This month: “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Babel”, “Beyond Clueless”, “Big Night”, “Biutiful”, “Brick”, “Gas Food Lodging”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “High Hopes”, “Joe”, “Sans soleil”, “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants”, “Three Colours: Blue”, “Three Colours: Red”, “Three Colours: White”, “Transcendence” and “Zodiac”.
I’ve written some features you can find elsewhere: “Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and aspect ratio shifts” (a trendwatch piece), “Why everyone wants to make films in Iceland now” (from mumblecore to Michael Bay), “Elliott Smith’s history in film” (includes a short film where he buys a robotic hand), and “How to shoot your entire film in a single take”. This month, the average rating is 6.31/10 with film of the month being Three Colours: Blue. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987) – 6/10
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: David Simkins
Starring: Elisabeth Shue, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan
“Don’t fuck with the babysitter.”
17-year-old Chris (Shue) drags around three obnoxious brats, makes poor decisions, and is subjected to sexual harassment. There’s also a cameo from someone who looks so much like Paul Rudd I had to look it up a few times to check. Adventures was supposedly the inspiration for DGG’s The Sitter, and in hindsight there’s a main difference: Shue is far more likeable than Jonah Hill. Also, the bit in the jazz club kills.
Babel (2006) – 5/10
Director: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi, Gael García Bernal
“What do you have that doesn’t have fun in it?”
Life is terrible in multiple locations.
Beyond Clueless (2014) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Charlie Lyne
Narrator: Fairuza Balk
“Side by side, they found their seat at the cafeteria table.”
Walking down the hallway is Charlie Lyne, a new filmmaker attracting attention from media cheerleaders, geeks who run the school newspaper, and any other cliques that fit my tired metaphor. I caught Beyond Clueless, a rhythmic video essay about teen movies, at the BFI alongside a sold-out audience – including Kickstarter backers and someone I recognised from TV – who queued outside in an excited fervour. The giddy atmosphere was like the anticipated chatter at a gig before the singer walks on stage. In this case, it was Summer Camp who played a live score, but that’s not the point: teen movies inspire a weird sense of exhilarated nostalgia for a world that’s relatable and false.
Although Lyne has built up a unique voice through his blog Ultra Culture, Beyond Clueless is narrated by Fairuza Balk. Like Sans soleil, the voiceover possesses a detached tone: both have deadpan women enunciating text written by a male director. The result is somewhat meditative (and in parts academic) in how the calm delivery accompanies a collage of teen movies – seriously loads – that rapidly shuffle between corresponding images. You see the first day of school in Crazy/Beautiful; you blink; it’s the first day of school in Mean Girls. So, there’s the worrying knowledge that I can recognise fictional schools better my own.
Summer Camp’s shoegaze-y score is perfect for the dreamy repetition – think The Virgin Suicides’ OST – and emulates the haziness of how the mind works. It’s more like a self-hypnosis tape than a didactic documentary (or even Balk’s narration of Gas Food Lodging). Subsequently, at times there doesn’t seem to be an overarching argument or progression – the epilogue doesn’t really feel like one. But that’s the sacrifice for an immersive experience that finds so much joy in dwelling on deeper cuts: obscure cult favourites (Disturbing Behaviour, Idle Hands) and the ones I’d always ignored based on gut reaction (13 Going on 30, Drive Me Crazy).
The sharp, concise editing explains plot synopses at a tempo fast enough that it doesn’t matter if you know the source material, yet not so adrenaline-fuelled that you’d otherwise be lost. Occasionally the doc seems to just be condensing plot summaries without much analysis; although fun, there isn’t much to take away from seeing The Faculty condensed to a minute. The spoilers are annoying, yes, but are at other times forgivable when taking the Sight & Sound approach to discuss a film as whole. Take, for instance, the level of scrutiny to the real meaning of Eurotrip, or the importance of the “oversized dollhouse” climax” in 13 Going on 30. Elsewhere, only a few images are necessary: Bubble Boy’s poetic shot of Jake Gyllenhaal with an erection in a bubble, it sums up the genre in a “nutshell”.
