This month: “The Adjuster”, “Austenland”, “Career Girls”, “Chef”, “The Double Life of Veronique” (pictured above), “Fever Pitch”, “Goal!”, “The Hundred-Year-Old Man…”, “Lilting”, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”, “Restless”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, “T.S. Spivet”, “Tip Top”, “We Are Mari Peva” and “Whispers Behind the Wall”.
I have also written some other features you can find elsewhere including “Remembering when Atom Egoyan was an unstoppable director in the 90s”, a piece on “Why the of Montreal doc The Past Is a Grotesque Animal is a must-see”, a celebration of “Steve Buscemi’s early roles: From The Way It Is to Trees Lounge” and some thoughtful suggestions on how to improve postmodern romantic comedies.
The average rating is 5.53/10 with film of the month being Career Girls. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
The Adjuster (1991) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Elias Koteas, Arsinée Khankian, Maury Chaykin
“You’ve come in just at the moment that the character in the film – the person that’s supposed to live here – has decided that he’s about to stop playing house. So, are you in or out?”
Austenland (2013) – 2.5/10
Director: Jerusha Hess
Writers: Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale
Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge
“I am single because apparently the only good women are fictional.”
My only experience with Jane Austen is forcing myself to read Persuasion, so I wouldn’t consider myself enough of a fan to visit a theme park based around the author (although I have visited her house). On the other hand, Keri Russell does consider herself to be enough of an Austenite to treat herself to holiday of a lifetime – or so she thought. Despite a surreal outback, Austenland is impressively limp; everyone is in fancy dress, carrying out self-imposed punishments, yet barely any comedy leaks out. There’s no engagement with Austen’s work at all, and the whole thing could just as easily be relocated to a Starbucks where you’re unsure if the staff secretly hates you.
Career Girls (1997) – 9/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Lynda Steadman, Katrin Cartlidge, Mark Benton
“I suppose on a clear day you can see a class struggle from here.”
I was recently wondering if there’s a word for the specific emotion felt on a long train journey home after a weekend visiting old friends. You’re too tired to read a book or even thumb through a Twitter feed. Instead, you look out the window for a period of self-reflection – literally, if it’s the right kind of glass – and end up making comparisons: your life with your friends’ lives, your life with your old life, and so on.
Career Girls is the first film in a while that really captures the feeling of diverting paths with real poignancy – not the bratty comedy where a school reunion reveals the class clown is now a humourless lawyer or the inventor of post-its.
Annie (Steadman) is on a train to visit her old uni housemate Hannah (Cartlidge). It’s been six years since they lived together and last saw each other. At the same time, flashbacks are interspersed to reveal the fragile personalities underneath. Some insecurities remain; others are better hidden. Hannah, once a sharp-mouthed “lefty”, grew into a “career gal” with her own flat. Annie still lives with her mother and feels defined by her singleton status and defeated optimism.
The frequently funny dialogue (“Ms Brontë, Ms Brontë, will I have a fuck soon?”) is tinged with broken nostalgia. After all, Hannah and Annie were supposedly best friends, yet lost touch despite earnest promises. In a Conservative environment, both female characters find themselves misunderstood and forgotten by opposite sex. Worst of all, they’re defined by their relationships with men. When they visit a flat (which Hannah can’t afford anyway), it’s a “loadsamoney” guy who loves his porn and repeatedly propositions the two women; he later calls them “lesbos” for turning down his champagne. The pattern repeats in a circular fashion.
The central relationship is more complex and built on regret; an eagerness to avoid co-dependency, so that the other isn’t brought down with their everyday bitterness. Because ultimately they are the Brontë sisters – they get the “bront” of everything.
Chef (2014) – 1/10
Director/Writer: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, EmJay Anthony, Sofia Vergara
Note: Originally reviewed for The Digital Fix.
“You sit and you eat and you vomit up all these words. It fucking hurts when you write this shit.”
There’s no denying that Jon Favreau has been on a download slope with the critics since writing and co-starring in the 1996 indie Swingers. That parachuting line graph lingers throughout Chef, a feel-good drama that, while free of conflict, seems to entirely be an undercooked riff on the filmmaking business.
