Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

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Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #108: Rebecca (1940)

film 108 rebecca

Rating: 3.5/5

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Based almost entirely faithfully on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, this film adaptation of Rebecca is such a quintessentially classical Hollywood film – directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by David O Selznick, starring Laurence Olivier, shot in brooding, beautiful, gothic black and white. Its direction is impeccable, the acting equally so, and it deservedly won two academy awards (best picture and best cinematography) out of the eleven it was nominated for. My quibble is not with any the technical aspects of the film, but with a seemingly small change in the narrative – the result of the stringent Hollywood Production Code at the time, which stated that the murder of a spouse must be punished. Consequently (spoiler alert!), the whole point of du Maurier’s story is undermined: whereas in the novel Maxim de Winter is a murderer, shooting his first wife, here Olivier’s de Winter only thinks about doing so, and her death is an accident. These small detail changes the entire relationship between Maxim and his young new wife who, in du Maurier’s world, doesn’t care that her husband is a murderer. Instead, here Maxim becomes a version of Hitchcock’s classic “wronged men” – haunted by a memory and, later on, accused of a murder he didn’t really commit. It’s a shame, really, because Hitchcock was very adept at drawing out the more tortured side of his male leads – he brought out a darkness in everyman James Stewart, for example, and some of that actor’s finest roles were under Hitch’s direction. If anyone could play a ruthless, cold-hearted murderer and still be believably attractive, it’s Olivier, so it’s a shame that such a crucial plot point had to be watered down.

In contrast to Olivier’s roguish, charming Maxim, Joan Fontaine is superbly unassuming as the second Mrs de Winter. This poor girl (for she is young – visibly much younger than her husband) doesn’t even have a name of her own: first introduced as the paid companion of an older society woman, she is quickly smitten by Maxim’s charms (and who wouldn’t be?!) and, after a whirlwind romance, the pair return to Manderley, a vast, ominous manor house near the Cornish coast. Suddenly thrust into a world far beyond her station, the new Mrs de Winter has to not only adapt to her new social status, but try to fill the shoes of the seemingly perfect Rebecca – a figure so important that both the novel and film take her name, despite not even being shown in a picture or portrait. Rebecca is so dominant that her presence is felt throughout the film – the long corridors and vast, opulent spaces of Manderley seem filled with her, and Hitchcock approaches the story as though it were a true ghost tale. In many ways, of course, it is – the new Mrs de Winter is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, this beautiful, perfect, urban, witty woman who, it appears, Maxim has never gotten over. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) definitely hasn’t, and makes sure to remind Mrs de Winter of her inadequacies (as many other characters do) frequently.

It is here that the film makes a further deviation from its source novel: while du Maurier imagined Mrs Danvers as having a maternal bond with Rebecca, here it is implicitly a romantic fixation. Mrs Danvers, prim, proper and utterly intimidating in her strict black dress, has evidently fetishised the memory of Rebecca – the scene in which she takes Mrs de Winter into Rebecca’s old bedroom and points out all the luxury has distinctively erotic undertones: “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” she asks, showing off Rebecca’s sheer negligee. “Look, you can see my hand through it!” Fittingly, all three actors mentioned received Oscar nominations for their roles – Olivier brings a darkness to his role as the charming Maxim, Anderson is rather terrifying as the cold, cruel Mrs Danvers, while Fontaine epitomises innocence and naivety. While Fontaine is undoubtedly beautiful, here she really seems plain – quite an achievement, considering. When Maxim finally reveals what he believes is the truth regarding Rebecca’s death (that it was his actions that killed her), Fontaine is superb. All she hears in this shocking confession is what she wants to: “You never loved her,” she breathlessly repeats, relief all over her face. In all that he has said, that’s the only thing that matters to this smitten, tormented woman.