While traditional romantic comedies and action thrillers are dying out (and resorting to self-references for a final grasp for relevance), the teen genre is still strong – my two favourites films of the year so far are We Are the Best! and Boyhood. For authenticity, the end credits list a few hundred teen features Lyne sat through for research, making it extra clear how much he loves the source material. It’s more of a passion project than a vanity project; and that’s a passion presumably shared by anyone seeking out Beyond Clueless. In a packed NFT1 auditorium, it felt a bit like 13 Going on 30: we were 500 Jennifer Garners under the spell of a parallel universe.
Big Night (1996) – 4/10
Directors: Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci
Writers: Joseph Tropiano, Stanley Tucci
Starring: Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini
“This is so fucking good, I should kill you.”
Sometimes you hear about a restaurant for ages. “It’s so good!” everyone tells you. And by everyone, I mean your favourite film critics. And then you finally get to that restaurant because, for some reason, Netflix starts streaming food. And you stream that food and it tastes just like anything else you could have eaten that day. It’s just pasta, okay. (Cool final scene, though – the best omelette since Ninotchka.)
Biutiful (2010) – 4/10
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarezm Hanaa Bouchaib
“I tried to pray, but I don’t know who to pray for.”
Life is not only terrible, it’s also boring.
Brick (2005) – 4.5/10
Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Emilie de Ravin
Second viewing – like a brick, I am still unmoved. Johnson’s genre exercise (setting a neo-noir at school) steeds well for 20 minutes, but doesn’t expand upon its gimmick. JGL is Raymond Chandler without a personality. One positive is – as The Big Sleep demonstrated in its geographical grapples with the city – how well Johnson pins down schools as weirdly vacuous arenas, full of mindless corridors echoing footsteps and students practising piano inside the music rooms. Well, it’s better than setting a time travel thriller on a farm.
Gas Food Lodging (1992) – 7/10
Director: Allison Anders
Writers: Allison Anders, Richard Peck (novel)
Starring: Brooke Adam, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk
“This is a rock – an ugly, pointless, fucking rock.”
Sundance 1992 is brought up for its breakout hits such as In the Soup and Reservoir Dogs. Anders’ Gas Food Lodging doesn’t quite reach those heights, but shares an understated indie sensibility; drama doesn’t require a budget. Nora (Adams) is the single mother of two daughters slowly learning their hometown of Laramie is full of little but dust and lousy men. With a father long departed, the trio separately meet unreliable jerks or sweet losers with embarrassing social skills. Really, the options aren’t much better than the multicoloured rocks lining local caves.
Trudi (Skye) earns the showier storyline as a teen rebel who skips school to hang with boys who treat her with less respect than a Wheatus song. Her flirtatious nature on one hand is a response to her mother’s loneliness, but later reveals a deeper wound – treated sensitively, but a tad too soapy for my tastes.
Really, the film belongs to younger sister Shade (Balk) who narrates like Vada in My Girl. The parallel is prominent with Shade endlessly worrying about her mother’s singledom ruining the “normal” family structure – normal people doing normal boring things, or something like that. There’s also subtle humour in her pained optimism through dealing with a potential suitor who idolises Olivia Newton John, while she unearths romantic kicks at Mexican cinema marathons.
While the story somewhat relies upon chance meetings to speed up the multiple narratives, the real melancholic beauty comes from Anders’ refusal to succumb to unearned sentimentalism. The uncertainty is accompanied by a tonally sweet, strummed-out score by J. Mascis (who makes a small cameo to mention bees because Macaulay Culkin wasn’t available). By the end, it’s apparent the family crisis exists in knee-jerk solutions (and the resistance to knee-jerk solutions).
Tellingly, Shade worries to her mother, “What are we going to do without Trudy here? You and I never talk.” Nora, without thinking, installs a TV.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – 5.5/10
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper
When Gunn cooked up a violent ode to underdogs in Super, he turned Dwight from The Office into an unlikely superhero. Marvel have copied and pasted that formula with Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks & Rec): Peter Quill, a wisecracking criminal with his own nickname (“I’m Star-Lord!”) that won’t catch on – not even when unleashing his unexpected fighting finesse. Alongside other oddballs, Quill forms the Guardians of the Galaxy: a gang of thieves forced into saving the world for business reasons and because a talking tree learns a new pronoun.