Favreau directs, writes and stars in a haphazard storyline consisting of Carl (Favreau), a one-time critically lauded chef whose reputation sinks further with each meal. One restaurant blogger (Oliver Platt) is particularly outspoken, and even includes a jab about weight gain in a blogpost. “You sit and you eat and you vomit up all these words,” screams Carl. “It fucking hurts when you write this shit.” Are those words pointed at a different type of blogger perhaps?
Carl eventually hits the road with a food truck to rediscover his passion for culinary activities – not unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up after the Seinfeld finale. Accompanied by his son Percy (EmJay Anthony) and fellow cook Martin (John Leguizamo), the travels take up most of Chef as they amble about to serve sandwiches. That’s really it. One subplot, involving Sofía Vergara as Carl’s ex-wife, is barely covered upon – and even then, with the disdain usually reserved for washing up dishes. What’s more prevalent is the screenplay’s bizarre obsession with social media. Be ready for plot twists to revolve around Carl accidentally posting a Twitter DM on his timeline, or the shock when Percy geotags a Tweet. Sample line of dialogue: “What’s a Vine?”
If you’re not a fan of cooking montages set to soul music, then stay away. Carl’s main passion in life is preparing food in a kitchen, which he repeatedly states throughout. However, there’s little evidence in Chef – even with its aimless plot that always has food within the frame – that this is the case. In fact, the strongest emotions come when Carl eats the meals he’s prepared for himself. This self-congratulation befits a story that seems to be someone masking his own insecurities. Scarlett Johansson features in a minor role that exists purely to comfort him: “I want you to be happy. I know you’re not happy.” (Other female characters are there for quips about “divorce money”, or to be the target of an unpleasant Robert Downey Jr cameo.)
The central core of Favreau, Leguizamo and EmJay at least possess some charm, especially when Chef is determined to park its vehicle and go for an idle wander. Large portions consist of the trio riding in the truck, pondering over the marketing value of social media. In order to reach this position, Carl and Martin had to quit their jobs and pause their lives for a spontaneous holiday – Chef is that flavour of feel-good where nothing can go wrong. You’d think that letting a few “bros” hang out might amount to at least on conversation of note. At best, they each pour corn starch down their underwear. The reason? To set up a gag about hush puppies.
The Double Life of Véronique (1991) – 8.5/10
Director: Kryzsztof Kieślowski
Writers: Kryzsztof Kieślowski, Kryzsztof Pieseiewicz
Starring: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter
“All my life I felt I was in two places at the same time.”
Much like the Trois couleurs trilogy, Kieślowski weaves together coincidences and magic parallels that somehow work. The Double Life of Véronique doesn’t even make an effort to explain the sonic link between its two protagonists, Weronika and Véronique, beyond some cosmic puppetry. Both played by Irène Jacob, their lives hold a connection that’s completely illogical, beyond the “what if?” nature of imagining how you’d cope in a different culture. However, if you have that choice, be sure not be Weronika, a choir singer in Poland who kills on stage – and is killed herself in the process.
Véronique, situated in Paris, inherits her doppelganger’s emotional baggage – or “soul”, I suppose – and is catapulted into a love affair with someone she’s never met. The bizarre calibrations continue with complete sincerity and complexity, right down to Kieślowski treating each frame like a pre-finished jigsaw puzzle. There’s much to admire in the technical beauty and how Jacob’s distress is doused in fairytale confusion; although I ultimately questioned if the drama was a practical joke of nothingness, I could think of little else for the following few days. Perhaps I was just adopting the spirit of another “me” who had the same reaction elsewhere.
Fever Pitch (1997) – 4/10
Director: David Evans
Writer: Nick Hornby
Starring: Colin Firth, Ruth Gemmell, Mark Strong, Neil Pearson
“I do know this: my relationship with Arsenal changed that night.”
