Demolition (2015)

2017 #32
Jean-Marc Vallée | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Demolition

Jake Gyllenhaal is a high-flying banker struggling with the grief of his wife’s death by taking his life apart — literally — in this slightly strange drama from the director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild.

It’s more of a comedy-drama, actually, despite the apparently serious subject matter, because a large chunk of the plot revolves around Gyllenhaal making a complaint to a vending machine company, pouring his heart out in the process, and then being kinda stalked by the customer service rep, and… well, that’s just the first half. I said it was strange.

Despite some witty moments, the emotional truth just isn’t there to hold it all together. And the trailer song I once mentioned is barely featured in the film itself, so that was disappointing.

3 out of 5

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

2015 #198
Ernst Lubitsch | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

My first experience of Lubitsch’s US output concerns a man who arrives on Hell’s doorstep and reflects on his life to explain why he’s there.

It starts brilliantly: the bookend scenes are excellent, and the early parts of the plot are buoyed by consistent wit and enjoyable characters, particularly Charles Coburn as a slyly raucous grandfather. As it heads into its second half, it loses momentum and focus, the most entertaining characters disappear, and it takes its time plodding to a finale.

An enjoyable film with a lot of amusement value, just a little too long for its own good.

4 out of 5

Morning Glory (2010)

2015 #194
Roger Michell | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rachel McAdams takes a break from time-jumping rom-coms to lead a film where the romantic subplot is merely tacked on, presumably for marketing purposes. Really, it’s about a woman in love with her job.

McAdams plays the producer of TV’s worst-rated breakfast show, but her dream career faces ruin when it’s scheduled for cancellation. If only she can persuade her hero, investigative reporter turned disgruntled host Harrison Ford, to toe the line…

Overlong, predictable, and not the sharpest newsroom-based comedy, Morning Glory’s likeable cast nonetheless carry it to a level of entertaining amusement. Not the disaster it’s been painted as.

4 out of 5

The Informant! (2009)

2015 #133
Steven Soderbergh | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

The InformantMatt Damon turns whistleblower (or does he?) in this amusing romp based on a true story of complicated corporate fraud.

Director Steven Soderbergh is clearly having fun: despite the ’90s setting, the aesthetics harken back to the ’70s and its political exposé movies; while Marvin Hamlisch’s fun score references Bond during mundane stuff but offers tunes you’d expect from a farce during undercover FBI business.

If you want to follow the ins and outs you have to pay attention, but the main thrust is conveyed in the flow. Besides, such specifics barely matter to the farcical fun Soderbergh largely achieves.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

2015 #68
Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

Behind the CandelabraSteven Soderbergh’s supposed last-ever film (or, if you’re American, Steven Soderbergh’s first project after he supposedly quit film) is the story of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young bisexual man in the ’70s who encounters famed flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and ends up becoming his lover, which is just the start of a strange, tempestuous relationship.

Leading us into the uniquely bizarre world of the outrageous musician, Soderbergh keeps a sure grasp on the resultant drama/humour balance. If anything, the entertaining and well-received trailer makes the film look more outrageous than it is, distilling most of the best laughs into a two-minute burst. Indeed, some of the jokes play better in that form, rendered funnier by the focus and even tighter editing. Seen in full, the film is definitely more of a drama, just one about people so beyond the realm of ‘normal’ that it sometimes becomes laughable… and sometimes, tragic.

The cast are excellent. It’s a transformative performance by Michael Douglas, a committed turn with surprising layers, which is nothing short of absolutely brilliant. Matt Damon is no slouch either. His is a less showy performance, but Scott is a character that really develops as the film goes along, and not necessarily in ways that keep him the likeable ‘hero’. Among the rest of the cast, Rob Lowe is ultra-memorable as the creepily frozen-faced plastic surgeon.

LiberaceIt looks great, too. The film, that is, not Rob Lowe’s face. The design teams have realised an excellent recreation of the period, which is then lensed with spot-on glossy cinematography by DP ‘Peter Andrews’. Occasionally the film moves outside that heightened, shiny world into places odder and grubbier, with one shot of Liberace peering over the door of a porn shop private video booth (really) that’s particularly striking.

Even if it isn’t quite as amusing as the trailer promised, Behind the Candelabra has a lot else to offer as a drama about unusual people leading unusual lives.

