Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | May 2014

I look back at the films I watched in the previous month, whether they were brand new in the cinema or simply new to me. Dates are by UK release. Here are my thoughts.

filmjournalmay2014

Smaller, but just as good.
Unlike the previous month, May was a little short on filmgoing. Perhaps I’d exhausted myself from Sundance London – can you suffer from exposure in the cinema? – or maybe I’d just been too busy. There are still some gems in the form of tiny Polish indie Ida and the blockbusting slab of entertainment X-Men: Days of Future Past. There was certainly a focus on smaller movies, maybe ones that haven’t crossed your radar; I also saw both my favourite and least favourite comedies of the year so far, and witnessed the work of a young director who could be the next generation’s Spielberg if he wanted. Read on, discover, and enjoy.

• Unmissable
Those pieces of work that prove cinema is one of humanity’s better endeavours.
Example: Apocalypse Now

• Recommended
Extraordinary films that are must-sees, but perhaps not considered masterpieces.
Example: Kick-Ass

• Avoid
Movies that exhibit technical ineptitude, cause severe ideological malaise, or both.
Example: Grown Ups

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pattonPatton 
[1970]
Patton is a tale of megalomania, of a man fully willing to sacrifice himself so he is remembered through the ages. In making his mark on history, the WWII general, floating in ennui as a man born in the wrong century (or as his fixation with Alexander the Great would attest, the wrong millennium), George S. Patton is only a half-formed human being; this epic movie provides a canvas just large enough to contain his cigar-chewing ego, its sweeping set pieces matched only by George C. Scott’s now legendary take on a character that film lovers have obsessed over almost as much as Patton obsessed over war.

For —

Bad Neighbours [2014]badneighbours1
The first truly funny American comedy of the year makes that success because of the well-placed chemistry between its leads. Seth Rogen is a father and husband, nearing middle age while clutching onto his youth (sneaking out of the office for a cheeky puff); Zac Efron is young, gorgeous, and with zero responsibilities, leading an army of fratboys behind him. It’s war of a new kind when the two move next door; the now comedy-canon style of improv, helped made popular by Rogen in previous work, once again whips up a heartwarming, funny (though perhaps not laugh-a-minute) display of when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

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pompeii1Pompeii [2014]
To coincide with this year’s splurge of disaster movies (even Godzilla was marketed as a disaster movie), there has to be something to line the bottom of the barrel. Paul W. S. Anderson, with his glut of Resident Evil flicks, seems perfectly content to stay at the bottom, but while Pompeii is Anderson at his shabbiest, it’s so overblown on both the small scale (Kiefer Sutherland in maniacal villain mode) and the large (volcano rumbles ominously, no one cares) that it has a sense of throwaway fun about it.


Godzilla [2014]godzilla1
Gareth Edwards is a talented arse. When not otherwise engaged with sculpting pee-inducing sequences of tingly Spielbergian wonder, he’s busy terrifying the bejeesus out of us with towering monsters that could easily noogy the entire Kaiju cast of Pacific Rim. Despite a lack of engagement where the human drama is concerned, movies like the ones Edwards yearns to make (and has largely succeeded in doing so here) represents a type of cinema that has been all but lost in today’s moviegoing landscape of suspense-free, CGI-splurge blockbusters; good for him, and even better for us.

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moodindigo1Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours) [2014]
Michel Gondry returns to our screens with another of his dappy, eccentric yet loveable creations in the form of Mood Indigo. However, Gondry is a slave to his own ticks, crafting a very pretty papier-mâché world that is full of visual invention but not enough storytelling smarts to lift it above tweedom. Either way, he remains a director whose work we all look forward to – despite his last, and only truly great, film was 2004′s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A Touch of Sin [2014]touchofsin1
It’s difficult to ascertain whether A Touch of Sin is the most boring film of the year, or a stone-cold masterpiece. Perhaps its detachment from the consequences of its characters, while not exactly a thrilling watch, is the point; following multiple characters over its long running time, it takes a bleak and brutal look at the differing forms and causes of violence. Only when the credits roll does it make sense, but this isn’t the most satisfying epic ever conceived.



