Film #86: 2012 (2009)

film 86 2012

Rating: 2.5/5

“You’re telling me that the North Pole is now somewhere in Wisconsin?”

Having already destroyed most of the northern hemisphere in The Day After Tomorrow, writer-director Roland Emmerich set his sights on a disaster movie on an even bigger scale: the result is 2012, a film that, unfortunately, attempts to tell a story simply too ambitious and vast to work. Cashing in on the interest in Mayan prophecies, which foretold the end of the world (a prediction that a surprising number of people really believed), and twisting genuine science to provide a “plausible” explanation – an abundance of neutrinos that cause the Earth’s core to heat up as a result of extreme solar flares, or something – Emmerich delivers a film that contains all the classic elements of a good disaster movie, but ultimately fails to truly excite.

The plot is standard fare, focused predominantly on one man’s attempt to keep his family safe. Nice-but-bland Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) features to provide the audience with an everyman to relate to; recently divorced, his attempts to reconnect with his children (incomplete family unit, check! Chance for father to redeem himself in the eyes of his son, check!) conveniently lead him to Yellowstone National Park, where the first of many coincidences allow him to realise what the government has neglected to publicise (nasty officials, check!). Soon he and his family are mere seconds away from death, as they repeatedly find themselves situated precisely where the newest major catastrophe is occurring (wrong place, wrong time, check!) and have to quickly flee (ridiculous displays of heroism, check!). Oh, and yes, there is a dog involved and yes, it survives (cute animal, check!).

Emmerich presents a rather cynical view of the government – not only have they chosen to keep the imminent end of times a secret, they’re selling off spaces in the specially designed Arks to anyone with a spare billion dollars. Just compare this to the far more intelligent Deep Impact, one of the more underrated disaster movies of the last fifteen years. While there are brief scenes of various people from around the world (although not a single mention of Australia, for some reason), as usual the American government takes the lead, with the rest of the G8 trusting Uncle Sam to save the day. As is to be expected, the US president (Danny Glover) is an inspiration (heroic US president, check!) – like in The Day After Tomorrow, it’s the second in command (here played by Oliver Platt) who’s the “villain” of the film. It’s all rather generic and unsurprising, with an unpleasantly bitter edge – Jackson might get the chance to reunite his family, but not everyone’s as lucky. The death count is ridiculously high; arguably the largest in any film that doesn’t feature entire planets being completely obliterated, so inevitably at least some of the people we follow throughout the film aren’t going to make it, but some of the ways in which it happens are just plain mean.

Of course, in any disaster movie the plot serves more as a vehicle for the set pieces. Emmerich packs these into the film’s lengthy running time, and it plays like a disaster movie best of: earthquakes, volcanoes, airplane crashes, sinking cruise ships and tidal waves all feature, the most impressive of which occur fairly early. The first major catastrophe – a massive earthquake that leads to half of California being tipped into the ocean – is by far the largest on screen event, although the eruption of Yellowstone is the most exciting, largely because of Woody Harrelson’s conspiracy-theorist-wacko’s commentary. These set pieces are at the centre of the film’s appeal, and they are impressively bonkers, but somehow underwhelming: perhaps they are simply too catastrophic to really believe. This vast scale is not helped by CGI that looks disappointingly unconvincing – it’s not terrible, but there is an obvious flatness to the whole thing.

More problematically, around the hour-forty mark most of the world has been destroyed, yet Emmerich continues for almost another hour, dumping the Curtis family in Tibet where they almost bring about the deaths of some hundred thousand people because they dropped a hose pipe into some hydraulics. In an attempt to bring some last minute action to the film, the survival of all these people relies on, you guessed it, Jackson (everyman saves the world, check!) – it’s as stupid and illogical as Jeff Goldblum’s plan in Independence Day, and monumentally underwhelming after the carnage that’s preceded it. Disappointingly 2012 significantly starts to droop in the final hour; perhaps yet another indication that Emmerich has seriously bitten off more than he could chew. 2012 is evidence that bigger is not always better – it’s doubtful that any disaster movie will ever top it in terms of destruction and ambition, but even now there are plenty others that are more entertaining and impressive.


