Category Archives: Cutting-Room Floor

Lost River (2014)

lost-river-1600c

Everyone was curious and excited when Ryan Gosling announced he was going to make a film. I was even more curious when I heard about its appalling reception at Cannes, since the last film I heard such a kerfuffle about at Cannes was The Tree of Life, which, while I am to this day in two minds over, was at least worth the watch.

Lost River is set in a dilapidated American small town created in the aftermath of a reservoir that flooded the old town. Where? Doesn’t matter, but it’s really dilapidated. This town, from which the film takes its name, is home to Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother who finds herself in debt and out of luck while her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) gets himself into altercations with Bully (Matt Smith), the town bully. Lost River is not high on subtlety, despite taking its aesthetic cues from the vastly more subtle Nicolas Winding Refn.

The story of these people is somewhat scattered. It seems as if Gosling was aiming for a grungy urban-fairytale vibe but didn’t know exactly where to take it. The film is a more a collection of tropes than a story, the mute grandmother watching a wedding video, the superstitious girl-next-door and the sleazy macabre nightclub. These are all great ideas, and they’re paired with striking imagery and some good performances, so it’s a shame that none of them really go anywhere. These odd events and people just coexist intercut next to each other looking really really stylish in shades of purple and orange. Just as you think you’ve had your fill of mildly surrealistic picture perfect poverty, Rat (Saoirse Ronan) reveals the “curse” that lies over Lost River, that can only be broken by bringing a piece of the drowned town to the surface. Later in the film the piece brought to the surface will turn out to be a dinosaur head, from the prehistoric theme park in the drowned town. There is no reason for this park to have been created, in fact it has to be clumsily added into an educational video about the reservoir for it to make any sense at all. The layers of artifice just build and build.

All in all the film is just thin. The plot doesn’t really hold together, none of the characters are developed beyond small quirks and idiosyncrasies. Like the forlorn teenagers putting on something fancy to go hang around abandoned factories the film is dressed up with nowhere to go. Slow motion burning houses, yes, are cool. So are soundtracks made exclusively of pulsing electro beats and so are gold sequined jackets. In fact the film is so painfully cool that you can almost forgive it being nothing else, almost. I’m sure some people will love it for its compelling visual style and the heightened fetished weirdness, but it feels very much like an exercise in aesthetic emptiness.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      0/5

Amélie – 2001

Amelie

I think that if I had to make a list of films that will be mentioned in nearly any cinema conversation I wouldn’t get too far past The Godfather and Pulp Fiction before someone brings up French cinema and, consequently Amélie. Often in these conversations people are surprised to find that I am not a fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s homage to the concept of whimsy.

For those who haven’t seen the film, Amélie is the story of a lonely young woman (Amélie) who lives in Paris and works as a waitress. The film opens with a long voiceover detailing random events that coincide with Amélie’s conception. This voiceover appears throughout the film to introduce new characters, who are invariably boiled down to a few quirks by means of introduction. We are shown people who enjoy cleaning their handbags, cracking crème brulées and even a hypochondriac. Jeunet seems to want to show us the unique beauty in each and every person, but somehow misses and ends up painting two-dimensional characters that enjoy the same banal things as everyone else. Seriously speaking, has anyone ever not enjoyed sticking their hand in a bag of grain? Since these characters are never actually explored in any more depth they end up as cardboard cutouts with opinions like “strawberries are nice” worn as badges of honour. They are, like the colour scheme of green and orange, stunted and incomplete.

This would all be forgivable, given the fairytale-like setup and mood of the film, if it were not for Amélie herself. Often described as “naïve with her own sense of judgement”, she is shockingly unsympathetic. Her charming actions include: refusing to return a prized possession, breaking and entering, defacing her mother’s grave and generally interfering with people who never asked for her help. At best she’s presumptuous, at worst she’s rude, invasive and selfish. Her behaviour is perfect characterisation for a teenager with a black and white world-view but this woman is 24 and is still throwing tantrums when others don’t follow her childish schemes like she wants. This would not be acceptable behaviour if we saw it in a friend or an acquaintance and simply capturing it in shallow depth of field with romantic music doesn’t make it good behaviour, just more palatable to observe.