concussion1Concussion [2014]
This wonderful low-fi movie takes a well-hewn topic – one used in the also recent Fading Gigolo – and makes it work. A middle-aged mother decides to spice up her life – which is frightening her with its mundanity – by secretly becoming an escort. The film is a knockout debut from Stacie Passon in directing and writing for the big screen, and includes refreshing takes on sexuality and domestic existential crises.


Beyond the Edge [2014]beyondtheedge1
Beyond the Edge
is a rather pedestrian take on what is an extraordinary feat – the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in 1953 – but can be thrilling in its own, stuffy way. In taking the mingling of dramatic reconstruction with disembodied talking heads, straight out of the Senna rulebook, it’s a documentary that attempts to inject some flair into its subject. The problem is, that flair just isn’t needed.


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ida1Ida
[2014]
Although at only eighty minutes in length, Ida bundles enough familial tragedy and affecting character moments into its slender frame to fill three movies. And that frame never buckles; Ida, a beautiful young woman left to a covenant when she was only a baby, is taken out of her world of limited social (and sexual) experiences by her scatty, streetsmart aunt to uncover what happened to their Jewish family during the war. It’s devestating, heartbreaking, and keen to have your eyes welling up with tears of both joy and profound sadness.


The Trip to Italy [2014]triptoitaly1
Although receiving a very limited release in film format, the hit TV series The Trip to Italy‘s big-screen edition may be one of the funniest movies this year. When you’re not dying with laughter at Coogan and Brydon’s countless impressions, the best being a Bane-off, the pair’s easy chemistry matches the beauty of both the Italian scenery and the exquisite dishes served up.

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X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterX-Men: Days of Future Past [2014]
• Recommended
An astonishing pirouette of spectacle, time travel, and the accumulation of six films’ worth of drama, X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like the definitive full-stop to the mutant saga. Travelling back to his younger self in 1973, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has to stop a future apocalyptic war from ever happening. Effectively an Avengers-style crossover of both the original cast and the First Class superheroes, at times, this hits the heights that blockbusters always promise yet routinely fail to deliver. And the redemption that Days of Future Past delivers not just to its characters, but to an audience that has been following Bryan Singer’s franchise (who returns as director here) for the past decade, is representative of a satisfying epic that lives up to the promise.

The Man Who Wasn’t There [2001]manwhowasntthere1
The Man Who Wasn’t There
gives the Coen brothers a genre-splashed flick to exercise their talents. Billy Bob Thornton is a hairdresser, his puppy-dog eyes staring vacantly into a similarly vacant life, who sees a unique opportunity to make himself rich – by screwing over his friend who, to be fair, is screwing his wife. The plot twists and turns with the best of them, and its muted monochrome fits perfectly with the Coen’s brilliantly skewed perspective of character.

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theladykillers1The Ladykillers [2004]
Rarely do the Coens misfire, if ever; having been forced to step into the director’s shoes at the last minute when the original director Barry Sonnenfeld stepped out, the brothers had only been commissioned to write the screenplay. The cracks show, glaringly, from beginning to end; while their enjoyably dark humour is always hanging in the air, oddball performances come across as thin and annoying (Tom Hanks in a very rare less-than-great spot of acting), and the plot splutters as it struggles to pique interest in either the audience, or itself. It’s a unique beast, and by no means a bad movie – thanks to the immense talents holding it all (barely) together - but this is by and large a failure.