4 out of 5

Space Station 76 (2014)

2015 #103
Jack Plotnick | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Space Station 76Liv Tyler is the new first officer on a space station commanded by Patrick Wilson in this retro-future-styled film, which is both a spoof of/riff on ’70s genre movies, and a character drama about people’s relationships. No, really.

The most obvious aspect, especially as it’s played up in the joke-focused trailer, is the former. The film’s visual aesthetic is a loving recreation of classic SF, from the set design to the gorgeous model-like CGI exteriors. I don’t think anything in particular was being referenced — at least, not obviously so — but it’s all reminiscent of the likes of the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space: 1999, and so on. It’s been created with such care that it borders on the beautiful.

The film itself is not really a genre spoof, though. It’s not taking the mick out of the storylines or acting style or what-have-you of productions of that era, but has adopted the era — the character types, their social interrelations, the familiar design style — to do its own thing. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t find humour in that adopted era: one of the most memorable moments involves a videophone (though, of course, that’s now riffing on something many of us are familiar with from the likes of Skype), and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud-hilarious bits from the awesome Dr Bot, the station’s robot psychiatrist, perfectly voiced by Michael Stoyanov (also one of the screenwriters). For me, Dr Bot pretty much justified the film’s existence.

It’s not just a silliness-based comedy, though. It’s masquerading as that, with the aesthetic choices and the joke-focused trailer, but I think what it really wants to be is a character drama about people not connecting, almost in the vein of something like Magnolia. While the characters’ relations play out through the prism of ’70s values, and are occasionally Everybody loves Dr Botused to feed into the humour, that’s simply what makes it, a) a period movie (just a period movie set in the future), and b) a comedy-drama (as opposed to a drama). I think this is the real reason for its lowly regard on sites like IMDb: those expecting Anchorman in Space are going to be disappointed; but you can’t blame anyone for such expectations when that’s more-or-less how it’s trailed.

Critics are kinder: 67% on Rotten Tomatoes sounds low, but it’s not all that bad (it’s enough to be “certified fresh”, certainly); and I tend to agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he says that “the movie is ten times lovelier than it needed to be… The art direction, costumes, effects, lighting and camerawork are committed to beauty for beauty’s sake, to the point where you might respond to Space Station 76 not as a sendup of its sources but as a lucid cinematic dream about them.” Seitz concludes, almost poetically, that he has “no idea who the audience for this film is, beyond the people who made it, and that’s what makes it special.”

Mashing up two such disparate styles of moviemaking means Space Station 76 won’t — indeed, doesn’t — work for a lot of people. Anyone after out-and-out comedy will only find a smattering of such scenes; anyone after a thoughtful comedy-drama with emphasis on the drama will not be looking here in the first place, and even if they did, may despair at some of the more (shall we say) juvenile comedic beats. Regular readers will know I have a fondness for awkward mash-ups, though, so I rather loved it. Special special effectsThe characters and their relations are well enough drawn to make it passably engrossing, even if not a stand-out contribution to any such genre, while the comedy pays off handsomely at times.

If you feel you can get on board with such a style mishmash, then I’d say Space Station 76 is cautiously recommended.

4 out of 5

Space Station 76 is available on Netflix UK from today.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

2015 #26
Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

What We Did on Our HolidayOutnumbered: The Movie” is the pithy way to describe this comedy from writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the pair behind the successful BBC sitcom), which sees divorcing parents Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike) playing happy families when they take their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of his dying father (Billy Connolly). Their separation is a secret from the extended family, and who better to keep a secret than three young kids?

It’s hard to miss the Outnumbered parallels early on, as a middle-class London family with two girls and a boy (a mere inversion of the series’ two boys and a girl) battle with the kids’ oddities as they try to load the car for a road trip. There’s a suspicion that Hamilton and Jenkin are returning to their half-improvised TV show’s early glory days, when the natural kids said funny things and the adults had to react. If anything, however, the more Kids Say the Funniest Things: The Sitcom tendencies of early Outnumbered are toned down for this movie, which (like later seasons of the series) is very story-driven much of the time.

