This month: “All the President’s Men”, “American Sniper”, “Big Eyes”, “Birdman”, “Claire’s Knee”, “Deep End” (pictured above), “Enemy”, “The Lunchbox”, “Margin Call”, “The State I Am In”, “The Theory of Everything”, “Unbroken” and “The Woman in Black: Angel of Death”.
I’ve recently started drinking bulletproof coffee minus the coffee (and minus the proof that it works, and minus Van Houten). I also wrote something things elsewhere including a look at “Anti-Xmas television episodes”, a Kubrick-style look at “Chess according to the grandmasters of film” and a feature on “Why the cinema is the worst idea for a date”.
The average rating is 5.92/10 with film of the month being Whiplash – I reviewed it in October, but it’s out now. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
All the President’s Men (1976) – 7.5/10
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writer: William Goldman
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden
“Well, you’d be crazy too if you were working on 20 cups of coffee too.”
Like Fincher’s Zodiac and Dragon Tattoo, the thrill comes from watching someone sift through paperwork for two hours. Hoffman’s manic journalist – semi-sprinting, caffeine in hand – is a role model. You know, in my time in journalism, I’ve always wanted a film about my life. I think I’m the guy in the background when Redford’s running through the newsroom to answer a phone.
American Sniper (2015) – 2.5/10
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Jason Dean Hall, Chris Kyle (book/kills)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles
“Hey, do you want me to talk dirty to you?”
By swapping American Hustle for American Sniper, American Cooper arrows in on a new firing target that draws in a certain audience – one enthralled by a marksman responsible for 160 “kills”. Chris Kyle (Cooper) is only acting on behalf of “the greatest country in the world” and protecting his fellow Americans; he just happens to enjoy murdering the Iraqis he unequivocally calls “swine”.
There’s also a nagging feeling throughout the war and non-war scenes that Kathryn Bigelow made a superior film in The Hurt Locker, which in its final scenes revealed the psychological battle of a soldier returning to everyday life. American Sniper, on the other hand, shies away from any intelligent discussion and avoids the political murkiness of the real Kyle’s outspoken racism or whether the war was a “success”. The dull drama has so little care for humanity that the baby is very obviously a doll.
Then again, firing shots at American Sniper also seems a bit too easy – like starting an argument with an empty chair.
Big Eyes (2014) – 5/10
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston
“Please clear out the clutter before the taste police arrive.”
“EYE DID IT!” reads one newspaper headline. “Who would want credit?” remarks a fellow critic, admonishing the paintings of Walter Keane. The publicised scandal, of course, revealed that it was really Margaret Keane taking charge of the brushstrokes, while her husband took on the role of a charming salesman. Just as you’re not supposed to visit a supermarket on an empty stomach, beware of speaking to Walter Keane (especially when played by Christoph Waltz) without visiting an art gallery the day before.
But the dichotomy between the internal and external artist never really comes to the fore, beyond an exasperated plea from Walter that he’s an equally important component in the partnership. And neither does Helena Bonham Carter’s film delve into Margaret’s painting style – it’s unclear how deeply she believes in her own work, other than it’s a style she knows is popular and unique to her sensibilities. She admits the illustrations have big eyes to express their big emotions, sure, but that’s also what a 10-year-old would take a few seconds to conclude. Perhaps that’s the point of Big Eyes: the biopic’s execution feels as mass-produced as the paintings.
Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2015) – 5.5/10
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone
“What drives someone to be a critic?”
Writing reviews becomes its own adventure when battling a dark voice emanating from the corner of the room – specifically an old photograph of myself, questioning all my past decisions in a gravelly Christian Bale voice. That’s the internal battle in Birdman for Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood A-lister played by former Hollywood A-lister Michael Keaton. The character is rekindling his fame in a Broadway play, having gambled his career and finances on this production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – the rickety production is Riggan’s final chance for a positive review before his 90s superhero franchise fame vanishes from memory. Again: that’s Riggan, not Keaton.
Alejandro González Iñárritu escapes from his traditional misery fests with a lightly humorous touch in which all suffering is beholden upon touchy actors whose fates are in as little peril as characters from a Preston Sturges comedy. In fact, the production of the play is a 1940s screwball disaster: Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a jittery first-timer; Mike (Ed Norton) is a temperamental bully brought in as a last-minute replacement. The vibe hanging around the stage is so negative, they may as well be putting on Macbeth for all the ill luck hampering each performance.
