Love & Friendship (2016)

2016 #173
Whit Stillman | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | Ireland, France & Netherlands / English | U / PG

Love & Friendship

Adapted from Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, writer-director Whit Stillman’s arch comedy concerns one Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a certain reputation in polite society, which she endeavours to hide from while engaging in matchmaking machinations for both herself and her daughter.

That’s the vague version, anyway. The details of the plot are occasionally a mite too intricate to follow, especially as explanations tend to come after the fact, if they do at all. However, for those prepared to go along with it, the reward is a film that is at times hilariously funny.

Stillman’s writing and direction are both a little mannered, which will surely turn off some viewers, but the real stars are, indeed, the stars. Kate Beckinsale is phenomenal — funny, dry, biting, witty, but also conveying that Susan is making it all up as she goes, despite pretending to be in control. The other standout is Tom Bennett as the dimwitted Sir James Martin. His knowledge of the commandments and opinion of peas are particularly delightful.

Kate Beckinsale & Tom Bennett

Love & Friendship may be something of an acquired taste thanks to its stylistic affectations, but couple that with its wry sense of humour and it makes a likeable change from the heritage ambitions of most Austen adaptations. Perhaps, too, that makes it the Jane Austen film for people who don’t normally like Jane Austen films.

4 out of 5

Wuthering Heights (2011)

2016 #81
Andrea Arnold | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Wuthering Heights

A world away from heritage adaptations of classic literature (or, indeed, that Kate Bush song), Andrea Arnold’s earthy, plausible take on Emily Brontë’s beloved novel (the first half of it, anyway) won’t be to all tastes — particularly anyone after an epic romance feel — but its sparse dialogue, Malickian attention to nature, and oppressive mood make for a benumbing work of cinematic art.

The claustrophobic 4:3 framing and mist-shrouded photography lock us into an isolated world, where rough people treat each other roughly and misery begets misery, from which neither we nor the characters can escape. It’s grim up north, indeed.

5 out of 5

Bridesmaids (2011)

2016 #172
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids opens on a shot of the outside of a house, but we can hear the people inside. It sounds like they’re having sex. “I’m so glad you could come over,” one says. Cut to a view of the closed bedroom door. Still sounds like sex. “Cup my balls,” says the male voice. Our assumption is still sex. Cut to inside the bedroom, where it looks like he’s on his back and she’s on top of him — you know, having sex. And it’s maybe at this point that you realise that, yes, they are just having sex — there is no clever, funny twist coming.

Thankfully this unimaginative sequence is not indicative of Bridesmaids’ overall quality. The female participant in that first scene is Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig), a down-on-her-luck baker who’s struggling with life since her cake store went bust. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement, she asks Annie to be her maid of honour. But Annie soon clashes with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy and glamorous wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss, who’s keen to replace Annie in Lillian’s affections. Wedding preparations and hilarity ensue.

Despite the rough start, there are some very, very funny parts later on; but, unexpectedly, it also works pretty well in more character-focused sections. You’re not going to mistake this for an emotional drama, but there’s more investment in the characters than you might anticipate given the cast and crew’s pedigree. I guess this is the on-screen result of a telling behind-the-scenes titbit: reportedly, producer Judd Apatow pushed hard for wild, physical comedy, while writers Wiig and Annie Mumolo preferred to go for subtler material. The film’s most notorious sequence — the diarrhoea scene — was largely at the insistence of Apatow and director Paul Feig. I feel like that probably explains a lot about how the film can be restrained and emotionally intelligent at times, and then ludicrously crude at others.

Bitch fight

Maybe it also explains how it ended up being too long. The ideal length of a comedy movie is about 90 minutes, so crossing the two-hour mark feels needless. At the very least it could do with just a tighten — trimming some scenes, or even individual shots, would make a pleasant difference. And to think, there’s an extended cut!

Even more baffling is the fact that this earnt Melissa McCarthy an Oscar nomination, which is just… daft. I mean, she’s not bad, and it’s a bit of an excursion from the kind of roles I’ve seen her play otherwise — and doing something different to your norm is the kind of thing that attracts awards attention — but an Oscar? For this? No. That’s just silly.