Although the alterations to the narrative do mean that the power of the story is somewhat reduced, I cannot fault the film itself. The stage production is wonderful – the sets, particularly Manderley’s halls and rooms – are beautiful, expensive and expansive, while the music perfectly complements the visual elements. The score, by Franz Waxman, brings an eerie, gothic quality to the film, emphasising the horror and tension perfectly. Olivier et al are supported by a solid cast, including the delightfully caddish George Sanders, who injects some life into the film’s final third. It’s not all doom, gloom and atmospheric anxiety though – Hitchcock wisely brings some black humour into the narrative by way of some of the smaller roles. Just moments before one of the most devastatingly simple yet brutal cruelties imposed upon poor Mrs de Winter, for example, Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law parade around in ludicrous outfits, highlighting even further the nastiness that follows. As is now expected of Hitchcock, the director demonstrates his mastery of creating tension and, also, revelling in cruelty – yet it is Fontaine’s performance that truly demonstrates the consequences of such cruelty. The devastation is etched all over her face, her torment and agony clear throughout. It’s impressive, really, that we can still empathise with a woman who is such a shell of a person herself – in the end, we still don’t really know anything about her except that she is Maxim’s devoted wife.

Film #88: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

(Quvenzhzé Wallis)

Rating: 4.5/5

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

Generally when the Oscars comes around, there’s a surprise movie included in the Best Film category – a low-budget, indie movie (Her, this year), perhaps, or a genre film (remember when District 9 was nominated?). They rarely (if ever) win, but it’s at least an acknowledgement from the Academy that they exist. In 2013, Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Oscars – Best Film, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (the impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Oscar nominee in this category to date) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won none of them, inevitably, and perhaps it didn’t deserve to, though arguably it is a more distinctive, memorable movie than that year’s winner Argo and, while it was only a matter of time before Jennifer Lawrence secured her acting gong, based on their nominated performances, Wallis was a far more impressive surprise. Still, the nominations alone gave Beasts of the Southern Wild some much needed publicity. The film itself received very mixed reviews on release; if it had won, it would have surely been a controversial choice.

This is Zeitlin’s first feature film. Based in New Orleans, he is part of a filmmaking collective, Court 13, that had, until this point, concentrated on shorts. The collective has a distinctive style, clearly rooted in their surroundings, and a dedication to their craft that some might argue was downright irresponsible (you can read more about their previous escapades in an article I wrote way back in 2010). Having made the acclaimed, award winning short film Glory at Sea in 2008, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels very much like an continuation of it, both in terms of visuals and plot – though it is in no way a remake or extended version of the same story. Both are clearly motivated by Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed it; both are set in an unnamed community obviously inspired by New Orleans (particularly the poor areas); both reject CGI in favour of man-made objects – notably a distinctive, upcycled kind of world, in which detritus and trash is transformed into homes, boats, and curios. Court 13’s world is, in many ways, a very childish one – one in which they, as adults and filmmakers, continue to make forts out of pillows and sheets, precariously balanced on the backs of chairs and wedged between doors and bookshelves. There’s a very natural, light-hearted, idealistic sensibility at play that somehow manages to met with much divisive response – perhaps distinguishing the cynical from the playful, the young-at-heart from the jaded realists.

Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a fantasy world, one recognisable yet different; the Bathtub, a small community of unemployed drunkards and their grubby children somewhere on the outskirts of the world we are familiar with. It’s a swampy environment, inviting in the way that a jungle is – a place you’d enter with equal measures of trepidation and excitement. There Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, a man clearly incapable of providing any kind of balanced home-life for his child, a parent whose only way of showing love is by making his daughter a survivor. The community, a tight-knit but unromantically presented group of layabouts and boozers, are awaiting the great flood promised by the melting ice caps, and Hushpuppy knows that when the glaciers melt, great prehistoric aurochs (giant tusked boars) will begin their journey to her precious home.

Those who criticised the film challenged its idealistic view, questioning the appropriateness of championing alcoholism, unemployment, and child neglect. Yet the Bathtub is a particularly unglamorous place, and Zeitlin never seems to really endorse the actions of Hushpuppy’s father in particular. The characters, while located in this fantasy-reality, are presented very much as people – flawed people whose motivations and rationale often seem to remain out of our grasp. We only ever get an insight into Hushpuppy’s mind – we are guided by her voice-over narration while on screen she remains mostly silent. Wallis’ perfectly embodies Hushpuppy, this quiet, stoic child who seems in many ways wise beyond her years and in others is naively childish. Without saying a word she brings a pensive, contemplative, determined personality to the character, and it goes without saying that much of the film’s success relies on the audience being willing to follow her journey.

