like a whisk to assert, “This is our only hope.”
William has all the time in the world – provided he dies, allowing the time loop to continue – to figure out how to bypass aliens; he picks up tips from Rita, embraces depression, and emerges as Tom Cruise in full action mode. Yet, despite this luxury, his hurried nature means he cuts conversations and explanations, which intensifies the film’s rush. The initial war field scenes are also especially thrilling, given the odds that, unlike a conventional thriller, the hero will probably die within a minute.
Aside from the time travel gimmick, Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t take long to become a fairly plodding caper that barely bothers to explain its convenient plot hooks – William’s hallucinations are a particularly egregious example. To ramp up the drama, William loses his power and knows that any death will be a real death. Instead, the film loses its only point of interest, while also increasingly feeling like watching someone play a computer game where Tom Cruise is the only available avatar.
Fruitvale Station (2014) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Octavia Spencer
Note: Originally reviewed for The Digital Fix.
“Can you show me what your sole looks like?”
The much-delayed UK release of Fruitvale Station finds a poignant, topical drama hitting cinemas 17 months after it swept the awards at Sundance. Ryan Coogler handles both direction and screenplay in an emotional depiction of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) – an unarmed 22-year-old African-American shot in the back by a policeman on New Year’s Day in 2009. Although the tragic news story still looms in the memory, there’s still power in how Fruitvale Station opens with camera footage of the event, followed by subtitles: “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”. The driving message should already be clear, but is still important – and relevant – enough for a reminder.
Oscar’s life is one of redemption: a former drug dealer who turns his life around to become a kind-hearted son to his worried mother (Octavia Spencer); a loving father to a four-year-old child; a committed boyfriend to his kindred spirit, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He comforts a dying dog, helps strangers at supermarkets, and a whole bunch of other nice stuff. While some of these presumably fictionalised aspects have amounted to somewhat of a backlash, I perceive the positive characterisation – as well as the endless foreshadowing – to be heartbreakingly poetic.
Although Michael B. Jordan was in Chronicle, there is a chance that UK audiences might only know him from That Awkward Moment. Jordan’s humble performance in Fruitvale Station singles him out as a star in the making; the relatable presence you’d want for a commemorative biopic. He compellingly portrays Oscar’s mindset as an inward struggle, with glimpses of a former temper problem – flashbacks show how far he’s changed – while noticeably steering himself towards a calmer state of mind.
There is admittedly a question mark over why Fruitvale Station had to be made. There’s little active discussion to be held over the actual incident – the cop’s psychological state, the resulting court case, or the riots that followed. But Fruitvale Station isn’t set out like a documentary, and neither does it come across like exploitation (for that, see the worst film of last year, The Impossible). It’s a touching eulogy of someone who didn’t deserve to die; a painful reminder that racism still exists and often requires a camera phone to pick up the evidence.
Grace of Monaco (2014) – 3/10
Director: Olivier Dahan
Writer: Arash Amel
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Parker Posey
“You’re a Philadelphia girl who did far better than a Philadelphia girl could dream of.”
There must have been a time when the production of Grace of Monaco was itself a fairytale: a bankable biopic destined to sweep awards season, while drawing in a specific demographic (who pick films based on the poster and nothing else). The director, Olivier Dahan, is a pro at this type of fare, having scored commercial success not long ago with La Vie en Rose, another historical drama that won its lead an Oscar for Best Actress. This time, rather than Marion Cotillard, he has the ever-reliable Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, the Hollywood actress who became a princess; fame and royalty, both entwined in a screenplay that circulated for years with much admiration. With Harvey Weinstein on board, nothing could go wrong. Right?
Well, it’s hard to ignore the calamitous reception awaiting Grace of Monaco when it opened this year’s Cannes to widespread derision. Years from now, Peter Bradshaw’s zingers will probably be more remembered than Kidman’s disturbingly inert performance. Beginning in LA, 1956, it’s made clear that Dahan takes the subject matter seriously: slow movements, endless strings, the whole frame decorated by flowers. Kelly was already a star from Rear Window and The Country Girl, whom then had the fortune – or, rather, misfortune – of marrying Rainier (Tim Roth), otherwise known as the Prince of Monaco. Basically, she swapped one fairytale for another by becoming a princess.
