Film reviews 91: “Game Night”, “A Quiet Place”, “Unsane”, “Ready Player One”, “Blockers”, “Half Nelson”, “Miss Stevens”, “Silence”, “Heaven”, “Involuntary”, “Molly’s Game” and 17 others…

This month: “All That Jazz” (pictured above), “Beats Being Dead”, “The Belko Experiment”, “Blissfully Yours”, “Blockers”, “Les Diaboliques”, “Game Night”, “Half Nelson”, “Heaven”, “Heaven Knows What”, “Involuntary”, “Isle of Dogs”, “Just Go With It”, “Keeping Up With the Joneses”, “Lights in the Dusk”, “The Limey”, “Maelstrom”, “Miss Stevens”, “Molly’s Game”, “Office Christmas Party”, “Phantom Thread”, “Polytechnique”, “A Quiet Place”,  “Ready Player One”, “Silence”, “The Square”, “Table 19” and “Unsane”.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.


All That Jazz
(1979) – 9/10

Director: Bob Fosse
Writers: Robert Alan Aurthur, Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking
“Bye bye, life. Bye bye, happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I’m gonna die.”

Jaw-dropping. I also want to die doing what I love: wasting my spare time on a stupid, unpaid blog that no one reads because I don’t publish it.


Beats Being Dead
(2011) – 4/10

Original title: Etwas Besseres als den Tod
Director/Writer: Christian Petzold
Starring: Jacob Matszchenz, Luna Zimic Mijovic
“I saw you dancing with her. I got so worked up.”

Part of a trilogy shared with two other German directors, Petzold’s entry features his traditional themes – cars are emotional hotbeds, identities aren’t malleable, love triangles are fatal – but lacks the edge of his movie projects. Even the momentous climax, involving a CD of “Cry Me a River”, feels like a test run for that moment in Phoenix.

Johannes, a hospital intern, somehow manages to be punched in the nose when purchasing crisps, but escapes unharmed by swimming in a lake and sleeping naked in the woods during non-working hours. It’s in his disrobed state that he chances upon Ana (Mijovic – although I’m convinced it’s Felicity Jones speaking German), the girlfriend of a criminal gang member, who on her own is a housemaid struggling for rent.

Their meandering relationship lacks the psychological guilt or trauma underpinning Petzold’s collaborations with Nina Hoss. Instead, the conflict exists inside the mind of an escaped convict who lurks behind rocks and stares into the distance. He also feels like something from another film – and is, as I believe he’s what connects the trilogy.


The Belko Experiment
(2017) – 5/10

Director: Greg McLean
Writer: James Gunn
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona
“We’re on edge because they just killed four people, Marty!”

Battle Royale in a dog-eat-dog office with minimal social satire or anything meaningful to say.


Blissfully Yours
(2002) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Kanokporn Thong-aram, Min Oo, Jenjira Jansuda

Slow cinema at its best – which is, fortunately, how I saw it, with Joe himself present at the screening. Much is made of the living and the dead co-existing in his movies, but in Blissfully Yours it’s a human love story integrating with the natural world, halting the passage of time as it calmly ripples along.


Blockers
(2018) – 4.5/10

Director: Kay Cannon
Writers: Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe
Starring: John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon

As someone who read an earlier draft of the Kehoes’ script (then called Cherries) a few years ago, I can confirms that Blockers could have been much, much worse. In the revamped version, the general premise remains the same: three parents attempt to sabotage their daughters’ prom night sex pact. What’s improved is a few progressive twists, a switched gender for a parent, and a major character is axed altogether (a jealousy, horny kid tags along in the original screenplay).

The gags themselves aren’t much of an upgrade, though. The clunky one-liners are interchangeable between characters, and the exchanges are all shot with the same “we’ll fix it all in the edit” sloppiness. To be fair, I did laugh at how long Hannibal Burress just stands in silence, as if he’s about to interject at any moment – I guess his improv didn’t delight test audiences.

