This month: “Alice in the Cities” (pictured above), “Brave”, “Celeste and Jesse Forever”, “Clean”, “The Decline of the American Empire”, “Ed Wood”, “The Fundamentals of Caring”, “Ghostbusters”, “Girl Walk // All Day”, “I Can’t Sleep”, “Inventing the Abbots”, “Keanu”, “Knight of Cups”, “Lust, Caution”, “Made in U.S.A.”, “Memories of a Murder”, “The Neon Demon”, “Now You See Me 2”, “Pusher”, “Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands”, “Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death”, “Stand By Me”, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” and “Weiner”.
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Alice in the Cities (1974) – 8/10
Original title: Alice in den Städten
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: Wim Wenders, Veith von Fürstenberg
Starring: Rüdiger Vogler, Yella Rottländer, Lisa Kreuzer
“What else have you got to do? You’re only scribbling away in your notebook.”
Wonderland or not, West Germany is a learning curve for a decidedly odd couple – frustrated writer Philip (Vogler) and 12-year-old Alice, the abandoned daughter of a one-night stand. Their journey seems entirely improvised by Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller, which translates to the often wordless adventure. Instead of studied plot points, the mood changes, as if the environment holds a slow, magical power on those passing through; and in those fleeting, black-and-white shots, it lures in the viewer too.
Brave (2012) – 4/10
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Writers: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Craig Ferguson
“That scaffy witch gave me a gammy spell.”
Any viewing experience of Brave is inevitably soured by Pixar’s treatment of Brenda Chapman, the initial brains of the project; despite basing the screenplay on the relationship with her daughter, she was removed during preproduction. The film itself lacks any of the backstage drama and is mostly forgettable. Maybe a few more bears, a Werner Herzog voiceover and reinstating Chapman could have changed that.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) – 4/10
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Writers: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack
Starring: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen
“It is not weird that we hang out all the time. Do you think it’s weird that we hang out all the time?”
Feels like a screwball comedy with the jokes removed because halfway the creative team wanted to be taken more seriously.
Clean (2004) – 7/10
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Olivier Assayas, Malachy Martin, Sarah Perry
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle
“I told them, ‘I’m a friend of Emily Wang’s.’ They wouldn’t believe me. I became hysterical.”
A zigzagging camera during a Metric gig is one of the sudden bursts of movement that enliven Assayas’ sensitive drama. On face value, the story is nothing special, but with sudden turns of pace, it’s an eclectic, moving tale of redemption. Cheung’s character, a rocker with a dead husband, is forbidden from seeing her son until she kicks the drugs. Her post-prison life is thus frustrating and grey, but like the industrial cityscapes the DP captures so well, there’s a flicker of hope somewhere – and the emotional jolts are fully earned.
The Decline of the American Empire (1986) – 4.5/10
Original title: Le Déclin de l’empire américain
Director/Writer: Denys Arcand
Starring: Dominique Michel, Dorothée Berryman, Rémy Girard, Pierre Curzi, Louise Portal, Yves Jacques, Geneviève Rioux, Daniel Brière, Gabriel Arcand
“I’ve always wondered, would we see the missiles in a nuclear war?”
The end of society involves plenty of sauce in the chatter and food, but the flavour doesn’t last.
Demolition (2015) – 2.5/10
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
“Everything has become a metaphor.”
Demolition is a messy drama with the subtlety of a bulldozer. As grieving widow Davis (Gyllenhaal) notes, his every behaviour is symbolic, from a newfound hobby as a builder to writing a novel called Redemption. OK, that last bit is made up, but the truth is worse: he sends letters to a vending machine complaints department, leading to a 3am follow-up called from Manic Pixie Dream Customer Service Representative Karen (Watts). The handwritten rants make her cry, apparently.
For all its faults, Vallée’s tedious film is at least self-aware: it’s a cynical spin through a formula, starting with a clichéd car crash scene, and climaxing with a foot race. Gyllenhaal digs his nails into the role, echoing his meatier role from Moonlight Mile, but he’s clutching straws and there’s only so much an actor can do without a solid [insert your own building metaphor here].
Ed Wood (1994) – 8/10
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette
“How about this: what if I have no lines? I play the part mute?”
What Ed Wood lacks in talent, he compensates for in enthusiasm. Isolated from general society, he builds his own camaraderie of weirdoes – the gang shuffling from place to place is heartwarming – and gets too excited about communicating with a has-been actor. He could have been a blogger.
The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) – 4/10
Director: Rob Burnett
Writers: Rob Burnett, Jonathan Evison (novel)
Starring: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle
“I thought it’d be funny.”