Cinema Lottery #11


Muppets Most Wanted
Release date: 28 March 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Muppets Most Wanted follows directly from 2011’s charming, funny kind-of reboot, The Muppets (2011) and, ironically, is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of sequels – its opening musical number, a hilarious and astute showtune, directly warns us that they’re never as good as the first. This film, sadly, embodies this notion. Replacing the genuine enthusiasm of Jason Segel and real-life cartoon Amy Adams with Ricky Gervais is the first problem; he’s a divisive personality and, for his critics (myself included), his sleazeball-loser routine is expected and unappealing. He gets far too much screen time as the Muppets’ tour manager-cum-jewel thief, taking them on a disappointing “world tour” that comprises of four European countries while his boss Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, masquarades as Kermit. Cue a host of famous cameos, from Lady Gaga to Danny Trejo, who are undoubtedly fun to spot but frequently seem rather pointless.

The musical numbers are the film’s highlight; none really match the opening sequence, but are nevertheless catchy and entertainingly silly. There is, however, a general lack of fun and charm: it’s pleasant enough, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny – Constantine’s attempts to emulate Kermit are the high points, and admittedly there is a rather perverse enjoyment in seeing Gervais sing an entire song about being Number Two – while the story is bland and the supposedly exotic locations underwhelming. Ty Burrell, as the Interpol agent tasked with catching the jewel thieves, is a welcome addition, but Muppets Most Wanted generally feels rushed; relying too heavily, perhaps, on its predecessor’s success rather than taking the time to make more of an effort. Plus, the addition of some Cabbage Patch-esque baby puppet criminals is just plain creepy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release date: 26 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

The latest addition to the Marvel film canon, Captain America‘s sequel, much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, follows the individual Avengers as they deal with the world post-New York. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly important that viewers watch not one but all films, and it is also becoming increasingly obvious that each sequel is basically laying the groundwork for the eagerly anticipated Avengers sequel (due next year). This multi-layered world of intertwining stories is no doubt clever, but each is now suffering from a distinct case of deja vu – presuming that most people will go see this having seen most, if not all, of the films that have gone before, they are becoming fairly predictable. That’s not to say they’re not still entertaining films, but the element of surprise is definitely fading.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is by far the blandest of the Avengers; like Superman he’s a bit too clean cut, a bit too nice to be particularly interesting. Adding the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the mix is smart; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) also gets a more prominent role, while Robert Redford adds some gravitas as Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD bigwig. The enemy in this instalment is not just the Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with a metal arm, but a threat to freedom itself, in the form of some new “precautionary” weapons (think Minority Report on a mass scale). Part war film, part spy drama, it’s an entertaining though dry film, directly referencing the events in Captain America in particular. There are some good fight scenes, but the final set piece is far too reminiscent of parts of Avengers, and the CGI-heavy sequences of mass destruction no longer excite as they once did. As its own film, The Winter Soldier is decent, but even it seems to acknowledge that really its main appeal is to follow the characters on route to the events that will occur in the next Avengers; in this case, it is the destination that is more important than the journey.

About Last Night

Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 2/5

A remake of a 1980s film, which was itself an adaptation of a 1974 play (with the more lurid title Sexual Perversity in Chicago), About Last Night stars Kevin Hart (30 Rock), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as four twenty-somethings going through a series of relationship and friend dramas. The two women are friends, the two men are friends, and they pair off into two uninspiring couples: Hart and Hall are irritating; Ealy and Bryant are nice but boring. Over the course of a year they break up and get back together, enjoy relationship-free sex and cohabiting, get a puppy, and bicker a lot. Yet the film is distinctly lacking in sexual perversion – were it not for the swearing, the movie would barely scrape a 12A rating.

Writing this two days after viewing, it’s already a struggle to remember anything particularly interesting (or at all) about the film. Hart and Hall both embody a kind of comedy that will either appeal or irritate, while the other two are inoffensive but forgettable. With a far stronger emphasis on drama than comedy, it’s a strangely understated film that nonetheless cannot hide the fact that the relationships are all generally stupid; meaningless fights over minute disagreements, the characters failure to communicate is trite and dull, and plot points that fail to add any sympathies to the leads (Ealy quitting/getting fired from his job is the result of something that is completely his doing, despite the film presenting it as a “down with the corporate man” kind of triumph). Of course, the whole thing is neatly tied up with a nice Happily Ever After ribbon, in which love conquers all, leaving the characters to get on with their lives and us to get on with ours, happy that neither has had even the slightest affect on each other whatsoever.

