This month: “About Last Night”, “Above & Below”, “Astraea”, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, “The Better Angels”, “The Fire”, “The Green Ray”, “Hits”, “Jurassic World”, “Knock Knock”, “Life in a Fishbowl”, “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”, “Reprise”, “Slow West”, “Stand by for Tape Back-Up”, “Subway” (pictured above) “Terminator Genisys”, “They All Laughed”, “Welcome to Leith” and “Wish I Was Here”.
A pick of things I wrote elsewhere include packing my suitcase for a “Musical trip with Jim Jarmusch”, a channel hop through “2015 in commercials by filmmakers”, a notebook of “Writing tips for indie cinema’s most miserable authors”, a festive “Preview of East End Film Festival 2015” and a rundown of “Grace Jones’ most badass moments in film”.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.
About Last Night (2014) – 3/10
Director: Steve Pink
Writers: Leslye Headland, David Mamet (play)
Starring: Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Joy Bryant
About last night, I’m sorry I made you watch a Kevin Hart film that reminded you of HIMYM, Off-Centre and some of the worst moments of your life. He was a womaniser, dishing out relationship advice like the person at the bar you wish would shut up. Ealy was more watchable, albeit formulaic, as if trapped in a bad romcom. Then Hart claimed his relationship with Regina Hall was fiery, packed with explosive fallouts, and led to electric makeup sessions; little of this came across onscreen. Full of Hart, yet heartless.
Above & Below (2015) – 8/10
Director: Nicolas Steiner
“We just assume there’ll be a tomorrow.”
Astraea – 4/10
Director: Kristjan Thor
Writer: Ashlin Halfnight
Starring: Nerea Duhart, Scotty Crowe, Dan O’Brien, Jessica Cummings
“We went from car to car, to house to, from map to map. Nobody.”
Despite its post-apocalyptic sci-fi hook – a clairvoyant 17-year-old is one of mankind’s few survivors – and mesmeric snowy surroundings, Astraea is an intimate relationship drama about lonely strangers struggling for small talk.
After most of America’s population drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Astraea (Duhart) drags her half-brother Matthew (Crowe) to Canada after telepathically believing their family are waiting to be rescued. However, along the way they bump into James (O’Brien) and Callie (Cummings), a couple who’ve forged their own I Am Legend-ish existence without having to worry about vampires – although they still prefer staying indoors at night, just to be safe.
What follows is a series of flirtations and relationship hurdles that could happen in any context, regardless of whether or not they’re the only humans left alive. The bumpy arguments, mild sexual tension and prolonged eye contact are fairly generic, aside from Astraea’s flashbacks and dull voiceover which feel jarringly from another movie. Its roots could be in a play about chatty neighbours in suburbia, with a sci-fi premise added on top.
Still, the icy setting adds a chilly resonance to all forlorn looks into the open, as all participants face the 28 Days Later matter of whether to stick or twist. The sardonic mise en scène of Force majeure is another apt comparison, but the late-night conversations – remember, it’s just them – is unnatural; a typical ice-breaker is, “Hey, how did your father kill himself?”
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) – 4/10
Original title: De battre mon cœur s’est arête
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard, Tonino Benacquista
Starring: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Jonathan Zaccaï
“Is there something important tomorrow?”
Shifting from a bad boy to a Bach boy, Duris never fits into either. As a criminal, he’s worried about his fingers. On a piano stool, however… who cares? Speaking as someone who’s played piano in front of audiences before, it’s boring watching someone play the piano. That’s why Ben Folds does a weird, annoying jumpy thing on stage. Pretty much all the crime stuff bored me to tears, until the night before an audition, when all that matters is his hands are unscathed. The rest are just plot beats my heart skipped.
The Better Angels (2015) – 7/10
Director/Writer: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Brit Marling, Diane Kruger
The Fire (2015) – 6.5/10
Original title: El incendio
Director: Juan Schnitman
Writer: Agusto Liendo
Starring: Pilar Gamboa, Juan Barberini
There’s so much yelling in Argentine drama The Fire, the subtitles may as well be capitalised. Lucía (Gamboa) and Marcelo (Barberini) are a couple as tempestuous as the title suggests. In between bombarding each other with daggered insults, they’re hiding secrets, pretty much cultivating a relationship that’s burned out some time ago. The tension along is gripping enough that I began to wonder if the actors genuinely hated each other, or what personal demons they were tapping into.
