Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | June 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.



filmjournaljune2014_1

Good weather, great movies.
The blazing sunshine we’ve had in the UK recently makes me feel I should lay on a carpet of lush grass, and do some solid cloud-spotting – much like Mason in the above image, taken from Richard Linklater’s modern masterpiece Boyhood. Such an evocative picture does much to remind one of the power of a single image, and how cinema is an entire series of single images. By that logic, it might be the most powerful artform there is; but the main factor in this shot of a six-year-old staring into the sky, is that he looks like he’s enjoying one of life’s more simple pleasures – the summer. I hope you’re having a great one. 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

~ ~ ~



omar1Omar
[2014]
A work of resourcefulness and clarity of purpose – despite the ambiguous twists and turns of its story – heightens Omar from mere social commentary and to the realms of relatable, tangible personal drama. The moral compass of Omar, who is unwillingly turned into a double agent, is constantly spinning, unable to find its way; thankfully, the youthful direction of master Hany Abu-Assad (despite his fifty-two years) keeps this searing character piece on course.
[Read the interview]

 —

Edge of Tomorrow [2014]edgeoftomorrow1
• Recommended
Edge of Tomorrow, the latest from The Bourne Identity and Swingers director Doug Liman, made just over $20m worldwide on its first weekend – a ‘soft’ opening – and continued disappointing business for the rest of its box office life. When you hear someone say ‘there’s nothing good on at the cinema’ only for them to go and watch something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, point them in the direction of absolute marvels like Edge of Tomorrow instead. Using its time-travel conceit inventively, settings that both astound and refresh – a flooded Paris isn’t something you see in movies often, let alone in real life – and starring Tom Cruise back at the height of both his big-movie bluster and acting potential (he has rarely been this slimy, save Magnolia), this sci-fi succeeds in every way you could want from a summer blockbuster, which boasts as much emotion as it does humour, smarts and style. So next time you complain there’s ‘nothing on’, take a risk and go see an under-marketed gem like this one. You may just be surprised.


jimmyshall1Jimmy’s Hall [2014]
Ken Loach’s latest has all the articulate rage as his best films, but rarely the finesse to go with it. In a way, the tale of Jimmy’s Hall, where a group of Irish folk battle to keep their secular dance hall open against a tide of Catholic scorn, succeeds completely; an impassioned filmmaker such as Loach rarely fails to instil a deep sense of vital, revolutionary empowerment in the viewer. The problem here is that that feeling doesn’t linger long after the credits roll, and we instead are transported instantly back to modern day England – because there were no characters to care for enough to pin those feelings on.

22 Jump Street [2014]22jumpstreet2
Did that just happen? Did a comedy sequel just beat its highly-received predecessor in terms of laughs, wit and tenderness? Could the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, be gods? The only logical conclusion that can be made is, yes, they are; 22 Jump Street ups the ante in every conceivable way to deliver a sequel that uses its potentially tiresome meta angle to numerous, fantastic ends. An absolute belter from beginning to (hilariously protracted) end, 22 Jump Street will likely go down in comedy history before the still-great movie that came before it.
[Read the review]


downhill1Downhill [2014]
Like a pleasant stroll in the English countryside, Downhill, which charts a small group of middle-aged friends and one of their sons as cameraman and ‘director’, feels similarly breezy and purposeless. But those are its strengths, in a way; any soapy drama that rears its head unexpectedly is brushed over with the almost unique way in which British people react to tense situations, and is a delight to watch most of the time. It’s super-low-key ambling is different, and when you have giant robots, time travel and superheroes swirling around your head for most of the summer, different could be just what you need.

Oculus [2014]oculus1
Year after year, month by month, horror films are released on a conveyor belt onto our cinema screens. Production companies, especially the smaller ones, favour the lower budgets that horror movies represent, and a built-in audience ready to receive (and largely enjoy) the schlock that comes out the other end. Not that that’s a bad thing, in itself; Kim Newman, a veteran critic of horror cinema (his ‘Video Dungeon’ column in Empire is especially interesting) analyses the myriad nuances to the craft and viewership of budget horror cinema, and celebrates the tropes that come with it. But every now and then, the craft, writing and acting goes up a notch to equal its more well-crafted contemporaries from other genres, and Oculus represents just that; a smart slice of scares, and heavily character-based, it realises that the best, most classic horror comes not from ghosts or ghouls, but from inner demons. The Orphanage understood this, as did Let the Right One In; and now, Oculus joins them.


ofmiceandmen1Of Mice and Men [1992]
Some may criticise Gary Sinise’s adaptation of the classic novel Of Mice and Men for being too prosaic, too straightforward. That it had no room for metaphor, for thematic stylings. And they would be right – but Of Mice and Men doesn’t need these things. When you have a story as tight and full of character moments as Steinbeck’s, its wrong to ‘cinematise’ it when adapting it for the big screen, and that is Sinise’s masterstroke here. For when the final blow comes, it’s made all the more affecting for its realism.

