This month: “99 Homes”, “Aloha”, “The Bohemian Life” (pictured above”), “Bridge of Spies”, “Brief Encounter”, “Burnt”, “By the Sea”, “The Cobbler”, “Crimson Peak”, “I Hired a Contract Killer”, “The Intern”, “Just Jim”, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”, “The Lobster”, “Mississippi Grind”, “Mortdecai”, “La piscine”, “The Ridiculous 6”, “Shadows in Paradise”, “Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie”, “Spectre”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “A Very Murray Christmas”, “White Dog” and “White God”.
Elsewhere I’ve written things like an interview with “Todd Haynes on Carol”, an interview with “Guy Maddin on The Forbidden Room”, a write-up of “John Waters: in Conversation at the BFI”, an interview with Craig Roberts on “The influence of Twin Peaks on Just Jim”, an interview with “Sean Baker and Mya Taylor on Tangerine”, a look into “The history of 3D sex in cinema”, an interview with “Ondi Timoner on Brand: A Second Coming”, my pick of “The year’s best music scenes”, an interview with “Louie Psihoyos on Racing Extinction”, an interview with “Marc Silver on 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets”, an interview with “Rick Alverson on Entertainment” and my pick of “The vomit scenes of the year”.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.
99 Homes (2015) – 6.5/10
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax
“What did you do wrong that your family lives in a motel?”
What I learned from 99 Homes, politics aside, is that Garfield makes a better baddie than a goodie, and perhaps the “amazing” Spider-Man franchise could have spun on had he played a villain. But also in 99 Homes is the ultimate scary human in the form of Michael Shannon, whose wizard of Zod excursions were the only palatable chunk of Man of Steel. Together, they just about pull of dialogue that sounds more like transcripts of debating bloggers.
Aloha (2015) – 6/10
Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Danny McBride, Bill Murray
“You’re a workaholic who creates work to avoid work.”
And Bradley Cooper’s working on that, once he’s worked out what Aloha is about – other than a vague notion on love, that is. Aloha is a mess – so much so, its misspelled title was supposed to be Lower, based on how to adjust your expectations. As it is, Crowe follows the Jerry Maguire formula (right up to a sign-language encore) with a cynical man involved in a non-romantic sport (this time, the military) taught to appreciate life by a friendly Hollywood actress.
Why did UK cinemas say aloha (goodbye) to Aloha (bad… bye)? There’s the overwritten space obsession (ripped out of Men, Women & Children), cringe-y dialogue (“The girl lit up your sky!”), horrible whitewashing (Emma Stone is supposedly a quarter Chinese), and Bradley Cooper (simply not Tom Cruise). Even the gift of Bill Murray is squandered – he’s cast as the villain, the one person who shouldn’t be likeable. The same applies to Alec Baldwin, whose contribution is like a Jack Donaghy you have to take seriously.
Yet Aloha is too bizarre to dislike, and I’m a sucker for Crowe’s on-the-nose music cues. The messiness is an extension of Crowe taking a risk. Yes, he does fall back on his own tricks, but this is a romcom about exploding a satellite for romantic redemption – the new “holding up a stereo by the window”.
The Bohemian Life (1992) – 8/10
Original title: La Vie de Bohème
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Writers: Aki Kaurismäki, Henri Murger (novel)
Starring: Matti Pellonpää, André Wilms, Kari Väänänen, Evelyne Didi, Jean-Pierrre Léaud
“That fruit is called a melon. I remember eating one.”
Three deadpan, nearly dead artists survive life’s few ups and many downs together, often ending with tidy punchlines (the kind that would end a Peanuts four-panel) before fading to black. This pattern, on repeat, is classic Kaurismäki, with what I found to be laugh-out-loud dialogue – especially the inclusion of Antoine Doinel as an art collector – although my mind kinda wandered midway, due to general repetition of tone. The final 15 minutes, however, come out of nowhere, pulling all the hidden emotional strands into a spectacular finish.
Bridge of Spies (2015) – 6/10
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Mark Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Also known as Salmon Fishing in the “yeah, man – I was in London for a meeting.” Or Saving Private Amy Ryan from an empty second act. Or Cold Brother, Where Are Thou?
Under its actual name, Bridge of Spies lacks flair, aside from a few stellar walking moments, with its core strength being Hanks playing the role of Best Man at a wedding: reliable, non-judgemental, and determined not to steal the spotlight from the groom. Except in this case the groom is a case of wife-swapping before the marriage, and the marriage is between two nations who despise each other. I guess Hanks is the bridge?
Brief Encounter (1945) – 8.5/10
Director: David Lean
Writers: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame, Noël Coward
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey
“If you died, you’d forget me. I want to be remembered.”
