Category Archives: 365×2015

Letterboxing: Silver Bullets

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

Joe Swanberg & Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets [via]

Maybe my favourite Swanberg picture yet, though perhaps that’s why the star rating is so high. None of his films have blown me away, but Silver Bullets (along with, say, Hannah Takes the Stairs) feels like the writer-director’s articulating exactly what he wants to say with both economy and honesty.

Or, in the case of Silver Bullets‘ characters, dishonesty. No-one wants to hurt anyone else, but they’re not going to purposefully avoid hurting them, either, and the core relationship (between Swanberg’s filmmaker and Kate Lyn Sheil’s rising star) is punctuated by long silences after which discussion of the tensions between them are tossed aside in favour of spontaneous lovemaking.

I admire Swanberg’s commitment to these moments, scored by skittish strings that aptly reflect the high anxiety clearly playing out in both characters’ minds, along with his willingness to play with formats and let the filmmaking speak as much as his characters. The subtext in this movie isn’t very deeply hidden, but it’s still rooted in enough human drama (and ironic conversations about ‘art’) that it’s still effective.

All of the director’s films feel intensely autobiographical (often uncomfortably so), but Silver Bullets feels like the most authentic reflection of his opinion of himself. Which is not to say that he’s playing himself but the version of himself he sees, which is far more interesting. Not to mention rather unflattering. This movie’s Swanberg is someone who can only truly experience life through a lens, a screen or a pre-fabricated conflict, often remaining perfectly still as he witnesses (more than participates in) these moments. This contrasts wonderfully with Sheil’s constantly shifting actor who takes on different personas based on the whims of the person she’s with. When she finally does decide to act upon her own impulses, she’s rejected, which is something of a pessimistic metaphor when applied to film actors as a whole.

But Swanberg’s always going for some kind of melancholy, and in Silver Bullets he keeps that from overwhelming the narrative with sentimentality more than other outings. We’re left feeling the same way as the characters in a brief epilogue: wondering who was really to blame, whether there was anything they could have done to fix things and, most importantly, if these failed relationships are doomed to repeat themselves.

Which, now that I think about it, is really the meta-narrative of all Joe Swanberg films.

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Letterboxing: Trainwreck

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

[via Collider]

I really expected more. Trainwreck is a conventional rom-com dressed up in the edgy honesty of Amy Schumer’s humour and the obscuring improv of Judd Apatow, and neither of them does either of those as well as they should.

Any film over two hours long needs to fight for your attention more than others, but Apatow (directing from Schumer’s first feature script) lets most scenes run far longer than they should and the result is often tedious. If you’re going to have a scene in which tertiary characters are the only ones speaking, at least make it semi-relevant to the story, maybe?

Schumer is fine in her first leading role (and it is incredibly refreshing to see a woman of her body type as the romantic lead. She’s not particularly strange or different, other than the fact that she looks like a real friggin’ woman) but brings little her stand-up material doesn’t already exhibit.

For the record, I think she’s a great comedian, but her script is a real sheep in wolf’s clothing. She starts out a confident, independent character (albeit an alcoholic one) and finishes up compromising pretty much her entire way of life for one man. The film takes the archaic stance that ONLY MONOGAMY CAN WORK and anyone who takes multiple partners must be either morally bankrupt or have serious character flaws based largely in daddy issues.

I love Brie Larson – she’s steadily becoming one of my favourite working actresses – but in this she’s simply reduced to an oasis of morality: get a husband! Have a kid! Paint your next kid’s room pink BECAUSE THAT’S HOW WE KNOW SHE’S A GIRL! (That particular piece of heteronormativity was eye-rollingly outdated.) She does well with the material as does her husband played by Mike Birbiglia, who gets to perform some of the rare moments of genuine discomfort in the film. These are what makes it worth watching; moments when characters butt heads about what is and isn’t socially acceptable.

Unfortunately this makes up very little of Trainwreck as Schumer’s character (conveniently also named Amy) lets most everyone force their morality upon her. It’s not about what Amy will do with her life; it’s about when she’ll fall in line with everyone else’s.

Yes, I did laugh a few times, because, well – have you seen the cast? – but I grimaced a hell of a lot more.

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Letterboxing: Nights And Weekends

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

How much you enjoy Nights and Weekends will largely depend on your tolerance for quirky facial tics, soul patches and clumsy nudity.

The more Joe Swanberg films I see, the harder it is to categorise exactly what it is he’s doing in each one. This time he shares directing and starring duties with sometime co-writer Greta Gerwig, who brings a languorous approach to the teasing out of insecurities and cracks in the lead couple’s long-distance relationship.

It’s very much a film of two halves, which is to say that I enjoyed the latter half much more the latter. Exploring the Not Long Before and Quite Long After of a break-up, Nights and Weekends rarely shows Swanberg and Gerwig apart, despite the fact that they live in different cities, and it’s a good choice; the forced intimacy of such an arrangement results in sometimes stilted conversation, petty fights and occasional shafts of brutal honesty breaking out of the relaxed facades of the leads.

There’s plenty of emotional wretchedness to be found here – especially in the excruciating pauses where both leads are clearly silently deciding whether or not to keep fighting for the doomed relationship – but there’s also a fair amount of tedium. I’ve recently been on a voyage of mumblecore discovery so I’m no stranger to the appearance of dullness in a film like this, but I usually have more patience for it. This may be due to the fact that there are almost no secondary characters so I couldn’t wonder about what they might be doing while Gerwig and Swanberg talk about whether or not they’re going to shower together, and the film becomes a chamber piece that just doesn’t have enough narrative momentum to carry you all the way through readily.

