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

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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.

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. ^

Violet & Daisy (2011)

2015 #34
Geoffrey Fletcher | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Violet and DaisyAfter winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote and directed this zany hit-women movie. Or possibly he wrote it “in 1996, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin twice-removed was trying to be Quentin Tarantino,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review for RogerEbert.com.

Indeed, the end result — which concerns two girl-ish assassins, played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, in a chaptered narrative that’s mainly about their confrontation with a mark, played by James Gandolfini, who actually wants them to kill him — plays like Tarantino with a metric tonne of Quirk slathered over it. On the bright side, it’s sort of entertaining, albeit fundamentally derivative with a sheen of left-field try-hard wacky-uniqueness.

There are good performances from Gandolfini (in particular) and Ronan, who manage to pull some genuine empathy out of the oddness. Unfortunately, this aspect of character drama comes too late — the early part of the film trains us to expect a stylised genre movie, then suddenly shifts into a meditation on loneliness and death. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t gel. I’m all for tonal dissonance, but it needs to be handled correctly. Sleepy cellHere, Fletcher either needs to settle on one or the other, or clearly signal his intentions earlier.

Violet & Daisy is a bit of a mess, but one that at least offers a worthwhile performance or two and some entertaining, inventive, if derivative, moments. The sheer scale of its self-conscious kookiness will just grate for some viewers, though.

3 out of 5

Robot & Frank (2012)

2015 #66
Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Robot and FrankIn “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…

Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.

Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot offLibrary love (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.

The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.

Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Frank and robotEqually, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

2014 #88
Barry Levinson | 116 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Morning, VietnamInspired by the true story of a US Army DJ in Vietnam during the war, the resulting film is a showcase for star Robin Williams — reportedly, his antics aren’t even close to what really happened.

Doesn’t matter though, does it, because this is Williams at his best. His radio monologues show off his fast-paced improvisational riffing — as hilarious as always — while the more dramatic parts engage with the conflict and remind us of the serious flipside to Williams’ considerable skills.

Comedy-dramas are notorious for not being particularly comedic or particularly dramatic. This is funny and engrossing enough to subvert that.

5 out of 5

Good Morning, Vietnam is on Film4 tonight at 11:25pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Cruise of the Gods (2002)

2011 #92
Declan Lowney | 90 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

Cruise of the GodsI’ve debated in the past where the line between what counts as a film and what counts as a TV production falls in this day and age, when a one-off feature-length event programme on a major network could easily outstrip a small theatrical film in both filmic spectacle and budget. So it really comes down to intention and/or place of release: if it’s made for TV, it’s TV; if it’s made for cinema or direct-to-DVD, it’s a film; if it’s made for the cinema but doesn’t really get released and goes straight to TV, God alone knows.

Cruise of the Gods is a clear cut case: it was made for TV, it was shown on TV, it’s a one-off TV programme. But I’m going to say screw that and bend my rules a little, just this once*, because I’ve definitely seen ‘proper films’ that aren’t as good as this (naturally, that could be said of a lot of TV) and, well, because I really liked it and wanted to share.

Rob Brydon stars as the lead actor from a cheap ’80s BBC sci-fi show who’s now working as a hotel porter, while his co-star (Steve Coogan) is off in America starring in popular TV series Sherlock Holmes in Miami. (A modern-day TV series update of Sherlock Holmes? What a horrid idea only the Americas would do!) When he’s invited on a fan cruise (like a convention, but on a cruise ship — these things do exist), an initially reluctant Brydon accepts because he needs some money. There he meets fans of the long-dead show, played by the likes of a pre-Little Britain David Walliams and a pre-Gavin & Stacey James Corden. Events, as they say, unfold.

Happy familiesThough the film pokes fun (fairly good-naturedly) at sci-fi obsessives, the underlying story here is about a man overshadowed by his past. In this Brydon gives a strong performance — I think he’s a better actor than he’s normally given credit for — and he’s ably supported by Corden in particular, though to say what gives his role such quality might spoil a twist. He’s another one who’s actually a very good actor, but it gets hidden beneath a public persona that led to such dross as that sketch show with Mathew Horne.