When the screen tilts into a Dutch angle, tipping Laura’s emotions further towards the edge until they’re teetering off a platform, it’s extra apparent how familiar the setting – particularly the train station – has become through the romantic resonance of two strangers eating lousy biscuits every Thursday. Repeat viewings reveal more, especially if you’re a moron who didn’t pay enough attention the first time. Incidentally, someone on Radio 4, possibly Francine Stock, wondered if Alec was a serial seducer. Maybe that’s why he could only do Thursdays.
Burnt (2015) – 4/10
Director: John Wells
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy
“My advice, chef, if you want to live a long time, eat your own tongue.”
A muted, pedestrian take on an unremarkable script that reminds me of a joke by Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock (my memory’s pretty bad) that Hell would be fun if you could do it with your friends – which might explain why so much of Burnt feels like autopilot. I found a newfound appreciation for Bradley and Sienna’s former co-star, the toy baby from American Sniper.
By the Sea (2015) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt
“You’d have to fail to be a failed writer. But you’re nothing.”
Why By the Sea has been decried as a vanity project escapes me, as such an uncommercial prospect – made because its writer/director is using her fame to not dumb it down – is what would liven up the weekly releases. And when watching it, the one-star reviews are even harder to fathom, as the two actors are terrific and the Antonioni touches are appreciated. For a bonus, there’s some Polanski keyhole mischief (or the George Harrison curioso Wonderwall, if being wilfully obtuse).
But then again, it’s a bit by the zzz.
The Cobbler (2015) – 3/10
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writers: Thomas McCarthy, Paul Sado
Starring: Adam Sandler, Dan Stevens, Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi
“It’s a privilege to walk in another man’s shoes, but it’s also a responsibility.”
Every superhero sounds absurd at first. Batman, Ant-man, Half-a-Canyon-man. Marketing and hearing from online geeks that these characters have 50 years of comic book legacy, it all waters down the dumb costumes into making sceptics just cynical grumps who don’t know how to experience fun. Well, I can certainly get behind The Cobbler, an un-Sandler Sandler superhero bitten by a radioactive cliché: never judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.
That’s not to say there’s much walking or judging in The Cobbler. Sandler, as a cobbler, relinquishes a magical gift of transforming into his customers by putting on their footwear. He turns Chinese and heads to Chinatown, becomes Dan Stevens and gawps on a naked woman in the shower, and takes on the form of his father to surprise his mother (who doesn’t have nearly as many questions as I did about the incident).
McCarthy’s first let-down is neither a comedy nor a thriller. It isn’t quite a drama, either. With few jokes, the only action involves a dragging subplot with Method Man (there’s plenty of weird racial stuff going on, not just in Chinatown), and no one really emotes. Sandler doesn’t really perform, because the script doesn’t let him. He isn’t the obnoxious brat in his Dugan flicks, but doesn’t get to be the tormented soul of Punch-Drunk Love.
He’s just a confused shoe repairer in a misguided fantasy that would be completely aimless if it wasn’t for one of the greatest WTF endings in recent memory – as if everyone involved gave up midway, then decided to have fun with the most ridiculous conclusion to keep the audience watching. It worked. See The Cobbler ASAP purely for those last 10 minutes.
Crimson Peak (2015) – 8/10
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
“Has anyone died in this house?”
I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Margi Clarke, Kenneth Colley
“Why do you want to die?”
A lacklustre comedy that suggests Kaurismaki’s dry humour doesn’t translate that well out of Finnish. Apart from The Bohemian Life, that is. And probably lots of other things. I should give up writing.
The Intern (2015) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo
“Don’t forget to blink.”
This actually made me feel sad for all the rich white people – real and fictional – involved in the making of this movie.
Just Jim (2015) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Craig Roberts
Starring: Craig Roberts, Emile Hirsch
“This is when you decide what kind of person you are.”
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Brett Morgen
“You and Roseanne Barr are tied for most hated woman in the world.”
Kudos to Courtney Love for wanting a round of applause for not picking up the phone when she was planning to cheat on Kurt. Her attempts were thwarted by an earlier suicide attempt, which is the morbid light at the end of the doc’s tunnel. Look, Nirvana are an average band whose main appeal is that their songs were sung by someone on the verge of suicide. The same fascination lies in the archive footage – particularly the home videos with Courtney and Frances – about someone who’d hate knowing punters will one day watch his private life unfold in cinemas.
The Lobster (2015) – 9/10
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ariane Labed, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman
“We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up ‘I love you more than anything in the world’ with ‘Watch out we are in danger’.”
In Bird People, a hotel maid mutates into some sort of sparrow as part of an urban fairytale; by magic, lonely city dwellers are united, defying the efforts of walls and buildings to block companionship. No such luck in The Lobster which plants its bed & breakfast in a countryside nightmare – a comically bleak landscape where singletons must find love within 45 days, or be released into a forest as an animal of their choosing.