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Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) [2014]venusinfur1
Roman Polanski has been busy of late. The last four years has seen three movies from the celebrated auteur - Carnage, The Ghost (or The Ghost Writer in the UK) and now Venus in Fur, a deliberately stagey adaptation of David Ives’ play. And ‘adaptation’ is used here rather loosely; it’s the middle of the night, and playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is struggling to find his Venus. Out of the blue and at the last minute, Vanda (a saucier-than-thou Emmanuelle Seigner) turns up. Being perfect for the part, she lures Thomas into the depths of the play’s subtext; the two-part powerhouse goes to some strange, revealing places, and shows us a Polanski just as in love with situational dramas as the one who made Repulsion back in 1965.

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millionwaystodieinthewest1A Million Ways to Die in the West [2014]
The failure of A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s humour and modern comedy in general, can be sourced to a single joke in this Western-set farce. Noticing a strange light coming from a nearby barn, Albert (MacFarlane) investigates; upon entering, he sees Doc Emmett Brown quickly covering up the DeLorean from Back to the Future. It’s a genuine laugh-out-loud moment – the problem is, it’s the funniest part of the film. No original line or gag in its 116-minute running time hits the same high, and that’s problematic for a comedy when it relies on a pop culture reference to get its biggest laugh. Another side of the problem is that it actually takes time out of the story to deliver it.

So, Mr. MacFarlane, if there’s the smallest chance you’re reading this, please listen. You’re clearly a man of the people. You’ve used your smarts to get where you are now, and your obvious talent for turning a quick phrase or delivering a pin-point reaction has kept you there. You divide people, and you probably enjoy, even relish that friction; you probably think it means you’re doing something right. But the thing is, those who reject your work nowadays did actually think you were funny once upon a time; the first six seasons of Family Guy is sincerely hilarious, filled with comedy that came from the characters, not the pop culture references or quick-fire, nonsensical jabbing that it leans on now. But you have time: you can still build a body of work that you can honestly look back on and think, wow, that’s still funny. The best and biggest laughs come from when we care about what’s happening, and to who. And your love of gross-out is justified, except you seem to have forgotten that the funniest comedy comes from character; watching Jason Biggs hump a pie is funny (we see a bit of ourselves in this meek, sexually frustrated but loveable little dude). Watching Albert uncover a time-travelling DeLorean simply isn’t funny (we see nothing of ourselves in him, because there is nothing to Albert – and what is funny about that scene is the very reference itself, not Albert’s reaction or connection to it).

You love your audience, that much is clear (why else would you get Cosmos off the ground if you didn’t?), and you want to make some kind of difference in the world. So stop going for the easy joke. Stop not giving a shit about character and story. Stop being the lowest common denominator, and start using your high platform in the entertainment business to give us something to remember for the right reasons.

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Fading Gigolo [2014]fadinggigolo1
There’s something alchemical about the tone of Fading Gigolo, John Turturro’s fifth feature as director (and umpteenth as actor). Although the story of Fioravante (Turturro), who becomes a male escort to help his fiscally challenged friend, Murray (Woody Allen), fails to pop and fizz the way it should, the eye for setting, colours and casting cooks a mood that brings to mind lounging in a NYC jazz bar, while a healthy haze of smoke eases its way across your vision. Not much happens in Fading Gigolo, and there’s not much to it – but the picture definitely has its own individual, relaxing brand of not much.


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weddingcrashers1Wedding Crashers
 [2005]
Punctuating the mid-point in Vince Vaughn’s career is Wedding Crashers, where good (Swingers, Dodgeball) started shifting to bad (The Break-Up, Four Christmases). Basically playing sex pests who carefully infiltrate numerous weddings – usually as a brother of a cousin of an estranged aunt – Vaughn and Owen Wilson do certainly pick up the bulk of the charm needed to make the film work, as it perhaps lacks it in other aspects. But it’s enough; hilariously awkward moments abound, and a scene-stealing appearance from Will Ferrell saves the movie from a potential dip when the obligatory second-act splitting of the two leads rolls around.

Follow the Editor on Twitter: @GaryGreenScreen

About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film journalist.

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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