The biggest twist, however, is that Coogan plays a nice character. There’s no surprise sting in the tail there, he’s just nice throughout. It’s weird.

As this is TV, the writer gets prominence over the director; indeed, the opening credits follow the title card with a just-as-big “by Tim Firth” credit, while Lowney’s name is relegated to the end credit scrawl. Such is the fate of many a TV director. Their careers have followed suit too: Firth went on to films like Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots and Confessions of a Shopaholic. (Before it he wrote, amongst other things, The Flint Street Nativity (which I probably last saw when it was on in 1999, but remember fondly) and Border Cafe, a forgotten mini-series which I’ve always vaguely remembered watching. I think this is the kind of thing that can happen with writers: they’re so often undervalued that you might end up seeing a lot of their stuff, almost to the point where it could be called following their career, Corden cruisingwithout ever realising all those disparate things were penned by the same human being. Poor writers.) Lowney, meanwhile, has stuck to TV, with episodes of Happiness, Little Britain and Married Single Other (amongst others) to his name, and most recently some bits of Glastonbury 2011. (Poorer directors.) None of this tells you much about Cruise of the Gods, I’d just observed it all.

There was talk of this being remade as a film, again starring Brydon and Coogan. I don’t know if that’s still going ahead. Really, there’s no need: I think it’s an entertaining comedy and engrossing character drama as it is, easily on a par with similar-feeling British films (and easily exceeding others — Beyond the Pole, for instance). The only benefit would be wider exposure: people seem prepared to visit old films in a way that isn’t felt for most old TV, which is still seen as disposable and transitory by many. Their loss — they’re the ones missing stuff like this, while the more open-minded among us can find and enjoy it.

4 out of 5

* May happen again. ^

Beyond the Pole (2009)

2011 #91
David L. Williams | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Beyond the PoleAdapted from a cult Radio 4 series, Beyond the Pole is a British mockumentary about “the first carbon neutral, vegetarian and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole”, starring Stephen Mangan Off Green Wing and other recognisable faces.

In case it wasn’t clear, this is a comedy. Unfortunately it’s only mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious. Worse still, it’s occasionally a bit thumb-twiddly as the inevitable plot points inevitably happen. In fact, it goes a bit OTT with implausibility for my liking. The pair of polar ‘explorers’ are attempting this with no training at all? Their UK base/contact is a caravan in a field with some satellite dishes on top? The performances and shooting style are too grounded to sell this kind of thing to me. Most of the film is asking you to believe that this is, while clearly a comedy, still plausible, but some of these points don’t quite gel.

Even after that, it still goes a bit awry as the story heads into the third act. Events get too serious for the farcical comedy it started out as. I believe it’s possible to make that transition from comedy to meaningful, serious drama — often making the dramatic section all the more effective because it surprises you — but Beyond the Pole doesn’t manage it at all well.

On the bright side, it doesn’t go on about the green agenda too much, which I’d presumed would be half the point. While I’m all for informing people and reminding them Something Must Be Done, battering viewers round the head with it when they’re expecting to enjoy a nice comedy is perhaps not the best way to go about it.

Phone pole... see what I did there?It’s also impressively realised. Its apparent low budget led me to assume we’d, a) see very little of the actual trip, and b) what we did see would be all inside-a-tent and green-screened. But no, it was really shot on floating sea ice off the coast of Greenland, and it makes for a highly effective polar landscape. Good work, filmmakers.

Sadly, being impressed they managed to get some good locations and a recognisable cast (Mark Benton! Helen Baxendale! Alexander Skarsgård! (Random.) Lots of newsreaders from the BBC, Newsnight, Sky — clearly someone had favours to call in) does not make up for the lack of serious laughs in a comedy. Oh well.

2 out of 5

Beyond the Pole featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.