This month: “20,000 Days on Earth”, “Adult World”, “All or Nothing”, “The Babadook”, “The Canyons”, “The Color Wheel”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, “Grand Piano”, “The Guest”, “Happy-Go-Lucky”, “Horns”, “The Judge”, “Life After Beth”,“Life is Sweet”, “The Love Punch”, “Nightcrawler”, “Palo Alto”, “Say When”, “The Skeleton Twins”, “This is Where I Leave You”, “Vera Drake”, “What We Do in the Shadows” and “The Wind Rises” (pictured above).
These are some things I’ve seen over the last two months. Also, some highlights of features I’ve written elsewhere include a piece on “Mike Leigh’s miserable male losers”, a collection of “Shorts that became great features”, a thorough “Re-examination of Eyes Wide Shut”, a look at “Student films by directors before they were famous”,.
The average rating is 5.61/10 with film of the month being this blog hooked up to a cinema screen. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014) – 7/10
Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Starring: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Kylie Minogue
Adult World (2014) – 6.5/10
Director: Scott Coffey
Writer: Andy Cochran
Starring: Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, John Cusack
“This is just so not how my life was supposed to turn out.”
When the psychopathic serial killer in The Frozen Ground was unveiled as John Cusack, it didn’t work. “John,” I said, “you should stick to snarky, middle-aged grumps.” And he was obviously reading my blog because here he is in Adult World as the Cusack-iest person possible: a mean-spirited, loquacious poet who resents the world for not making him a better known writer. Oh yeah, he’s also called Rat Billings.
We only learn of Rat’s talents through the fandom of Amy (Emma Roberts), a wannabe poet who – strictly for the screenplay’s comedic purposes – can only find a job in a sex shop called Adult World. The conveniently named convenience store is where she meets a charming co-worker (Evan Peters), meets creepy strangers with sticky hands, and also questions if life will be a massive disappointment. After all, why does she deserve fame and a dream job just because in her spare time she writes blogs? I mean, poems. She writes poems.
The jumpy story never really settles on any of these areas for too long. Amy’s relationships with boys are included with. More interesting are her bizarre interactions with Rat, who takes the “cruel to be kind” mantra as a cure for boredom. She becomes his maid in a desperation to soak in his talents, while thinking of little else – despite several clues she’s closer to writing T.S. Spivet than T.S. Eliot.
But the dimly lit watchability comes from Roberts’ comedic, understated ways of embarrassing herself. Her emotions repeatedly take over in seemingly mundane situations – like receiving a tiny piece of good news – in a surprisingly relatable manner not obviously played for laughs. As someone else who studied creative writing at university, there’s wry humour in being young and wanting little else than a literary journal to publish your poem, even if at that age the verses can’t be backed by any life experience.
All or Nothing (2002) – 6/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen
“You do talk to him like that.”
The Babadook (2014) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
“She won’t let me have a birthday party and she won’t let me have a dad.”
Kent reworks The Monster into a spooky exploration of things that go bump in the night. Except that “thing” is a mother’s lumbering fear of resenting her annoying son. But its selling point is how the psychological interplay drags the viewer into an insomniac’s nightmare: she can never forget the car crash that took away her husband, and might just have to accept it.
The Canyons (2014) – 4/10
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Bret Easton Ellis
Starring: James Deen, Lindsay Lohan
“She kind of reminds me of one of those girls in the movies who’s always being following by someone.”
I’m a bit torn over The Canyons. It exists in a fascinatingly lurid world of fake surfaces, cheap thrills, and coked-up pulp-o-drama. But the acting is too amateurish, even with the B-movie aesthetics, and grows dull very quickly. Porn star James Deen also never gets his money shot (which would be of the $150,000 the film raised through Kickstarter). I guess you could say I liked half a canyon. Or something like that.
The Color Wheel (2012) – 3/10
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writers: Carlen Altman, Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Alex Ross Perry, Carlen Altman, Kate Lyn Sheil
“Without these, like, funky bangs, like, how are casting directors going to know that I’m the type of girl who likes music and art and, like, cultural stuff?”