Labor Day
Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), the majority of Labor Day takes place over a long weekend, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) imposes himself on reclusive Adele (Kate Winslet) and her taciturn, solemn son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) only to become an important presence in their incomplete family unit. It’s an altogether more grown-up film for Reitman, with an emphasis on family values and melodrama – there’s none of the black comedy or quirky-hip language prevalent in Juno or Young Adult, for example. Yet despite the strong cast and appealingly nostalgic small-town America aesthetic, it is let down by its narrative, which requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief; never mind how easily Adele allows this criminal stranger into her home, it’s just far too easy for him to become the love interest/father figure. Within a day he’s fixed the car and the boiler and waxed their floors, the following day he’s teaching disabled children to play baseball – and despite living among other houses and there being countless posters asking for his whereabouts, no one seems to notice the strange new man cleaning gutters in a depressed hermit’s home.

It’s such a shame that the film is so let down by its source material (or by Reitman’s adaptation – having not read the book perhaps I shouldn’t so quickly pass the blame to Maynard). Winslet is, as usual, utterly believable, and there’s a gentle, affective chemistry between her and Brolin. While the focus is predominantly on the unconventional family unit, the supporting characters, including Clark Gregg’s ex-husband and James Van Der Beek’s concerned cop, are a welcome addition. The film is shot in welcoming, warm tones, with hints as to past traumas carefully combined in delicate montages. The emphasis on Americana is evident; an important scene involves the detailed creation of a peach pie – hardly subtle, but undoubtedly evocative. Yet it all strains disbelief somewhat; as much as it’s easy to believe the emotions on show, the narrative is too distracting in its overwrought melodrama. After a slow, meandering film that gradually reveals difficult home truths, Labor Day is further problematised by a rushed conclusion, which spans some fifteen years in a few minutes while adult Henry narrates, providing the family with a bittersweet ending but, with the melodrama conflicting with the understated performances and style, it ends up being, sadly, a bit unconvincing.

Film #85: Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012)

film 85 step up 4 miami heat

Rating: 3/5

“Enough with performance art. It’s time for protest art.”

It’s hard to think critically about the Step Up franchise – the hugely successful dance movies are hardly works of art, but as a cinema of spectacle, they deliver exactly what they promise. It’s interesting to consider the series’ progression: while Step Up featured (future) big names and was more obviously focused on character development and narrative, as the franchise moves from sequel to sequel, both of these aspects have become increasingly sidelined, replaced with dancing – bigger, faster, more elaborate, more intricate. Of course, it’s doubtful people will go to see a dance movie expecting a nuanced script or subtlety, though ideally there would be some balance. So while Miami Heat, the most recent in the series (though not the last – a fifth instalment has been announced, bringing back Briana Evigan from Step Up 2: The Streets), is probably the weakest in terms of acting and original screenplay, it is thoroughly entertaining, and entirely designed to showcase the undeniably impressive dancing, which makes up about 90% of the running time. It plays out like a series of set pieces, loosely held together in a generic narrative with some nice-but-forgettable characters. Rather like the recent instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise, it knows what its audience wants, and it provides it in abundance.

Step Up 4: Miami Heat cashes in on the flash mob craze, introducing Miami crew The Mob in a flashy, in-your-face, over-the-top routine that literally stops the traffic on the city’s South Beach promenade. The crew is the brain child of pretty boy Sean (Ryan Guzman) and his childhood friend Eddy (Misha Hamilton), who break the tedium of their low-wage customer service jobs in a swanky hotel through dance. Their mission is, initially at least, not the most noble of causes – they’re attempting to win $100 000 in an online video competition, but when hotel magnate Mr Anderson (Peter Gallagher, who frequently pops up in dance movies, for some reason) reveals plans to demolish their quirky-poor borough into a high-end hotel complex, their focus is quickly turned to sticking it to the man – through dance, of course. To further complicate matters, Sean’s new love interest Emily (Kathryn McCormick, the third of the series’ rather confusing selection of identikit brunette leads) is none other than Anderson’s daughter, but having spent her life in characterless hotels, she is smitten with the romanticised poverty and sense of community spirit and friendship the group represents. Cue scene after scene of dance routines, each one trying to outdo the last in terms of spectacle and originality – and here, the film does not disappoint.