I found the second half of the film, in which the former couple reunite, first as friends and then almost as lovers, much more engaging, though more perhaps due to my own personal identification with that situation than anything else. That still counts, mind, and it was impressive to see Swanberg and Gerwig’s willingness to display the absurd dance former romantic partners do for all its naked (both figuratively and very literally) self-deceit, discomfort and ultimately sadness.

…Shit. I’ve just turned over those two scenes of Gerwig and Swanberg crying on their own in my head. (In the latter Gerwig’s present, but she was done mourning this relationship a while before he will be.) There’s a lot of truth in those moments – when a relationship ends, you don’t get that shoulder to cry on any more. You’re alone, even when the person you used to care for is right there. Greta Gerwig can run the full emotional spectrum in a single take without ever seeming insincere or contrived (or, rather, her myriad contrivances make her that much more real), and as a result I identified far more with her than Swanberg’s character. She wants to believe things can go back to the way they used to be, but she’s nowhere near optimistic or dumb enough to think that things could ever last.

A sympathetic anti-romance and an interesting curiosity for both directors’ careers (especially Gerwig, considering I just saw the luminous Mistress America which she co-wrote with current beau Noah Baumbach), Nights and Weekends nevertheless fails to hit hard where it wants to and by the end can’t muster a thematic statement stronger than Sometimes Love Doesn’t Work.

Which is true, but that doesn’t make it poignant.

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Letterboxing: How I Live Now

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of my ongoing efforts to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

I was very much on board with this semi-apocalyptic YA fable in the beginning. The story follows an isolated American teen moving in with her English cousins for the summer and gradually coming out of her hardened shell while the world starts falling down around their ears. There’s some romance too (of the is-it-incest-oh-well-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-so-never-mind variety), but that’s not the focus for the first 40 minutes or so, and that’s the chunk of movie I was most interested in.

Firstly, Saorsie Ronan is in the lead and I could watch her in anything. She has a real gift for burrowing into a character’s vulnerabilities and displaying them without making a show of it; she doesn’t want you to know she’s hurting, and is there a more endearing trait for a hero to have? She’s also perpetually tenacious, and it’s hard not to root for characters who never give up, even when they’re abrasive and unfriendly.

Unfortunately we don’t get to explore Ronan’s character as much as I’d like, as the story takes us on a whistlestop tour of fascist procedures and the horrors of war while our heroine looks for the family she was separated from. As a coming-of-age story it’s surprisingly bold and brutal at times, and doesn’t shy away from the grim realities and bloodshed that other YA properties might. (I like The Hunger Games as much as anyone, but there’s something that rings so false – and frankly disturbing – about a 12-rated war movie with no blood.)

How I Live Now is a potent metaphor for female puberty, rather smartly using the trauma, confusion and violence of war as the melting pot in which Ronan’s character will forge her true identity and emerge as a stronger, more assured person. Also she has sex in the movie which is probably where I got the puberty thing from.

Alas, the final stretch of the film goes in a happier, slightly less believable direction than I’d hoped for and, while the story remains thematically true to itself, the happy ending it delivers ends up being somewhat underwhelming. This disappointment is lessened by the gorgeous cinematography and stellar Jon Hopkins soundtrack. Ultimately I guess I wasn’t the intended audience for this movie so it’s unsurprising that I was looking for something other than what it gave me. What is surprising, however, is that more young adult-oriented movies aren’t brave enough to show what pain, struggle and fear – all unfortunate but very real aspects of adult life, especially for women – really look like. For that alone, How I Live Now deserves teenagers’ attention far more than Hollywood’s bleached-clean teen dreams.

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Letterboxing: 22 Jump Street

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of my ongoing efforts to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

As a dramatic device, The Bromance is fairly limited. There’ isn’t a whole lot you can do with a platonic relationship between two heterosexual men once you’ve established them as BFFs.

Unless, of course, your name is Phil Lord (or, um, Christopher Miller. Or both? Wow, this went sideways real fast). In which case you can have Cate Blanchett to do whatever comes to your hyperactive, joyfully imaginative mind(s) and push the concept of the bromance to – and beyond – its logical limits. The relationship between Shcmidt and Jenko is pitch perfect, not least because of the a-game performances from Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. This is a big-budget, balls-out and downright hilarious Hollywood romance between two guys that cherishes the value of characters you understand and care about. And for a movie about undercover cops at college who shoot people and blow things up for a living, I’m as surprised as anyone that it works as well as it does.

But that’s the magic of Lord & Miller: they can take the goofiest, most soulless concepts and fill them with heart and humour because they so clearly love telling entertaining stories. Shout-outs are clearly due to the 5+ screenwriters who worked on the script, but you can bet your sweet ass that the directors were all up in that thing too.

What about specifics? Well, for a a sequel that spends so much of its first act thinly veiling jibes about how rubbish and full of unnecessary spectacle most sequels are, 22 Jump Street pulls off both making things bigger for the sake of an inflated budget and telling a story with the same characters that isn’t just a greatest hits of the first movie. That’s a tough job, but they pull it off with aplomb.

But the real question you, unknown but probably attractive reader, really want answered: is it better than the first movie? Well…no. 22 couldn’t beat 21 largely because it didn’t have the surprise factor a Jump Street reboot actually working the original had. That said? In my book, 22 Jump Street is exactly as good as the first movie. My life won’t ever be changed by either of them and I’ll never experience any profound revelations regarding friendship (or, for that matter, police work) from watching these movies, but they’re such good company that I love them all the same.

[Actually, I might have regained some respect for Ice Cube as an artist purely because of that facial expression he delivers to Jonah Hill’s character in one delicious scene.]

Oh, and it should go without saying that this film contains about 18 of the best credits gags in movie history. (But I said it anyway.)

Can’t wait for 2121 Jump Street.

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