Goal! (2005) – 3/10
Director: Danny Cannon
Writers: Mike Jefferies, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Adrian Butchart
Starring: Kuno Becker, Alessandro Nivola, Anna Friel
“That’s not the way we do things over here.”
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2014) – 3/10
Original title: Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann
Director: Felix Herngren
Writers: Felix Herngren, Hans Ingemansson, Jonas Jonasson
Note: Originally reviewed for The Digital Fix.
Starring: Robert Gustafsson, Iwar Wiklander, David Wiberg, Mia Skäringer
“Where the fuck are you, old man?”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” wisecracks Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), the titular 100-year-old man who does indeed climb out of a window. Escaping a retirement home, the cranky figure finds himself in a zany escapade involving a stolen jackpot, dead bodies and a runaway elephant. At the same time, he recalls an oblivious experience encircling key moments in history – he was accidentally responsible for tearing down the Berlin Wall – in a series of coincident several rungs below Forrest Gump and Being There. Felix Herngren has, basically, directed a very broad comedy that produces quite a love/hate reaction.
The Swedish comedy has already proven a hit in its home box-office, with Gustafsson (50 years old in real life) being quite a local celebrity. However, Gustafsson’s fame hasn’t translated overseas, and I doubt The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared will alter that pattern. The slapstick comedy begins when Allan nonchalantly picks up another passenger’s suitcase, only to find it stuffed with illegally-sought money. When a criminal gang – part of the crime is that they’re underwritten caricatures – discover an elderly man has nabbed their cash, they set out for a gruelling chase that feels every bit of a two-hour running time.
While dragging the suitcase along, Allan befriends – or, really, conveniently befriended by – Julius (Iwar Wiklander), a station agent who joins in with the wacky adventure. Why? He just does. The ensemble snowballs with more non-entities: Benny (David Wiberg), a student whose one-joke personality is that he has no personality; Gunilla (Mia Skäringer), a woman who exists merely so Benny has a love interest; an elephant, whose character is as equally rounded as the others. Even if the film is only interested in moving from one slapstick set-piece to another, the blank figures on-screen feel like innocent bystanders.
Allan’s character background is deliberately thin, given his life amounts to a single gag: “For years I did nothing buy eat, sleep and blow things up. It was a wonderful time” His explosive hobby led to unfunny brushes with the likes of Franco and Herbert Einstein. The back-and-forth time switches are incredibly irksome and rather pointless, aside from displaying bad lookalikes and flexible set designs. One gag involves an overweight man urinating on a hill, only to die by mistakenly relieving himself near where Allen is playing with dynamite.
Bill Murray famously hit a low-point in his career with Larger than Life, a road-movie with an elephant as a co-star. What’s most damning about The Hundred-Year-Old Man… is that the elephant actually fits the tone, right down to a gag involving animal dung. There is presumably a target audience, though, who will likely laugh up the material that is at least consistent with its immature absurdity. For everyone else, there might be a scramble for any windows in the cinema.
Lilting – 8/10
Director/Writer: Hong Khaou
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei Pei, Peter Bowles, Movern Christie, Andrew Leung
Hong Khaou poignantly explores a multitude of themes – grief, loneliness, regret – through a deceptively simple premise about language barriers. The director’s debut, Lilting, introduces Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), a Chinese-Cambodian woman living alone a retirement home; sat in her room, she’s overwhelmed with heartbreak following the recent death of her only son, Kai (Andrew Leung). The pain is shared by Richard (Ben Whishaw) – Kai’s long-term boyfriend – who is keen for Junn to only know of him as the “best friend”.
The drama hinges on Richard’s pained attempts to connect with Junn without revealing the revelation – she doesn’t even know her son was gay. Crucially, she doesn’t speak any English, which necessitates Richard to hire an interpreter (Naomi Christie). The conversations are layered in repressed heartbreak from both sides: Richard hide his true relationship with Kai, while Junn bitterly blames Richard for never being able to live with her son. Sat in the middle is a stressed interpreter, trying her best to just be more of a messenger than referee.