Crucially, both fairytales couldn’t overlap – a Venn diagram made explicit by a clunky cameo by Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Alfred Hitchcock, requesting she considers a role in Marnie. Ironically, for a film so concerned about someone who dreams of being on-screen, the general standard of acting is disarmingly low: lines are delivered without conviction as if the cast weren’t really sure how to emote, while the haphazard editing leaves many signs of post-production mangling. It might just be the distractions of an extravagant set that comes with an expensive wardrobe and a set design intent on flaunting disposable wealth. The other diversion might be the idiosyncratic fixations applied to each character in an unintentional dehumanising manner. Take, for instance, Roth’s forced inclination to smoke whenever he utters flat dialogue; romance, war and sovereignty are all reduced to passive statements.
Given the fractured nature of the central storyline (despite its integral role in history and Kelly’s life), it’s unsurprising that subplots also lack vigour. Even indie favourite Parker Posey fails to bring life through the role of Madge Tibey-Faucon, an impatient lady-in-waiting. The tiredness does at least fit in with Kelly’s claustrophobia within her relationship, with Rainier denying her the chance to act – seeing as being a princess is a performance in itself. She’s locked up in the palace and picks up “movement lessons while the camera zooms in on a symbolic parrot.
“When people dream of marrying royalty, they rarely comprehend what that means,” Kelly is informed. It’s near impossible to empathise given the thinness of the screenplay that one might gleam as a writing exercise gone wrong. The script was at one point on the Hollywood Black List and was part of a bidding war, which suggests the final product is a stubborn compromise involving rewrites and shouting matches. Dahan’s direction is certainly heavy with its score, as if to make up for the emptiness. While Grace of Monaco is far from the clunker one might expect from its Cannes reception, the best that can be said is that it’s occasionally boring; at least Diana had some sense of fun. There’s just no weight behind the actions or emotions behind the eyes. “The world needs Grace Kelly back on the big screen now,” insists Hitchcock. At the end is a final message on screen: “Grace Kelly never acted again.”
Somebody Up There Likes Me (2013) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Bob Byington
Starring: Keith Poulson, Jess Weixler, Nick Offerman, Stephanie Hunt
Max: “Are you good in bed?”
Lyla: “I get about eight hours.”
There’s a chance you’ll hate this a lot. Byington’s style is so steeped into deadpan humour, it’s an aggressive challenge to the viewer. Poulson’s lead role consists on one facial expression, which he carries for decades. The central gag is that his life is played out at five-year intervals, yet no one physically ages. Not even a wig. It’s a subtle joke that’s hammered to death. It’s an odd – and, dare I say it, quirky – world in which women wear yellow dresses at their weddings.
The overwrought language is stuttered by characters who share the same social dysfunctions. As a viewer, you can’t help but laugh when time jumps display that underlying immaturity so prominently, you barely blink when the worst decisions are chosen so bluntly. Some of the affectations become a bit too cloying, particularly Jess Weixler’s breadstick addiction and the non sequitur references to Pulp Fiction’s mysterious suitcase. The soundtrack, too – I’m surprised she didn’t stick those breadsticks into her ears.
I would only proceed depending on how you react to this sample dialogue:
Lyle: “You don’t consider me a friend?”
Sal :”Don’t take this the wrong way. I’ve always considered you more of a son.”
Lyle: “Okay. I’ve always seen you as avuncular.”
Sal: “He’s the one who just had a heart attack.”
Max: “Avuncular means like an uncle.”
Sal: “Like an uncle.”
Lyle: “It’s in A Tale of Two Cities.”
Sal: “You’re thinking uncular. Unculear. Unclear. You’re thinking unclearly.”
