This month: “American Movie”, “Arrietty”, “Ask Me Anything”, “Being Flynn”, “Clockwatchers”, “Deadpool”, “The Descent”, “Dirty Grandpa”, “L’Enfant d’en haut”, “Ghosts”, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”, “Le Goût des autres”, “Kristy”, “The Martian”, “A New Leaf”, “Not Fade Away”, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (pictured above), “Rapture-Palooza”, “The Straight Story”, “That Awkward Moment”, “Trainspotting”, “Unfriended” and “Zero Motivation”.
Elsewhere, you can read things I’ve written such as an “Interview with Harmony Korine”, a look into “Why children’s horror isn’t scary”, an interview with “Mia Goth on The Survivalist”, a pick of “Films that should have been in black and white”, a celebration of “The real star of A Bigger Splash”, a look back at “Trainspotting and why we’re still choosing life”, a topical “Defence of Miley Cyrus”, a look at “Hotels in Youth, Anomalisa and The Lobster” and a guide to “Harmony Korine’s best musical moments”.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.
American Movie (1999) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Chris Smith
Starring: Mark Borchardt, Bill Borchardt, Tom Schimmels
“Do you know what ‘cathartic’ means?”
Accurately depicts behind the scenes of how this blog is written.
Arrietty (2010) – 8/10
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Mary Norton (novel)
Starring: Mirai Shida, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Shinobu Otake
“Human beings are dangerous.”
By coincidence, I watched Ghibli’s adaptation of The Borrowers after Mulholland Drive, without realising how the miniature grandparents of the former would segue into the latter. Anyway, Arriety is terrifying – at least, under those conditions – with its characters strangely empathetic. A family of tiny people – their heads are the size of a sugarcube – live under the floorboards, occasionally stretching their legs to steal food and accessories. The rule: only what humans won’t notice is missing. (Which means don’t blame fictional creations for losing all your money.)
The title character is a 14-year-old girl making her first steps out into a dangerous world – and it is dangerous. To be honest, I kinda think it’s bad parenting to let your daughter out in a world with cats roaming about, but that’s just me. The rich world is full of magnified details, right down to their teacups pouring just a single drop to fill up a cup. Riveting.
Ask Me Anything (2014) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Allison Burnett
Starring: Britt Robertson, Justin Long, Martin Sheen
“Complete honesty is a complete lie.”
Protagonist bloggers are the new internal monologue. Yet, Ask Me Anything keeps changing shape, like someone picking different WordPress themes to reframe the content.
As Katie Kampenfelt, Robertson is a sharp, comic talent in the mould of Veronica Mars, lacing one-liners with deep-rooted fragility. The performance is versatile enough to compensate for the clichéd explanations for her darkness. But that’s the point: she blogs because that’s what losers her age do; she has an affair with a married man because that’s what babysitters in salacious films do.
When Katie crumbles under her non-existent personality, all that’s left is a shroud of lies, strung together by someone with a penchant for delivering unexpectedly callous one-liners. The terrible music verges on parody, as does some of the script – but its odd twists and lead turns had me hooked. The ending is so ridiculous, it deserves a standing ovation.
Being Flynn (2012) – 6/10
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: Paul Weitz, Nick Flynn (novel)
Starring: Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, Olivia Thirlby
“A drowning man? I’m a survivor. I’m an artist.”
Once again, Dano plays a man beaten down by the world (and, like Ruby Sparks, is another failed novelist). However, instead of finessing a manuscript, his time is divided between a shaky relationship with Thirlby, and completing shifts at a homeless shelter – where he finds his grouchy, erudite father, who just so happens to be played by Robert De Niro. It plunges into the timeline of writers: one artist treating his son as if he were just a character in a novel.
Clockwatchers (1998) – 6.5/10
Director: Jill Sprecher
Writers: Jill Sprecher, Karen Sprecher
Starring: Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow
Deadpool (2016) – 2/10
Director: Tim Miller
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller
“You know what they call cancer in Spanish? ‘El cancer’.”