Blockers bills itself as a female American Pie, which isn’t just plot-related; the producers are to blame for American Reunion (a credit left off posters, funnily enough). Although the movie flirts occasionally with mature themes (coming out to your best friends and family; losing your children to adulthood etc), the characters are so phony, cartoonish and underdeveloped that it feels like a marketing-related afterthought. And if you read Cherries, you can’t help but feel cynical about the outcome.

Moreover, the teens are undersold. Of the main trio, one gets to be funny, the others don’t. Most of the plot, really, concerns three adults struggling to find the address of a house. The set-pieces feel copy-and-pasted from movies that came out earlier this year, you know what’s about to happen at any moment, and it feels reductive that a movie can be celebrated just because it isn’t Porky’s. Maybe the bar for mainstream comedies really is that low at the moment.


Les Diaboliques
(1955) – 5.5/10

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Writers: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, Boileau-Narcejac (novel)
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel
“A nice sedative is what you need.”

I guess you had to be there.


Game Night
(2018) – 7.5/10

Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Writer: Mark Perez
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Kyle Chandler
“Glass tables are acting weird tonight.”

A strange occurrence: an action-comedy with a recognisable visual aesthetic and genuine laughs. Whereas a film like, say, Daley and Goldstein’s Vacation or Horrible Bosses had, respectively, National Lampoon’s Vacation and The Hangover in mind, Game Night name-checks Fight Club and is arguably The Game with punchlines. Which is evidently the way forward to ensure the silver, metallic ball goes around the circuit, jumps the hoops, and makes it into the net before the cuckoo clock starts blaring. (Seemed more interesting to reference Screwball Scramble than saying “pass Go”.)


Half Nelson
(2006) – 7/10

Director: Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

Why did Ryan Fleck get to direct and not Anna? Just wondering. The film is super-interesting, in light of everything Gosling’s done since, and you sense this was a happy medium of the bunch; a dark drama with a real human being at the centre, complete with a dance scene for anyone who knows how to create GIF. Can’t be that hard, surely?


Heaven
(2002) – 5/10

Director: Tom Tykwer
Writers: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi
“How did you get the bomb?”

When Krzysztof Kieślowski died, he left behind a plethora of fantastic films, a couple I haven’t seen, and a trio of unproduced scripts. Heaven, the first of a proposed trilogy, was resurrected by Tykwer, which leads to several reactions that can be summarised in a word: why?

The film’s weakness, surprisingly, is the script itself, with Twker’s camera flourishes being the saving grace. Philippa (Blanchett) bombs a building for reasons that are never really clear, using materials she found from unexplained sources, and is rescued by a police clerk (Ribisi) because he falls in love upon brushing her skin. Again: why? What happens next is even more preposterous and is worsened by the straight-faced commitment of its two actors who were probably hoping for a sort of Three Colours: Heaven.


Heaven Knows What
(2014) – 7/10

Directors: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Writers: Joshua Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Arielle Holmes, Buddy Duress, Ron Braunstein, Eleonore Hendricks, Caleb Landry Jones
“I need your duffel bag. Please.”

The film doesn’t end, it just stops. And that’s apropos to how the Safdies arrestingly depict addiction as an ongoing 24/7 concern. Arielle Holmes, who plays the main junkie, is superb and heartbreaking, with it also being her unpublished memoir that provided the script’s inspiration. You can tell from her performance that she’s lived through it before, and as a viewer it’s tough to watch – but also hard to keep away.


Involuntary
(2008) – 7/10

Original title: De ofrivilliga
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writers: Ruben Östulund, Erik Hemmendorff
Starring: Maria Lundqvist, Leif Edlund, Olle Lijas

It takes a while to get going but Ostlund’s framing style – it’s no coincidence he made ski videos, too – pays off with five parallel stories about herd mentality. My favourite moment, actually, has a camera fixed on a primary teacher, operating as the third wheel in a conversation. She then intervenes and demands eye contact. Off-screen, her colleagues apologise, and we see her act as if everything’s normal.


