This month: “All That Heaven Allows”, “Bande à part”, “Boarding Gate”, “Dirty Work”, “The Exterminating Angel”, “The Family”, “G.B.F.”, “Let’s Be Cops”, “Lucy”, “Magic Magic”, “Panic Room”, “The Rover”, “Secrets & Lies”, “Wings of Desire” and “The Wrestler”.
Isn’t it great to be alive? Just wondering, as I keep changing my mind. You can also read some other features I wrote elsewhere including “How the wrong song can ruin your film”, a celebration of Whit Stillman entitled “The discreet charm of Whit Stillman’s bourgeoisie” and a piece on “The best unproduced screenplays that will never be made”. The average rating is 6.17/10 and film of the month is Secrets and Lies. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) – 8/10
Director: Douglas Sirk
Writers: Peg Fenwick
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson
“This isn’t one of your case histories, this is us!”
Like a detective running through events in reverse chronological order, I’ve come to Sirk’s landmark melodrama via Todd Haynes’ tribute Far From Heaven. The soapy story is so simply that its colours emerge like a prism, full of heightened emotions and sexual metaphors. Exaggerated reds and blues merge with teardrops, but are unable to spoil Rock Hudson. Beyond the subtext, there’s an array of dazzling shots that stick in the mind: prominent stages and haunting TV reflections, especially.
Bande à part (1964) – 7.5/10
English title: Band of Outsiders
Director/Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
“How do you say: ‘A big one million dollar film’?”
For several years this blog’s background has alternated between stills of dance scenes from Surviving Desire and Simple Men. In both sequences, Hal Hartley was paying tribute to Bande à part; three criminals bicker about nothing at all, fail to stay silent for 60 seconds, and then take to the jukebox for their own choreographed movements.
The drama – a mesh of self-awareness and power politics – works best in bits, which is perhaps why it’s most remembered for the aforementioned scenes, rather than a whole. However, the detached direction pinpoints the gender dynamics when a band of outsiders consist of Anna Karina and two male crooks slowly falling for her charms. Godard’s omniscient voiceover just goes to show once and for all: there really is a Godard.
Boarding Gate (2007) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Carl Ng, Kelly Lin
“And it looks like I calculated the right way, because here you are.”
Assayas used Irma Vep to question if French and Japanese cinema could meld into a new genre. Well, Boarding Gate literally moves the action halfway from Paris to Hong Kong, while keeping within B-movie territory. Argento is the film’s star and unlikely action hero, switching between femme fatale and unstoppable badass – all it takes is a piece of cliched dialogue to kick things off. Even if the story – I wouldn’t read too deeply into the themes – is ultimately clunky and nothing new, there’s a layer of trashy noir intrigue in the moody visuals.
Dirty Work (1998) – 4/10
Director: Bob Saget
Writers: Frank Sebastiano, Norm Macdonald, Fred Wolf
Starring: Norm Macdonald, Artie Lange, Jack Warden, Traylor Howard
“You didn’t count on my loyal army of prostitutes, did ya?”
I often think I can watch Norm Macdonald do anything. The guy’s delivery – predictable and unpredictable at the same time – cracks me up enough that I sat through an entire hour of him interviewing Adam Sandler. But the guy’s admitted he’s not quite an actor, which meant misplaced low expectations for Dirty Work. Macdonald plays a likeable, occasionally offensive lead who starts up a business with Artie Lange that carries out revenge for customers. The humour is fairly lowbrow and the kind you’d expect from Sandler (who makes a cameo) and, come to think of it, none of it is funny at all. But, as I said, I can watch Norm do anything.
The Exterminating Angel (1962) – 6.5/10
Original title: El Ángel Exterminador
Director/Writer: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal
“The butler’s strange resistance to carrying out orders confirms my suggestions. Since last night, not one of us – try as we might – has been able to leave this room.”
There’s an episode of Peep Show where Jeremy exits a play at the interval; the smile on his face couldn’t be bigger. Buñuel tackles the reverse with deadpan confidence. After a dinner party, the gathering are physically unable to leave the room, and end up spending the night – everyone is too polite to bring up the odd behaviour. The inertia remains once the issue is discussed, but the guests – still in suits and fancy dresses – can’t leave the room and slowly succumb to dangerous levels of thirst and hunger.
The concept is ingenious and Buñuel mines as much comedy as possible from the awkwardness – note the initial embarrassment of taking off a jacket, and how that eclipses the more prominent faux pas. However, like the guests, the gimmick is limited in its distance. As a surreal touch, a herd of farmyard animals enter the room, representing the fenced socialites; the symbolism is apt, the satire is precise, the inevitable repetition is rampant.
The Family (2013) – 3.5/10
Director: Luc Besson
Writers: Lec Besson, Michael Caleo, Tonino Benacquista
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron
“Why does he need to write a book?”
A mobster and his family take a new secret identity in France, only to display a few old habits by beating up neighbours with tennis rackets. Despite a high gag rate, there aren’t really any jokes – just a slow build-up to a meta-twist where De Niro watches Goodfellas.