37 years after the first Star Wars, Guardians follows a similar model. Instead of talking robots, you have Bradley Cooper voicing a raccoon and Vin Diesel channelled through a tree. Alongisde them are Dave [the] Bautista as Drax the heavily tattooed Destroyer, and Zoe Saldana as a green assassin called Gamora. For a moment, the unusual gathering seems worth it: side by side, they struggle to fit inside the same frame due to height irregularities. But, despite the promise of being the first actually funny Marvel release, don’t expect this to be Parks & Rec in space – even if Pratt is in full-on Andy Dwyer mode. Just appreciate that for some reason there’s an eloquent raccoon with hints of alcoholism, depression and an early acceptance his lifespan is shorter than a human’s.
Guardians is not the subversive comicbooks movie to lure in sceptics. It’s the same plot beats and characters from Avengers Assemble, with different makeup. In fact – I can’t believe I’m saying this – Guardians lacks anyone as realised as Captain America or Hawkeye. A raccoon and walking tree are fun as interstitial distractions, but lack the staying power of… well, Jeremy Renner carrying a shield. And it’s hard to ignore (or forgive) a supposedly emotional scene between Quill and Gamora that is basically the bit in Garden State with The Shins.
Pratt comes off best whenever his comedic persona is juxtaposed with the absurdity of his surroundings (especially if it involves dancing or singing). Perhaps Star-Lord would have been better off on a solo outing; his empathy is more convincing than a raccoon feigning insult as being labelled “a rodent”. After all, the screenwriters are evidently keen to insert hints of an Oedipal complex whenever he mistakes Gamora for his mother. They do at least concede that superhero movies are about returning to the womb and never growing old – a salient point, even if it’s about as subtle as Ronan’s hammer.
High Hopes (1988) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Doré, Philip Jackson
“What made this country great was a place for everyone and everyone in his place. And this is my place.”
London’s inextricable inequality mined for heartache, bitterness, and a reminder to never leave the house without a key.
Joe (2014) – 7.5/10
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Gary Hawkins, Larry Brown (novel)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
“You can’t keep going to folks’ houses, killing their dogs, no matter what’s going on. And you can’t keep fist-fighting the law.”
Prince Avalanche was an obvious attempt by Green to hark back to his early, indie minimalism. That streak continues with Joe, especially as he planned on adapting the novel before All the Real Girls. The plot is eerily similar to Mud but with Cage replacing McConaughey as a different brand of violent loner; this guy at least has a conventional name. Joe is just your regular person with a three-letter name. He’s an ex-con filled with simmering anger and a reputation for expressing his emotions too strongly in the past. So far, so Nic Cage. He does, however, gain a respectful role running a business where exhausted, sweaty men poison trees so new ones can grow. (Is that an allegory? Maybe if you’re a tree.) While Joe doesn’t grow branches or leaves, he leaves his own troubles by branching into a father figure for 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan); they see each other as themselves at different point of their lives, which turns out to be a decent way to form a meaningful connection.
Gary’s desperation for a job is charged by two fears stemming from home. One is financial; the other is his terrifying father (Poulter, a real homeless man). The dynamic would probably be trite and predictable for most directors, but Green is not “most directors”. Firstly, he’s not a plural. Secondly, crestfallen men in a rural environment is the director’s speciality. Regular cinematographer Tim Orr shoots each frame with all of nature’s ugliness – violent dogs, especially – enveloping the locals. With a neighbourhood like this, Joe no longer sees the point in tidying up his home.
Green uncharacteristically removes any humour from Joe, which leaves nearly two hours worth of seriousness and surrogate father/son bonding. The unexpected warmth seeps from Cage controlling his inner attention-seeker – he shows glimpses when necessary, and otherwise sticks to sighing resignation. Sheridan also does fine, given that he’s now a pro at playing this role for whichever North Carolina filmmaker has his number. Ultimately, it’s more Undertow than George Washington, but for now it’ll do.