However, the chemistry is so strong, the two livewires accept the dynamic. Hiding wads of cash, they have a day to wait before purchasing a new home. It becomes a question of whether they can last another 24 hours: he’s at one point chased by 16-year-olds seeking revenge, while she’s coughing up blood at work. Intimately shot to capture the restless energy, the dramatic highlights pop up at unexpected moments, like Lucía unleashing a monologue at her doctor.
The Green Ray (1986) – 9/10
Original title: Le Rayon vert
Director: Éric Rohmer
Writers: Éric Rohmer, Marie Rivière
Starring: Marie Rivière, Le Rayon vert
“Lettuce is a friend.”
In an amusing argument about vegetarianism, singleton Delphine is cornered into explaining the virtues of lettuce – it’s impossible for her to explain fully what deep down she knows is a simple fact. That’s how I feel about The Green Ray, which bleeds a peculiar kind of romanticism and – dare I say it – cinema magic that suggests the green ray is the green way.
Hits (2015) – 3.5/10
Director/Writer: David Cross
Starring: Meredith Hagner, Matt Walsh, James Adomian
“If I do pay my fair share of taxes, how come I can’t get nobody to plough my street?”
When David Cross reviewed last year’s Pulp doc for Talkhouse, he ranted against the common practice of professional critics seeing indie films – especially docs – through online screeners. That reasoning doesn’t apply to Hits which forwent a traditional release for a BitTorrent “pay what you want” strategy, which also reflects the half-heartedness of the film’s satire. (FYI, I streamed it on Netflix.)
Meredith Hagner plays a social media Hagner-on, striving for YouTube infamy, only to learn her father (Walsh) goes viral via complaints about local government. He’s basically an IRL blog post. Aside from a watchable ensemble, taking in LA’s comedy staples like Adomian and Michael Cera, there’s little humour to Hits. It’s just plain bitterness – the kind of bile a former TV star might have for youngsters who he assumes are untalented and climb up the ladder by dishing out blowjobs – without any angle or empathy.
Jurassic World (2015) – 5.5/10
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins
“She’s learning where she belongs in the food chain.”
Can’t hate a film about dinosaurs eating people, even if the carnage was mostly flying dinos (and thus The Birds with more CGI). So in that sense, it was stupid fun, but let’s be real for a second with the top 10 people I wanted to be eaten by dinosaurs.
10. The person next to me in the cinema: She was eating a hotdog.
9. The younger kid: Smug. The equivalent of the kid from Aliens you want to die.
8. Judy Greer: To save her from wasting her talents on fruitless roles in this (just a mother who can’t hold back tears) and Tomorrowland (just a mother who doesn’t appear on screen).
7. Colin Trevorrow: Little to no tension in final act, which demonstrates what happens when you give a giant sci-fi blockbuster to someone who’s only directed one indie film. Saying he’s a huge fan of the original doesn’t mean much – millions of non-palaeontologists are, too.
6. Whoever thought it’d be funny to put Claire in heels the whole time, shoot it in slow motion, and have an irrelevant plotline about how she should be ashamed for a) not wanting children b) prioritising her job over her shitty, annoying nephews who she doesn’t see anyway: Just saying.
5. Jimmy Fallon: His quest to go viral will never end.
4. Jessica Chastain: For throwing the papers in the air and yelling, “Eureka!”
3. Derek Connolly: For co-writing a script that had Pratt and Howard stroking a dead dinosaur, among other things.
2. The older kid: Aside from being too old for the role, he brings a lot of creepy energy, from the way he stares at Howard, and the implication that he’d rather be sending dick pics than watching a Mosasaur.
1. The I-Rex: Interesting to no one. Even within the park, its special skills (ability to speak to raptors, camouflage, changing heat patterns) don’t make it appealing to paying visitors; just makes it more likely to escape when dumb people open the enclosure door.
Knock Knock (2015) – 5/10
Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Eli Roth, Nicolás López, Guillermo Amoedo
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, Lorenzo Izzo, Ignacia Allamand
“You’re just like Major Lazer.”
Peaking with DJ Keanu in headphones working the decks, Roth’s latest is more black comedy than horror. Rather than “torture porn”, it’s closer to “porn with torture”. Keanu is Evan, a Happily Married Man in a house decked with so many photos of his wife and smiling children, it’s as if he lives in a shop selling prints to customers. So of course, something goes wrong when he’s alone at night with his architecture homework.
