This month: “Albatross”, “Boy Meets Girl” (pictured above), “Chappie”, “Dirty Hands”, “Focus”, “Force majeure”, “Grown Ups 2”, “Happy Christmas”, “Heaven Adores You”, “Hot Tub Time Machine 2”, “Jauja”, “Mona Lisa Smile”, “Ocean Waves”, “Only Yesterday”, “Roxanne”, “Starshaped”, “Still Alice”, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “While We’re Young”.
A selection of things I’ve written elsewhere include a brief history of “Rappers in sci-Fi cinema”, a collection of “Noah Baumbach’s many phobias”, a piece on “Counterculture films that shaped the 70s”, a thing about the “Women in Refrigerators trope”, a look at the “Existential life lessons from Jauja”, a write-up of my “Interview with Viggo Mortensen”, a list of “Films that inspired Ryan Gosling’s Lost River“, a reminder that “Chris Rock has been modernising the classics” and a pick of “London’s ethical restaurants”.
And also a personal essay about insomnia, a very early midlife crisis, and volunteering in a homeless shelter – it’s called “Last Night an MP3 Played Saved My Life”.
The average rating is 5.47/10, with film of the month being the new Sorrentino trailer. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Albatross (2011) – 5/10
Director: Niall MacCormick
Writer: Tamzin Rafn
Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, Felicity Jones, Sebastian Koch, Julia Ormond
“Give peas a chance.”
How does a screenplay with the above line get made? Shouldn’t someone from production step up to be a hero? Or the way Johnny Greenwood did that crunchy guitar thing to sabotage ‘Creep’? The film itself is a substandard Sundance dramedy set in rural Britain (outside of London, anyway) with a smart-alecky 17-year-old with ambitions to write a novel (spoiler: it’s gonna be called Albatross). And then she sleeps with her best friend’s father. Will she regret it? Will she be caught in the third act? Will the novel be called Albatross? (It will, as I just mentioned.)
Still, it’s charming – which I think is a word I only use when enjoying a garbage film – and I recommend you watch it if it’s on TV, which is a false piece of advice, because it’ll never be on TV again.
Boy Meets Girl (1984) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Mireille Perrier
“Only first times matter to me. If I had a kid, I’d ignore him once he talked.”
Dreaming of something for the first time is better than re-dreaming it later. That’s the logic of Alex (Lavant) in young Carax’s foray into filmmaking, which establishes a cinematic world – the title says it all – where heartbroken souls are destined to fall into each other’s sleeves. It takes an hour for Alex and Mireille to find each other. He’s a director preoccupied with film titles; she’s a dancer for an audience of no one. Brought together by a haircut, the pair dream of stars up above, but shake their fist towards the skies.
I buy into the superficial atmosphere, for every quirky angle or cinematic impulse is burdened with the fingerprints of Carax’s spilt emotions. It’s a worthy introduction to the man who’d later make Mauvais sang and Les amants du Pont-Neuf. After all, to some viewers, it’s only the first times that matter.
Chappie (2015) – 4/10
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones
At every utterance of “hey Chappie!” and “hey Chapps!” I laughed. But I wasn’t really laughing – I just wanted to give the impression I’m not a robot. The potential weirdness of Chappie – remember, Die Antwood play themselves – is wasted, never matching the LOL-worthy poster that teased a robo-comedy. FYI, I wrote about Die Antwood’s role here.
Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe (2008) – 5.5/10
Director: Harry Kim
Starring: David Choe
“There’s no asking for permission. I’m going to fucking steal some cans and I’m going to write whatever I fucking want on the walls.”
David Choe is the dullest artistic genius around. His paintings are the product of a lifetime of inner rage and a “fuck you” attitude that saw him spend a few months locked up in a Japanese prison for assaulting a police officer. The doc, shot over seven years by his best friend, shows that Choe will even punch himself in the nose until he bleeds, just to add textured pain to the pain. He really is an artist who will suffer for his art!
He’s a sex addict, a compulsive gambler, and a multimillionaire through painting Facebook HQ’s walls before they were famous and accepting payment in stock. Which is all fine. But he’s also an incoherent, self-obsessed bore who can’t finish a sentence. Fast-forward through his talking heads, because his spray work is devilishly phenomenal.