G.B.F. (2014) – 7/10
Director: Darren Stein
Writer: George Northy
Starring: Michael J Willett, Paul Iacono, Sasha Pieterse
“I’d rather say hello to a handbag than a boyfriend.”
High school. It isn’t fun, especially when you’re unwillingly outed to classmates because of an iPhone app designed for same-sex dating. The title refers to the term “gay best friend”, the most desirable accessory in 2014. Well, according to a clique of popular girls aiming to be crowned prom queen. With comically laboured abbreviations stitched into casual lexicon, G.B.F. at times comes across like a pale imitation of Mean Girls – one cutaway slyly recognises this – with the misfortune of drowning in a similar crowd. However, the script is wittier than said copycats, and crescendos into an affecting drama that exceeds its initial gimmicky premise.
Willett and Iacono play two best friends who are gay and, despite what others may think, not a couple. School politics twist Willett into the most popular boy in school (if you ignore a few beatings, and subsequent protests from the Mormon community); he discovers unrequited friendship and non-stop attention isn’t so fulfilling when it’s all about image – or, as one girl describes it, “homosexiness”. It may be more Mean Girls than Gregg Araki, but there’s an anarchic spirit in defeating outdated labels.
Let’s Be Cops (2014) – 3/10
Director: Luke Greenfield
Writers: Luke Greenfield, Nicholas Thomas
Starring: Jake Johnson, Damon Wayons Jr, Nina Dobrev
“Play it cool? I can’t play it cool – I’m black!”
There’s a throwaway gag in Dirty Work when Norm Macdonald suits up as a policeman simply to wreak revenge on some campus jocks; he kicks the shit out of them, only for the punchline to reveal the genuine cops are gleefully violent and abuse their authority over strangers. Of course, Dirty Work is a deliberately absurd, episodic piece of work that portrays officers as demonic bullies. Let’s Be Cops adapts the premise as if a PR company was hired to clean up the image – and in doing so plucked two actors from New Girl, hoping their likeability can sweep up the carnage.
Released when Ferguson protests are still taking place in America, Let’s Be Cops already has an uphill struggle with its dodgy one-sentence synopsis. Johnson and Wayans are placed firmly as their New Girl characters, but with less Zooey Deschanel. They turn up to a party as policemen, and discover the uniform can convince stoned teenagers, intoxicated women, and real officers. Normally, that’d just be a B-story in a 22-minute episode, but Let’s Be Cops stretches out the gag incomprehensibly without making the motives clear.
Wayans keeps the uniform to impress a waitress (Nina Dobrev in a thankless role, given no jokes), while Johnson is simply building his own confidence. Pursuing the hoax never makes much sense, nor does the fact it takes so long for them to realise impersonating an officer is highly illegal (and highly uninteresting). Even the gags that arise share little with the conceit, mostly revolving around racial stereotypes and gay panic. The two protagonists slowly morph into “heroes”, without any of the subversion present in Observe and Report or Taxi Driver. It takes just 10 minutes for Wayans to be in a conference room, making a presentation that argues it’s “cool to be cops” – the more violent the better. Maybe the people behind Let’s Be Cops only saw the last 5 minutes of Taxi Driver.
Lucy (2014) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked
“I am everywhere.”
The Film Stage’s Twitter account linked to an extract from Besson’s screenplay introduction: “It is difficult to describe in words without running the risk of losing or boring the reader… the beginning is Leon: The Professional; the middle is Inception; the end is 2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, it’s more that Lucy is difficult to describe in words without sounding dismissive or an idiot. Based on the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains, the knowingly dumb thriller is more excited at esoteric action sequences that emerge from Scarlett Johansson developing the sonar skills of a dolphin.
A better comparison would be if Besson’s own La Femme Nikita replaced its first act’s extensive training session with someone snorting blue drugs for a few seconds. Lucy is a drug mule captured by Thailand gangsters who force feed her a synthetic form of CPH4 to boost her brain power. Just as you’re not supposed to keep baby tigers as pets, she overcomes her captors and wreaks havoc for a vague reason that’s neither revenge nor altruistic. (The wildlife comparison is apt; Besson inserts incessant clips of the animal kingdom, as if the audience operates on 2% brainpower.)
Like Transcendence and The Dark Knight, Morgan Freeman is called upon as the explainer of stretched sci-fi concepts; he delivers a lecture to would-be scientists, concluding that “life is about revolution, not evolution.” It’s not worth the kilojoules trying to make sense of Lucy. The swift 89-minute running time keeps the pseudo science to a minimum, and even then it’s laughable. The lecture hall applauds Freeman’s lousy jokes, and it’s back to watchable silliness: Scar-Jo kicking bad guys across the room.
Lucy reads minds, can’t be penetrated by bullets, and can use two laptops at the same time. She’s the ideal freelance journalist. She’s also explicitly made out to be an experiment, rather than a character – if anything, she’s less human than Johansson’s vessels in Her, Under the Skin and Chef. However, the real experimentation is from Besson, combating the notion that movies can’t exceed beyond 10% of implausibility. His screenplay pushes and prods around Lucy’s gifts, culminating in a finale that’s laugh-out-loud brilliant and audacious. Ultimately, the story’s about more than condensing all knowledge into a USB stick – it’s condensing all genres into a 90-minute flick.