This comes particularly to the fore in the second half, following a midway ‘twist’ that threatens to turn the rest of the movie on its head. Doug and AbiFor some, the shift may scupper things. For me, it only makes it better: the story’s pathos and emotion are brought into focus, and the humour becomes all the funnier for punching in as tonal relief. It often seems to me that movies struggle to stay amusing for a full feature running time (there’s surely a reason all TV comedy comes in 30 minute chunks), but this story allows Hamilton and Jenkin to spread the laughs out a little without them feeling few or far between.

The three kids aren’t as instantly memorable as Outnumbered’s — there’s no Karen (for my money, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever) — but that’s not to sell their talents short. They may not get the same volume of funny lines, but they’re wonderfully naturalistic and un-stage-school-y. As the eldest, Emilia Jones has the most to do, bridging the gap between the kid-like young pair and actorly adult (much as Jake did on TV, indeed). She’s already been in Doctor Who, Wolf Hall and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and will soon be seen amongst the starry cast of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. One to watch? Maybe.

The adult cast are no slouch either, mind. Oscar-nominee Pike is the headline now the film’s being released in the US, with the always-popular Tennant joining her as the other nominal lead. Arguably they’re the straight men to both the kids and the array of comedy actors in supporting roles, idealised fun granddadincluding the likes of Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore (getting the best subplot), Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. The real grown-up star, however, is Connolly. You get the sense he’s as scriptless as the kids are, improvising away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like some kind of idealised fun granddad. The scenes with just him and the kids are certainly one of the highlights, among the most amusing and the most affecting.

I wouldn’t have really objected if What We Did on Our Holiday had no higher aims than being Outnumbered: The Movie, though trying to recapture the alchemical comedy gold of the series’ early days may well have been a hiding to nothing. Hamilton and Jenkin are on a slightly different tack here, however, even if fans of the series may find it’s a variation on a theme. It’s a theme that stands repeating though, and by mixing in musings on loss and change and how, sometimes, the innocence of kids is more grown-up than the formality of adults, the writer-directors find enough to make their feature debut stand on its own merits.

4 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday is released in US theaters tomorrow, and is available via all the usual home entertainment choices in the UK.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

2015 #81
Colin Trevorrow | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

WANTED. Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

Safety Not GuaranteedThe debut feature from the director of all-conquering box office behemoth Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed is a small-scale indie comedy that may or may not have a sci-fi twist. Inspired by a real newspaper ad (actually written by a bored editor), this fictional version sees three journalists from a Seattle magazine tracking down the guy who placed the ad in order to find out the true story behind it.

Despite the unique-sounding premise, much of the film plays as a pretty standard indie romantic-comedy-drama. You’ve got Aubrey Plaza as the girl who never quite fit in; Mark Duplass as a geeky loner with a heart of gold who (spoilers!) she falls for; Jake Johnson as a thirtysomething returning to his small hometown after years in the big city to reconnect with a lost love… If it’s beginning to sound like a checklist of indie plot points then, well, it’s not that bad — this isn’t Indie Movie. While none of the story threads unfold with as much uniqueness as the initial set-up promises, and do occasionally nudge towards thumb-twiddling familiarity, they’re not so rote as to be a total write off. Towards the end, it’s even managed to build up enough steam to offer an effective and somewhat affecting final act.

Trevorrow’s direction is solid. There’s nothing wrong with it, but equally I saw little to mark it out from any other low-budget indie dramedy. I don’t see what here particularly earnt him the instantaneous fast-track move to mega-budget blockbuster-making — directors who previously made that leap at least had the courtesy to go via a mid-budget feature or two following their dirt-cheap debut. Not a DeloreanMaybe I’m missing something, I don’t know, but where other directors currently making a similar transition (Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, Duncan Jones) showed some signs of a reason for the upgrade in their debut and/or sophomore features, I can’t fathom what singled Trevorrow out. He seems to have done alright with it though, so never mind.

Safety Not Guaranteed has enough tweaks to the expected format that fans of the genre will lap it up (as evidenced by any online comment section you choose to check out), and I guess casual viewers who are predisposed to its particular set of traits will like it more than they like other examples of the same; but, the closing moments aside, I don’t think it’s anything like as unique as some people seem to think it is.

3 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed is on Film4 tonight at 12:10am.

Hancock: Extended Version (2008)

2015 #12
Peter Berg | 98 mins | DVD | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15*

HancockWill Smith is the eponymous drunken vagrant, who also has the powers of Superman, in this under-appreciated superhero comedy-drama. Hated by the public for the destruction he causes while ‘helping’, and wanted by the authorities for the same — though they can’t catch him because, you know, superpowers — he gets an image makeover when he saves wannabe entrepreneur Jason Bateman. Bateman’s wife, Charlize Theron, is less sure of Hancock’s merits.