Focus (2015) – 5.5/10
Directors/Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro
Incredibly dumb and enjoyable for the first half, peaking with a plot twist so ludicrous it deserves a standing ovation. That’s not the case for a second half that’s all shiny surfaces, seemingly co-written by pick-up technique experts. For some reason, it deserves 55%. Can’t get that number out of my head.
Force majeure (2015) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Ettergren
“I’m a victim of my own instinct.”
Called Turist in Sweden and That thing that’s not Wild Tales by Oscar voters, Force Majeure is an extended arthouse slice of the Seinfeld episode where George shoves children out of the way while fleeing from a house fire, and the other Seinfeld episode where Elaine picks up a snack before visiting her boyfriend at A&E. (Yes, I know I’m not the first person to make this observation. I can only imagine Larry David would be furious right now if he wasn’t so busy with a Broadway play. Hey, perhaps it could be a plotline for a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm? He goes on a skiing trip with JB Smoove and they watch it on the hotel. To ease his temper, he visits the bar and bumps into Julia Louis Dreyfuss, who informs him she’s signed up for the English-language remake. And then Ted Danson’s there too, because I’ve been watching Cheers on repeat lately. He brings up the incident with the shirt from season 2 and makes a Back to the Future reference, because of Mary Steenburgen. Larry David, if you have a Google alert for your name, I will write you an outline with a cameo from Diane Chambers.)
It’s also a dryly amusing relationship comedy about a father’s split-second reaction that casts doubt upon his marriage when his wife realises he’s George Costanza in wig. The argument is a cricket match that lasts a few days, shaped into a grand visual befitting of the title: the shapely mountains and ski resort mock the dysfunctional couple – they can afford an obscenely expensive holiday and frolic in the snow against mother nature’s wishes, but stumble over someone being human.
Grown Ups 2 (2013) – 0.5/10
Director: Dennis Dugan
Writers: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler, Fred Wolf
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade
“I did it… I did a burpsnart.”
The funniest thing about Grown Ups 2 is it has three credited writers. Despite the negative reviews, I envisaged Sandler’s “bro hangout” franchise to be largely improvised adventures shot on the fly. But it’s a horribly scripted series of gay panic jokes read out by unenthusiastic actors trying their best to ruin their own lines, as if to inform the viewer they’re in it just for the money. The extraordinary cast – I’m talking about the likes of Buscemi, not Kevin James – lifts the film from a 0/10 to 0.5/10.
Well, I suppose it’s impressive that a film can have no plot other than a running gag involving a “burnspart” (burping, sneezing and farting at the same time). Maybe you need to see the first one to pick up all the nuances.
Happy Christmas (2014) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham
“The trick is, if you keep talking about he makes her feel, like how her touch makes him feel, you can get away with not doing much.”
When Anna Kendrick suggests to Melanie Lynskey she should write a dirty novel because it seems like the kind of thing anyone can do in an afternoon, she adds, “But not me. I can’t write.” The book’s eventual storyline is an unfunny meta joke on the film’s (and its protagonist’s) inertia, and so is Kendrick’s preceding statement, as if Swanberg believes anyone can make Happy Christmas in an afternoon – but don’t you dare be arrogant to think that “anyone” includes you.
Heaven Adores You (2015) – 5/10
Director: Nickolas Dylan Rossi
“Music. That’s the thing, it’s very uncomplicated.”
Let’s get something straight: I adore Elliott Smith and have the last.fm statistics to prove it. Hearing his multi-tracked vocals in a cinema was enough of a thrill to justify the price – as was the smug self-knowledge that I could decipher one of the interstitial tunes as an unreleased Heatmiser version of ‘Christian Brothers’. But Heaven Adores You wasn’t really for someone as fanatical as me (not that Elliott diehards will stay away) and neither was it an introduction for beginners.
Instead, it sits somewhat unsatisfactorily in the middle, presumably to please its talking heads – including Elliott’s sister and former girlfriend Joanna Bolme (aka the greatest bass player ever) – who have historically been reticent about taking part in similar documentaries. That means little discussion of the suicide, the drug-addled final years, or the room’s elephant: Jennifer Chiba, who’s only briefly alluded to with a subtitle reminding the audience of the death’s suspicious circumstances.