Cheap Thrills [2014]cheapthrills2
You’ll never watch Anchorman the same way again. David Koechner is the instigator of everthing foul, inhuman and all-out perverse in Cheap Thrills, a delectable little piece of filth helmed by director E.L. Katz. Way out of luck and deep in debt, Craig (Pat Healy) stumbles into the depraved world of Colin and Violet (Koechner and Sara Paxton) who place bets between him and his estranged pal Vince (Ethan Embry) on who can do the most horrible thing for money. A lot of money. As the cash increases, so does the depravity of the bets – none which will be spoiled here. Disgustingly good.


maleficent1Maleficent [2014]
Angelina Jolie has received much praise for her role as Maleficent, the famous baddie from Sleeping Beauty, tooled up to be the star in her very own movie. The good words are understandable, but only half-right; before Jolie ‘becomes’ the mean-spirited sorceress we all know and love (to hate), she entirely fails to convince. And even when the CGI is at its most artificial-looking (a flying, shrunken Juno Temple cannot be unseen), further enjoyment is stripped away by having none of the characters’ choices make any sense.

Belle [2014]belle1
So pedestrian that it could easily be seen negotiating a zebra crossing, Belle is a struggle to watch. Its performances are fine, and its period design is particularly lavish, but Belle misses the spark that should incite real indignation in the audience, not merely a whisper of ‘ooh, that’s not right’. In screaming its messages from a rooftop, Belle makes it difficult for us to come to its conclusions by ourselves.



goldendream2The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro)
[2014]
Exquisitely mounted and disarmingly tender even in its most relentlessly miserable stretches, The Golden Dream is a heartbreaking account of a group of kids who leave Guatemala to start a new life in the United States. First-time director Diego Quemada-Diez weaves a certain magic into what is essentially a road movie, and a lyricism often lacking in such tragic pictures.
[Read the review | Read the interview]


The Dirties [2014]thedirties1
Somewhere lurking underneath the rough-and-ready surface of The Dirties, brainchild of director / writer / star Matt Johnson, is a great movie about gun control, the pressure of high school, and friendship. Instead, we get a crippilingly inward-looking picture that mistakes pop culture reference for social analogy, and confuses cliché with irony. It’s a near-offensive molotov of ideas that aren’t necessarily bad, but executed with the poorest judgement.


100yearoldman1The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann) [2014]
When Allan climbs out of his care home window on his one-hundredth birthday, a circus-like score blasts loudly while he ambles onward to escape. It’s letting you know that the entire affair is kooky, cantankerous, and hey, fun. That’s entirely the movie’s problem; it frequently tells you how to feel, as opposed to giving you the chance of finding out for yourself. The film’s painful nudging of its elbow into your side never stops; fantasy-esque segments that re-tell Allan’s life as a young man, while tonally the most successful part of the picture, get shoeboxed as the Swedish Forrest Gump. And the laughs consistently fall flat; were they lost in translation, or were they simply not funny in the first place? The English-speaking world may never find out.

Devil’s Knot [2014]devilsknot1
In 2012, the extraordinary documentary West of Memphis was released, detailing the entire case and eventual release of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, who were wrongly convicted of a brutal set of murders in 1993. And before that movie, in 1996, the equally famous Paradise Lost was released concerning the same case, plus its two sequels over the next few years. By the time this year’s Devil’s Knot came round, the audience had the uncanny foresight of knowing how it all ended before going in. Writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson could still have woven some mystery into proceedings; what we’re left with is a smashed jigsaw of a plot, which zings to different times during the famous case uneasily, while the decent cast (led by Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon) are left with not much to play with.

d-


allthepresidentsmen1All the President’s Men
 [1976]
• Recommended
The freedom of the press has never been more important. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford on top form, this slow-burning procedural is both indispensable in representing its own time (Robert Nixon, Watergate), and vital in mirroring ours (Edward Snowden, the NSA). It’s a thriller with no car chases; an intense character piece with no histrionics. What it most definitely is, however, is a blindsiding ode to journalism at its purest.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet [2014]youngandprodigioustsspivet1
The award for most boring road movie of the year goes to The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet views America as a wonderland of sorts, and that’s all well and good, but when he populates them with sleepwalking sketches instead of full characters to match the scenery’s vibrance, he runs his movie into the ground. A far, far cry from Amelie.


ofhorsesandmen1Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss) [2014]
A small-scale affair, but nonetheless wondrous in its smirking depictions of big themes. Of Horses and Men veers from hilarity to darkness with grace, the Icelandic landscape doing much to temper the outrageous personalities of the film’s people – and their equine friends. The film’s IMDB entry sums it up best: ‘A country romance about the human streak in the horse and the horse in the human.’