I guess that was due in some part to the mass of praise Bridesmaids received on its release, after which there was (of course) a massive backlash. Until I read online comments before writing, I’d forgotten just how hyped it was, and how much people turned against that. With several years’ distance things have calmed down, which probably works in the film’s favour: freed from that pressure, it entertains as a largely funny, surprisingly emotionally astute female-driven comedy.

4 out of 5

Paul Feig is a guest panellist on tonight’s episode of Insert Name Here, which is… random.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)

2016 #160
Brian Helgeland | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

A Knight's TaleA squire fakes being a knight to win a jousting contest, and a lady’s affection, in this medieval comedy-adventure.

Renowned for its anachronistic use of rock music, there’s actually not much of that, but there’s plenty of comedy and adventure — too much: it’s a little long (that there’s an extended DVD beggars belief). An able cast keep it ticking: Heath Ledger hefts the derring-do and romance, with comic support from Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Bettany; but love interest Shannyn Sossamon is clearly miscast.

Though a favourite to some, I wouldn’t say it’s under-appreciated, but it’s a fun romp.

3 out of 5

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

2016 #170
Chris Weitz | 131 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: New MoonLast Halloween, I reviewed one of the most horrifying movies of all time: Twilight. This Halloween, at the risk of establishing a terrible tradition that could potentially run for another three years, I’m turning my attention to its first sequel, New Moon.*

If you watched the first movie and thought things couldn’t get any worse… well, you clearly didn’t watch New Moon. I don’t blame you. My original plan had been to watch all five and review them over the course of a week last Halloween, like I did for George A. Romero’s zombie movies in 2013 (plug!), but after the first I couldn’t stomach any more straightaway. Or for an entire year, apparently.

Anyway, the film. New Moon picks up more or less where Twilight left off, with human teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) and 109-year-old vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) deeply in love. Their relationship is complicated by the slightest sign of Bella’s blood making members of Edward’s vampire pseudo-family want to kill her, but he refuses to turn her. Then Edward’s family have to leave the area and he decides it would be better if she didn’t come. Bella goes into extreme mourning — OK, teens over-feel break-ups, but Bella goes fucking mental, screaming in her sleep like a junkie going cold turkey. Her father confronts her: “It’s just not normal, this behaviour.” Bang on, daddy-o!

So, Bella discovers that doing crazy adrenaline-generating things — like riding on motorbikes with strangers — gives her visions of Edward. It’s unclear if she’s imagining these or if he’s actually manifesting to her. In most movies you’d know it was the former, but this is a supernatural flick about vampires and werewolves, for crying out loud — make yourself clear, moviemakers! Anyway, to replicate this rush Bella salvages some bikes from a tip or something and gets her chum Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to rebuild them. She still can think of nothing but Edward… until Jacob takes his top off. My face is up here, BellaAnd they accuse teenage guys of being shallowly obsessed with the opposite sex’s chests. But then Jacob starts acting aggressively, and hanging out with a gang, and there are stories about beasts in the woods killing people, and his tribe leader type guy looks shifty whenever all that’s mentioned, and… wait, could there be a connection between Jacob and his friends and the wolf-like attacks in the woods?! Gasp!

New Moon is a terribly slow, terribly mopey movie, which takes forever to get to really obvious ‘reveals’ — like, yes, Jacob and co are werewolves (after a fashion). That’s when it’s not trying to build a love triangle that we all know can only end one way. I mean, Bella tells Jacob “it will always be Edward”. Not subtextually — she tells him literally, with words. Those exact words. And when it’s not doing that, it’s slowly building up some form of mythology, presumably to use properly in future instalments. Then it ends with what I think is meant to be a cliffhanger and/or surprise ending, but it’s so ridiculously unsurprising or cliffhanger-y that it’s almost insulting. Bella’s forced Edward’s hand, making him agree to turn her into a vampire because they can’t bear to be apart and want to spend forever together, so why should it be such a surprise that he wants to marry her?!

Then there’s the pathetically hand-holding direction — a shot that shows the changing seasons conveys the passage of time perfectly decently, so why superimpose the names of the months on top as if we’re all 5 year olds who can’t understand it hasn’t literally turned from late summer to autumn to winter in 90 seconds? The CGI is uniformly terrible, We feel your pain, Bellaso that even bits that aren’t bad in isolation (the wolves, for instance) are poorly integrated into the live-action. And at one point the characters go to the cinema to see an action movie… called Face Punch. At this point New Moon slips from ineptitude into genius. It’s the best worst fake action movie title ever. The scene where they discuss it is so hilarious, I actually had to pause the movie to finish laughing.