The Color Wheel isn’t so much a film, but a succession of conversation starters. From the title itself (it’s actually all in black-and-white), Perry aches to antagonise. The babbling amateurism is less to do with low budget inconveniences, than it is to taunt the viewer. Okay, maybe they’re just poor actors, but the ending (which I won’t spoil) is all you’ll remember.
It’s all set around a brother and sister taking a road trip, sharing a relationship that is largely lifeless apart from a few arbitrary set-pieces that don’t excuse limp acting. The understated comedy is infrequent, keeping The Color Wheel just about watchable – whether an unrealistic poster in a hotel, or lines of dialogue like: “We were only friends with you because you had a trampoline.” Okay, that’s a line worth remembering.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – 9.5/10
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler (novel)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollak
“You should have a cloak lined with ermine.”
Watched it again for a feature and now convinced it’s one of his best. Read my thoughts here.
Grand Piano (2014) – 3.5/10
Director: Eugenio Mira
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Tamsin Egerton
“They never spot the wrong notes.”
The piano key to unlocking a giallo thriller consists of an unplayable piece thrust upon Elijah Wood, who learns that a sniper will stick a bullet into his forehead if there’s a single wrong note. Should have stuck with jazz where you can improv, right? The film itself is Beethoven classical in how it sticks to a rigid structure, with almost nothing else attached – no memorable characters, moments, or anything really. Even at 72 minutes, the fun hook is stretched thin.
The Guest (2014) – 7.5/10
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer
“Excuse me, but you’re interrupting detention.”
The creative team behind You’re Next return with a Downton Abbey spinoff that’s like John Carpenter remaking The Terminator. Dan Stevens is an emotional sponge: squeeze his cheeks, and there’s a frightening emptiness in his eyes. He knocks on the front door claiming to be a soldier who was friends with a family’s son in Iraq, and is welcomed in because he’s there to protect them – or at least, that’s what Tony Blair said.
In a slasher twist, the villain is even more frightening because he’s handsome, charming, and makes it logical that the call is coming from within the house. Wingard and Barrett once again deliver the goods by defying logic for an all-purpose final act set in a haunted house maze.
Also, the word “ghost” is a mixture of “host” and “guest”. Just noticed.
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman
“You keep on rowing, and I’ll keep on smiling.”
Rewatched in anticipation of Mr. Turner. Upon second viewing, it’s more apparent that Leigh establishes Hawkins insufferably cheerful protagonist as a case study of how happiness doesn’t belong in this world, and if it does then it’s probably a harmful facade. Oh God, I feel so miserable right now. I also wrote about it for a Mike Leigh feature.
Horns (2014) – 4.5/10
Director: Alexandra Aja
Writers: Keith Bunin, Joe Hill (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Juno Temple
“Ig? Can I… have another donut?”
I can’t fault a film that’s so obstinately self-indulgent that it has a 20-minute flashback after 15 minutes, but Horns wastes its intriguing premise – Radcliffe wakes up with a supernatural dysfunction and must solve a murder mystery to clear his name – by descending into lazy territory about caricatures being caricatures. Still, it’s nice to see the name “Ig” thriving in Hollywood. I’m going to name all my children Ig and never allow them to read Harry Potter.
The Judge (2014) – 3.5/10
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
“Your stuff is in boxes. You’re not wearing your wedding rings.”
I’m starting to understand why Downey Jr keeps signing up for superhero movies if these are the only dramatic roles he gets offered anymore. The overlong legal saga hits all the dull father/son relationship areas, but with the added bonus of stifling courtroom scenes with the least riveting murder trial imaginable. A plane film. Also, a plain film.
Life After Beth (2014) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Jeff Baena
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan
“I’m hungry… do you wanna get dinner?”
Baena supposedly conceived of the idea – comedy about a zombie girlfriend – long before Shaun of the Dead and its imitators made zom-coms that left audiences groaning like the undead. But that doesn’t explain why he went ahead with the idea, or why he didn’t use that time to carve out a more individual niche. There’s promise in a subplot involving Anna Kendrick that receives two or three minutes.