Netflix already devises its own original content with the aid of an algorithm that deciphers user behaviour, and you sense the streaming service would have made Fundamentals itself if it wasn’t on sale at Sundance. Rudd is the likeable caretaker in the mould of Rudd’s many other Sundance characters (he’s a frustrated writer rebounding from a divorce). Roberts is a foul-mouthed teen with muscular dystrophy and a shortened lifespan. Gomez is the MPDG hanging at the gas station. Ehle isn’t famous enough for the road trip, even though she’s the mother.
Not only is it predictable and derivative, the geographical detail towards the end smacks of desperation, as if to say, “Look how far we travelled. At least give us that?”
Ghostbusters (2016) – 6/10
Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig, Dan Aykroyd (original film), Harold Ramis (original film)
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth
At last, it’s Judgement Day for the Ghostbusters gang. The story is simple: four funny women are terrorised by shrieking, lifeless creatures stuck in the past – and that’s just the online commenters. With a central cast drawn from Bridesmaids and Saturday Night Live, Paul Feig’s reboot is unsurprisingly a hoot. These are, after all, long-term collaborators flexing their funny bones with a foolproof premise. Where it falters is the incessant callbacks and uninspiring action sequences; when attention turns to a third-act invasion of CGI ghosts, there’s something strained in the neighbourhood.
Read my full review here.
Girl Walk // All Day (2011) – 7/10
Director: Jacob Krupnick
Starring: Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, John Doyle
“Why are you dancing?”
A 75-minute music video encompassing the delight of walking through a city with headphones and a killer playlist, while trapped in a non-verbal love triangle and receiving funding from Kickstarter.
I Can’t Sleep (1994) – 7/10
Original title: J’ai pas sommeil
Director/Writer: Claire Denis
Starring: Yekaterina Golubeva, Béatrice Dalle, Alex Descas, Richard Courcet
“No one wants to suffer.”
Wrote about it here.
Inventing the Abbots (1997) – 4.5/10
Director: Pat O’Connor
Writers: Ken Hixon, Sue Miller (novel)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Liv Tyler, Jennifer Connelly, Billy Crudup
I’m not going to pretend I watched this for any reason other than because I typed “Joaquin Phoenix” into Netflix and this came up. And I’m not going to pretend there’s any reason other than Joaquin Phoenix to give this a spin, especially the scene where he takes a marker pen to give himself sideburns.
Keanu (2016) – 4.5/10
Director: Peter Atencio
Writers: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tiffany Haddish
“He’s going to stay a kitten forever.”
The creative team behind Key and Peele can do better than Keanu, which they have done, in a show called Key and Peele. Their feature outing, a sporadically amusing crime caper, stretches out a sketch premise without finding time to develop its racial satire.
Knight of Cups (2016) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy
“Where will I meet you?”
A director at the top of a game he invented, in which he holds all the cards. Whatever’s going on, the fleeting emotions soar and simmer, transforming Hollywood into La dolce vita – and no one watches Fellini for the dialogue, anyway. A fun game of cameo-spotting too.
Lust, Caution (2007) – 7/10
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang, Eileen Chang (short story)
Starring: Tang Wei, Tony Leung, Leehom Wang
“I don’t care about jewellery. I just want to see you wear it.”
Pitting lust versus caution, Ang Lee’s period spy drama sees political indoctrination crumble under human contact. A resistance group plot an assassination by sending out a young actress (Wei) to romance a bodyguard (Leung), knowing physical desire is a weakness that can be exploited. The problem is that desire extends to emotions: the woman in question slowly falls in love with the man she’s betraying, and is a rock caught between two hard, ideologically opposing places.
I’m not entirely sure Wei convinces as someone who swings between the diametric mind-sets – she’s regularly overacting in the company of those, like Leung, who can subtly reveal a broken heart in a few twitches. But the build-up and finale is more gripping than any Bond film. Lee understands the grandiose nature of a young generation aware that without rage, they cease to exist as human beings. So, the next time you’re angry with the world, it just means you’re human or plotting to overthrow the government.
Made in U.S.A. (1966) – 4/10
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Donald E. Westlake (novel)
Starring: Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud
“You can fool the movie audience, but not me.”
Anna Karina is Humphrey Bogart in a time when Godard was at his best. Except she doesn’t do Bogart at all, and Godard is far from his peak. The main gist is supposedly if The Big Sleep had Karina playing Marlowe, which has some intrigue in the first few scenes: she wakes up in a book, taking on gangsters in a barely disguised film set. Beyond the opportune snapshots of Karina smoking a cig in a private eye pose, there isn’t much else to remember – just incomprehensible ramblings (sometimes from a radio) made on a whim.