Two laughs – both visual – in an offbeat comedy that sinks with the usual superhero tropes it’s supposedly subverting. Two years ago, I wrote an article defending Ryan Reynolds, predicting the Reynoldsance, but now I feel dirty and used; it’s as if Michael Scott got lucky in Hollywood with execs who love his “that’s what she said” humour. And by offbeat, I mean the jokes disrupt the rhythm.
The Descent (2005) – 5/10
Director/Writer: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone
“We’ve always said if there’s no risk, then what’s the point?”
Great until it turned into Lord of the Rings. Same issue I had when chronologically going through the Hobbit book series.
Dirty Grandpa (2016) – 5.5/10
Director: Dan Mazer
Writer: John M. Philips
Starring: Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, Julianne Hough
“You seem really familiar with the penal code.”
I will stick up somewhat for Dirty Grandpa, a salvaged movie in which De Niro – as a person, and the widower he plays – no longer gives a fuck. Look, there’s no masterpiece here: the characters are perfunctory, the gags are juvenile, and the inevitable sap is more embarrassing than the intentionally cringe-inducing set-pieces. But De Niro digs into a debased character whose larger-than-life personality can only cause havoc; the sort of performance applauded if by, say, Tim Heidecker or Andy Kaufman, but frowned upon by Taxi Driver fans.
Still, those Scorsese years are gone. In Dirty Grandpa, De Niro’s filthy elder is the Travis Bickle of his autumn period. The film’s nonstop nastiness – topped by Efron twice singing sincerely – is perversely fascinating, and the staleness of the Deutch/Efron back-and-forth suggests there’s more charm in being offensive.
L’Enfant d’en haut (2012) – 8/10
English title: Sister
Director: Ursula Meier
Writers: Antoine Jaccoud, Ursula Meier
Starring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux, Gillian Anderson
“You’re a ball and chain. I even paid for your jeans.”
I don’t speak French and can’t explain how the title translates to Sister. But that fits in with a stirring drama about an outsider at a tourist resort who’s misunderstood by English-speaking skiers. 12-year-old Simon steals to feed himself and his older sister; although we’re invited into his daily rigmarole of heartbreak and survival, the middle-class visitors only see a stranger stealing gloves. The pointless luxury of a ski resort builds and builds, while Simon struggles for money; the plot revelations are as cold as the surroundings.
Ghosts (2005) – 5.5/10
Original title: Gespenster
Director: Christian Petzold
Writers: Harun Farocki, Christian Petzold
Starring: Julia Hummer, Sabine Timoteo, Marianne Basler
“Why? Because we’re hungry and she’s wearing Prada.”
Nina replaces her lack of a traditional family with detailed diary fantasies, until she comes across two runaways – one with a criminal background, the other a grieving mother – who prove to be tragic opportunists. But Petzold’s flat visuals and understated narrative never fully develops as efficiently as the characters’ shoplifting.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009) – 4/10
Director: Neal Brennan
Writers: Andy Stock, Rick Stempson
Starring: Jeremy Piven, Jordana Spiro, Ed Helms Kathryn Hahn, David Koechner
“Screw everybody. The only thing I trust in this world is cars.”
The fingerprints of Neal Brennan – the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show – are all over The Goods, an often riotous comedy full of “great bits” perhaps in need of a director with experience beyond sketch shows. The hook isn’t that much of a hook. Jeremy Piven and his entourage revitalise a sinking car dealership, which isn’t the breeding ground for comedy you’d might expect.
The characters aren’y likeable or unlikeable, but unmemorable, which makes the so-called stakes rather laughable at times. The finale may as well be a Comedy Central sketch, rather than the payoff for a 90-minute film. That said, like a car, the individual bits work, especially scenes involving Hahn and Brennan-isms – I’m thinking of Kristen Schaal uttering, “You motherfucker”.