Max: “You’re thinking unclearly.”
Lyle: “I was born in this hospital.”
Supporting Characters (2013) – 4/10
Director: Daniel Schechter
Writers: Tarik Lowe, Daniel Schechter
Starring: Alex Karpovsky, Tarik Lowe, Arielle Kebbel
I was kinda hoping for the indie version of The Expendables with people like Adam Scott blowing stuff up, or something. But it’s just a directionless drama about film editors trying to shorten a romantic comedy –intentionally meta, perhaps, but more of a subliminal apology. It works best when Karpovsky and Kebbel rehearse lines that blur fiction and reality. It’s unsettling, exciting, and the only time Supporting Characters attempts to be anything other than mediocre.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – 5.5/10
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Chris Claremont (novel), John Byrne (novel)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage
Note: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.
“It is born from the most human power: hope.”
Watching an X-Men film feels like sitting through an examination that challenges your memory, while leaving logic out of the equation. Even with a new time travel gimmick, X-Men: Days of Future Past is – as it’s always been – about bringing the mutant gang together. With Bryan Singer at the helm, he has indeed rounded up the usual suspects.
The list of stars is long, impressive and probably daunting for anyone who isn’t an X-pert. One faction is reintroduced in 2023, a nightmarish future where Sentinels (robots that look like Iron Man) efficiently hunt and kill mutants. The remaining X-Men to have survived this far: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Shadowcat (Ellen Page) and Bishop (Omar Sy). To cut a lot of exposition short, the Sentinels were created during the Nixon regime by a scientist called Trask (Peter Dinklage). It’s decided that Wolverine will travel back in time – via a vortex created by Shadowcat – to prevent the machines’ creation.
Wolverine’s adventures in the 1973 aren’t exactly Back to the Future in terms of soaking in retro details or playing about with the format. Apart from a few outdated music choices, the era is instead paid tribute through jokes about bad acid. The target audience presumably won’t mind, given a rapid-fire meet n’ greet when Wolverine has to reintroduce himself to the various mutants. “I was sent from the future…” he wearily attests.
Each conversation effectively serves as a reboot for each relationship, while serving up nugget-sized cheat notes for any newcomers. McAvoy is, of course (of course!) the younger version of Stewart’s Professor X, and he lives in hiding with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Soon, they reteam with Magneto (Michael Fassbender as McKellan’s predecessor) and are on the hunt for Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). With these many stars, the narrativeis inevitably muddled – and that’s before taking into account the time travel and multiple storylines.
Little time is left for developing Dinklage as a villain, or whether Sentinels are anything other than stand-by foes for when a writer is empty on ideas. That might be why the X-Men resort to fighting each other, leading to a battle that’s more to do with personalities than mutant powers. The other heroes outside of the core 1973 timeline are understandably reduced to contractual cameos, and are dealt with the film’s baggage in terms of dialogue and action.
Yet I’m making Days of Future Past sound far more ambitious than it truly is. The underlying message is the usual blockbuster mumbo jumbo about the value of “hope, and whether “pain” makes you stronger – all half-heartedly tacked on in the usual places. For a story that’s more driven by character than special effects, a real trick has been missed. Stylistically, the series is moderate popcorn fare with little to prove, other than how many famous faces it can fit into two hours. (The answer is more than the Nymphomaniac poster.) McAvoy’s Charles Xavier sums it up with a wish: “I’d like to wake up now.”
We Own the Night (2007) – 7/10
Director/Writer: James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes
“Oh man, this shit is making me light as a feather.”
Maybe it’s the presence of Marky Mark, but The Departed looms heavily over We Own The Night. The difference is stark, though, given Gray’s moody style drives at a silent type of self-loathing (as opposed to Catholic guilt). There are no Jack Nicholsons here; just Phoenix mumbling like the actor of his generation. While most of the drama isn’t exactly original, the final sequence is astounding and goes to show that Looper was entirely miscast.
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