I partly understand Rossi’s intentions to instead celebrate Smith’s life rather than a fond farewell. But there isn’t nearly as much of Elliott’s narration (via radio interviews) as promised by the Kickstarter, and there also isn’t much exploration of the recording process or anything, really. Despite the confrontational, nakedly personal aspect of Elliott’s lyrics, the doc takes a disappointingly MOR approach that’s best summed up by an awkward moment in the Q&A. Someone in the crowd asked, “What’s the significance of the trees?” It’s not just that Rossi didn’t have an answer, but that the film would inspire such questions.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015) – 4.5/10
Director: Steve Pink
Writer: Josh Heald Starring: Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs
“We’ve gotta make America happen, bro.”
The first Hot Tub Time Machine was a Great White Buffalo for how much pleasure it brought to my psychological hot tub mind, but at some point I started wondering if it was down to two factors. Firstly, I wrote a play when I was at school about a time-travelling shower, which made me feel like a co-writer of a hit comedy. Secondly, I saw it with close friends after a trip to the pub, and it’s one of those happy memories you would use a hot tub time machine to return to.
But not only did John Cusack not return for the sequel, I saw it on my own on opening day in a nearly empty cinema. Despite dreary reviews – the kind usually reserved for Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler – I was hopeful of reclaiming some lost glory, just as I’m sure the Hot Tub gang were. Apparently the actors wanted to call it Hot Tub Time Machine 3 with the poster reading “From the makers of Hot Tub Time Machine and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. But that was stamped out. So was the original’s inherent silliness, which is now 20% philosophical musings about life regrets, 20% plot machinations, 30% penis humour (the Bechdel test is failed and shredded), and 30% clearly off-the-cuff one-liners that ruin every Apatow imitation.
The single improvement is Adam Scott, whose natural likeability is required to offset the other characters (once believably nasty, now just nasty for easy jokes) and instil some new energy. However, not even the UTU2TM? host can save the homophobic undertones that are at least confined to isolated scenes, rather than as a general backdrop. However, I did enjoy the final sequence in which the new foursome travel through time to rewrite American history. It’s a sign of a better HTTM2 that could have existed, and actually a sign HTTM3 could work – with a different writer and director, of course.
Jauja (2015) – 8/10
Director: Lisandro Alonso
Writers: Fabian Casas, Lisandro Alonso
Starring: Viggo Mortensen “What is it that makes a life function and move forward?”
Mona Lisa Smile (2003) – 5.5/10
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Despite a mildly abstract title, Mona Lisa Smile is a rather long and tedious way to demonstrate how 1953 was repressed, especially for women in America. Roberts plays a history of art teacher who uses her lecture time to influence her students that there’s more to life than finding a husband. It’s an excellent message somewhat negated by how many do law degrees as a happy ending, rather than English Literature degrees and become journalists who also waste a lot of spare time running film blogs like this.
Ocean Waves (1993) – 4/10
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Writers: Kaori Nakamura, Saeko Himuro
Starring: Nobuo Tobita, Toshihiko Seki, Yoko Sakamoto
“Why are you speaking to me like that? Are you a teacher?”
Rushed into production and not sent to cinemas, Ocean Waves is a nostalgic romance about a young adult recalling a crush from school. Basically, it’s Only Yesterday without any emotional resonance. The primary relationship, between a humourless boy and girl who always borrows money, is as empty and meaningless as the film’s alternative title, I Can Hear the Sea. It’s a study of dull youngsters reduced to unhelpful gender stereotypes, plotted with the enthusiasm of someone imagining how the product could be marketed.
Only Yesterday (1991) – 8.5/10 before end credits, 5/10 with end credits
Original title: Omohide Poro Poro
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata, Hotaru Okamoto (novel), Yuko Tone (novel)
Starring: Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna “But that child’s not normal.”
27 seems the right age to regret everything about your life, spot inevitable links between mundane objects and your miserable childhood, and wonder if you should quit your life in the city to become a countryside farmer. Taeko can’t even look at fruit without recalling the disappointment of eating pineapple for the first time and receiving the blame from her family.
Takahata oscillates between pathos and pure joy; years later, she wells up throwing away onions, but still feels the exertion of what it feels like to fly. But, oh God, the ending. Possibly my favourite Ghibli release right up to the end credits when it’s about to end perfectly, and then…
Roxanne (1987) – 7/10
Director: Fred Schepisi
Writer: Steve Martin
Starring: Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich, Shelley Duvall “Today, she didn’t. But today she does.”