The routines are particularly stunning, and arguably the most innovative of the franchise to date. The flash mob concept is used to great effect, allowing the crew to infiltrate art exhibitions, restaurants and Evil Corporate Offices and play havoc. Naturally, despite the illegality of their exploits, The Mob gets away with their hooliganism because of the sheer talent on display – who could not be impressed (and, crucially, unthreatened) by their interruptions? Each routine is carefully engineered, tailored for its chosen location and purpose, and shot with stylish precision and the glitzy sheen of a music video. Realism be damned – no one cares how these minimum wage kids are able to acquire pimped out hot rods or perfectly tailored pinstripe suits, for example. And how could no one notice a graffiti artist assembling a two-story robot outside a company’s headquarters? Let’s not even begin to question the logistics of hijacking an art gallery. It’s a moot point, and any viewer to bothers to raise the issue are quickly distracted by LED-lit ballerinas, perfectly choreographed group work, and taut, on-point routines. The arrangement of the narrative allows a wonderful variety of styles, all centred around street dance, of course, but blending in contemporary, ballet, and classical to provide consistently new, impressive spectacle supported by an almost constant barrage of tunes. By the time the ambitious final showdown happens it’s hard to not join Miami’s mayor in helpless, resigned fascination.

Step Up 4: Miami Heat is by no means the strongest of the franchise – that honour is reserved for Step Up 2, which most successfully tread the fine line between dance and story and, personally, is one of the best dance movies to date. The acting is sub-par, yet I cannot help but appreciate the fact that everyone involved was chosen for their dance ability rather than their acting talent – I have no desire to see the feet of a stand in doing impressive stunts just so I can see a recognisable face on screen. The narrative is awash with generic developments, each as inevitable as the next; no prizes for guessing how it ends, folks. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to deny the quality of the dancing, and credit to the film’s writers and director for not only recognising what audiences want, but delivering it in such a polished, exhilarating package.

Film #84: Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Rating: 4/5

“I’m going to help you rediscover your manhood. Do you have any idea where you could have lost it?”

2011 was a great year for Ryan Gosling, propelling him to stardom and making him one of the most desirable men on the planet. The success of Drive brought him to more popular critical acclaim – his performances in Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson had previously garnered attention (not to mention an Oscar nomination), but it wasn’t until 2011 that he really became a household name. This is largely due to Crazy, Stupid, Love, where his ridiculously toned physique and smooth-talking charm took centre stage. From his rock-star entrance, a slow-motion, lingering shot exuding sex appeal and confidence, to the indulgent topless shots (“Seriously? It’s like you’re Photoshopped,” one of the characters proclaims), his role seems specifically tailored to make him a heart-throb – and it certainly worked, shattering his previous indie label. Meanwhile, for all the critics who love to claim that he only plays one role – the silent, stoic, sensitive type – this film immediately disproves their argument. Here, he is Jacob, a womanising playboy, abusing his hotness to pick up countless women at bars; a million miles away from the awkward sweetness of Lars or the almost mute lead in Only God Forgives. Yet Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t really his story – or at least, he’s just part of a much larger spiderweb of relationships, largely centred around the recent disintegration of a long marriage.

The film opens with a declaration at a restaurant; Cal (Steve Carell) and his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) are obviously stuck in a rut, but her sudden admission that she wants a divorce comes as a surprise to the rather downtrodden Cal. This sudden life change sees Cal take refuge in a hip bar, where he tells anyone who’s listening (and a bunch of people who aren’t) about David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), the man who “cuckholded” him by sleeping with Emily. Returning night after night, eventually Jacob (Gosling) can stand it no longer, and decides to take the hapless Cal under his wing, giving him a manly makeover and training him in the ways of promiscuity. Meanwhile, Hannah (Emma Stone) is hoping to get engaged to a sap, having already becoming probably the only female to have ever resisted Jacob’s lines, while Cal’s fourteen year old son, a hopeless romantic, is desperately trying to make his babysitter (Analeigh Tipton, a former runner up in America’s Next Top Model, though don’t let that put you off) fall in love with him – what he doesn’t realise is that she harbours a secret crush on Cal. The film follows this great ensemble through the muddy waters of their various relationships, presenting each development with a suaveness and lightness of touch that transforms what could be a rather generic, silly film into something quite clever, and often very astute.

