This month: “Alphaville”, “Atlantic City”, “Big Hero 6”, “Black Moon”, “Bride Wars”, “Elevator to the Gallows”, “Ex Machina”, “Le feu follet”, “Inherent Vice”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, “Love is Strange”, “A Most Violent Year”, “Nowhere”, “Possession” (pictured above), “Selma”, “Le souffle au coeur”, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” and “Wild”.
I also wrote some things elsewhere including a guide to “Kanye West’s abysmal acting career”, a guide to the “Films of Louis Malle”, a passionate explanation why “2015 is Sion Sono’s year” and a bit about my recent experience of “Being an active volunteer and helping the homeless”.
The average rating is 6.12/10 with film of the month being Inherent Vice. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Alphaville (1965) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff
“We’re happiness, and we’re heading towards it.”
Godard doesn’t need special effects to transform Paris into a dystopian future; just threatening shadows, sirens spouting existential poetry, and a detective trying to uncover what the hell is going on. The Rentals called their latest album “Lost in Alphaville”, which is indicative of Godard’s noir-vision: the nonsensical story is swept away by an eerie world of government totalitarianism, assassins, and a cinematic romance lurking underneath.
Atlantic City (1980) – 7/10
Director: Louis Malle
Writer: John Guare
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid
“I never use seatbelts.”
Big Hero 6 (2015) – 7/10
Director: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Writers: Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird
Starring: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henner, T.J. Miller
The setting alone of San Fransokyo makes Big Hero 6 worth at least viewing the trailer: trams bustle past Japanese architecture, meshing Western and Asian cultures to great success. 14-year-old Hiro (Potter) and his older brother Tadashi (Henney) live with their aunt (Rudolph) following their parents’ deaths. That’s already one more death than the opening of Up. But when Tadashi is lost to an explosion, the younger sibling is devastated– is there anything worth pursuing other than revenge against the masked supervillain indirectly responsible for the tragedy? Basically, he has terrible luck, and you should be thankful you’re not a relative.
Luckily for Hiro, Tadashi was able to build Baymax (Adsit), a “health” robot not too dissimilar from the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man. The inflatable machine is a classic Hollywood staple in that it’s programmed only to aid humans in pain, but is a screwdriver twist away from being converted to a killing machine. It’s also a lot cuddlier than Hal 9000.
Also on hand are Tadashi’s best friends, an oddball group of young adults who could probably form their own Breakfast Club spinoff: GoGo Tomago (Chung), Wasabi (Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Rodríguez), and standout Jeff (T.J. Miller) – a laidback slacker with his voice actor’s mannerisms and gently subversive improvisations. Together, they form a group hug and a superhero gang called Big Hero 6 – which is like Ben Folds Five, but with a dynamic android instead of a piano.
The film is undoubtedly a comedy, right down to physical gags in the background for perspicacious viewers. But its captivating first half neatly balances these laughs with sorrow, without forgetting that at its heart is a child justly angry at the deaths that shape his early life. It’s a point neatly touched upon by the supporting characters, who become four surrogate parents, guiding a bitter 14-year-old towards a place of mature mourning. When Baymax pointedly asks Hiro if violence will improve his inner levels of happiness, it’s a lesson applicable to the adults accompanying the children at the cinema. I’m a soulless cynic who despised Frozen and The Lego Movie, but even I was touched.
What prevents Big Hero 6 from reaching the heights of The Incredibles is the second half, starting from the precise moment Hiro’s eureka moment provides a catalyst for constructing special armour – all to catch the mysterious evil guy (“mysterious” refers to his identity, not his evilness) for the sake of closure. While it’d be harsh to compare the transformation with Power Rangers, the poignant riffs are programmed to explode in vibrant battles. They’re watchable, sure, but only partially build upon the sterling character build-up work.
Disney’s 3D feature may be based on an obscure Marvel comic – trust me, it’s nothing like the Marvel films – but has its own off-kilter style in the rag-team adventure never truly delivered by Guardians of the Galaxy. Big Hero 6 fully earns its mantle as possibly my favourite animated release since Arriety, for the emotional core that drives the action: it’s through the robot that Hiro mourns and learns to cope with loss. RoboCope?