Life is Sweet (1990) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks
“You do talk to him like that.”
The Love Punch (2014) – 5.5/10
Director/Writer: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie
“Let’s pick up the necklace. Back to the hotel. Cocktails for supper.”
A gang of middleclass parents drug and tie up unsuspecting strangers, and then laugh it off in the car afterwards. Taken out of context, The Love Punch can be a Chris Morris sketch about the absurdities of a midlife crisis. Instead, Hopkins has made a ludicrous heist comedy loosely connected with saving a pension. Brosnan and Thompson are the film’s selling point, with a kinetic chemistry as a divorced couple who flirt, squabble and set up each other’s punchlines. I would watch a sequel – even if the best line is cribbed word for word from The Daytrippers.
Nightcrawler (2014) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
“If you want to win the lottery…”
Gilroy’s directorial debut establishes Lou Bloom (Gyllenhall) as a freelance crime journalist who climbs to the top through psychopathic ruthlessness. By being first on the crime scene, Lou snaps up the most gruesome material and sells it to a TV news organisation because “if it bleeds, it leads”.
The satire doesn’t go beyond the notion that grim news footage is shot by someone standing with a camera. It’s not exactly a revelation. But that’s okay because Gilroy turns night-time LA into a cartoonish comedy where dialogue is parroted from self-help books and human bodies are expendable. It’s also a bit like film journalism: you rush to see the earliest previews, and pray to the skies that everything will be okay.
And when I use the “cartoonish”, I am explicitly referring to Gyllenhaal’s eyes.
Palo Alto (2014) – 7/10
Director: Gia Coppola
Writers: Gia Coppola, James Franco (book)
Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco
“What kind of jerk defaces a children’s library?”
James Franco’s short story collection is supposedly based upon his childhood, so what’s he doing here playing an adult? Based on what I’ve seen of Franco’s understated filmmaking, it’s best he’s left this coming-of-age tale for Coppola; her dreamy vision is hazy and sympathetic towards the pain of being a teen. There are three youngsters at the centre with occasionally intertwining lives, all lost, miserable, and on the verge of self-destruction – but not quite. Palo Alto hovers poignantly at the rough edges of missed opportunities and irrational behaviour, while staying in key with a mournful Blood Orange score.
There’s none of the usual three-act beats that comes with these dozens of these dramas that come out every year, allowing moments of quiet reflection to speak softly for themselves.
Say When (2014) – 2.5/10
Director: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Andrea Seigel
Starring: Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell
“Well… I can’t send you home at 1am.”
After making one of the defining mumblecore comedies with Humpday, Lynn Shelton’s directorial output has faced a steady downfall as she gradually moved away from her improvisational methods – still evident in Your Sister’s Sister – towards the scripted sitcom vibes that plagued Touchy Feely. Based on a screenplay by novelist Andrea Seigel, Say When marks the first time in feature films that Shelton is working from someone else’s writing, which might explain why the plot itself comes across as so unnaturally cartoonish. Could it be that the characters demand it? After all, the plot is like Freaky Friday if the supernatural elements are explained by poor decision making.
28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley) is depicted as someone who’s moved on from her adolescence at the speed of a tortoise. She still lives with the same boyfriend (Mark Webber), spinning advertising signs for her father’s (Jeff Garlin) business, and doesn’t take off her trainers before stretching on the sofa. It’s only when she attends a school reunion and receives a marriage proposal that her focus – and the film – goes off the rails. She runs off for fresh air and ends up buying booze for 16-year-old Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her skateboarding pals, before becoming one of those very skateboarding pals. If credibility isn’t already stretched, Megan ends up staying the night at Annika’s house in an impromptu sleepover that’s okayed by the latter’s single father Craig (Sam Rockwell) because… well, it becomes clearer later.
