Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

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.

Film #107: Dig! (2004)

film 106 dig

Rating: 4.5/5

“I’m not for sale. I’m fucking Love, do you understand what I’m saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away.”

Filmed over seven years, Ondi Timoner’s documentary is a fascinating, gripping insight into the (mostly friendly) rivalry between two bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s a story of egos and artistry, a cautionary tale about truly living the rockstar lifestyle and the hazards of becoming part of the corporate music industry – Timoner’s access to both bands seems to be entirely unrestricted, and nothing seems to be off limits. This must have dominated Timoner’s life for years – they seem to be completely comfortable with both her and the camera recording every move, and it seems like there’s nothing she hasn’t caught on film.

While it probably helps to be somewhat familiar with the bands, it’s not essential – most people will have heard the Dandy’s “Bohemian Like You,” but don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of BJM – the whole point is that no one has. Narrated by Dandy frontman, Courtney Taylor (also the leading creative force in the band – he writes all the songs), early on he talks about his admiration for BJM’s frontman (and, similarly, the creative force), Anton Newcombe. In contrast to the fairly straight-laced Dandys, Anton is a self-destructive artist, uncooperative, unable to “play the game,” as it were, yet convinced that he doesn’t need to in order to start the necessary, inevitable “revolution.” While the Dandys smoke weed and drink and partake in that lifestyle, they like to remind us that they take their jobs very seriously, that they want to be successful, that they don’t mess around – they admit they are the “most well-adjusted band in America.” Imagine them as the straight-A students: Anton and the BJM are the ones smoking dope in the school bathrooms when they should be in class.

It often seems as though there’s a serious case of hero worship at play here. Taylor is clearly in awe of Anton’s talents – jealous, even (just as Anton seems unwilling to acknowledge his envy at the Dandy’s subsequent success). And more than that, it seems as though Taylor is also caught up in everything that Anton represents: that rebellious lifestyle, the anarchy stopping Anton from ever really achieving any kind of (dare I say it?) mainstream popularity. Fairly early on, Taylor joins the BJM on tour and, as expected, the gigs are a shambles. Anton seems incapable of showing any restraint: the shows are notorious, with fans coming just to see what chaos will unfold. Taylor, who would clearly never allow any such incidents at his own gig (on-stage punch-ups, impromptu resignations, riots…), evidently loves being a part of such bedlam – it’s not his tour, he keeps saying. He comes across as the sheltered kid hero-worshipping the bad boy, relishing that brief respite from normalcy before returning back to his neat house and his nine-to-five, safe in the knowledge that none of what transpired will really affect his life.

While the Dandys gradually begin to enjoy success – they get signed to a major label, David LaChapelle directs one of their music videos – it is telling that all the talking head interviewees (mostly comprised of A&R people from various labels) focus entirely on the BJM. They are the unsigned talent, the band they all loved listening to yet knew they could never work with. Anton is a hazard – too self-destructive, too arrogant, too delusional. He waxes lyrical about how many people he has influenced, about the mark he’s made on the world, about how he’s bigger than god. It’s almost pathetic, except that it seems so genuine. He really believes what he says, and he lives what he says. The rest of the BJM are merely his backing group, and in the twenty-odd years since the band first began, Anton remains the only consistent member – everyone else is expendable.

Although it would be easy for this to be a rather depressing tale – the tragic, doomed artist and his self-sabotage – it never is. Anton himself is never shown wallowing in self-pity. Instead, he’s a free spirit – a child of the sixties, out of time and place, caring only about making music. The other members of the BJM also seem to have been lifted straight from a more psychedelic time – Matt Hollywood looks just like John Lennon with his long hair and round glasses; Joel Gion seems to be permanently stoned, wearing a goofy grin and an impressive collection of gigantic, bug-eye sunglasses. In contrast to the Dandys, who often come across as quite bratty, the BJM match talent with madness, destruction with rebellion.

Timoner brings this energy to the documentary too; it’s raw, irreverent, a no-holds-barred punk tale. It’s got a grimy, lo-fi aesthetic, with poor-quality, hand-held, sometimes black and white footage edited together in such a way that it perfectly captures the psychedelic, retro tone of the bands’ music. It’s an engrossing, ironic, funny, tragic story – at times it’s like watching a car crash: you can’t look away, no matter how you want to. Like the A&R industry reps, and like Courtney, it’s easy to see that Anton is talented, that on the basis of his music alone the BJM should be successful and influential – all the things he says he wants (or says he is already) – but, like the reps, it’s equally easy to see what a disaster he would be. As someone points out in the film, Anton wants to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, to be as big as the Beatles or Oasis (there are frequent references to the famous rivalries, Beatles/Stones, Oasis/Blur), but has failed to take into account that these bands were big before they started taking drugs and acting out. Anton has it the wrong way around, and even the labels that accept the challenge soon regret it. Yet, even ten years after this documentary was made, the BJM are still touring, still making music. Isn’t that the point?