Though it may contain the funniest thing I’ve seen in any movie this year, it’s not enough to save New Moon. It’s even worse than the first one, because it’s boring. Some bits and bobs may actually be improved (some of the direction is slicker; Bella’s terrible voice over is reduced), but goddamn, it’s so dull. So little actually happens. It feels like it’s probably setting things in place for whatever’s to come next for an entire movie.

On the bright side, that might mean the series improves from here. I can but hope.

1 out of 5

New Moon featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* Here’s a thing: the film has two title cards: the first says New Moon, the second says Twilight Saga: New Moon — no “The”. But as all the posters and, y’know, everyone else uses the “the”, I am too. Fighting my urge to use the accurate on-screen nomenclature here, people. ^

Cover Girl (1944)

2016 #168
Charles Vidor | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Cover GirlRun-of-the-mill musical starring Rita Hayworth as a Brooklyn showgirl who finds fame after accidentally landing a prestigious magazine cover because the editor was in love with her spitting-image grandmother.

Gene Kelly co-stars as the owner of the low-rent joint she used to star in, and provides two decent dance numbers: the first alongside Hayworth and Phil Silvers, the second alongside himself, double exposure allowing his shop-window reflection to leap into the street.

Otherwise the songs are forgettable, despite the fact it won an Oscar for its score, and the predictable story is allowed too much leeway by the running time.

3 out of 5

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #77

Hope & despair.
Tragedy & love.
Romeo & Juliet.

Full Title: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 1st November 1996 (USA)
UK Release: 28th March 1997
First Seen: VHS, c.1998

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Claire Danes (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Stardust)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)

Screenwriters
Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue!)
Baz Luhrmann (Australia, The Great Gatsby)
William Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You)

Based on
Some play, apparently.

The Story
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-marked love and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which, but their children’s end, naught could remove, is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

Our Heroes
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, kids from feuding families who fall in love despite that conflict.

Our Villains
The rest of their families, whose animosity to one another, and thereby opposition to the coupling, results in tragedy.

Best Supporting Character
Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, brought to flamboyant life by Harold Perrineau.

Memorable Quote
“Oh, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” — Juliet

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” — Juliet (rarely misquoted, regularly misunderstood)

Memorable Scene
The prologue, which sets out the film’s stylistic stall with a fast-cut and dramatically-scored montage of ultra-modern imagery to visualise the play’s prologue, as delivered by a TV news anchorwoman. It’s especially effective when paired with the first full scene, where the young men of the Capulet and Montague families clash at a gas station, which is similarly front-loaded with the film’s modern design, fast dialogue, and hyper-editing.

Memorable Music
The other films in the Red Curtain Trilogy (see Next Time) of course have a prominent role for music — one is about dancing, the other is a musical. While you’d think a Shakespeare adaptation would be all about the dialogue, the soundtrack plays a key role in Luhrmann’s vision, and certainly connected with viewers. They even once released a dedicated Music Edition on DVD. There is a score (memorable not least for its variation on O Fortuna, the much-reused O Verona), but it’s the songs by contemporary musicians — the kind of things the characters would listen to, I suppose — that have the greatest effect. Most recognisable is Des’ree’s Kissing You, which plays when the eponymous lovers first meet.

Technical Wizardry
The film is well known for its exuberant camerawork and editing. Obviously much of that is done in post-production, but it required on-set ingenuity as well. For the scene where Romeo and Juliet first kiss in a cramped elevator, the set walls were made in sections which could be raised to let the camera in. In the finished shot the camera circles the pair at speed, meaning the crew had to hurriedly raise the walls to let the camera past but speedily replace them to maintain the illusion.

Making of
Famously, the film modernises the characters’ use of swords and daggers by turning them into the brand names of guns. Shakespeare described Tybalt’s swordsmanship as “showy”, so to retain this for the film actor John Leguizamo worked with a choreographer, John O’Connell, to create a style of gunplay inspired by flamenco dancing.

Previously on…
Romeo + Juliet is the middle film in director Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy. The first is dancing drama Strictly Ballroom.