Carell is great, toning down his performance from, say, The Forty Year Old Virgin and making Cal’s plight both believable and sympathetic. Indeed, the cast is great in general, and are fully supported by the film’s style and script. Writer Dan Fogelman’s dialogue is sharp, funny, and often very sweet, while the progression of the story throws in some unexpected twists and turns, and his understanding of the various dynamics is spot on. Even the childish romance, usually something that turns my stomach and can frequently seem wildly inappropriate when done wrong (a great example of what not to do is Love, Actually) works, primarily because having a crush at fourteen is not unrealistic, and the adults generally do not take it seriously. Of course, there are clichés: it’s inevitable that Jacob should fall for Hannah, considering her initial refusal to be taken in by his charm, for example. Yet whenever it threatens to veer towards generic conclusions, something will happen to let the viewers know that it is fully aware of the conventions (following a unfortunate incident at a parent-teacher meeting, as Cal stands in the car park having just argued with Emily, the sudden downpour causes him to sigh and resignedly acknowledge, “what a cliché”).

While initially Crazy, Stupid, Love seems more like a smart romantic drama with some comedy, as it progresses it wears its comedy heart on its sleeve far more. Events culminate in one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen for years – ridiculous, inevitable, yet completely out of the blue – and, even after repeat viewings, it remains just as hilarious. Fogelman’s script captures, in both a very honest and funny way, a diverse selection of very believable relationships – platonic, old, new, inappropriate, doomed, destined – and unites them all through the Weaver family. Individually, the stories are familiar, but brought together they work seamlessly to create something new, that is always engaging and thoroughly likeable. Gosling’s charisma and, yes, let’s be honest, his body are merely an added bonus.

Film #83: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

film 83 hearts of darkness
Rating: 4/5

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

Film buffs will probably at least be aware of how troubled the shooting of Apocalypse Now was. Filmed in the Philippines (like so many exploitation films around the same time), it was initially intended to be a six week shoot; principal photography eventually ended after sixteen months. Plagued with difficult actors, hurricanes, and political unrest that regularly forced Coppola to stop filming so that the government could use the helicopters that they had provided, not to mention copious amounts of drugs and the general day to day challenges of living in the jungle, what was meant to be a fairly quick, though ambitious, adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, became a monster that threatened to not only make everyone involved insane, but even almost killed its lead actor.

Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, capturing the horrors of the Vietnam War, still fresh in people’s minds when it was released in 1979. I’ve not seen it, and my knowledge of it is limited to general trivia and quotes (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), and the references to it in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (Restless). It didn’t really appeal to me, but Hearts of Darkness, which documents the problematic shoot and presents a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a filmmaker determined to see his masterpiece come to life, instantly caught my attention, and did not disappoint. It’s a gripping documentary, with great on-set footage (shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor) and secretly recorded conversations between the director and his wife. Early in the film, we hear Coppola plaintively stating: “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from… the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” Yet despite the countless problems and issues, he refused to give up, and the results speak for themselves.

It’s hard not to be impressed, particularly today, at just how determined Coppola was. The money and time that was spent making his vision come to life, not to mention the amount of sheer man power (and explosives) is truly incredible – while a similar shoot today would no doubt substitute jungle life for green screens and napalm for CGI post-production effects, the 1970s were a notably different time for filmmaking, with the likes of Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, Lucas and Peckinpah paving the way as the creators of “New Hollywood.” Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how determined these new filmmakers were – no longer content with studio work, the 1970s saw a new kind of filmmaking, one that prided itself in realism and politics. It’s fascinating hearing Coppola talking about Apocalypse Now, and equally fascinating to hear his wife discuss her life as a result – the director dragged his whole family over to live in this troubled region. He is revealed to be dogged, obsessed even, and willing to do anything and everything to see his film completed. After Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack during shooting, Coppola responds by saying “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything’s okay, until I say, “Marty is dead,” perfectly capturing the dogmatic, ruthless supremacy of The Director.