Memories of a Murder (2003) – 8/10
Original title: Sarinui Chueok
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Shim Sung-bo
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roi-ha, Park Hae-il, Byun Hee-bong
“Then I’ll meet you in front of the factory with an umbrella.”
In this South Korean tale of cops chasing a serial killer, the emphasis is on the now: a death occurs every time it rains, which means the corpses tally up the longer the detectives spend wasting time squabbling among themselves. Thus, the clash of methods – good cop, very bad cop who tortures innocent suspects into confessing – comes further under scrutiny.
Stylishly shot with noir panache and better train scenes than Snowpiercer, Joon-ho’s drama manages to be thrilling, bleak and funny at the same time, evoking a few slapstick jolts that don’t undermine the heavy melancholy at play. Not only can some evils not be stopped, they can’t be identified – but no one knows for sure until they waste a lifetime trying.
The Neon Demon (2016) – 8/10
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham, Mary Laws
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
“They say women are more likely to buy lipstick if it’s named after food or sex.”
Now You See Me 2 (2016) – 3.5/10
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Ed Solomon
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Radcliffe
“This is my twin brother, Chase.”
We fell for it – hook, line and sinker. Somehow, Now You See Me is a franchise, cavorting its CGI trickery with a cast that’s bigger, louder and in need of a rest. The misdirection isn’t the constant shouting; it’s the lousy jokes shouted for extra emphasis. The one improvement is Lizzy Caplan as the Isla Fisher replacement, although I sense it’s down to the weariness of her co-stars, each belaboured by a world where everything is repeatedly revealed to be fake. Daniel Radcliffe has never been worse.
Pusher (1996) – 7.5/10
Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (2004) – 7/10
Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005) – 6.5/10
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (1,2,3)
Writers: Jens Dahl (1), Nicolas Winding Refn (1,2,3)
Starring: Kim Bodnia (1), Zlatko Burić (1,2,3), Laura Drasbæk (1), Mads Mikkelsen (1,2), Slavko Labović (1,3)
“You can’t give me 10,000 gumdrops and expect me to call.”
Upon watching The Neon Demon or Only God Forgives, you find yourself thinking, “What kind of sicko made this? And did he make anything else?” So a revisit to his roots with the Pusher trilogy is a worthwhile insight to Refn’s thought process.
The first one is a gritty, violent character piece set in Copenhagen, where unglamorous gangsters mill around in unwashed tracksuits and goodies – far away from the fashionistas of Neon and the R-Goz collaborations. So too is a chase sequence, set to heavy metal music, but in reality the escapee, Frank (Bodnia), is an overweight, out-of-breath geezer. What about the amateur psychiatry that doesn’t constitute as film criticism but is fun to do anyway? Well, Frank idolises Scorsese (there are posteres in the flat) and believes films should be seen in cinemas (“watching videos makes you dumb”) – surely it signals Refn’s own desires to make bigger films. But then again, he’d rather die than leave Copenhagen, despite his girlfriend’s pleas. People are complex, eh?
Pusher 2 steps up the autobiography. Refn, a new parent, turns his attention to fatherhood, specifically with the pressures it entails. Tonny (Mikkelsen) not only fails to fit into the crime game (he crawls into the trunk during a getaway), he’s sexually impotent (“alright, I’m outta here; you missed out on the king of cocks”) and wishes he could be a better father. Which is tough when you’re trapped in a gangster world because of your father. Mads is mad good – it’s an introspective character piece Refn would soon leave behind.
Another evolution (or devolution) is the violence. Whereas Mads turns his pistol away in a key moment of Pusher 2, the violence – previously off-screen – gets explicit in Pusher 3. The centre-piece, a dripping body hanging from the ceiling, takes a while, but the excitement is contagious. It is, like the other Pusher films, about shoving characters to the brink for a third act climax. The difference with Drive is that he starts at the point of no return – and that’s where the fun begins.
17 Again (2009) – 3/10
Director: Burr Steers
Writer: Jason Filardi
Starring: Zaf Efron, Leslie Mann, Matthew Perry
No attempt to engage with what it’s like to be 17. Obviously written by an adult (not suggesting a 17-year-old would crack Hollywood) who was possibly never young, either ageing backwards Benjamin Button-style or in some kind of Big scenario.
Stand By Me (1986) – 5/10
Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon, Stephen King (novel)
Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell
“You wanna be the Lone Ranger or the Cisco kid?”
Better than the Oasis song, sure, but unable to match my fond memories of watching it when I was the same age as the kids.