The film’s title is a tease, as is the opening act which establishes a dystopian system – with its own rigid rules and rapid punchlines – only to depart the hotel for good. And by good, I mean really good. It’s where Lanthimos pierces into a deeper, more upsetting thought bubble. Colin Farrell is thrust into the new order of Léa Seydoux and the Loners, who play an absurd reversal: they punish any signs of flirting or relationship sparks. At least the hotel allowed 45 days of illegality.
Where there should be a Venn diagram intersection between extremes, Farrell constructs a language with Rachel Weisz. Together, their forbidden love is more opaquely touching (more on that in five words’ time) for its symbolic nature, because they probably aren’t really in love – it’s just as flawed as Ben Whishaw bashing his face against a desk to seduce a woman with regular nosebleeds.
Lanthimos doesn’t reveal his cards or even the characters’ names, outside of Farrell’s, which stirs a cauldron of theories. Does avoiding a relationship constitute not being human? Is internet dating absurd? Or is avoiding such an efficient ritual even absurder? And is “absurder” a word or did I just make that up?
Critical consensus deems the second half as where The Lobster collapses. I disagree. It’s like the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen realises he and his new girlfriend are incompatible because she doesn’t appreciate the lobster. And such small portions.
Mississippi Grind (2015) – 6/10
Directors/Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Flech
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard
“I have trouble with money.”
Also known as: White Men Can’t Jump (From Gambling). Because it reminds me of White Men Can’t Jump. Because it’s about gambling. Because it’s about hustling. Because there’s a basketball scene. Because it’s about two guys. Because Mendelsohn says “I’m bad with money”, which I believe is word-for-word from White Men Can’t Jump.
Still, loquacious pleasures lie upon the road met by Reynolds and Mendelsohn on a low-key drive through casinos and bad memories. Reynolds is the drama’s strength and weakness, adding sophistication to the wisecracking rhythms of a gambler addicted to people; but at times that suaveness borders on TV sitcom timing. Otherwise, worth a gamb… no, can’t do it.
Enjoyably low-key, avoiding predictable paths, except an inevitable lifting of the stakes – because that’s what gamblers do. I saw it in a Louis Theroux doc.
Mortdecai (2015) – 3.5/10
Director: David Koepp
Writers: Eric Aronson, Kyril Bonfiglioli
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany
“Looks like something curled up and died on your lip.”
Supposedly based on a book (a pop-up one, perhaps?), Mortdecai is confounding in its cocktail of randy sex gags and childish delivery, like Ant and Dec caught on camera making puns in a brothel. Another comparison is The Fast Show – Paul Whitehouse makes a cameo – and its ill-fated BBC3 spinoff, hard to stomach at 30 minutes, and even harder at a 90-minute stretch with Depp handling someone else’s material. That said, I’d rather rewatch it over Spectre.
La Piscine (1969) – 7/10
Director: Jacques Deray
Writers: Jacques Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière
Starring: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin
“You are Pisces, your ascendant is Aquarius.”
A lesser splash in comparison to the remake. Still good, though.
The Ridiculous 6 (2015) – 2/10
Director: Frank Coraci
Writers: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
Starring: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner
“This is supposed to be a bank. Get that donkey out of here.”
The second time Steve Buscemi has played a barber in an Adam Sandler movie this year, but the only one in which he shoves his hand inside a donkey’s anus.
Shadows in Paradise (1986) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Matti Pellonpää, Kati Outinen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Esko Nikkari
“I’ve got a slogan already: “Reliable garbage disposal since 1986”.
Missing the spark – perhaps characters willing to fight back – that made Ariel and The Match Box Girl so riveting in their rhythms.
Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015) – 0/10
Director: Steve Martino
Writers: Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz, Cornelius Uliano
Starring: People who should know better
“Nickels, nickels, nickels – I love the sound of nickels.”
That bizarre quote from Lucy, rattling coins in a bucket, sums up a CGI cash-in that does such a monstrous job it turns Woodstock into a Minion. Part of my ire is that A Boy Named Charlie Brown is my favourite animated film of all time, which means The Peanuts Movie introduces me to what I presume Star Wars fans felt when facing The Phantom Menace. Yes, I’m equating the sight of Jar Jar Binks with the horror that the Little Red-Haired Girl – traditionally an elusive off-panel figure – is featured throughout, with dialogue and more screen time than Linus, as if it’s no big deal. Why not throw in Maris from Frasier and Diane from Twin Peaks while you’re at it?
Charles M. Schulz wrote and drew every Peanuts comic during his lifetime, and he has sole screenplay credits for the four actual Peanuts movies. Not so with The Peanuts Movie, dreamed up by Schulz’s relatives after his death, and written by people who are only Schulz in surname. Subsequently, the resurrection of Peanuts is faithful to a fault, squeezing in catchphrases for no real reason at times, but not bold enough to tread new ground.