This behind-the-scenes glimpse into Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker(s) determined to bring a vision to life, is wonderfully honest, and filled with instantly recognisable faces – Marlon Brando, paid vast sums of money to appear in a small, though crucial role only to turn up on set tremendously overweight and sufficiently embarrassed about his physical condition that he refused to be portrayed as what he was; Dennis Hopper, clearly high as a kite during the shoot; George Lucas ruminating on Coppola’s vision and choosing to steer clear; a young Sofia Coppola suddenly relocated to the jungles while her father goes, as he himself admitted, insane. The stories told are evidence of the insanity, as the cast and crew remain isolated from the “civilised” world of Hollywood and the comforts of American living, as the money fritters away and the critics become more and more doubtful as to whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s a true testament to Coppola’s determination that Apocalypse Now was finished – although one gets the feeling that, even had half his cast keeled over, if a hurricane had wiped out the country, if he had been declared bankrupt, he would have carried on, and even if it had killed him, his last breath would have been used to shoot that final image to see his movie completed.

Film #82: Friends With Benefits (2011)

film 82 friends with benefits

Rating: 3/5

“We’re just friends. We’re… messing around a little bit.”

I have a bit of a soft spot for Justin Timberlake. No, not because I was a fan of N*Sync (I wasn’t), but because I have a soft spot for everyone who starred in Richard Kelly’s doomed second feature, Southland Tales. At some point that movie, one of my absolute favourites, will be reviewed here but, suffice to say now, Timberlake is great in it. He’s made more of a name for himself recently in rom-coms, including Bad Teacher; Friends With Benefits gives him the main male romantic lead and he’s really rather engaging. He sparks well against Mila Kunis (also a fairly hot commodity these days) and the two manage to make a fairly generic script both engaging and funny.

Timberlake is Dylan, a website hotshot from Los Angeles headhunted by Jamie (Kunis) to work in New York for GQ Magazine. The two have both recently gone through breakups, and neither are looking for love. Fortunately, although they immediately hit it off, there’s no romantic chemistry and, perhaps rather improbably, the two settle down to their new-found friendship, safe in the knowledge that nothing will complicate the situation. Yet the problem, of course, is that both are starved of physical human interaction and, one drunken evening, they come up with a solution: they are going to be friends with benefits.

So far, so cliché. But part of the pleasure of a rom-com is that, for the most part, you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s what you want to happen. Of course, these two beautiful people, who challenge each other and have great fun together, are bound to get together: it’s the journey that we follow. And here, admittedly, there are some interesting twists and turns, as well as some pretty stupid, unnecessary things. So, while Dylan’s childhood stutter is entirely pointless (and only resurfaces in one scene that doesn’t benefit whatsoever from it), and the flashmobs, central to the story, are rather naively appropriated as an opportunity for lonely New Yorkers to feel as though they are part of something bigger (rather than, say, a pretty effective and now defunct trend of marketing), there’s a great film-within-a-film starring Jason Segel to make up for it. Jamie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) is a dippy hippy child of the 70s, responsible for some slapstick moments but generally a bit daft but, in contrast, when Dylan’s father (Richard Jenkins) makes an appearance, he brings something unexpected and particularly poignant to the film. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson is clearly having a blast as the uber-gay sports editor for GQ, repeatedly making sure Dylan’s not similarly inclined. In fact, there are some great cameos throughout the film. It’s a mixed bag, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

The developing romance between Jamie and Dylan also benefits from a healthy dash of knowingness; from Timberlake gamely making fun of himself while rapping and dancing to an old Kris Kross song, to the characters’ remarks about rom-coms in general, for the most part it works. The pair’s (non)relationship is also well established and, while some ideas are a bit far-fetched (their bedroom performances improve because neither needs to pretend they’re enjoying stuff so as to save their partner’s feelings, for example), at the end it can mostly be justified by pointing out that they are a great match for each other. The conclusion, clearly signposted and entirely inevitable, plays up on the genre’s conventions and is no less effective as a result. It’s a harmless film; an entertaining, light-hearted movie, with some funny scenes and a general sense of good humour – as much as I appreciate the classics and masterpieces, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some escapism. Friends With Benefits didn’t win any awards, and I doubt it’ll go down in history as a rom-com classic, but it’s perfectly enjoyable nonetheless.