With Junn and Richard taking turns to speak over a table, Lilting becomes a chess game of emotions. Much of the running time is spent watching and anticipating reaction shots for translated dialogue. Line by line, it’s apparent that one wrong move can upset the bond. Whishaw proves to be an adept physical actor whose fidgety gestures indicate to Junn that he’s hiding an underlying anguish (and would probably be terrible at poker). “Don’t tell her that,” he frequently asks his interpreter, after an outburst reveals too much of his true self. From the other side, Junn’s inscrutable exterior is an extension of her decades-long refusal to assimilate with British culture. When she conversely develops a fond fling with an elderly English resident, it’s evident her detachment with Richard is rooted by more than language.
While Lilting often resembles a chamber piece, it’s also the bare bones of a sweet story that requires modest settings – Junn’s retirement home is furnished after past decades to make residents feel younger. Perhaps tellingly, the film was constructed from a scheme that challenges filmmakers to use a budget under £120,000. Khaou understands how to pack an emotional weight through a small cast, especially with poetic flashbacks. Ultimately, the most compelling moments – the ones that will stick in memory – are the restrained physical gestures: eye contact when awaiting a translation, or hearing a foreign tongue change enunciation to produce harsher vowels. Some communications don’t require an interpreter.
The Past Is a Grotesque Animal (2014) – 8/10
Director: Jason Miller
Starring: Kevin Barnes
It’s a documentary about of Montreal, the greatest band outside of Pavement and the Jicks. I wrote about this in great detail for GFW.
Restless (2011) – 2.5/10
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Jason Lew
Starring: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska, Ryo Kase, Schuyler Fisk
“Same old, same old. Still dying.”
It may be a chance to work with Gus Van Sant, but Restless is the blot on Mia Wasikowska’s near-immaculate CV. (I’m sure she’ll spin it into a positive in the cover letter, though.) She’s Annie, a snarky cancer patient whose weary optimism is a tool for manipulating the audience: “Three months is almost the same as three centuries.” While there’s little wrong with her performance, Annie actually more of an emotional platform for Hopper’s turn as Enoch, an angsty teen who frequents funerals for fun and – get this – is friends with an invisible Japanese kamikaze pilot.
The mawkish direction is couple with a faint hue, as if the screen is always dying. Yet the script’s quirkiness feels too overwhelming to ever suffer such a fate. Yeah, it’s a bit sickly when it’s apparent having a girlfriend with cancer is just the male lead’s desire to be different – and even then, only as a lousy imitation of Harold and Maude.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – 8/10
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writers: Atom Egoyan, Russell Banks (novel)
Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood
“Something terrible has happened that has taken our children away. It’s too late.”
It was luck – and a few other contrivances – that saved Veronica Mars from a bus crash, and the TV show would have been vastly different had all her friends died in the accident. That doesn’t quite happen with The Sweet Hereafter. I wrote about it for a feature about Atom Egoyan in the 90s.
T.S. Spivet (2014) – 4/10
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Reif Larsen, Guillaume Laurant
Starring: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis
Note: Originally reviewed for The Digital Fix.
“The interesting thing about water is that they always take the path of least resistance. Humans are the opposite.”
The twee 3D (“twee-D”) family caper T.S. Spivet has perhaps confused its source material for an instruction manual, given Reif Larsen’s 2009 novel decorates its pages with illustrations, diagrams and maps. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the intricate visuals can only convey the title character’s ingenuity to a certain extent, as the humour is more occupied with T.S. (Kyle Catlett) as a child with the hyperactive imagination of someone raised on Malcolm in the Middle or Scrubs. By this I mean expect several cutaways to cartoonish daydreams – one example involves a fork in the road with signs labelled “Prairie of Truth” and “Mountain of Lies”.