Next time…
The Red Curtain Trilogy concluded with Moulin Rouge. There are also plenty of other modern-styled Shakespeare adaptations that you could argue owe this a debt.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
4 BAFTAs (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Costumes)
1 MTV Movie Award (Female Performance (Claire Danes))
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Kiss — it lost to Independence Day!)

What the Critics Said
“While Shakespeare might well have applauded Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s souped-up version of Romeo and Juliet, traditionalists [including many critics, if you check out Rotten Tomatoes] are sure to despise the psychedelic tunes and the flashy sets of this audacious adaptation. Not to mention Mercutio as drag queen. For all of its departures, Luhrmann’s largely successful reinterpretation is far from irreverent. He takes liberties with the world, but never the words of this achingly beautiful love story. […] Luhrmann, who pitted youthful brio against conventional wisdom in Strictly Ballroom, clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at authority. Perhaps he’s an eternal teenager, or merely a bit mad. In any case, his excesses only prove Shakespeare’s profundity and the timelessness of his themes.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“in the play, and almost every adaptation, Romeo visits Juliet’s tomb, poisons himself and dies, and then Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself to death. In this version, however, Juliet wakes up just as Romeo downs the poison, so she watches him die in her arms. Seeing her slowly start to wake as Romeo prepares to kill himself is almost unbearable. Especially the way the dialogue is manipulated; all the lines remain the same, but are just said at slightly different times (when Juliet laments the fact that Romeo didn’t leave any poison for her, she’s talking to him directly this time). And when Romeo dies, Juliet is left without her monologue, because she’s said everything to Romeo already. So instead, she cries and then wordlessly shoots herself in the head. It’s pretty gut-wrenching.” — Elizabeth, Chris and Elizabeth Watch Movies

Verdict

Shakespeare got a do-over for the MTV generation in this textually faithful re-imagining of arguably the Bard’s most famous work. Above, I alluded to critics’ dismissal of this adaptation — here are some choice quotes: “the kind of violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote”; “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train”; “destined for the trash heap of Shakespeare adaptations”; “a monumental disaster.” I’d argue its subsequent, and largely enduring, success has put those old fuddy-duddies on the wrong side of history. Certainly, the fact it starred heartthrob du jour Leonardo DiCaprio ensured it reached an audience that otherwise would’ve had no interest. Oh, and it won BAFTAs — the film awards of Shakespeare’s homeland — for direction and screenplay. Shows what you know, yankees. Cultural impact aside, it’s a wildly inventive, daring work, which keeps it fresh and exciting even when its mid-’90s antics should by all rights have dated it into oblivion.

#78 will… kick it Jesus-style!

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

2016 #95
Wes Anderson | 90 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Moonrise KingdomOn the New England island of New Penzance in the summer of 1965, a troop of scouts at camp discover that unpopular member Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has fled in the night. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, troubled kid Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home. Unbeknownst to Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton) or Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the pair of unhappy 12-year-olds have secretly plotted to disappear together. As a violent storm threatens to hit the island, the scouts and police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) hunt for the runaways.

A story of young love, Wes Anderson style, the writer-director has described Moonrise Kingdom as “an autobiography about something that didn’t happen”. That feels like a good way to regard the film. There’s clearly an emotional truth to Sam and Suzy’s discontented lives and their desire to connect with a like-minded individual, especially at an age when romantic feelings are beginning to emerge; but there’s no way the rest of the events — which unfold with Anderson’s typical almost-real / almost-fantastical quirkiness — actually happened. Here Anderson has found a strong marriage of form and content: his idiosyncratic, storybook style suits a narrative about inventive children on an almost-fairytale adventure. It’s like it’s been told from the kids’ point of view, with both an artistic simplicity and an exaggeration of actual events.

I’d also say it maintains Anderson’s penchant for unpredictable narrative development: it reached what I’d presumed was the endpoint a long time before the finale, spinning on in crazy new ways. “You do WHAT to the dog?!”If the film has a fault it’s in this part, where the entire cast engage in a runaround as the hurricane arrives and floods the island; but (to give it the benefit of the doubt) perhaps that plays more smoothly with familiarity. And I don’t know what it is that Anderson has against dogs (nor, it seems, does anyone else, bar theories), but I find myself enamoured of his work in spite of this particular foible.