Where Beasts of the Southern Wild falters is the late intrusion of the real world into the fantasyland of the Bathtub. It’s easy to get drawn into the community spirit and strange aesthetic of this district, and it’s disorienting when, all of a sudden, the characters find themselves evacuated by the authorities and dumped in a sterile hospital/shelter. There fantasy and reality clash, and it’s an uncomfortable clash, one further emphasised by the largely unexplained illness plaguing Hushpuppy’s father. Yet this is, happily, a minor blip in the movie, one that perhaps carries more weight on a metaphorical level than an aesthetic or narrative one.

Zeitlin’s film is a curious picture – it feels small, intimate and hand-made, clearly revealing the Court’s motivations and inspirations. It is, of course, strengthened by the events of Hurricane Katrina, but even more than that, it feels so obviously rooted in Louisiana and the atmosphere of the Big Easy – they need never mention the words New Orleans, but there’s no doubt as to where its creators are based. What the film’s critics rarely mention, although it is perhaps the only thing that really encourages its audience to feel as though the world presented is a desirable one, is the soundtrack – a score written by Zeitlin and Dan Romer that brings a playful joy to the movie. The soundtrack is deeply manipulative, directing us to feel elation, sadness, and yet more elation. And that’s really the crux of Beasts of the Southern Wild: it’s a film that, despite the trash and the hardship, is filled with optimism and light. Whether you buy into it or not, well, that’s really up to you.

(Note: you can also read my programme note for Beasts of the Southern Wild here)

Film #55: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

film 55 lars and the real girl

Rating: 5/5

“You won’t be able to change his mind, anyway. Bianca’s in town for a reason.”

A few years before Ryan Gosling became every woman’s idea of a perfect man, he starred in this, a wonderfully heart-warming, quirky tale of small town life and one man’s attempt to finally forge a human connection. This is the first film I saw him in, and I remember being quite captivated by his understated performance. He’s barely recognisable here; his finely sculpted body is concealed beneath old-man-jumpers and layers upon layers of clothing, he’s sporting a moustache that makes him look far older than he really is, and he’s less muscly than cuddly, but he is utterly endearing. Yes, I probably sound like every other swooning fangirl, but for anyone critical of his recent acclaim, I implore you to watch Lars and the Real Girl – it will change your mind.

I’ve always been a fan of the unconventional love story, and this film definitely falls into that category. Like Secretary (another of my favourite films, which will get reviewed here at some point), in the wrong hands it could become sleazy or uncomfortable, but all the elements work in perfect harmony. What’s so great about this film is that there are no bad guys, no enemies; in Lars’ time of need, his whole community comes together to support him. In fact, despite some initial reservations about playing along with his delusion (particularly from his brother Gus), they all benefit from his girlfriend’s arrival – the “real girl” of the title, who just so happens to be a life size sex doll.

Bianca (the doll) appears one day in a giant wooden crate, her blank face covered in garish make-up and her body barely hidden underneath fishnet and pvc. Her first encounter with Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant, well-meaning wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) is one of the most hilarious moments in the film; for the first time, Lars voluntarily comes to visit, to tell them of his new girlfriend. He met her on the internet, he tells them. She’s very religious, having been brought up by missionary nuns, and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the garage with him. And, would you believe it, someone stole her luggage and her wheelchair! Despite these slightly odd comments, Gus and Karin are so happy to discover he’s got a girlfriend that they dig out the new towels, make up the bed in the spare room, and invite Bianca over to dinner. And then, dumbfounded silence. Schneider’s face says it all – he perfectly encapsulates the utter disbelief that would no doubt be shared by anyone put in a similar situation. It’s a brilliant moment: Karin’s quiet confusion, Gus’ incredulous expression, Bianca’s blank stare, and Lars’ big, happy, oblivious smile.

Crucially, at no point does it feel as though either the characters, or us as an audience, are laughing at Lars. It’s the situations that are so entertaining; the reactions of the townsfolk as they are confronted with Bianca attending church and the doctors; their attempts to understand exactly what is going on; their willingness to play along if it means helping one man who, as they all confirm, is a nice boy, albeit a troubled one. Yet his delusion is not harming anyone and, as one particularly understanding church member points out, everyone has their strange quirks. As they take Bianca under their wing, she becomes an invaluable member of the community – her slutty clothes are replaced by more weather-appropriate attire, she gets a haircut, her make-up is wiped off, and she gets several jobs. In fact, she’s so busy, poor Lars starts getting rather sidelined, and gradually, this apparently perfect relationship begins developing cracks.