Le Goût des autres (2000) – 8/10
English title: The Taste of Others
Director: Agnès Jaoui
Writers: Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri
Starring: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Anne Alvaro, Agnès Jaoui, Alain Chabat, Gérard Lanvin
“I’m sick of these pink walls and birds and flowers.”
Nothing to do with Bone Tomahawk, Jaoui’s ensemble comedy is more in line with Hannah and Her Sisters, while deftly balancing its overlapping character stories so that each one matters. Now, while not strictly out of the ordinary, I’d argue it actually is, simply because so many films fumble the format. Allowing each thread its space, the sharp script is also to the point; funny and bittersweet, it forges momentum out of each section’s swirling sadness.
Kristy (2014) – 5.5/10
Director: Oliver Blackburn
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Haley Bennett, Ashley Green, Lucas Till
“Kill Kristy. Kristy’s pretty, pure, blessed.”
Initially playing festivals as Random, then Kristy, Blackburn’s straightforward slasher is strange, but only for its threadbare nature. Left alone on campus, college girl Kristy is stalked by a few hooded teens for no real reason – as in, that’s more or less the real reason.
At first, I was scared. Then I was petrified. But I got used to the sameness. Before then, the chase scenes and pulsating music had me fully engaged for about 30 minutes. Kirsty legs it through an empty school, through locker rooms and science labs, finding architectural horror that reminded me of Elephant. Bennett is an underrated scream queen based on this, Molly Hartley and Kaboom (there’s a been when she realises life is pointless, and it’s a bit frightening).
The Martian (2015) – 6 /10
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (novel)
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig
“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup.”
Please rescue me from this planet.
A New Leaf (1971) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Elaine May
Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose
“I feel as though you’ve given me your place in the atlas.
May’s black comedy needs to be seen twice, I think. Wow, that ending – dark, poignant and hilarious. I’d poison anyone to see May’s original three-hour cut.
Not Fade Away (2012) – 6/10
Director/Writer: David Chase
Starring: John Magaro, Jack Husto, Bella Heathcote
“What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens.”
Teenagers in the 60s start a band and call themselves… something that isn’t The Beatles. A story covered to death, it seems an appropriate challenge for the showrunner who steered The Sopranos through well-trodden gangster territory.
Douglas Damiano can’t do much to break that mould, apart from his unusual move from drummer to lead singer. A few subplots dart around him: an unfulfilling childhood crush; a demanding father; the Vietnam War. Basically, lots of meandering nostalgia and basic riffs.
The Sopranos routinely picked the right tune to puncture the mood before the final credits. Interestingly, Douglas is bewildered at a cinema when the mimes play tennis during Blowup. Without musical cues, he doesn’t know what emotions to feel. Given that, he probably wouldn’t be a fan of how Not Fade Away ends – a stunning piece of misdirection that’s absurd enough to work.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – 7.5/10
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Cliff Green, Joan Lindsay (novel)
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver
“A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”
Rewatched it after writing briefly about it here.
Rapture-Palooza (2013) – 2/10
Director: Paul Middleditch
Writer: Chris Matheson
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, John Francis Daley
“Yeah, I’ll be licking your vagina all the time.”
Can’t believe they spent so much time with a CGI swearing bird/insect thing.
The Straight Story (1999) – 7/10
Director: David Lynch
Writers: John E. Roach, Mary Sweeney
Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacey
“That bundle, that’s a family.”
Knowing Lynch’s spiritual beliefs – the angels in his films are more literal than absurd – carries a new meaning to The Straight Story, in which an elderly man travels across hills on a lawnmower to reconnect with a relative. The journey takes longer than walking, and would be cursed if it rains. However, he perseveres, refusing help from strangers, knowing that an invisible force is all he needs. That kind of poetic goal is present in all of Lynch’s films, but here the heart beats more earnestly without any surreal distractions.