If you’ve only seen the humour-focused trailers, seeing Hancock described as a comedy-drama might come as a surprise. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes story here, it would seem, hinted at in various interviews and articles one can find scattered around. To boil it down, it seems as if screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (yes, him of Breaking Bad) and, in particular, director Peter Berg thought they were making a character drama superhero movie, while studio executives were more interested in it being a superhero action-comedy. Only natural when you hire Will “Men in Black” Smith, I guess. While the marketing went all-out on the comedy angle, the film itself is torn between these two pillars, leaving viewers with mismanaged expectations — resulting in “under-appreciated”.

Tonally, it’s mixed throughout. For instance, it’s been shot with handheld close-up ShakyCam veracity, which works when it’s playing on “what if this were real?” emotional story beats, but feels at odds on the occasions it descends into comedic vulgarity. Some criticise Berg’s style fullstop, saying he’s taken a black comedy/satire and played it straight. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think that’s wholly fair. There’s a lot of stuff here that works as a serious-minded drama, suggesting Berg was on the right track, Comedybut it rubs against comedy stuff that feels like it’s from a Comedy. The extended cut includes an early sex/ejaculation joke/sequence that wasn’t in the theatrical cut because Berg thought it wasn’t funny and test audiences agreed. Goodness knows why it got put back, other than because of length — it accounts for over half of the extensions (more details here).

Essentially, I think the critics are damning Berg and co for not making the movie the critics think they should be making, and not giving them credit for making the movie they were trying to make. The marketing men are at fault here, or the audience for wanting a superhero comedy when they’ve sat down to a superhero drama. Unfortunately, it’s harder to defend when Berg’s work was indeed compromised, though by studio interference rather than by misunderstanding his own mind. Also by the fact his other films include crap like Battleship, so of course you might think he’s rubbish.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a controversial twist/change of direction halfway through. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with twists, but this engenders a bumpy transition, which initially seems not to work — the tone and meaning shift abruptly. However, if you go with it, the film settles back down and it pays off during the finale. A lot of viewers aren’t very good about trusting a movie and going with it these days, though. Again, however, occasional poor decisions make it trickier to defend. For instance (spoilers!), when Mary goes to visit Hancock after it’s revealed she has powers too, she’s dressed up like a supervillain, a complete change of style from her normal casual-suburban-mom look. Why the change? Mary - quite contraryWhy indeed, because a) she’s not a supervillain, and b) even if she were, why get changed?! It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: she’s made to look like a villain because we think that’s what she’s about to be revealed as, and a big hero-vs-villain fight follows too… but she isn’t. It’s not quite up there with the magically-changing Batsuits of Batman & Robin, but it’s the next level down.

While I’m bashing the film, let’s note that the CGI is appallingly weak. It’s hard to know how much that’s time passing and how much it was always weak, but considering it’s from the same year as Iron Man, I err to the latter. This may again be the result of behind-the-scenes travails, though: apparently it was supposed to contain 300 VFX shots, but actually has 525. Did anything go right on this film’s production?

On the bright side, Will Smith’s performance has garnered lots of praise, deservedly so. He could have been his usual charming self, making Hancock a funny goofball character. Instead, he plays the reality of this guy being a damaged loner. It might not make the film as consistently comedic as some would have liked, but it’s a more engaging and rewarding performance on the whole.

VagrantThe film would work a lot better on the whole if the tone had been settled on as definitively as Smith’s performance, rather than trying to have its cake and eat it by mining both the “what if this were real?” and “haha, an unlikeable drunk superhero!” versions concurrently. For my money, however, if you treat Hancock as a fairly seriously-intended movie that was forced to contain more (half-arsed) action and (misjudged) comedy for the sake of box office, it’s not a bad experience at all.

4 out of 5

Hancock is on 5* tonight at 9pm.

* The extended version is officially Unrated in the US. Many a time an “unrated” cut would mirror the theatrical version’s certificate, if only they’d bothered. However, theatrically Hancock was a PG-13, but only after it had been submitted twice before and received an R — which is probably what this version would be, then. ^