The bright, beautifully rendered look is redolent of Amélie, Jeunet’s most famous (and divisive) work. Instead of Parisian romance, T.S. views the world with awe and scientific wonder: every object and creature exists at naturally selected angles. He hides away on a farm in Montana with a family recovering from the death of his brother. The mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is an academic who doesn’t notice his emotional anguish, possibly because her glasses aren’t 3D-compatible. What she also doesn’t detect is T.S. has been sending out blueprints and plans for a perpetual motion machine. The 10-year-old is awarded a prize by the Smithsonian museum who, assuming he’s an adult, request he delivers a talk at a ceremony. What follows is a solo trip to Washington via hopping on a freight train and sneaking past authority figures; the latter mostly consists of flat physical humour more commonly found in children’s cartoons. (There’s also a suitcase-packing scene completely derivative of Rushmore.)
Without giving anything away, T.S. Spivet almost wins me over in its last act. By this point, the character of T.S. has progressed from an obnoxious brat with a runny nose into a gifted prodigy struck by tragedy; the viewer is finally drawn into his world without requiring any of Jeunet’s sugary visual tricks. In other words, the director’s hand is gradually replaced by the imagination of a child genius. Another late highlight is Judy Davis with a snappily hilarious cameo as the museum’s undersecretary unperturbed by her chosen inventor’s real age. Her unexpected use of “Fuck!” also makes me wonder if I’d misjudged the film’s tone for those first two acts, instinctively assuming films about 10-year-olds are aimed at 10-year-olds.
That’s not to say T.S. Spivet is in any way deep or on the same level as its protagonist’s advanced brain. One example of mangled dialogue comes through a voiceover: “The interesting thing about water is that they always take the path of least resistance. Humans are the opposite.” The real selling point is unquestionably the visuals, especially the 3D which magnifies the vivid dream sequences. I will admit at times I pointlessly took off my glasses because I couldn’t fathom how some of the shots could even look in 2D. What isn’t so advanced is basing these gorgeously coloured, layered shots around a child imitating how children imitate sitcoms. At least there’s an anti-gun message in there, somewhere.
Tip Top (2014) – 6.5/10
Director: Serge Bozon
Writers: Odile Barski, Serge Bozon, Azelle Ropert, Bill James (novel)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Kiberlain, François Damiens
Note: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.
“We’re here to screw people, so might as well screw the right ones.”
One of many peculiar instances in Tip Top is when a detective, Esther (Isabelle Huppert), sticks out a tongue to taste blood dripping from her forehead in a sexual manner. The action is utterly bewildering for its occurrence in a murder case dealing with racial friction, and because it happens at least another five times as if ordinary behaviour.
For better or worse, director Serge Bozon has a frenzied take on Tip Top that’s gloriously and frustratingly all over the place. The two leads, Esther and Sally (Sandrine Kiberlain), are officers investigating the death of an Algerian police informant and find themselves in a world that’s more screwball than Raymond Chandler. At the same time, postcolonial tensions exist in the background and on TV screens. Not that you’d notice given how Bozon opts for a brazen, clowning approach that pits its main duo like a comedy double-act. It isn’t too far away from The Heat, except French, funnier and darker.
Huppert and Kiberlain carry off their roles with cartoonish aplomb. Esther takes a no-nonsense approach and learns everyone’s name in the office, whereas Sally – demoted for being a peeping tom when off-duty – is the fidgety, awkward presence standing a bit behind. Their flittering behaviour is at least a welcome break from a typical film noir detective. Likewise, Huppert’s role makes fun of her arthouse aura by playing Esther as a supremely deadpan figure who eats breakfast from a plate while steering a vehicle. More bizarrely, the duo share one thing in common: sexual quirks that sort of – but not really – define their character. One enjoys sadomasochism in the bedroom; the other prefers to be in a bedroom away from the action, if you get what I mean. The resultant slapstick scenes simply add a cloudy layer to Tip Top that borders on brilliance in its energetic unpredictability, while also a wasted opportunity that doesn’t have anything to say. So, ultimately it sits somewhere in the middle.
We Are Mari Pepa – 5.5/10
Original title: Somos Mari Pepa
Director: Samuel Kishi
Writers: Samuel Kishi, Sofía Gómez-Córdova
Starring: Alejandro Gallardo, Arnold Ramírez, Moisés Galindo, Rafael Andrade
Note: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.
“Like an an-i-mal…!”