At the door is Bel (Armas) and Genesis (Izzo), two attractive young women dressed for summer, but drenched in rain. Once they’re allowed in briefly to dry off and call an Uber, the flirtations begin – and it’s excruciating. In barely concealed robes, the twosome suggest a threesome, stroking Evan’s uncomfortable shoulder and knee whenever possible. But when Bel compares him to Major Lazer? Oh boy.
Ignore Roth’s work with Hostel and the stuff you misremember him doing. The ongoing torture in Knock, Knock is more psychological than gory, often amounting to smashing someone’s expensive belongings and posting embarrassing Facebook posts. When anyone opines about monogamy and marital ethics, the tension grinds to a writerly halt. More remarkable (because of its prickly subject matter) are riffs on the sexualisation of children, and whether Roth is playing Funny Games with us. But, as with many home invasion thrillers, there’s little to go and by the end everyone’s just running around in circles.
Life in a Fishbowl – 7/10
Original title: Vonarstræti
Director: Baldvin Zophoníasson
Writers: Baldvin Zophoníasson, Birgir Örn Steinarsson
Starring: Heri Hilmar, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Thor Kristjansson
“You look kinda worried. Are you?”
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) – 4/10
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson
“How can you be so blind with eye that big?”
The Family Guy guy’s 1882-set comedy is an expensive, cardboard-y roulette of flat one-liners that should have the cast wishing they were The Man With No Name (to protect their anonymity, in case you didn’t get my gist). But they mostly sell the jokes with conviction, particularly Theron and Silverman, who have a much firmer grasp of rhythm than MacFarlane himself – as a lead in human non-CGI form, he’s out of his depth and finds a million ways to die in the middle of a skit.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) – 8.5/10
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, Michael Varhol
Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger
“I don’t need to see it, Dottie. I lived it.”
I was sold from the first sight of Pee-wee cycling with more pizzazz than a drugged up Lance Armstrong and the entire Fast & Furious franchise mashed together. Every minor movement or interaction – particularly “I know you are, but what am I?” silliness – cracked me up and made me yearn for more mainstream comedies with this little cynicism. (A modern Pee-wee would be treated as a McLovin’ fixture.)
Burton envisions a cartoonish playground, occasionally breaking into stop-motion, and it feeds into Pee-wee’s hyperactive glee. Each scene feels as if was fussed over for ages to maximise each comedic beat and potential idiosyncrasy. With Apatow handling the forthcoming Netflix comeback, I fear the worst. Sure, it’ll be co-written by the very funny Paul Rust, who could be Pee-Wee’s voice stand-in if necessary, but the character works best in a cinematic adventure that believes itself to be as historically important as The Bicycles Thieves. Shot on film, Big Adventure finds laughs from being a Loony Tunes animation somehow working its way as a “real” film – so hopefully it’ll be along those lines, rather than another Apatow-esque series of digitally shot edit jobs shuffling through scattershot improvisations.
Reprise (2006) – 6/10
Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Espen Klouman Høiner, Viktoria Winger
“Erik’s story took three months. He claimed he wrote it overnight.”
Slow West (2015) – 6/10
Director/Writer: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn
“Wanted dead or dead.”
As the Beta Band’s DJ, Maclean’s deft scratches and samples were what made the music more engaging than other dreary wannabes. But his role means he’s probably the person to blame for “Monolith”, a semi-interesting noise collage that disrupts the flow of The 3 Eps. Slow West is like “Monolith” in its mixtape quality, jumbling up flashbacks, campfire stories and an adventure for unrequited love.
Stand by for Tape Back-Up – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Ross Sutherland
“I try to anchor myself to history.”
Strange choice of ‘The Daily Mail’ for Radiohead songs, though. Why not ‘Videotape’? Wrote about it here.
Subway (1985) – 4/10
Director: Luc Besson
Writers: Luc Besson, Marc Perrier
Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Christopher Lambert, Michel Galabru, Jean-Hughes Anglade
“Why should I love you?”
“Because I’m a great girl.”
Feels too much like eavesdropping on dull conversations you overhear on subways – but in French, obviously. Still, when it hits, it hits: rollerblade chases down escalators, and the guy from Leon slamming a drumkit in the background. But for proper underground chase scenes, I’ll stick with A Most Violent Year, The Conversation and what I imagine every morning when sat on a train wishing the world would end or turn into a proper Luc Besson movie.