Sans soleil (1983) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Chris Marker
Starring: Alexander Stewart
“They want people to look at them, but they don’t seem to notice that people do.”
With recurring images of cats in absurd poses, Marker predicted internet culture in an artful manner. Sans soleil goes further through its digressions and jumbled up contexts, all scrambling for a way to decipher memories. The distanced narrator – reading someone else’s letters – translates a filmmaker’s worries that he’d forget everything were it not for cameras and photography. Marker, in this sense, is fretting over an itch later scratched by the web: a narcissistic record of every idea and activity.
Vertigo becomes a focus point; Cary Grant tries to recreate the past, just as Sans soleil does by visiting San Francisco. Waves crash in slow motion, the lost art of silent memory washes over the viewer. Who hasn’t sat alone at a beach in a cogitative pose feeling high and mighty, when actually you’re trying to cope without a laptop?
The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005) – 5/10
Director: Ken Kwapis
Writers: Delia Ephron, Elizabeth Chandler, Ann Brashares (novel)
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera
“These aren’t just jeans; they make things happen.”
Four friends share a pair of magical jeans that brings them much needed guidance when they each face separate tragedies. If only they’d realise the trousers are cursed and the source of their bad luck.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) – 7.5/10
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Todd Haynes, Cynthia Schneider
Starring: Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Melissa Brown
“Let’s go back to southern California where Karen and Richard grew up…”
Karen Carpenter’s tragedy is well-known enough for a film to be titled The Karen Carpenter Story as a selling point. The singer’s battle with anorexia has been the basis in made-for-TV biopics alike, which is a simplistic term that can’t be painted upon Haynes’ subversive take – so subversive, it faced a “cease and decease” order.
Nearly every character is portrayed by a Ken or Barbie doll in miniature sets that recapture the artifice of cheap doll sets. Although this kind of puppetry has since become associated with mock sex through appropriation by Team America and They Came Together, Haynes achieves a haunting allegory that evolves from a smart idea into a poetic representation. As Karen’s anorexia worsens, so does the condition of the doll – the bewildered reactions of manufactured toys exacerbate the pain she inflicts upon herself.
In an early precursor to Safe, Karen is both the instigator and victim of her condition. While she receives little support from onlookers, it is her own self-punishment to obsess over the food she forbids herself from consuming. Of course, this point is rather easy to spot seeing as Haynes actually spells it out for the viewer in blocks of text that suggest the film could serve an educational process. That’s possible, although there should be enough faith in the intelligence of a viewer seeking such a odd piece of work in the first place.
Three Colours: Blue (1993) – 9.5/10
Director: Kryzsztof Kieślowski
Writers: Agnieszka Holland, Kryzsztof Kieślowski, Kryzsztof Pieseiewicz, Edward Zebrowski
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Emmanuelle Riva
“It was to be played only once.”
As beautiful and hypnotic The Double Life of Veronique may be, there was still the excessive ridiculousness behind its mystical conceit – even fans must excuse its lack of logic. Kieślowski’s follow-up, Blue, retains the rich cinematography (swapping burnt yellows for chlorine blue) while instilling a back story as hard as stone.
Kieślowski’s pristine presentation implies a self-awareness over the film’s greatness. Julie (Binoche) rarely speaks, choosing to hide away from her past following the death of her husband and daughter in a car crash. She lives alone, tries to escape her memories, and stares into glass surfaces to cogitate: the camera fixes upon her like a sculpture, introducing fadeouts and hints of a symphony cooked inside her brain. Binoche possesses a face that – like sad Bill Murray – is utterly compelling, with expressions that are pained and inscrutable; no need for tears or close-ups here.
Much is made about Julie’s husband being one of the most renowned composers. Bubbling underneath is a score gently teased out – artfully composed frames are, in a way, like sheet music. However, the score is second-place to how the protagonist’s emotional crisis desperately needs an output. If the blue of the French flag represents liberty, then freedom is best sought by through an orchestra playing out the existential crisis.