Black Moon (1975) – 7.5/10
Director: Louis Malle
Writers: Louis Malle, Joyce Buñuel, Ghislain Uhry
Starring: Cathryn Harrison, Joe Dallesandro, Alexandra Stewart
“She thought she saw a unicorn. I tell you – a unicorn.”
Bride Wars (2009) – 3.5/10
Director: Gary Winick
Writers: Greg DePaul, Jude Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson
Starring: Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Candice Bergen, Chris Pratt
“Emma, it’s like you don’t have a spine. Oh, that’s right – you DON’T have a spine.”
Elevator to the Gallows (1958) – 9/10
Original title: Ascenseur pour l ‘echafaud
Alt title: Lift to the Scaffold
Director: Louis Malle
Writers: Noël Calef, Louis Malle, Roger Nimier
Starring: Maurice Ronet, Jeanne Moreau, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin
“War is not only horrible, it’s a complete waste of time.”
A neo-noir Malle-sterpiece with existential woe, detective work, and a pencil sharpener that hints at danger. I wrote about it here.
Ex Machina (2015) – 7 /10
Director/Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Dohmnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
“I woke up to see you slitting your arms and punching a mirror. I’d say you’re messed up.”
Private helicopter trips should generally generate suspicion, especially when organised by someone who’s so obviously a film villain – right down to the Iceland mansion and making his introduction by punching a bag. Yeah, Oscar Isaac is a frightening dude in Ex Machina. As Nathan, he’s the absurdly wealthy scientist who lives alone in a giant lab with a servant, and Ava – his robot, sort of played by Alicia Vikander, given that it carries her face on metal sticks.
I mentioned helicopters, right? Well, that’s how Caleb (Dohmnall Gleeson) makes his entry, as one of Nathan’s employees, invited to test out Ava’s artificial intelligence: by probing her with questions (and questions about questions) to see if she passes the Turing test. “But wait,” I hear you cry. “Why is the robot a ‘she’?” Thanks for asking. As Nathan bluntly points out, machines shouldn’t be excluded from sexuality; when Ana slips into a wardrobe, she returns as a Hollywood actress, albeit with the articulation of a robot (or someone jetlagged on junket duties). It could easily be called Sex Machina, given the uncomfortable silences that appear whenever Nathan is asked the point of creating lifelike female robots.
It doesn’t take long (about 20 minutes) to realise Ex Machina is, like every other AI film in the past year (Her, The Machine etc), about whether a lonely male will sleep with a female robot – especially when Caleb can’t recognise that Ava’s attraction to him is likely influenced by being locked up and never seeing another life form other than her evil creator.
Garland’s smart, efficient script displays the mechanics of a Hollywood pro who doesn’t waste a line, regularly dropping in callbacks to small talk from earlier scenes. While the underlying questions aren’t uniquely profound – whether it’s cruel to delete a machine’s memory, especially if it looks like the person from Testament of Youth – the darkly humorous twists believably propel Caleb into considering he could be a Romeo to a Juliet-bot.
In being emotionally manipulated by Ex Machina, I believe I also passed the Turing test.
Le feu follet (1963) – 5.5/10
English title: The Fire Within
Director: Louis Malle
Writers: Louis Malle, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (novel)
Starring: Maurice Roney, Jeanne Moreau, Alexander Stewart
“You defend the shadows because the sun hurts your eyes.”
If only I wrote more about it somewhere. Oh wait, I did.
Inherent Vice (2015) – 8.5/10
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Paul Thomason Anderson, Thomas Pynchon (novel)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston
“Beware the golden fang.”
Psychedelic Thomas Anderson’s latest is the Joanna Newsom of films: a love/hate hippie vibe from another era and dimension, that’s never going to sway the haters. The clouded vibe – heavy on gags, incomprehensible dialogue, Neil Young, paranoia – is exhilarating, especially when each scene threatens to morph genre (and kind of does). Thanks to Curzon Soho for screening it in 35mm.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) – 5/10
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar (comic), Dave Gibbons (comic)
Starring: Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong
“Manners maketh the man.”
Superheroes, James Bond, scary movies: they’ve been parodied too often. That’s the challenge for director Matthew Vaughan and co-writer Jane Goldman who, after tackling Kickass, poke fun at the 007 genre. The lively action-comedy, another adaptation of a Mark Miller comic, shares a similar universe to Kickass in its bracingly dark humour, gleeful use of costumes to push taboos, but also repetition of jokes that feel a bit too familiar.