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)

Cinema Lottery #11

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

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 #62: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

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Rating: 3/5

“Hell is a teenage girl.”

Really, that about sums up the movie. Riding high on her surprise Oscar win, this is Diablo Cody’s second screenwriting gig, following indie hit Juno (2007), and it’s a far more cynical, scathing piece of work, sitting uncomfortably somewhere between horror and teen comedy. Despite featuring the then-smoking hot commodity of Megan Fox, who had become so predominantly because of Michael Bay’s completely gratuitous bum-shot in 2007’s Transformers, Jennifer’s Body never quite manages to be either scary or hilarious. It’s a bit too knowing, a bit too self-aware, a bit too smug. Yet perhaps had it not received the mainstream attention it would have found its own audience, one who appreciate this kind of genre-bending, achingly hip story. Perhaps then it might have developed a little cult following.

Since Juno, the anti-Cody faction has risen up, proclaiming the former stripper to be not only a poor writer but a blight on the world of screenwriting in general. Whether this vitriol it deserved or not is left to personal taste – I must admit that a recent viewing of Young Adult left little more than a rather bitter taste in my mouth, and I’m a fan of black humour. The comedy in Jennifer’s Body emerges more as the film progresses; that kind of wry irony exposing the utter superficiality and ridiculousness of teenage girldom. Initially, the set up is straightforward and, like her or loathe her, Cody clearly understands the pubescent teenage mentality. The friendship between Jennifer (Fox) and nerdy Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is one that most post-teen females will be familiar with: Jennifer is the popular, beautiful, sexually active cheerleader who, for some apparently inexplicable reason has retained her childhood best friend, the gawky, awkward, unpopular dweeb Needy. A case of charity, perhaps? Or a sign that true friendship transcends the enforced hierarchy of the school corridor? Well, no. Jennifer is one of those friends that we’ve all had at some point – one we’re desperate to keep a hold of despite having little in common, one who makes us feel terrible about ourselves through passive aggressive bitching, one who we know is toxic, but we can’t bear the thought of no longer being in the inner circle. I wonder which friend Cody was in her youth – it may be unjustified, but my guess is she was the bad friend, now trying to pretend she was the good one.

But I digress. Jennifer and Needy head off to a dive bar, where some unknown indie band, Low Shoulder, are playing. Jennifer’s got her eyes on the lead singer (Adam Brody), the suave city boy with a heart full of angst and torment. Or something. Soon the bar is burning to a cinder, with flaming bodies flailing around, and Jennifer’s in the back of the band’s van before Needy can bat an eyelash behind her stereotypically geeky glasses. Later on, Jennifer reappears in Needy’s house, where she eats chicken like a caveman and spews out oily black goo. With the town in mourning, the (male) bodies that pile up add to the town’s celebrity status until no one even cares that much any more. Needy conceals the fact that her BFF is eating all the boys, and gradually the humour seeps in to this teen horrror pic, most notably thanks to Low Shoulder, the grating hipster band who kickstarted the whole tragic affair.

It’s easy to see why the backlash started against Cody after this film came out. Subtle it certainly ain’t. The subtext may as well just be plain text – as though the demonic possession is not obviously metaphorical enough, there are frequent references to PMS and puberty. And, of course, there’s that aforementioned quote. Yes, hell truly is a teenage girl – with or without the demon. It’s the body that causes all the problems, and this is a hormone-ridden, blood-soaked nightmare, where sexuality is rampant, bitching is a way of life, and tits rule supreme. Really, the boys don’t stand a chance. Yet the girls are equally doomed, really; they are slaves to their bodies. Jennifer is the victim, though it’s often hard to remember because she’s so two-dimensional as a character – scratch the surface here, and there’s more surface.

I cannot help but be reminded of Ginger Snaps, a lesser known cult series that shares much with Cody’s story. There, lycanthropy serves as the metaphor for the changing pubescent body and, while it too lacks subtlety, it works. Here, it all feels a touch desperate – the barely concealed message, the annoyingly drippy Needy, the high school clichés, the lesbian romp. The infuriatingly hip language that was so endearing in Juno is plain grating here, partly because of its crudeness, but mostly because it’s far too obvious. So words like “lesbigay”, “salty” and “fucktarded” swim around your brain and refuse to leave, though you can never actually use them because, quite simply, it would be too cloyingly cool.

It’s a shame, actually, because it’s not really a terrible film. As a fan of high school flicks, this didn’t irritate too much – sure, I shook my head exasperatedly at times, and cringed at others, but I can’t help but enjoy the inevitability of a nice Emo guy going to an abandoned house for his date with the possessed, hungry cheerleader. I appreciated the irony of the band’s reasons for sacrifice (like the rest of the film, it’s hardly unexpected, but it does feel rather satisfying in its self-obsessed inanity) and was even surprised to feel a slight pang of sympathy for Jennifer in the end. Perhaps less tampon references would have made me like it more, but as it stands it is far from the disaster that the masses enjoyed proclaiming when it first was released.

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

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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.