Magic Magic (2014) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Sebastián Silva
Starring: Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Michael Cera, Catalina Sandino Moreno
“Okay, now put your head in the fire.”
The curious title of Magic Magic artificially inserts mystery into a drama that too often replaces suspense with rote confusion. Alicia (Temple) is at the centre, as a young adult visiting her cousin (Browning) in Chile; at the age of emerging independence, she’s overwhelmed by the peer pressure of her cousin’s spirited friends. There’s also the alienation of being a foreigner; even Michael Cera speaks Spanish.
A few unoriginal shots of barking dogs do not suffice. But the uneasy tone provides an enjoyable watch (which is unlikely to be Silva’s intent). Cera also deserves a special mention as a hilarious antagonist – obnoxious and more real than his similarly slanted counterpart in This is The End. Even if the nutty climax seems undeserved, there is something slightly dangerous underneath, particularly from Alicia’s unpredictable state. Sadly, I’m not sure how much of that is intentional.
Panic Room (2002) – 6/10
Director: David Fincher
Writer: David Koepp
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto
“I was just thinking we should do something like this.”
Perhaps inspired by Home Alone, Fincher and Koepp prove there’s a better method to fighting off burglars than setting up silhouettes of a fake party. The panic room is effectively burying yourself alive, except the coffin is a bit nicer. Unlike Ryan Reynolds, Foster and Stewart don’t have any means for a phone call. Three bumbling burglars argue with each other, while delivering enough exposition for the audience: both fictional and non-fictional viewers watching at home.
There’s no point pretending any of it is remotely plausible or smart. If anything, the dialogue is gleefully stupid. Similarly, Fincher’s showy camera angles are obnoxious and reminiscent of someone who believed Fight Club was a philosophical slice of genius. The delight is in sinking down to what these idiots will do next. It’s horribly compelling and I would have watched the whole thing if it was five hours long. Maybe it could have been a TV series: “Tune in next week to find out how to fix a broken telephone wire using only a chocolate bar.”
The Rover (2014) – 4.5/10
Director/Writer: David Michôd
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy
“Do you want a boy?”
There’s a writer of The Simpsons who claims he can’t rewatch “Homerpalooza” (the one with The Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth” because of a lazy gag involving a dog nicknamed “Rover Hendrix”. This was something that popped into my mind during Michôd’s futuristic western, where survivors duel in the middle of nowhere, leaving empty spaces to soak in the characters’ plight and fears. But, instead, my mind wandered to trivia like “Rover Hendrix”.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Australia is one of the few countries still standing and dishing out a new currency. The plot, so to speak, concerns Eric (Pearce) wondering who stole his car; he finds the thief’s abandoned brother (Pattinson), and sets off for revenge. Except it’s not revenge – more an obligation in an empty schedule. Michôd’s word leaves a bit too much to the imagination, as if the rules were never put in place; no one reacts or behaves accordingly to a new world order. That might the point: when the dollars dry out, so does restraint. Either way, I left sensing an artificial mood – a bit of keyboard there, a bit of Ed Cullen sputtering over there – that relies too much upon geography to fill in the gaps.
Secrets & Lies (1996) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan
“You’ve drawn the short straw, mate.”
There’s a patient hour before an adopted black optometrist meets her white birth mother for the very first time. Leigh’s character masterwork elaborately shapes both backgrounds through seemingly insignificant conversations and details, before escalating into a dramatic climax that’s every much about noticing who is making eye contact. Brilliant.
Wings of Desire (1987) – 8.5/10
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, Richard Reitinger
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Peter Falk
“All these thoughts. I’d really rather not think anymore.”
Before smartphones, the only way to pass the time on an idle street was to have a chat with a guardian angel. There’s two in Berlin who walk around the scenic black-and-white streets, eavesdropping on stressed figures – it turns out everyone is sad, depressed and lonely. Funnily enough, the angels feel the same way, which makes you wonder: why would you want to exist in any form at all? Damiel (Ganz) is particularly desperate to reach a human form to experience delights like – as advised by Peter Falk – coffee and cigarettes. Oh yeah, and love. The floating cinematography is hypnotic on its own, if it wasn’t for the poetic thoughts that seep through the airwaves like a radio transmitter tuned into Melancholy FM. Damiel, however, is drawn like a moth – or an angel – to Marion, a dancer with one wish: “As a child, I wanted to live on an island. A woman alone. Gloriously alone.” However, that’s just the life of an angel – suffering is just another way to describe being alive.
The Wrestler (2008) – 7/10
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
“The 90s fucking sucked.”
What I found most fascinating was working out Siegel’s angle. After years writing and editing The Onion, does he want to play it straight? Well, Rourke’s semi-retired sports figure could easily be a news story on their homepage. Years after the heydays, Rouke mainly wrestles with stacking shelves in a supermarket day job – but still dreaming of a sport built on fakeness, while lusting after a lap dancer whose affections are as real as WWF. Well worth unpeeling the layers.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.