Terminator Genisys (2015) – 3.5/10
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons
“Tonight, there is no tomorrow.”
What’s more interesting than the film is its punctuation: to colon or not to colon? But a wacky title doesn’t help a blockbuster’s genisys, especially one so short of ideas it wrangles time travel to rehash the first two instalments. (Incidentally, on second viewing, T2 reeeeally doesn’t hold up, so who knows what’ll happen when Genisys is rebooted in 10 years’ time.)
The amount of exposition is unbelievable (“Goddamn robots, always covering up their tracks”) with Arnie battling Jai Courtney to be the least charismatic person onscreen. Third place medal for Emilia Clarke.
They All Laughed (1981) – 8/10
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Peter Bogdanovich, Blaine Novak
Starring: Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Colleen Camp, Dorothy Stratten, Blaine Novak, Audrey Hepburn
“Now you know why my husband has me followed.”
Three male private investigators, two women with jealous partners, a flirtatious taxi driver, a vengeful country singer, and a plot too tangled to follow until it collapses halfway through. Disguised only a bit better than the undercover pratfall trio, They All Laughed smuggles a web of broken relationships and doomed romances, all under the guise of a wacky detective story.
One of the unwritten rules of film criticism is that the film should work on its merit, without referring to backstage gossip. Well, it’s not an unwritten rule, because I see it said all the time on Twitter. And actually, a basic knowledge of the actors’ background adds far more pathos and humour to the characters’ quirks: Camp actually gave Bogdanovich a touch massage; Gazzara and Hepburn briefly fell in and out of love the year before; Ritter, in his pursuit of Stratten, was supposed to be a young Bogdanovich. Furthermore, the director dated Stratten for real, not knowing her husband sent a private instigator to follow her around.
Scenes possess an awkward, almost embarrassed energy, pertaining to the ensemble’s confused origami – saddling New York streets, the cast behave as if they’ve forgotten the lines, so will just speak from the heart. Special mention goes to Camp’s screwball timing; she outtalks the men before taking to the stage because – oh yes – it’s a New York comedy where clubs for some reason play surprisingly engaging country music. It’ll convert more fans to the genre than Nashville and, erm, the TV also called Nashville.
Welcome to Leith – 7/10
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
“I am one of the most famous racists in the world you son of a bitch. Don’t tell me I don’t know to win people over.”
Wish I Was Here (2014) – 0/10
Director: Zach Braff
Writers: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad, Mandy Patinkin
“If you don’t believe in God, can you at least believe in family?”
After playing a depressed LA actor in Garden State, Zach Braff returns as a depressed LA actor in Wish I Was Here – while this spiritual sequel doesn’t contain anything as insidious as the “this band will change your life” scene, it attempts to be a “this film will change your life” experience. And it does – you’ll never see one of Braff’s films again.
Believe it or not, I tried to work against my bias for a film that: a) has a grammatically incorrect title b) sounds depressingly similar to Garden State, one of my least favourite things in the world, which I also blame for Liberal Arts and happythankyoumoreplease c) raised $3m from Kickstarter.
Wish I Was Here on its own is an excruciatingly dull, navel-gazing story (by Zach and his brother) obviously based on the writers performing some form of expensive self-therapy; you’d expect some more fleshed out characters, but sadly not. At times, the dialogue resembles a third-person reminder for what’s happening in the story. For example: “My father has cancer. My children have to drop out of school. I don’t have a job. How could this be any worse? There’s so much bad news all at once.”
The phony philosophy befits a film that argued a Kickstarter campaign was required for superfluous sci-fi fantasy sequences that add nothing to the final product. For the entitled characters, every problem – financial, religious, romantic – just magically works out in a non-descript, Kickstarter-ish way. It’s one of those films when a life crisis amounts to Kate Hudson’s character bemoaning her steady office job, the children moving out of private school, and Josh Gad’s boredom with the LA lifestyle he earns with a blogger’s salary (Braff’s ultimate revenge on bloggers – casting Josh Gad).
A dispiriting lack of ideas is evident as the film progresses and repeats its weak gags from the opening act. One guy, who “makes his penis talk”, appears constantly, with his behaviour explained every few scenes to new characters – like spending the day with someone and hearing the same unfunny anecdote you bump into someone, except condensed to two unbearably quirky hours. Every scene is a clunker, which does at least justify the Kickstarter campaign to some extent – an unimaginative filmmaker clearly had final cut.