Isle of Dogs
(2018) – 8.5/10

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola (story), Jason Schwartzman (story), Kunichi Nomura (story)
Starring: Bryan Cranson, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Live Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson
“You should see the other dog.”

Immensely proud to have recognised dialogue from The Meyerowitz Stories. I spoke to some of the people behind it here.


Just Go with It
(2011) – 2.5/10

Director: Dennis Dugan
Writers: Allan Loeb, Timothy Dowling
Starring: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Brooklyn Decker, Nicole Kidman
“What about after the fake-cation?”

We need to remember that Nicole Kidman sometimes makes bad decisions. This is up there with marrying Tom Cruise.


Keeping Up with the Joneses
(2016) – 4/10

Director: Greg Mottola
Writer: Michael LeSieur
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot
“I may not need to moisturise, but I still have feelings.”

“Do you know how hard it is to raise four children on a rocket scientist’s salary?” – the only funny line, from Matt Walsh, and probably improvised.


Lights in the Dusk
(2006) – 6.5/10

Original title: Laitakaupungin valot
Director/Writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Janne Hyytiäinen, Ilkka Koivula, Maria Järvenhelmi
“He’s loyal as a dog, a sentimental fool. My genius lies in understanding that.”

Dogs have always been critical elements in Kaurismäki’s films, even earning him the Palm Dog for The Man With No Name. But apart from the mutt in The Bohemian Life, I’m not sure any have aligned so well with the destitute protagonist as much as Lights in the Dusk, which is – although it’s not that bad a prospect – pretty much Kaurismäki on autopilot.

Koistinen is a poor night watchman who ends up in prison, separated from his potential soulmate (not that he realises), in a scenario a bit similar to Ariel, except not as funny or touching. On this occasion, Koistinen has been framed by criminals, rather than worn down by an unfair political system, and thus carries less emotional weight. It even requires a few more close-ups of teary faces than usual.

Still, every few scenes, he spots a dog – usually tied up, without any water – and recognises a kindred spirit. A Kaurismäki bond, indeed, and that is always worth treasuring.


The Limey
(1999) – 5/10

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Terence Stamps, Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Lesley Ann Warren

The film has 10/10 editing but I just found it a chore.


Maelstrom
(2000) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Marie-Josee Croze

Like Christian Petzold’s Wolfsburg, it involves a hit-and-run and romancing the victim’s relative out of guilt. Whereas Petzold zooms in on the emotional core and inner story, Villeneuve dots around with visual flair and exhibits why his breakthrough would later be achieved via other people’s scripts.


Miss Stevens
(2016) – 5.5/10

Director: Julia Hart
Writers: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Starring: Lily Rabe, Timothée Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, Anthony Quintal
“It’s gonna be OK. Maybe not today or tomorrow.”

Everything fits too neatly in this indie dramedy of four individuals – one tutor, three students – with four individual problems that get solved during weird drama competition. Mostly watchable, the scenes have a gentle, relaxed feel, mixing humour with melancholy, though some of the chemistry is forced – but not as forced as the bonding exercises, like Rabe and Chalamet bouncing on a bed to fight away the tears.


Molly’s Game
(2018) – 3.5/10

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Molly Bloom (book)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Kevin Costner

Here’s what happened when there’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to say no to Aaron Sorkin. What’s more, Sorkin is clearly hampered by (as mentioned in interviews) his constant phone calls with Bloom. Imagine The Social Network if: a) it was directed, blandly, by Sorkin b) Zuckerberg was IRL BFFs with Sorkin c) the Zuckerberg character was called Tech Developer X and played by Michael Cera d) for some reason, Zuckerberg’s dad appears at the end and does an entire monologue to his face that has little to do with anything e) it’s about Twitter.