While Gosling is the star of the show, he is supported by a wonderful cast – Schneider and Mortimer are brilliant, as is Kelli Garner who plays Margo, a new girl at Lars’ workplace who is evidently rather smitten by the taciturn man, and Patricia Clarkson as the town’s doctor. The actors are all blessed with a pitch perfect screenplay by Nancy Oliver, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination (she lost out to Juno‘s Diablo Cody); there’s not a moment that feels out of place, contrived, or cruel. Lars and the Real Girl is a delicate, poignant, and truly hilarious tale – I can feel the clichés itching to come out: words like heart-warming, touching, quirky. But it is all of these things, and more.

Cinema Lottery #10

cinema 10 gravity

Gravity
Release date: 8 November 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

After a string of films in which a (male) actor carries an entire film (Buried, 127 Hours, Brake, Moon), this time it’s Sandra Bullock’s turn. Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a claustrophobic, disorienting, and dizzying film – a disaster movie in space, with poor Ryan (Bullock) desperately trying to get back to Earth. Its plot is actually rather generic: Ryan is on her first mission, her charismatic associate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, playing himself) is on his last. Inevitably, things go wrong, and continue to do so for a tense ninety minutes – Ryan’s misfortunes almost push her into Michael Bay territory (just consider the calamities that occur in Armageddon as a result of everyone’s sheer incompetence), but Gravity is executed with such a confidence and professionalism that it pulls it off. So Ryan is bounced off satellites and forced out of supposedly safe refuge, sent spinning wildly out of control into the vast nothingness of space and bombarded with high flying debris, and the audience is dragged along with her.

While Bullock should be commended for her performance, the other elements all work to support her role. The sound design is perfect – the “no sound in space” issue is bypassed by including muffled noises, as though one were hearing from within a spacesuit, and some uncomfortable, increasingly loud tones at moments of particular tension. Visually, Gravity is stunning, and its one of the few non-horror movies that really benefits from 3D, which enhances the feeling of weightlessness while also reinforcing the disorienting situations Ryan gets into. Cuaron captures the vast expanse of space, with the Earth calmly sitting below, and it is both beautiful and isolating – serene, yet terrifying. If ever there was a film made to be watched at an IMAX, by the way, this is it. Unrelenting and uncompromising, Gravity is one hell of a bumpy, breathless, ride. Suddenly, going into space doesn’t seem quite so romantic a notion.

Philomena
Release date: 1 November 2013
Rating: 4/5

In 2009, journalist and former Labour party spin doctor Martin Sixsmith published an article in The Guardian, with the attention-grabbing headline, “The Catholic church sold my child”. It was a story that had originated as a throwaway human interest piece, but as the truth emerged, it became increasingly shocking. Fifty years prior, Philomena Lee had given birth to a son in secrecy in a convent in Tipperary. Like many other young, unmarried women in Ireland at the time, she was forced to hand over control of the child to the nuns, who in turn had them adopted, often to families in America, in exchange for “donations” to the church. Having never forgotten this child, Philomena’s attempts to find him proved futile, so she enlisted the help of Sixsmith, whose investigative journalism background helped her to eventually discover what had happened to her son.

Stephen Frears’ film is an unassuming piece of work – understated and subtle, with a focus on the performances of both Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Sixsmith). Coogan has also written the screenplay, and here he proves not only his capabilities as a serious actor, but a deftness of touch in his writing; there are just enough moments of light-heartedness, predominantly as a result of the relationship between the cynical Sixsmith and Philomena, that stops the film from becoming saturated in melodrama. Dench is, as always, utterly convincing. Despite the actions of the Church, she remains steadfast in her faith, both in God and humanity, yet her naivety is matched with wisdom, good humour, and a quiet determination. In this tale of conspiracy and cover-ups, charting one of the most shameful moments in Irish history, it’s a testament to the actors that they are not overwhelmed by the plot. Yet Philomena remains rooted in truth, and doesn’t need to exaggerate the events it portrays. At its core, this is less a ruthless expose of the Catholic chuch’s sins, than a film about a mother trying to discover what happened to her child – it just happens to have far-reaching implications. It’s a subtle, yet confident, piece of filmmaking, with an excellent screenplay and superb central performances – if this makes it to awards season, surely Dench should be at least considered for another accolade.