Well, that’s not entirely true. For instance, there’s the jarring pop tunes that do the opposite of Vince Guaraldi; Snoopy’s flamenco dancing and Mission Impossible pastiche; the goddamn happy ending which is like the 3eanuts tumblr except with an incongruous fifth panel that undoes everything you knew and loved about the characters.
Fans of the comics and original films will notice a few call-backs, like the “No dogs allowed!” of Snoopy Come Home, and there are appearances from the Kite-Eating Tree and so on. But at times the writers appear to be punishing viewers with the worst areas of Schulz’s work, from the cameo of Fifi (originally from a TV special) to a reminder of when Snoopy twirled his ears to be a helicopter.
But what’s most aggravating, apart from the animation style which I’ve had a while to take in, is a tossed-off line in a library when Charlie Brown ventures away from picture books to find War and Peace. Another kid whispers, “He’s not allowed in the adult section.” It’s not a joke; just an insight into a remake that infantilises its art in a manner that would have its creator saying, “I hate Mondays.” After all, Schulz famously hated the name Peanuts, and yet there it is in the title, with Snoopy placed at the front for marketing purposes.
Like Charlie Brown kicking Lucy’s football, The Peanuts Movie is something no one should ever see.
Spectre (2015) – 4/10
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Naomi Harris, Ben Whishaw
“Now I know what the M stands for: moron.”
Some sort of sexy octopus crawls over Bond in an opening credits sequence hinting at what’s to come: stilted poses from Craig while his soul is extracted by the blind tentacles of a franchise happy to make a big deal about a goddamn Sam Smith song. Rather than a “best of” Bond, as promised, Spectre is a “worst of” compilation with dialogue worse than usual, bits of action more obsessed with geography than inspiration, and what at times comes across as a terrible comedy: the one-liners, probably written by around 20 punch-up contributors, all flop. With Monica Bellucci gone faster than it takes to say her name, it’s apparent how many of the film’s decisions – especially the overseas sections – were based on marketing.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – 8/10
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson
“We’ll see each other again.”
I have no emotional attachment to the original Star Wars film. In fact, I don’t really like them. What drove me to a midnight screening of Episode VII was a combination of insomnia, coincidentally finishing my assignments that day at 11pm, and curiosity if I could find my own “Star Wars moment” – a fabled term only used by middle-aged nostalgists on the back foot.
The Force Awakens is superior to A New Hope, in that it’s basically the same film, but upgraded from technical and storytelling standpoints. The acting is better, and so too is the action, especially the physical opening act that throws its weight around, using set-pieces to introduce the characters. Though brief, the old gang popping up now and then serve as injections of energy, not just nostalgia, building upon the romantic in-built mythmaking – rather than, say, the cynicism of Jurassic World harking back to its origins. The juggernaut of toys and spinoffs may suggest otherwise, but the excitement of Star Wars is felt within the characters, as expressed by the undiluted joy of Finn wooping and Kylo Ren’s deference to Darth Vader.
While derivative, The Force Awakens is driven by a group mentality not present in its blockbuster rivals, as if all involved are on the same page. For instance, on Marvel films, certain lines always stick out that are presumably from uncredited punch-up writers – Eugene O’Neill gag in Avengers, for instance. But here, the humour is more organic, like the Stormtroopers turning their back during Kylo’s tantrum.
The clockwork efficiency, though inherently a flaw, is persistent enough that when I went for a toilet break, it took ages for me to work out when to leave – whereas with Man of Steel or Ant-Man, it’s a case of boring action/boring talking/boring action/boring talking. Here, I actually wanted the small character moments, with Chewie and the nurse, or Adam Driver being his character in Girls. What I did pick was a small moment focused on Rey, a character with so much promise – it’s genuinely thrilling the biggest franchise is led by a woman and a person of colour – but played by such a wooden actress. If I was one of the tens of thousands who lost in the auditions, I’d be peeved.
Side note, there’s a visual gag shared by The Force Awakens and The Ridiculous 6. I’m sad that I noticed.
A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – 7/10
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Mitch Glazer, Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jenny Lewis, George Clooney, Michael Cera, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Rashida Jones
“I’m a ghost. I’ve got to keep haunting and haunting and haunting.”
The writer of Passion Play and Rock the Kasbah hopes you enjoy your Christmas.
White Dog (1982) – 4/10
Director: Samuel Fuller
Writers: Samuel Fuller, Curtis Hanson, Romain Gary (novel)
Spent it all thinking, “How did this get made?” As in, it’s really impressive that such an out-there idea was financed. Outside of the metaphor, though, it’s a bit bone-dry.
White God (2015) – 4.5/10
Original title: Fehér isten
Director/Writer: Kornél Mundruczó
Starring: Zsófia Psotta
Spent it all thinking, “How did this get made?” Outside of the metaphor, though, it’s a bit bone-dry.