Moonrise Kingdom certainly has enough else going for it to counterbalance these doubts. With golden cinematography and a story of playful, gentle adventure, Anderson has evoked innocent childhood summers of race-memory: even if you didn’t live them yourself, you kind of feel like you did. Perhaps it is, indeed, an autobiography about something that didn’t happen for anyone who ever felt like an outsider as a kid.

4 out of 5

Moonrise Kingdom placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Badlands (1973)

2016 #87
Terrence Malick | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18* / PG

BadlandsThe debut feature of Terrence “four films in 30 years” Malick comes with a tagline-cum-plot-description so good I’m just going to quote it wholesale:

He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. He was very fastidious. People who littered bothered him.
She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. She wasn’t very popular at school.
For awhile they lived together in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.

As 60-word summaries go, that pretty fairly covers the characters, plot, and, to some degree, the film’s tone. It’s loosely based on a real-life killing spree (which also inspired several other movies, including Natural Born Killers), though it’s told with Malick’s style of cinematic poetry, rather than documentary realism or sensationalised violence. Malick has spoken of trying to give the story a fairy tale tone, to “take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality.” The latter is definitely true: the extended sequence where the young lovers live in a treehouse in the woods has an ethereal feel, like a daydream fantasy. For me it was probably the film’s most memorable section, though it’s the least related to the central criminal thrust.

As for removing the sharpness of the violence, I’d argue that, if anything, Malick has heightened it. When it comes it is short and shocking, kind of grubby and nasty. While the film may contain dreaminess and poetry, it’s not a pleasant experience. The shabby lives Crazy kidsthe leads start out from bleeds outwards into their time on the run, which Holly romanticises but feels constantly grotty. I suppose a film about killers shouldn’t be nice, but maybe this is why the time in the treehouse stood out for me — a little oasis of pleasantness; a break from the insalubriousness of the rest of the picture.

It’s fair to say I didn’t like the film very much, which is not the same as saying it’s not good. The adjective I keep coming back to is “grubby” — in spite of its occasional beauty, it has a grubbiness in its production, which tells a story of grubby people leading grubby lives in grubby circumstances as they perform grubby acts. I suppose that unpleasantness is a necessary counterpoint to the innumerable movies we have that glamorise violent lifestyles.

4 out of 5

* Badlands was reclassified 15 in 2008, but that was only for cinema releases. I watched it at home, where technically it’s still an 18. Ah, the BBFC. ^

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

2016 #151
Woody Allen | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13*

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s 44th film is a Sunday-afternoon-style period comedy, which nonetheless manages to touch on issues of existentialism and the meaning of life. If that sounds terribly Deep, don’t worry: Magic in the Moonlight may tickle your fancy, but it’s unlikely to tax your brain.

Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a genius illusionist and renowned debunker of spiritualists, who’s recruited by fellow magician and childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to expose a young ‘psychic’ named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has enthralled a rich family in the South of France, but whose methods have Howard stumped. Despite his unconcealed cynicism, Stanley too struggles to find the truth, but he does find himself increasingly smitten with Sophie…

After this setup the plot is no great shakes (the one twist is eminently guessable), but the rest of the film is a romantic confection made up of sunny Côte d’Azur locations, pretty vintage costumes, gently witty dialogue, and quality actors gamely playing along. Firth is hardly stretched as a romantic lead — indeed, he has one scene that is virtually lifted wholesale from Pride & Prej — but Stanley’s pompousness and sarcastic cynicism gives the role a little bite. Emma Stone’s big eyes do half the work for her, though she still gives it her all in a way that makes her character and performance endearing. Eileen Atkins, as Firth’s beloved aunt, and McBurney get halfway decent supporting parts, though there’s little time for the rest of the cast, especially Marcia Gay Harden, whose role as Stone’s mother is virtually nonexistent.

Magic with daylightThe most pleasing aspect is probably Darius Khondji’s photography. He emphasises the region’s beautiful golden light, with saturated colours emphasised by deep shadows, to create a warm and idyllic atmosphere, further accentuated by the twinkling blue ocean and stunning locales. It’s exemplary work that will likely make you long for distant times and places.

It may ultimately be a slight work, then, but it is still a delightfully pleasant way to spend 90-something minutes.

4 out of 5

* for “a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout”. So, it’s a PG, really. ^