If this was truly a fairytale there would be some moral to the story, a lesson to be learnt and Amélie would grow as a character. That’s the point of fairytales, to demonstrate the morals and ideals of the author. However Jeunet lets her get away with her behaviour, no one ever calls her out on being rude or manipulative and in the end she gets exactly what she wants with minimal effort. The emotional highpoint of her character arc is opening a door to find the guy she likes just standing there. The moral of the story seems to be that you can do whatever you want so you long as you believe you’re justified and life will always go your way. A dubious, if not dangerous, message to be sending.

In the end, Amélie is pretty and whimsical but there’s nothing at the centre. It’s like the difference between an out of proportion drawing and a Picasso. The Picasso speaks to us because there is knowledge and thought behind the aesthetic. The quirky kooky aesthetic here is not even a disguise, it is the entire substance of the film and a film cannot thrive on that alone.

 

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic: 1/5
  • Intellectual: 0/5

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013

llewyn avisInside Llewyn Davis sparked controversy this year when it won the Gran Prix at Cannes but was almost entirely snubbed by the Oscars. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Coen Brothers but I was very curious about such a polarising film. It always interests me when the cinema authorities can’t seem to make their minds up.

However I have to side with the Academy on this one. Inside Llewyn Davis appears to be, unapologetically, the story of a self-absorbed, untalented, selfish loser. There’s really nothing good about this character. Oscar Isaac gives a great performance and makes him as entirely unsympathetic as he is written. From the beginning to the end Llewyn is rude, presumptuous and bitter. He can’t get through a night without heckling one of his rival country music acts and has a huge victim complex when he gets beaten up for it. He’s the type of guy who loses someone else’s pet, lies about it and then shouts at them. A top class human in all respects; by about halfway through the film I was rooting for him to give up his musical career and leave for good.

The other characters aren’t hugely better, Carey Mulligan plays Jean, one half of a scrubbed up folk act that’s far more successful than Llewyn due mainly to Jean’s tight sweaters. She’s belligerent and refuses to take responsibility for her actions, even when she clearly became pregnant through her own volition. Together the two are more sour than lemon juice that went off three years ago. I’ve read that this is meant to be a “love letter to folk music”. All I can say to that is that if this is how the Coen brothers show love I sincerely hope they hate me. Their portrayal of the 1960’s folk scene is a series of ever-dingier locations filled with the most unpleasant people the world has ever known. Failure is inevitable in this world and everyone’s cynical and doomed anyway so why are they trying?

I know that I’m meant to feel sorry for Llewyn, after all he’s a struggling artist who’s best friend committed suicide, it’s just that he’s written to be such a horrible person that you can’t muster up sympathy. In fact I feel more sorry for the guy that used to have to spend time with him. This entire lack of pathos makes the film very boring. You spend all your time hoping that Llewyn will at some point have a redeeming quality or do something that doesn’t fall into the category of whining or upsetting other people. He doesn’t, and it’s an awfully long wait. By the time the final scene rolls round and Llewyn has grown so little as a character that simply repeating the opening scene is apparently an adequate ending – it feels like torture. Not only have you seen this guy be unpleasant for what feels like three hours but the Coen brothers literally rub your face in how little has happened by forcing you to sit through the same lacklustre and miserable folk performance. The production design was nice I guess.

  • Entertainment: 0/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

 

American Hustle – 2013

americanhustle

David O Russell is back with all his favourite players nicely arranged. Out of five main characters only Jeremy Renner hasn’t worked with Russell before. Of the others, all four gained Oscar nominations or wins last time they worked with Russell so you can see why they’re back.

American Hustle is the story of two con artists who are forced to team up with the FBI to con more con artists into giving themselves up. It sets up a bizarre, unclear dynamic between every character. Russell gives us a situation where everyone is scamming everyone else but strangely the audience is in on it. It’s like the opposite of The Sting, when the plot finally falls together it’s not a surprise, it’s just the inevitable comeuppance for whoever the protagonists didn’t like.

American Hustle is slick and smarmy as foreshadowed by the intertitle that flashes up on screen before the film starts. “Some of this actually happened.” If ever there was a sign that you’re about to watch something self-satisfied and ‘quirky’ that is it. Bemusingly the film seems to be billed as a comedy, critics have been describing it as “hilarious”, “uproarious” even. Now I think we can all agree that I am a hardened cynic, but I watched this film in a huge cinema that was totally full. One guy laughed once. American Hustle just isn’t funny. Maybe I’m watching it in the wrong country, maybe this truly is an all-American film that’s only funny on the other side of the Atlantic. Either way if I was meant to be carried along on a wave of humour and entertainment, I wasn’t. Instead the film just seemed to be filled with the awkward knowledge that some of these appalling stereotypes and contrived nothings were meant to be funny.