Bad Grandpa
Release date: 23 October 2013
Rating: 2/5

If you’re not already a fan of Jackass, I wonder, would you even consider going to see their latest gross-out movie? This is now the fourth cinematic outing for the team, who now appears to consist entirely of Johnny Knoxville – none of the others are present, and Knoxville himself is buried under a mountain of old-man make-up. Replacing his friends is Jackson Nicoll, who plays 8-year-old Billy, the grandson of the titular grandpa and easily the most engaging character – it mustn’t be that easy for a child to keep a straight face in these absurd situations, but Nicoll succeeds, and even manages to invite some degree of pathos while doing so. Yet Bad Grandpa is a flawed and self-indulgent film that makes some serious errors in judgement regarding its style.

There are two major problems at play. One is the decision to combine a fictional narrative with hidden camera scenes capturing the reactions of real people when confronted with this irresponsible, foul-mouthed, disgusting, perverted grandpa and his grandson; not only is the narrative flimsy at best, but it creates some suspicion as to the “realness” of the rest of it. The second big problem is the reactions, which are almost entirely apathetic; perhaps it’s a shocking indictment of American society that people are so accepting of the absurd and ridiculous, but more likely is that many people suspected some kind of foul play – we’ve become so saturated in hidden camera shows that it’s no longer a novelty. These might be the biggest problems, but they’re not the only ones. Knoxville churns out the now expected series of skits, and they’re all as immature as the next, lacking any real subtlety, intelligence, or originality, while, presumably, all those in on the joke pat themselves on the back. Unfortunately, no one else is laughing. There are a few moments, admittedly, when I sniggered a little, but every single one of those moments was in the trailer. My advice? You’ll know yourself whether this movie is for you or not and, if you think it is, my review is irrelevant. If you think it’s not for you, stay well away. You will gain nothing from seeing it.

Closed Circuit
Release date: 25 October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve seen a whole bunch of British, gritty, political thrillers over the course of these press days, and each has been as generic and forgettable as the next. So Closed Circuit came as a pleasant surprise – not amazing, but by far the most polished and interesting film of its kind that I’ve seen this year. It’s also, intriguingly, almost entirely a red herring – despite the twists and turns, the actual outcome of the court case becomes irrelevant; instead, the focus remains fixed firmly on the ways in which politics (and politicians) invade and corrupt the supposedly impartial legal system, engineering situations to save face and get the result they desire. In doing so, the film manages to sidestep potential problems in a satisfactory solution, for example, because the solution is unnecessary.

Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the replacement attorney for a suspected terrorist, who supposedly masterminded a horrific attack on Borough Market. Along with another attorney (Rebecca Hall), he is tasked with defending a suspect with a mass of evidence so secret that not even Rose is privy to it; thus begins the conspiracy that the two lawyers must decide to either fight or accept. Bana and Hall are supported by a solid cast, including Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles, the latter of whom features for no reason whatsoever – as an American journalist, she appears in two scenes and is then quickly dispatched (off screen) and forgotten about. Her inclusion is one of the most obvious flaws in the film, which is, despite some weaknesses (Rose’s family life is hinted at but unexpanded and adds little; the title and opening scenes’ emphasis on CCTV footage is also ultimately irrelevant) reasonably engaging and intriguing. It may not be remembered in years to come, but seeing as I can remember it a day later, it has already exceeded my expectations.

Film 48: God Bless America (2011)

film 48 god bless america

Rating: 4.5/5

“I wish I was a super-genius inventor and could come up with a way to make a telephone into an explosive device that was triggered by the American Superstarz voting number. The battery could explode and leave a mark on the face, so I could know who to avoid talking to before they even talked.”