Office Christmas Party
(2016) – 3.5/10

Directors: Josh Gordon, Will Spech
Writers: Justin Malen, Dan Mazer, Laura Solon, Jon Lucas (story), Scott Moore (story), Timothy Downling (story)
Starring: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jillian Bell, Vanessa Bayer
“I have enough miles to orbit the sun.”

A cynical mash-up of Horrible Bosses, The Hangover and racial stereotypes, strung together in a convoluted story which rests upon an internet connection.


Phantom Thread
(2018) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
“The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying here with me.”

My interview with Vicky Krieps can be read here.


Polytechnique
(2009) – 5/10

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jacques Davidts, Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Sebastian Huberdeau, Karine Vanasse
“I hate feminilsts.”

Made about as much sense to me as the ending of Enemy.


A Quiet Place
(2018) – 5/10

Director: Jim from The Office
Writers: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, John Krasinski
Starring: Josh Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds

Saw it at a midnight screening on my own. Three other people in the cinema. And, despite what everyone else is saying, it’ll probably be a more effective viewing experience at home, especially if the DVD has an option to remove the overwhelming score.

The gimmick is great. Silence makes viewers uneasy. You worry about coughing, you worry about squeaking your chair, and you worry that you might genuinely murder the person rustling crisp packets next to you (which causes you to do something like stretch your arms out in the air to indicate to everyone that it’s not you rustling the Kettle Chips, even if the noise is coming from your direction).

But Krasinski slops on the score in a manner that’s almost patronising, maybe even insulting, to the audience. Just as the father keeps raising a finger to shush his child, the direction has little faith in the viewer to piece anything together. The plot holes, I can forgive (why don’t they just live under that fountain?) but there’s a lack of fun with what is, ultimately, a silly premise. I would recommend Don’t Speak or an episode of The Office on mute instead.


Ready Player One
(2018) – 2/10

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, TJ Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

I knew within two minutes I would hate this. I would have left before the 30-minute mark if I wasn’t wedged in the middle (next to someone eating a fucking burrito, by the way). To be fair, I didn’t watch it all with full concentration – it was a 3D screening and I took off my glasses for 20 minutes, because I just can’t engage at all with avatars or empty 80s nostalgia. Even worse than watching someone play a videogame.


Silence
(2016) – 7/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, Shūsaku Endō (novel)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson
“Why did they have to suffer so much? Why did Dod pick them to hold such a burden?”

“Why did they have to suffer so much?” you might ask yourself, watching Garfield and Driver undernourished for a film let down by its miscasting. One can only wish in another lifetime we’ll be fortunate enough to see the planned iteration with Daniel Day-Lewis and Gael Garcia Bernal.


The Square
(2018) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West
“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries we all share equal rights and obligations.”

My interview with Ruben Östlund and Claes Bang can be read here.


Table 19
(2017) – 3/10

Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Writers: Jeffrey Blitz, Jay Duplass (story), Mark Duplass (story)
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori
“I want to be the person who always forgives you.”

So the Duplass brothers came up with the story and decided it wasn’t worth their time directing it? To be honest, a completely improvised comedy involving a talented cast would be vastly superior to the over-scripted, unfunny ensemble car-crash on display.


Unsane
(2018) – 6/10

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple
“Rain check on the blowjob.”

I hated, hated, hated it. Which is the intention of Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot thriller, a nasty tale that peaks with its technological advancements (especially when the smartphone is placed in nooks and crannies) and falters when you pause to think about anything that’s going on. The provocative tale, at least, seems garnered for post-screening arguments: is this a step forward for microbudget filmmaking? Is this a step back for depicting mental illness on screen? How did [plot hole #7] happen? That said, I saw it at a midnight screening, on my own, with only two other people in the audience. When the lights came up at 2am, we all looked at each other – and said nothing. But I knew what they were thinking: the title was annoying before, and it’s just as annoying afterwards.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.  Unfollow @halfacanyon for less.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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