In a garage just a bit down your road, there’s some bored young punks jamming because there’s nothing else to do. Samuel Kishi charmingly captures the youthful energy of one band in Mexico, built up of teen boys obsessed with sex. They’re also not ashamed of their single-minded urges, given they have only one song, in which the chorus goes: “I want to cum in your face, Natasha.” (It’s actually quite catchy, if you excuse the crudeness.) Furthermore, the band name derives from marijuana (Mari) and the slant term for vagina (Pepa). The hazy coming-of-ager is, thankfully, more than just a portrayal of obnoxious kids, given it touches upon the more sentimental side of adolescents who live with elderly relatives and are aware that their carefree days in the sun will soon be over.
The main teen is long-haired Alex (Alex Gallardo), who is especially keen for the band to enter a competition that has one hurdle: entrants must play two songs. The “difficult second song” proves harder to write, especially when the other members find their own distractions – one amusing note is when the bassist finds a girlfriend who takes priority over fretwork. Instead, the richer moments occur outside of band practice, primarily when Alex prepared for no longer being a 16-year-old. His training session for a sales firm becomes what looks like an induction to Scientology; his guitar is stolen, and the summer’s heat starts to burn.
There’s some expected similarities with Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! (tying with Boyhood for my favourite film of the year so far) in depicting mischievous teens being mischievous teens. However, We Are Mari Pepa isn’t as ample with the charm, and is often just meandering in its own serenity. What sticks is the suppressed shock beneath the male bravado and infantile humour, particularly when Alex considers job prospects and asks, “What the fuck is a biscuit maker?” (Good question.) By the end, the drama switches to full-on melancholy through a montage that reflects a powerful slice of nostalgia that arrives a little too late, but is appreciated nonetheless.
Whispers Behind the Wall – 4/10
Original title: Die frau hinter der wand
Director: Grzegorz Muskala
Writers: Grzegorz Muskala, Robby Dannenberg
Starring: Vincent Redetzki, Katharina Heyer, Florian Panzner
Note: This review was originally written for The Digital Fix.
It’s too easy to mention Polanski or Hitchcock whenever a suspenseful thriller pits a man alone in a new apartment, yet the initial strengths of Whispers Behind the Wall lie in how it playfully toys around with Rear Window, Repulsion and The Tenant. Transported to a German setting, the director Grzegorz Muskala delights with early flourishes of humour in the struggle of young student Martin (Vincent Redetzki)) to find somewhere to live – only to find a vacancy a little too easily.
The early tone is slanted towards offbeat humour rather than setting up any real sense of trepidation. All Martin has to do to secure a tenancy is pose topless (“That’d make her happy”) for a photo taken on a phone for the landlady’s approval. The flat itself is dishevelled and bears peculiar traces of the former owner: a broken mug bearing the name “ROBERT”, a diary with increasingly manic images when scrolling through the chronology, and a red mat that leads to a wall. Martin’s investigative nature at one point flickers towards Rear Window by spying on the neighbours across the street, before veering into a twist in which he – rather creepily – uses a stethoscope to eavesdrop on the female groans next-door.
What follows is a peculiar relationship with his landlady, Simone (Katharina Heyer), a blonde seductress who appears like a male fantasy (the screenwriters are male). She takes Martin to bed in the first meeting, only to reveal she has a threatening boyfriend. Add a few puzzling quirks like blood popping up from blocked drains, and Whispers Behind the Wall sets up quite a mystery: what happened to the former tenant?
Like many suspense thrillers, rigorous answers are usually best left unexplained – seeing as they’re often predictable, or so unpredictable that it’s completely ludicrous. When the plot amps up, the first act’s humour is loss for a more conventional thriller. The resultant love triangle – I use the term “love” loosely – performs another unsatisfying exercise in a sound cinematic convention that lacks any ingenuity. Although Muskala demonstrates an inventive eye for a low-budget horror and claustrophobic camera angles, there isn’t much beyond the early promise to suggest a fully rounded idea. Ultimately, it’s a mystery without any mystery.
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