The Survivalist (2016) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Stephen Fingleton
Starring: Mia Goth, Martin McCann, Andrew Simpson
My interview with Mia Goth can be found here.
That Awkward Moment (2014) – 1/10
Director/Writer: Tom Gormican
Starring: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Jessica Lucas, Mackenzie Davis
“She’s not dateable, if that’s what you’re getting at, so just calm down.”
A first-time and currently last-time director, Gormican’s other credit is as co-producer on Movie 43, so he has a track record with star-studded gross-out romcoms. In That Awkward Moment – known as Are We Officially Dating? in some areas – he seems chewed up by a machine demanding certain plot beats and three happy endings for its male stars (the female cast, whose talent is also wasted, are treated as decoration that laughs along at inane jokes). Because, I hope this isn’t the he film he dreamed of making.
Three bros make a pact based on “the so…”; it’s the awkward moment when a regular one-night stand asks, “So, where is this going?” Of course, the trio fall in love and it’s all rather predictable, but what’s consistently unpleasant is the jarring tone: incessant bro misogyny segues into romantic gestures, along with running gags about shitting in toilets, urinating with an erection, and the dangers of accompanying a woman to her father’s funeral in case she considers the guy a boyfriend.
Most of the cast look visibly uncomfortable with the material, with the exception of Teller and Davis. The standout dud is Efron, especially in his lifeless dalliance with Poots (whom he mistakes for a prostitute); his and Teller’s bullying of a shopkeeper is less comedic and more straight-up nasty. How can such a flippant comedy leave such a sour taste? I guess Gormican’s blown his chance because Hollywood said, “So…”
Trainspotting (1996) – 8.5/10
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: John Hodge, Irvine Welsh (novel)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle
“Fresh air won’t do anything.”
Wrote about the 20th anniversary here.
Unfriended (2015) – 7/10
Director: Leo Gabriadze
Writer: Nelson Greaves
Starring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz
“Who would hack into a dead girl’s account?”
Watching someone use a computer is frustrating. In the pauses, when the cursor sits still, you end up snatching the mouse to hurry things along. Those moments are the creaky floorboards of Unfriended, a horror told through laptop screens. It mixes Skype, Spotify, YouTube and Facebook, with enough topicality that the layouts are still familiar – the “seen” tick of messages, the source of so much IRL drama, is the tip of the iCEBERG. Much better than, say, the ending of Knock Knock or the last time someone borrowed your laptop to post a status.
Zero Motivation (2014) – 8.5/10
Director/Writer: Tayla Lavie
Starring: Nelly Tagar, Dana Ivgy, Shani Klein
“Your ‘biggest dream’ is pretty lame, right? Making coffee in Tel Aviv instead of here…”
A workplace comedy with a twist, Zero Motivation is a three-part satire of how the Israel Defense Forces respond to the compulsory conscription of women: either administration, or lowering the glass ceiling with an #everydaysexism explanation that a trumpeter doesn’t always belong in the philharmonic orchestra.
For Daffi (Tagar) and Zohar (Ivgy), those respective roles are in an office where the most productive activity involves Minesweeper competitions. With zero motivation and zero interest in what the army is doing, the pair effectively do less than nothing, as their mistakes slow down operations; unable to type, Daffi’s job – Paper and Shredding NCO – was invented specifically for her, with the rest of her hours spent penning letters pleading to be transferred to Tel Aviv. Why? It’s a city with iced coffee, among other pleasures.
But Lavie’s debut is more than Office Space in a different uniform. The chameleonic direction comfortably mixes absurd humour, gender politics, witty one-liners and a chilling ghost story, featuring the funniest fight I’ve seen since Pineapple Express. Stuck in the army at a young age, against their will, Daffi and Zohar express little interest in the blah patriotism unconvincingly rolled out when they’re told off; it’s more like school, where everything is pointless, except the solace is that it’s pointless for everyone else, too.