In a generational war, Megan wants to be on the winning side – and by that, I mean the side belonging teens who overuse “winning” in normal conversation. The adults in her life are humourless stiffs beyond parody (Ellie Kemp is one of them), with the exception of Craig, who delights in her quirky charms: she plays in the garden, gossips with children, and wears Annika’s pyjamas. One of the deeper psychological directions could be asking why a father is so turned on by a stranger wearing his daughter’s clothes, but Say When opts for more middling indie territory concerning how long someone can keep a lie. The answer, as always, is two acts.
Without straying too far from a standard Sundance dramedy, Say When hits feel-good beats with too much confidence. Everything about the situation – how no one challenges Megan’s behaviour, even after several weeks of staying at Annika’s house – is fake. And so are the characters, each constructed to fit the screenplay: Megan is ironically trained to be a relationship counsellor. The film is similar to its protagonist: it desperately wishes to remain in an inert state on safe ground, far away from new challenges or invention. With such a weak script and lack of directorial individualism, Knightley’s enthusiasm can’t lift the character and the arc ends up like the tortoise: going nowhere fast.
The Skeleton Twins (2014) – 4/10
Director: Craig Johnson
Writers: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell
The film’s actual skeleton is a very familiar Sundance model that ticks through all the requisites for a release that’ll be forgotten almost immediately. TV stars take a break from the recording schedule to fit in an indie dramedy about a family reunion. This time, it’s Wiig and Hader, both excellent, but let down by a reliable script that rehashes the genre’s cliches: suicide attempts to drive the narrative, a scene with goofy drug use, main characters working in showbiz, and an overuse of swimming pools as a metaphor for drowning in real life worries – an image that runs so dry, a goldfish ends up dying (via drying).
The highlight sees Wiig and Hader reconnecting as siblings by miming to 80s electro-pop. It’s the only few minutes that takes advantage of Wiig and Hader’s real-life chemistry – and it doesn’t even make sense within the film’s context.
This is Where I Leave You (2014) – 4/10
Director: Shawn Levy
Writer: Jonathan Tropper
Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Rose Bryne, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda
“I just want you to know that you deserve to be fine.”
Vera Drake (2004) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan
What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – 6.5/10
Directors/Writers: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby
“What are we? Werewolves, not swear-wolves.”
This was a lot funnier and entertaining that it should have been, and ended up – obviously because of Jemaine – like an episode of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ without the music (which I mean as a compliment). This is as the whole thing is so annoyingly formless and repetitive, especially as some of the jokes are older than the vampires themselves (whenever it takes on vampire cliches such as mirror reflections and needing an invitation), but hangs together through impeccable comic timing and chemistry.
The Wind Rises (2014) – 7.5/10
Original title: Kaze Tachinu
Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hideotoshi Nishijima
“Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams waiting to be swallowed by the sky.”
Miyazaki’s swan song – swans fly, right? – is a rarity for him in that it takes places entirely in a real world, specifically early 20th century Japan. Yet his regular obsessions – flight, coping with the loss of loved ones – all appear in typically mesmerising, hand-drawn animation with a bitter anti-war message up its sleeve/wing. The loose biopic follows Jiro Horikoshi, a young boy born in 1903 whose young fantasies about becoming a pilot – like Porco Rosso, except human – come crashing down because of poor eyesight. So, in perpetuating the myth that glasses are a sign of intelligence, Jiro devotes his life to aviation design.
Like happiness in general, everything comes at an overwhelming price. Jiro’s funding comes in anticipation of World War II, and meets a German (voiced by Herzog in the English dub) who’s deeply critical of the Nazis. In between nightmares of destroyed planes, an Italian designer appears via fantasy to reassure him: the beauty of the aircrafts will live on, regardless. Of course, it’s easier to give in to temptation when a Miyazaki-animated argument appears within your head, and Jiro gradually realises his mistake when it’s too late.
The same goes with his marriage to a dying woman – cruelly compared with Love Story by The AV Club – who slowly fades away in their empty home, rather than receive proper treatment in a hospital. Without any energy, she cradles on the bedroom floor, wondering whether her hardworking husband will even come home tonight, and how long she can keep on smiling. Some dreams are best left alone.
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