But the willingness for pratfalls and Hollywood satire doesn’t mean Birdman is particularly funny or with any biting criticism. The jokes are directed at easy targets: big Broadway names possess egos, theatre reviewers are snobby, and superhero films make more money than they deserve. Some of the supporting characters (especially Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter) are sketchy cameos unable to provide the emotional depth required in the final act. There’s little driving urgency or reason to care if the play succeeds or fails, other than the latter promises some bemused reactions by Zach Galifianakis, appearing as a lawyer who picked the wrong assignment.
The film’s saving and often quite spectacular grace is its tumultuous rehearsals, strung along under the impression it was all shot in a single take. Aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – responsible for the long takes in Gravity and Children of Men – the entire two hours unfurls alongside jazz percussion, walking on a tightrope as if the pretence could collapse at any moment: the kind of audience anxiety one feels at the theatre when the actors have visibly sweaty foreheads. Even if there’s little to be emotionally invested in, each scene is a technical wonder that adds a layer of tension.
Iñárritu’s most recent output (Babel, Biutiful) found false mysticism in spiritual connections behind strangers. The difference with Birdman is that the cosmic powers exist entirely inside Riggan’s head. The fiery comets, the loquacious movie poster, and the supernatural powers are one man’s delusion. What we talk about when we talk about Birdman is whether that delusion has any staying power beyond a two-hour rollercoaster ride.
Claire’s Knee (1971) – 7/10
Original title: Le genou de Claire
Director/Writer: Éric Rohmer
Starring: Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand
“I’m convinced I deserve her more than anyone.”
Rohmer would make a good pub friend – the kind who fills in the silent gaps with endless musings on life’s esoteric miseries. In Claire’s Knee, part of the Six Moral Tales series, Brialy plays a bearded fiancé who, away from his wife-to-be, meets an old acquaintance. Her idea for holiday fun? For him to hang around with two teen girls and see if biology dictates the rest. He talks and talk and talks, like an episode of Peep Show whether the internal monologue is spoken out loud. And, like an episode of Peep Show, it’s the overly elaborate cogitations that win you over.
Deep End (1970) – 8/10
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Writers: Jerzy Gruza, Jerzy Skolimowski, Boleslaw Sulik
Starring: John Moulder Brown, Jane Asher
“Your service has become quite famous, you know?”
Apparently David Lynch once claimed Deep End was the only colour film he admired. For all its surreal digressions and psychosexual tension, it’s actually the contrasting reds that stick out in the mind. Asher’s hair, spilt paint, drops of blood – it could be called Deep Red if Argento hadn’t got there first. Brown plays a wide-eyed 15-year-old, slowly tormented by the allure of an attractive co-worker.
Skolimowski’s visuals play about with his paranoia, that any street or building could be graced by her presence at any point. Where does he fantasise about a romantic encounter? A private swimming pool – where dreams go to drown. I wrote a bit about the cinema scene here.
Enemy (2015) – 6/10
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Javier Gullón, José Saramago
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon
“Are we… brothers?”
A history teacher (Gyllenhaal) spots a familiar minor character in a DVD and wonders: wasn’t that dude in Moonlight Mile? It turns out the doppelganger is a Hollywood jerk who cheats on his wife. The goofy premise is treated with a consistent level of intrigue that sells the elliptical imagery. However, it doesn’t try to be funny like The Double, nor is it as self-exploratory as Dead Ringers. It’s somewhere lost within spider symbolism, gradually building up to a finale that’s unforgettable – but that might be all I’ll remember.
The Lunchbox (2014) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
“Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right place.”
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – well, sort of, if you believe the cutesy setting for this Mumbai romcom whereby the “dabbawalas” system means a housewife’s homemade lunches are accidentally delivered to a lonely divorcee. Through the exchange of letters in the lunchboxes, the pair become closer to each other as they share boring stories about their boring lives. Yet, the story somehow works, for all the small touches: Khan’s patient stance in the office as he awaits his food parcel; Kaur responding to a jibe with extra chilli. The film may not be spicy, but it’s certainly warm.
Margin Call (2011) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci
With All is Lost as my introduction to Chandor, the dialogue-heavy Margin Call comes as a surprise – a marginal wake-up call, perhaps – that also pits survivors against an ongoing tide and inevitable death. Except the end of life is in reference to the careers of suited New York number crunchers with expensive watches. Not only are the 1% smartly dressed, they’re remarkably eloquent and Shakespearian. If poets made more money, I’m sure a few would be cashing in sonnets at the counter.