Life’s cruelty is typified by accidental reminders of the accident, carving out heartbreak from mundane excursions. There’s an outpouring of children at the swimming pool, a literal multiplication of mouse babies in the apartment, and the echo of her husband’s orchestral pieces (which she’s alleged to have written) that won’t quit stalking her – even a busker’s recorder melody bears similarity. Her mother’s impeding amnesia is a bitter irony.
Three Colours: Red (1994) – 6.5/10
Director: Kryzsztof Kieślowski
Writers: Kryzsztof Kieślowski, Kryzsztof Pieseiewicz
Starring: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant
“This way, I know the weather all over Europe.”
The trilogy’s finale – and specifically the final shot – is an undeniably satisfying conclusion in how it pulls together Kieślowski’s meticulous string-pulling. But as a standalone film? Just as I found with my first viewing of the trilogy a few years, the rewatch confirmed I am perhaps dead inside for not feeling anything at all during the central relationship: a bubblegum model (Jacob) befriends a creepy judge (Trintignant) who predicts the future because it’s, well, a Kieślowski film. I guess it does have the bonus of having not one, but three happy endings.
Unlike the emotional catharsis of Blue and White, the drama ends with a punchline – a smart wink and a pat on the back. The build-up is at least composed and thoughtful in how one woman changes the philosophy of an elderly man (while also allowing Trintignant to resurrect his role in Il Sorpasso as someone easily manipulated by anyone who walks through his frontdoor). Still, as punchlines go, it’s one worth blowing up for a wall-sized advertisement.
Three Colours: White (1993) – 7.5/10
Director: Kryzsztof Kieślowski
Writers: Kryzsztof Kieślowski, Kryzsztof Pieseiewicz
Starring: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Janusz Gajos, Julie Delpy
“If I say I love you, you don’t understand. And if I say I hate you, you still don’t understand.”
It’s a bit unfortunate that White/Blanc tends to be tarnished with “middle child” reactions, given its placement in the trilogy between Blue and Red. Zamachowski is truly something as Karol, a man who loses everything to divorce (which, for extra humiliation, brings up the lack of consummation in court) and lives inside a suitcase. (To be fair, the suitcase is only marginally smaller than a flat in central London.) Karol’s idea of luck is meeting Mikolaj (Gajos), who offers him a hearty payment to kill another person who wishes he/she were dead. As comedies go, it’s much darker than the White of the title, and counters the persistently snowy cinematography.
Karol’s screwball revenge consists of moving from France to Poland, where he climbs up the capitalist ladder – around the same speed as Binoche swimming lengths in Blew. Instead of the Preston Sturges caper one might perceive from the plot, a deeper story plays out around the dialogue. Karol’s hairdressing skills are less important than his inner quest for catharsis – the payoff is devastating and conjures up humanity when least expected.
Transcendence (2014) – 3/10
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Johnny Depp
“You recorded the brain’s consciousness and uploaded it like a song or movie.”
What happens when Chris Nolan’s cinematographer thinks he can do it too? Transcendence plays out like the dumb surveillance part of The Dark Knight – and it’s downhill from there. What follows is an emotionally inert thriller that has Rebecca Hall trying her best with a script possibly created by computer software.
Zodiac (2007) – 8.5/10
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Robert Graysmith (novel), Zodiac killer (murders)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards
“I’m not Paul Avery.”
Like Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), I have come back to the allure of Zodiac years after first encountering the mystery – by which I mean I’ve now seen it twice. Fincher’s fastidious direction unravels the messy assortment of clues left and discarded by detectives, witnesses and the Zodiac killer himself. Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist, hoovers up the crime like Garfield eating lasagne in the third panel.
More prominent detectives (Ruffalo) and journalists (Downey, Jr.) give up on the case when it’s apparent that the deaths are slowing down, and more prominent concerns exist everywhere (even if they lack the readymade TV-drama appeal of a real life Se7en). In that sense, Zodiac isn’t too far from Zero Dark Thirty; the search is a mask for a personal malaise that has nothing to do with the victims. (Well, duh.)
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