Boyhood [2014]boyhood1
• Recommended
Take a photo of yourself once a day. Keep this up for twelve years. Look back at them in chronological order. Re-experience the subtle changes in not only your appearance, but the look in your eyes; the changes in ideology and temperament, encounters with first love and family, and the overbearing, gut feeling that near enough everyone on the planet goes through similar experiences, in some way, at some point. You’ll get a similar feeling watching Boyhood.
[Read the review]


faultinourstars1The Fault in Our Stars [2014]
The ‘cancer drama’ hasn’t been a particularly successful sub-genre. Of course, it’s a big pull for both box office and tears, but rarely in the Nicholas Sparks-led influx of doomed protagonists has something of actual quality materialised, something that showed what it really was like to live with the condition. Director Josh Boone and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber do a marvellous job of adapting John Green’s beloved novel for the big screen, making sure that The Fault in Our Stars consistently shimmers with life, even though its characters face death at every moment. This is a tender, funny, and most crucially, knowing portrayal of beauty in dark moments, rarely fumbling with its sometimes on-the-nose dialogue thanks to the two heart-burstingly great performances at its centre. And can someone please give Shailene Woodley a big hug?


Grace of Monaco [2014]graceofmonaco1
The now infamous screening of Grace of Monaco, which kicked off this year’s Cannes Film Festival, received jeering, boos, and most notably, laughter. It would seem that it turned out to be a soap opera of unintentional comedy, upscaled to epic proportions by its exotic locales and big stars. In fact, Grace of Monaco, despite its curious acting choices (Tim Roth plays of a plank of wood, apparently) and absurd attempts at politicising its trivial events, is actually merely boring. Unrelentingly boring. You’ll yawn, you’ll drift, you’ll snore.


nightmoves1Night Moves
[2014]
Kelly Reichardt, having made a name for herself in American indie cinema with Meek’s Cutoff and a few before that, has fully carved her name into the scene as a master of her craft with Night Moves. Jesse Eisenberg (never chillier), Dakota Fanning (never flappier) and Peter Sarsgaard (never Sarsgaard-ier) are environmental activists who plan to take down a dam, a literal and figurative emblem of their view of how the balance of man and nature should be. But the consequences spin far out of control, and become something bigger – and darker – than the three ever imagined. With a lower-intestine creep of dread mingled with tension that threatens to choke, Night Moves is a deep exploration into the mindset of many of a nation.

Chef [2014]chef1
Chef
gets off easily, despite its flagging plot problems, thanks to just that; it’s easiness. Jon Favreau, as besmirched food-artist Carl Casper, leads the movie with a lightness of touch in his direction and the small stakes of his screenplay. The only real weak link is his on-screen wife, Sofía Vergara (1. she’s too hot for Favreau. Sorry Favreau. 2. She’s simply not a great actor. Sorry Vergara). The strongest link? The food.



3daystokill13 Days to Kill
[2014]
3 Days to Kill is a curious beast. It’s constantly at battle with itself; wildly differing tones try to fight to the top, all aided by Kevin Costner’s not-quite-hardball, not-quite-softie demeanour, awkwardly paralleled stretches of bloody action and familial comedy, and downright odd detours (why is there a family of squatters living in Costner’s house?) And Amber Heard, as impossibly beautiful as she is, can’t break through the unforgivable b-movie seductress branding that the movies suffocates her with. With Luc Besson on screenwriting duties, and following the malignant disaster that was The Family, the Scarlett Johansson-starring Lucy is looking less and less promising.

Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois) [2014]chinesepuzzle1
Completing his ‘Trilogy of Xavier’, director Cédric Klapisch treats us to another wry observation of 21st century love and family, and packs it with heaps of warm humour, relatable moments, and ace performances from its four leads – whose characters appear to dally round one another in an increasingly complicated tango. To watch Chinese Puzzle is to join their dance, and even though it’s the third chapter in a larger story, it feels as fresh and exciting even if you’ve been following this Lilliputian ode to messy lives and screwy relationships from the beginning.

jerseyboys1Jersey Boys [2014]
Clint Eastwood: Okay, that’s J. Edgar Hooplah and Morgan Mandela done and dusted. What’s next?
Studio executive: Let’s see… do you like The Four Seasons?
CE: Who or what on God’s green earth are The Four Lesions?
SE: Y’know, Frankie Valli. Walk Like a Man’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’.
CE: I dunno. I never liked rap music.
SE: Trust me, this’ll be great. Picture it; four music sensations, struggling to get by in the crime-filled streets of New Jersey. There they are, in the parking lot of a bowling alley, when a neon sign lights up with the words –
CE: Hooters!
SE: … er, no Clint. It says, The Four Seasons! They go on to have a load of hits, y’know, real classics, and shoot off into the world of fame, fortune, pizazz! I really think this is a chance for you to get your game back, y’know? This could be your next Million Dollar Baby, your new Mystic River
CE: Can we go to Hooters though?
SE: Sure, Clint. Sure.

Miss Violence [2014]missviolence1
Miss Violence starts as bleak as possible (a young girl commits suicide by dropping from her family’s apartment, for no apparent reason) and only continues to get bleaker. It’s an excruciatingly painful watch in its darkest moments, while its more easily palatable stretches are still defined by the kind of evil you’d find round Leatherface’s dinner table; there is an argument for misery for the sake of misery in Miss Violence‘s case, and that is increasingly true as the investigation into the family after the girl’s suicide reaches ever deeper. But it’s a strangely unrewarding watch, despite the torment it puts both its characters and viewers through. Still, we have one of 2014’s great villains in the form of Constantinos Athanasiades’ Philippos, a patriarch whose smug, calculating atrocities are near-overwhelming in their matter-of-factness. The film shares DNA with Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, also a Greek film about the inner world of an odd family (and also one of the best pictures of last decade), but ultimately, we only continue watching Miss Violence through ghoulish interest, not because we actually care.



howtotrainyourdragon2_1How to Train Your Dragon 2
[2014]
Touted by many (including its makers) as The Empire Strike Back of the franchise, this excellent sequel does much to earn that comparison. Joining Hiccup when he’s a bit older, and seeing his hometown of Berk embracing the companionship of dragons – their once-mortal enemies – we’re flung straight into the action when he discovers a dragon-slaving army ready to destroy his home. Packed with the same amount of gut-busting emotion as the first, and a similar amount of risk-taking, How to Train Your Dragon 2 soars close to the sun. Bring on number 3.

Deadfall [1993]deadfall1
In every other universe but this one, Deadfall would receive an ‘Avoid’ certification. Luckily for us, on this particular Earth, ineptitude can be an artform; it’s near useless to go into even a small amount of detail on just how wrongheaded, misguided, unaware, irony-free, poorly acted, toneless and above all, stupid this occasionally erotic thriller, occasionally sci-fi mystery is. Its awfulness is a complex matrix, and at its centre is a committed performance from Nicolas Cage, who as Eddie orchestrates the movie’s blunders as a sniffling psychopath. Essential ‘so bad, it’s good’ viewing.

joe1Joe [2014]
Stylistically, Nicolas Cage’s performance in Joe couldn’t be further from his in Deadfall. However, despite the former’s apparent restraint and the latter’s lack of, they both prove one thing: Commitment to the role. And with Joe, the latest from director David Gordon Green (who’s been enjoying a comeback as of late with this and Prince Avalanche), Cage finds the perfect arena to do his most purely moving work for a long time; Tye Sheridan holds his own against Cage as a boy forced to grow beyond his years, when his drunken father – played by Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless man who sadly died soon after the movie’s U.S. release – teases his family toward poverty, and seeks the employment, and soon the paternal affection, of Cage’s ex-con-turned-labourer Joe. Gordon Green’s direction, which at points can be a mite intrusive, does establish a pervading sense of dread throughout what is, in terms of plot at least, a surrogate-father-and-son tale – but the beauty of possible redemption, which is a lofty dream for most of these unlucky characters, ever hangs in the air.

The Nut Job [2014]nutjob1
A choice selection of the best jokes in The Nut Job:

‘Holy Macademia!
‘Buddy, we found it! The lost city of Nutlantis!’
‘Are you nuts!?’
‘Each day’s a quest to find food to survive. It’s a tough nut to crack!’
‘…. Oh, nuts!’

Fine, fine comedy writing.

Follow the Editor on Twitter: @GaryGreenScreen

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About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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