It really feels as if the cast gets drowned in this film. Christian Bale is unrecognisable in his role as Irving Rosenfield, an aging conman earning enough to support a wife (Jennifer Lawrence), child and mistress (Amy Adams). Adams’ performance is not as good as Bale, mainly due to a slightly patchy English accent (an accent that has some plot points resting on it) but she’s solid throughout. Unfortunately, the costume department seemed desperate to make sure that Adams’ breasts get almost as much screen time as her face. To her credit Adams does manage to pull off still being a believable and interesting character in spite of the mission to objectify the personality right out of her. Jeremy Renner, who seems to be largely typecast as a brooding action hero is fantastic as a bumbling, naïve politician that gets the raw end of the scam. But despite these performances they all seem wasted in a pretty mediocre film.

The production design is totally flawless, from the cinematography to the sets and even the costumes, everything screams late-seventies glamour and corruption. The hair styles range from the impressive to the bizarre with Christian Bale sporting an “elaborate” comb-over and Bradley Cooper seen styling his hair into tiny ringlets. Jennifer Lawrence is given a mass of half-highlighted hair that sits primly on her head at all times. However the real award goes to Jeremy Renner for acting through the mile high quiff he was given. These choices wouldn’t seem so odd if these characters were the quirky, hilarious stereotypes they are meant to be but, as established, they’re not really that funny, they just look funny. All in all it doesn’t actually add up as a complete film, there’s nothing to carry through the emotion in the film. There’s not enough humour, or suspense or even human drama to make this film not feel overlong.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

The Invisible Woman – 2013

invisible womanRalph Fiennes’ second turn as director is just as unapologetically English as the first. It seems that his goal truly is to secure himself as a national treasure taking on Shakespeare first and now Dickens. Another film destined to join the supply cupboards for English teachers with no lesson plan, The Invisible Woman is strikingly dull from start to finish.

The film’s topic is the hidden love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Turner, a young actress. In the plain light of day there is very little drama or intrigue to this story. There are rumours and the fear of discovery, but really nothing much more interesting than the usual “man in loveless marriage seeks attractive young woman”. By attempting to inject high level drama into this situation, mainly through a clumsy manipulation of flashbacks which serve to distract rather than enlighten, Fiennes’ film begins to feel like a two hour Downton Abbey special rather than a piece of cinema. Neither the direction nor the script has an ounce of subtlety or nuance and, as the music swells and we cut to Felicity Jones walking tearfully across a windswept beach, you have to wonder ‘oh what now’.

This is not helped by the entire lack of onscreen chemistry between Fiennes as Dickens and Jones as his lover. Fiennes is more predatory than romantic and Jones’ performance consists almost entirely of looking confused. An awful lot of the main characters seem to confuse stoicism for blankness and give stiff, uninteresting performances from behind their period trappings.

What cannot be faulted is the production design, every book, hair and speck of dust is painstakingly recreated to throw us into the Victorian age. Unfortunately, Fiennes doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful sets thrown up around him, instead relying on the production design to distract from the uninspired cinematography. In the end the film just feels weighed down by accuracy, as if the whole budget was spent on props and left no coin for a script supervisor.

The film will undoubtedly put bums on seats and sell a lot of DVDs. There will never be a shortage of people who watch quintessentially English films about quintessentially English things. Yet it truly saddens me that somewhere there is someone whose only understanding of what British culture and cinema is about comes from films like this one.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

Only Lovers Left Alive – 2013

"only lovers left alive"Jim Jarmusch’s new film was chosen as the Cult Gala for the London Film Festival and it certainly presses all the buttons to be a cult classic. Lukewarm one liners, a superfluous supernatural element and a star with an obsessively devoted fanbase.