The secret to Steve Martin’s goofy film persona has always been how quickly he can sink into sincere romanticism. There’s the unexpected serenade in The Jerk, and the canal trip in The Man with Two Brains. So the story of Cyrano de Bergerac is ideal source material for Martin, wearing an oversized prosthetic nose, as a fireman in love with Daryl Hannah – but presumes early on she’ll never see past his Pinocchio facial feature.
The comedy works best within a sweet-natured fantasy world where jocks are secretly afraid of speaking to the opposite sex, and everyone’s secret crush is just around the corner. However, Martin is also a bit too in love with his own writing, as evident when an extended gag-filled barroom brawl is a laboured stand-up sequence; same applies with the love letters which won’t be winning any literary prizes.
But elsewhere, the characters and dialogue are so charmingly silly, you have to admire the craft. Take this exchange:
Hannah: “What did you say?”
Martin: “10 more seconds or I’m leaving. What did you think I said?”
Hannah: “Earn more sessions by sleaving.”
Martin: “Why would I say that?”
Hannah: “I don’t know. That’s why I asked.
Starshaped (1993) – 6/10
Director: Matthew Longfellow “I’m homesick, yeah?”
A more honest version of Blur than No Distance Left to Run, with highlights being Damon vomiting without shame before the camera. It’s during the band’s alcohol-fuelled party days, promoting Modern Life is Rubbish, and between the shoddy live footage is a glimpse of a band already regretting their behaviour. Funnily enough, Jamie Hewlett pops up to say hi to Damon; he stops just short of predicting his shitty artwork for Gorillaz will contribute to Graham leaving the band 10 years later.
Still Alice (2015) – 6/10
Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Lisa Genova (novel)
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
“I wish I had cancer.”
Safe was about Julianne Moore’s allergy to the 20th century. In Still Alice, her family’s allergic to the 21st century (apart from K-Stew, who Skypes in half her performance). There isn’t much to the film other than Moore, but she cries really well. She really gives you… extra.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2015) – 7/10
Original title: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii
“Everyone’s miserable and it’s all my fault.”
Remember that episode of The Simpsons when Poochie leaves Earth to return to his people? No reason. Anyway, Takahata returns to his favourite themes: forging new families and only realising a bit after childhood how you fucked everything up, you’ll never be young again, and life is full of sadness from now on.
While We’re Young (2015) – 5.5/10
Director/Writer: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Horovitz
“What’s the opposite of ‘the world is your oyster’?”
There’s a line in Jon Ronson’s new book regarding the press coverage of Justine Sacco that amounted to: “old media saying to new media, ‘don’t hurt me’”. That divide describes the friction between two documentary filmmakers, fortysomething Josh (Stiller) and twentysomething Jamie (Driver). While Josh is old-fashioned and taking a decade on a subject he admits is “boring”, Jamie is prolific and apparently not based on Joe Swanberg. For Jamie, everything is material – just press the camera button on a phone, and life is a poorly distributed Vimeo movie in the making.
The pair’s friction is at first opaque because of Josh’s desperation to please the junior hipster, but also because Baumbach clouds the drama in an exceptionally dull relationship story with none of the insight or humanistic vitriol that’s marked his career. By not having children, Cornelia (Watts) and Josh are pitied by their middle-aged friends (including a Beastie Boy), and the contrived narrative drives them towards reconsidering their future. Why they would want children, it’s never explained.
But what’s more frustrating is the film’s general unfunniness. While Baumbach’s relative blips (like Highball and Margot at the Wedding) had sharp dialogue, with While We’re Young he falls back on some of the laziest gags that would surely have been stamped out by a co-writer. These include: Cornelia being subjected to an unfairly advanced dance class, Josh insisting he won’t enter a room (and then a jump cut where he is in the room), and wacky t-shirts.
The final act, when Josh’s frustrations burst into rants about authenticity in filmmaking, leads to preachy interruptions about how the truth is often bent by directors. I would guess that Baumbach is still – still! – firing back at questions over the autobiographical nature of The Squid and the Whale, while casting dispersions towards Gerwig’s old colleagues. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, because none of these characters feel human enough to be based on real people.
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