The State I Am In (2000) – 7.5/10
Original title: Die innere Sicherheit
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers: Harun Farocki, Christian Petzold
Starring: Julia Hummer, Barbara Auer, Richy Müller
“I’ll go hide the car.”
Petzold’s non-TV feature debut is a delicate slow-burn thriller much in the mould of his later works: a woman falling in love with the wrong person, risking and alienating everything in her life for a man with few redeemable features. The obvious difference is The State I Am In deals with teenagers. Jeane is the only child of two parents on the run from police, hiding in various towns under pseudonyms. When her adolescent temper tantrums turn to fantasies of running away with a boy she meets on the road, the reality is that she would never be able to find them again.
Much of the drama seems uneventful through Jeane’s eyes. She understands the significance of her parents’ political past to an extent, but it just means she’s born into a world where a family outing can turn to leaping onto the grass if a helicopter passes. As coming-of-age movies go, few are so rewarding for the viewer’s patience.
The Theory of Everything (2014) – 6.5/10
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson
“Therefore, God doesn’t exist.”
Time is infinite. Space is infinite. Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for biopics is infinite. As the universe continues to expand, studios fill those spare gaps with films like The Theory of Everything. That’s hardly a revelation, and neither is The Theory of Everything – the story of Stephen Hawking has already been calculatedly brought to screens twice in the past decade via fiction Hawking and so-so doc Hawking (can’t really argue with the name). However, James Marsh delivers a worthy adaptation that chalks up the complicated emotional equations faced by Hawking and his wife, without sinking into the dull fact-heavy exposition present in The Imitation Game.
The obvious talking point is Eddie Redmayne, whose adept portrayal of Stephen Hawking begins with the scientist as an energetic Cambridge undergraduate who loves cycling, chess, and a literature student called Jane Wilde – essentially, he’s a typical teen with hints of being ahead of the curve when it comes to university assignments. As his body slowly succumbs to motor neurone disease, Redmayne’s acting versatility is on show: not only physically, but mentally he conveys the existential anguish of having a doctor predict death will come in under two years’ time. Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it’s up to the eyes to be the windows into a soulfully overused phrase – this is a story worth telling.
But unlike The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story actually belongs to the woman by his side. After an unfortunate series of roles in dirge such as Chalet Girl and Like Crazy, Felicity Jones earns any forthcoming awards nominations with a poignant balancing act: under the shadow of Stephen’s fame and physical requirements, Jane couldn’t have predicted the number of sacrifices she’d be making when being chatted up by a geeky undergraduate at a party. As a firm believer in God, Jane is already at war with “The Theory”, and is plundered with the unspoken dilemma: would she be considered a monster for divorcing a disabled man? While at the same time, Stephen is pressured into staying with the woman who stayed loyal throughout his endeavours, even as the pair find their eyes drift towards potential partners.
Aside from a few lines about crisp packets in the pub – “the big crunch!” – the film knows better than to dumb down the science for a wide audience. Instead, there’s a fascinatingly slow disintegration of a relationship orbiting away from each other. At first, Jane intimately feeds and dresses Stephen; by the end, he’s touring America with a nurse, while she’s organising camping trips with a fellow churchgoer. Really, it’s a brief history of time spent being married to a scientist in love preoccupied with his own discoveries.
Unbroken (2014) – 4/10
Director: Angelina Jolie
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, Laura Hillenbrand (book)
Starring: Jack O’Coennell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi
“A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory. Remember that!”
Uninteresting and un-Coenesque: this coldly efficient adaptation of Louis Zamperini’s impressive life story is a major drag, chopped up into Oscar-friendly chunks. There’s the Olympics; an All is Lost battle for survival; and a Japanese PoW camp where O’Connell is further tortured. Despite a lengthy running time, there’s minimal characterisation or evidence that the Coens were ever involved – if you have Google, seek out their unproduced screenplay for To the White Sea.
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2015) – 4/10
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Jon Croker
Starring: Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irvine, Adrian Rawlins
I saw a press screening before Christmas and can’t remember anything about it, other than a scene which may as well have been from The Conjuring. This isn’t an exaggeration: I watched it fully awake, coffee in hand, and it’s all a ghostly memory.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.