The setup involves a junior version of Bond: working class kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is invited by smartly dressed Harry Hart (Colin Firth) to audition to join Kingsman, a secret team of expensive tailors who also happen to be superspies. Task after task awaits these young agent wannabes – including Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and snobby Etonites – like a deadly version of The Apprentice, where the final role is unclear, beyond having to wear a suit. These tiny battles and interactions, complemented by Firth comically hamming up his posh British caricature, are probably the film’s highlights, which become lost in a flurry of set-pieces – some memorable, some not.
Seeing as it’s 2015, the major threat to the world consists of computer chips with the potential of controlling the population – or, at the very least, anyone stupid enough to install one in their neck. Behind the domination plans are lisped billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, decked in casual) and knife-legged Gazelle (Sofia Boutella, whose legs are knives, if you didn’t understand my adjective). They’re visually unique, sure, and add to Vaughn’s comic book palette of a London that’s faintly recognisable, skewered by the enthusiasm of a director with enough box office history to do whatever he wants. (Mostly, as it was edited slightly from an 18 certificate rating to achieve a 15.)
Eggsy’s rise as a working class hero is dubious, for all the condescending portrayal of life on a housing estate. But then again, every character is shrunk to a stereotype, either for flat jokes or to speed up the narrative. One eye-opening sequence, almost certainly trying to piss off right-wingers, is also too infantile to please lefties – like when Nick Griffin appears on Question Time and all the questions are bad putdowns without much thought.
Still, it’s hard to give much “thought” to anything in Kingsman because it delivers consistently on entertainment value. Some of the violence is so bizarre, it had me wondering: is this really happening? Ultimately, there are so many highs and lows, it’s hard to judge the films as a whole, when its ingredients are so disparate. The Eggsy at the end is not the Eggsy at the beginning – and it’s nothing to do with character development. Perhaps the clue is in the final joke, involving a princess, which should have been removed for so many reasons. But it categorises the film as being from the POV of an adolescent boy, which means youthful energy and regretful moments that probably seemed funnier at the time.
Love is Strange (2015) – 7.5/10
Director: Ira Sachs
Writers: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei
“Oh, and you’re saying I’m too nice?”
Finally able to marry each other after 39 years, Ben and George reflect on settling down after the early days as “crazy motherfuckers”. Love is Strange jumps a few decades on from the heartbreak and romantic denial of Keep the Lights On; the elderly couple can’t foresee a future apart, especially in their twilight years.
That’s the emotional setup for a spanner in the works: George losing his job, due to Catholic disapproval of gay marriage, and the pair must temporarily live apart in spare beds until affordable housing can be found. Despite its deceptively simple outlook, Sachs sweetly portrays the understated agony of hidden homelessness, homophobia and growing old. Love is the only constant for Ben, a failed painter who should probably be a better conversationalist after 71 years of practice. The middle-aged can only watch in pity, knowing the fate awaits them too.
A Most Violent Year (2015) – 7/10
Director/Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola
“I’m more afraid of failure.”
Drops of oil spill from a tankard pierced by a bullet. Cleaning up the mess is Oscar Isaac, not Robert Redford, in a crime period piece set on a different sinking ship. Abel (Isaac) and Anna (Chastain) are a business power couple, risking other people’s lives and limbs in their pursuit of the American Dream: becoming Mr and Mrs Oil.
The obstacle, as implied by the title, 1981 was a time in New York when rivals would steal your milkshake with hired goons, rather than straws, and everyone’s in danger. Unlike the temporary nature of Margin Call and All Is Lost, Abel is especially devoted to his role as a criminal just about staying in the right side of the law. He’s more afraid of failure than death and spiders. He’s also played by Isaac, now becoming our generation’s Robert De Niro with a hint of George Clooney charm.
Rising to the top is a case of ego and failing to recognise who’s holding up the harness. Anna is handier with a gun, and even handier with a pencil. (I’m typing this out with a pencil, too. It’s about to break)
Nowhere (1997) – 6/10
Director/Writer: Gregg Araki
Starring: James Duval, Rachel True, Chiara Mastroianni, Debi Mazar, Kathleen Robertson
“It’s been a gnarly day. In the last 18 hours, I’ve seen four people get abducted by a space alien, watched Ducky try to drown himself, plus I spent $387 on CDs and earrings.”