Movie Lottery is back from its holiday, and I am so pleased to say that the latest movie is this, God Bless America. Written and directed by the wonderfully named Bobcat Goldthwait (the guy with the high-pitched voice in Police Academy), it’s a delightfully dark piece of satire that reveals itself to be not only a plea for kindness from its protagonist Frank (Joel Murray), but a way for Goldthwait himself to vent his frustrations at all the mean people in the world, those people whose seemingly small acts of cruelty and selfishness represent a society no longer concerned with just being decent. As Frank says, “why have a civilisation any more if we are no longer interested in being civilised?!”

The tone of God Bless America is set instantly, with one of the most shockingly hilarious opening scenes I can remember seeing. Poor Frank, plagued with headaches and inconsiderate neighbours, gets through his mundane life by fantasising about ending it all – not his own life, mind you, but the lives of all the people who thoroughly don’t deserve to have one. The television shows and adverts reflect how society’s crumbling, with its crass reality shows, spoiled rich kids, fart jokes and the public humiliation forum of American Superstarz, a thinly veiled dig at the countless talent shows littering our networks today. Goldthwait includes all the shows that have become embarrassingly popular precisely because they are “car crash tv” – shows that endorse the despicable and exploit the vulnerable – as well as featuring a selection of those who may be personal gripes and concerns: everyone from the Westboro Baptist Church, to Fox newsreaders, to perverts, to a man who knowingly parks across two spaces. The message is clear (and frequently reiterated by Frank in one of his numerous dry, disillusioned monologues): if you are mean, rude, selfish, or bigoted, you will feel the satirical wrath of Goldthwait, and be blasted to pieces by Frank.

Frank finally gets to live out his fantasies following a meeting with his doctor, who reveals his migraines are due to an inoperable brain tumour. It’s the final straw for the downtrodden man, who decides to make the world a better place by eliminating Chloe, a rich brat whose super sweet 16th birthday has recently aired on television. This spoiled child, cursing and screaming at her deluded parents, represents all that is wrong in the world, and she must be taken out. It’s a brilliantly slapstick murder, and one that enables Frank to meet Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a student at Chloe’s school who is inspired by Frank’s actions. Together they become moral vigilantes on an epic road trip across America in a stolen canary yellow Camaro, taking out the scum of society, and considering countless other possibilities along the way.

If there is a flaw in Goldthwait’s film, it is that, at times, the tone becomes slightly preachy. He adorns a movie theatre with posters for films he evidently considers to rise above the ignorance of mainstream television – documentaries like Man on Wire and the superb (and terrifying) Jesus Camp – and fills his movie with numerous other cinematic and cultural references that align him and his work with “higher” forms of art. More obviously, he allows Frank to air his frustrations at length to the brain-dead morons he’s surrounded by in work and at home. Yet arguably, all Frank really needs to do, if he is so depressed at the state of contemporary pop culture, is switch off his television. But he does not: he spends his time consuming all the shows he deplores so much. While this is briefly acknowledged early on, when a colleague comments on the fact that Frank claims to “not watch” American Superstarz but did see the previous night’s episode, it does mean that our antihero’s self-righteous mission is somewhat tainted by the knowledge that his pain is self-inflicted. Or perhaps Goldthwait’s screenplay is attempting to demonstrate that involvement is inevitable; that the constantly increasing degradation and decay of morality and taste is unavoidable. He’s not the only person to acknowledge the apparent decline of society; Southpark recently made its own plea for American culture to “raise the bar” in last year’s Honey Boo Boo-inspired episode.

God Bless America is the perfect movie for anyone who enjoys ranting about the injustices of fame and the rise of the reality “star”, for those people who get infuriated by the petty cruelties of the morons they have the miserable pleasure of sharing their lives with, for anyone who has ever wanted to actually act on their rage at the inconsiderate ignoramus talking during a film. Goldthwait demonstrates not only his biting wit and topical satire, but an impressive control over his film; it is glossy and sleek, satisfyingly graphic yet sufficiently comical. Soon, regardless of personal feelings about vigilante killings (surely most people would accept they’re probably not really the way to go), it’s difficult to not only root for Frank, but to gleefully await his latest moral judgement. Oh and, for the record, my hitlist would include: people who park in disabled spaces despite not being disabled (and there being a space just a few metres away); everyone who helped make The Only Way is Essex (and all its spin-off cash-ins) successful; and people who use text-speak in their every day language. LOL? Really? If it’s funny, why can’t you just laugh?