Film #81: The Terror (1963)

film 81 the terror

Rating: 2.5/5

“The crypt! It must be destroyed, and with it the dead.”

Anyone familiar with Roger Corman will know he’s much more than “king of the Bs.” In fact, he hates that term, arguing that he wasn’t (just) a B-movie director, because he always made the accompanying A pictures too. Despite his extensive catalogue – as either director or producer – of mostly schlock, gore, exploitation and drive-in pictures, the low budget filmmaker is hugely important. He had two particular talents: one, his ability to tap into the trends of a predominantly youth market (from his monster movies to his counter-culture pictures, he always gave his audience what they wanted); and two, his willingness to give budding filmmakers a chance to practice their craft. While his movies can be dismissed (by those unwilling to look further) as generic, silly, low-budget, few can deny his influence on some of the most important people in the film industry today: this is the man who gave Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard – among others – their big break.

I mention this because The Terror, a gothic ghost story, boasts the involvement of a number of these names. Having just filmed The Raven, starring legendary horror icon Boris Karloff and young newcomer Jack Nicholson, Corman saw an opportunity to make/save some money, and shot some scenes using the same sets. Sometimes mistaken as one of the director-producer’s shortest filming schedules (Karloff’s scenes took only four days), The Terror was eventually shot over a period of nine months, making it one of his longest productions. It’s a bit of a jumble: after Karloff’s scenes were filmed, with a script still non-existent, several directors came on board. Nicholson himself took the helm for a while; so too did Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill. The result is, as one might expect, a messy film, yet I was surprised at just how coherent it actually was. By expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised.

Clearly influenced not only by the existing sets, but by Corman’s own interests at the time, The Terror is obviously rooted in gothic horror and the works of classic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and MR James. Nicholson is Lt. Andre Duvalier, a cavalier separated from his regiment in 18th Century France who encounters a mysterious, beautiful woman (an obviously pregnant Sandra Knight, Nicholson’s then-wife) on a desolate beach. Intrigued, Duvalier follows the silent woman into the turbulent seas, and is rescued by a haggard old lady who dabbles in witchcraft. Having returned to health, Duvalier is determined to help the strange woman on the beach, and learns of Baron Victor Von Leppe (Karloff), a reclusive old man living in a vast castle on the cliffs, who apparently is the key to solving the mystery. It’s all fairly straight forward – a tale of lost love, tragedy, and restless spirits – straight forward, that is, until a particularly jumbled, garbled conclusion. It’s such a shame, because until this point, it’s actually not that bad.

There are problems, however. Visually, the film is excessively dark and poorly exposed: with most of the action taking place at night or in the darkness of the candle-lit castle, characters are frequently reduced to pale faces and brief flashes of colour from clothing. While the narrative isn’t as confused as it could be, it lacks direction and, despite being effectively atmospheric is too long and starts to drag. At several points it appears as though scenes were shot without a sense of purpose – which, evidently, is precisely the case. Yet, despite these problems, it’s really not as much of a shambles as it could have been. While Karloff easily steals the film, it’s a great pleasure to see such a young Jack Nicholson; the role doesn’t exert him and it’s a rather understated performance (in contrast to his better known, later parts), but his presence is undeniable, and both he and Karloff bring both charisma and intensity to the meagre, frequently improvised story.

Putting some of the strange narrative quirks to one side, The Terror is hardly the mess it could have been. It’s a testament to Corman that he managed to salvage the film; with so many people at the helm, the most basic of scripts, and recycled sets, it is a good example of why the director-producer has not only endured, but is finally now being recognised as more than just a B-movie maker – in recent years Corman has not only been the focus of a special retrospective at Edinburgh Film Festival and several books, but has finally received an Oscar for his achievements and his influence on some of the finest filmmakers in the business. The Terror is hardly his best work (as much as I love his monster movies, The Intruder remains his most powerful, important film in my eyes), but in the hands of someone less resourceful, it could have been a lot worse.