Advertised as “Beverly Hill 90210 on acid”, the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy ends with fitting paranoia: belief the world is finally fucked. A host of obnoxious brats comment that LA is like nowhere, full of lost citizens. Yet they’re drawn to a hyped up party, so their existential Google Maps are synced up to some degree.
Dark is a lonely incarnation of Keanu Reeves, completely disheartened amidst an orgy of drugs and, well, orgies. His hallucinatory nightmares (mostly with aliens) are a small issue when weighed up against a faltering love life. “I swear I’ve never been so depressed, miserably and lonely in my entire life.”
It’s unclear why Dark becomes the film’s protagonist, almost as if he was picked out of a colourful hat. Elsewhere, there’s enough over-the-top weirdness and hideous slang (“Cram it, fur burger!”) for Nowhere to be at least a curious – and unsatisfying – take on teenage self-indulgence. The human connections are still there in Araki’s world: the cult leaders who enforce suicide via TV sets, and the techno-inspired jump cuts of orgasms – not spiritual or physical, but electrical.
But in this version of LA, there’s no point worrying because there’s no hope in the end. Ayssa asks her boyfriend, Elvis, what would happen if a big earthquake hit California? What would they do with all the dead bodies? He replies, “Babycakes, just go to sleep.”
Possession (The Night the Screaming Stops) (1983) – 7.5/10
Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Writers: Frederic Tuten, Andrzej Żuławski
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill
“It’s like those two sisters of Faith and Chance.”
Fear pierces through the eye at all angles – high, low, scary – leaving a headscratcher that’s even more puzzling when remembering the alien. A horny tentacle of some sorts is part of the jigsaw surrounding Adjani’s meltdown. Think Repulsion with extra gore. My reading is that her “soul” is split in half Twin Peaks-style: the good version is the teacher, the other is a bit too handsy with the kitchen knife. At the very least, it’s a colourful, supremely silly horror that errs on slippery elegance and B-movie poetry.
Selma (2015) – 7.5/10
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
“They’re going to ruin me so they can ruin this movement.”
How much better than I was expecting? Selma-ch better than I was expecting. Based on the 1965 Selma marches, DuVernay’s visceral drama is still relevant (the soundtrack references Ferguson) and turns strings into grenades.
Le souffle au coeur (1971) – 7.5/10
English title: Murmur of the Heart
Director/Writer: Louis Malle
Starring: Benoît Ferreux, Lea Massari
“Crown and robe.”
Where can you read my thoughts on this? Here.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) – 3/10
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writers: Pedro Almodóvar, Yuyi Beringola
Starring: Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas, Loles Léon, Francisco Rabal
“I have nothing.”
During the entire courtship – a crazed man kidnaps and ties up an actress until she falls in love with him – I spent the whole time expecting Almodovar to have a trick up his sleeve that wasn’t just flimsy provocation. While the romance is at least more subversive than a standard “final girl” scenario, I wasn’t sold on her Stockholm Syndrome. Still, Almodovar at least plays about with evocative images: the swinging of a human pendulum, counting down the days until this blog post ends. Just one more film.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2014) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Sion Sono
Starring: Jun Kunimura, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Fumi Nikaido
“The Fuck Bombers never die!”
Got to write about it here.
Wild (2015) – 6/10
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed (book)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
“There’s a sunrise and sunset every day, and you can choose to be part of it.”
Given I took up transcendental meditation recently, I’m susceptible to illogical travails to find spiritual enlightenment (even though I don’t believe such a thing exists). Witherspoon’s protagonist, trekking with a “monster” rucksack and mistaken for a “female hobo”, is ill-prepared for her journey, just as she was for her mother’s death. It’s a journey in which she’s told to find the best aspect of her personality, and hold onto it. Sometimes it requires a long walk into the wilderness to find out what exactly is worth preserving.
Not sure a hiking trip in itself needs a book and a film, but probably more cinematic than the walk I’m about to make right now to turn the lights off and go to sleep, because it’s the end of the blog post.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.