Visually, the film is very impressive, the opening few shots are totally engaging and this stylish cinematography stays throughout the film. Unfortunately the plot is nowhere near as impressive. The conceit of the film, in that our protagonists are vampires, is utterly pointless. Every single aspect of this story could be told without any vampires. However, removing this conceit shows up the film for what it really is, a banal, middle of the road, sitcom. However, even with the vampires Only Lovers Left Alive is barely funny and seems to rely on being “quirky” and “awkward” in the place of supplying the audience with any substance. Of course the whole film is set at night which means that 90% of the time the screen is dominated by black, dark brown and dark green, not least provided by Tom Hiddleston’s hair. Given that Hiddleston’s hair already has its own tumblr page there’s no doubt that this “emo rocker” style will gather a few new viewers.

No doubt the teenage girls who adopt this film (being too old for twilight) will champion the discussion of “real issues”. The film touches superficially on the wastefulness of humans and seems to champion love regardless of age or distance. These are not new issues. These are not groundbreaking or interesting issues. However, they are hip, liberal, teenage issues. Soon enough you will find yourself on the internet watching a GIF of Hiddleston and Swinton with the caption #trueloveknowsnodistance #ageisjustanumber. Once more Jarmusch has demonstrated an infallible ability to corner a market and pin it in place as it consumes every aspect of his niche film.

The performances in this film are difficult to judge. Every actor carries the burden of being self-aware and nonchalant in every scene. It gets very tiring to watch everybody on screen be so painfully aware of how funny they are. This is despite the fact that most of the humour follows the “oh look those words imply something different to normal because vampires” or indeed just involves pointing a camera at either Hiddleston or Swinton looking out of place and hoping it’s funny. A light interlude from Mia Wasikowska is a welcome break from the self-importance of the first act but is cut short to make way for some more moody lighting and jokes where blood is referred to as if it were drugs. There are people who will love this film, however, I am not one of those people. Cinematography can only carry a film so far, there has to be something, anything to make it worth watching.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

P.S. I wish I could say I had planned to release a review of a vampire film on Halloween. As it happens, enjoy the happy coincidence.

The Zero Theorem – 2013

TheZeroTheorem_1ChristophWaltzexamroomI went into The Zero Theorem from the starting point of having watched nearly every Monty Python sketch ever written and having seen only The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus out of Gilliam’s independent work. I was aware that the back-catalogue of his work had been met with…. mixed reception, to say the least. However, I was optimistic.

The Zero Theorem  was not worth the benefit of the doubt. You can be forgiven for being enticed by stills of this film. It has a glittering cast, including cameos from Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton, and swish, futuristic sets. It is designed to look good on paper. It would have been great if the amount of time, energy and money had been spent on script or plot substance as was clearly spent on cast and set design. The first twenty or thirty minutes of this film are an exciting journey into a parallel, psychedelic dystopian future, complete with concepts stolen from Minority Report and basically every other dystopian future the world has ever known. Inevitably you eventually get bored of the basic exposition and high-budget sparkle, not to mention Christoph Waltz’s incredibly mannered performance as Qohen (because of course, in this future accepted rules of orthography and pronunciation are totally irrelevant). At this point you wait for the plot, or the narrative meaning to kick in and take over. It doesn’t. Gilliam leads us up dead end after dead end, a love interest (Mélanie Thierry) that Qohen spends 90% of the time not actually being romantically interested in, a new rendition of “arrogant over-priveleged boy genius” from Lucas Hedges, but nothing that really gives you a reason to continue being interested in the inherently irritating protagonist.

As the film progresses the film’s aesthetic even begins to seem tragically dated. Bad CGI, “futuristic” images of what are essentially iPads and a comical central computer which resembles something from a bad Star Trek episode. Only this time it’s not cardboard, it’s precious processing power and carbon emissions which were wasted rendering it. Even the ideas seem tragically out of touch, worries about internet privacy and the danger of virtual reality have long become our day to day lives, not the reserve of edgy independent films. It’s like someone showing up at a party and earnestly informing their friends about the dangerous rise of text messaging. Of course there’s a political message too, Qohen is at great pains to point out the fallacies of boxing off workers to do repetitive tasks that they do not understand the full purpose of, kind of like the problems faced by production line workers in the early 1900s. These ideas mesh and eventually devolve into some kind of condemnation of both religion and nihilism while providing no answers and no satisfying conclusion. Ultimately The Zero Theorem, despite it’s potential and delusions of grandeur, goes nowhere and says nothing.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              1/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5