Matthew McConnaughey, once upon a time, seemed to embody a certain type of surfer élan: slick but ultimately more likely to end up straddling a beanbag, corner-slumped in a cloud of smoke, grinning at something indistinct, than pondering weighty matters, such as his dwindling career.
Or, being slightly less charitable: he seemed to prop up a large number of dismal rom-coms. He looked like he was coasting. Whatever it was he had – and you see plenty of it in Mud – was largely unneeded in the roles given to him. He was drawling eye-candy. He was a beach bum with expensive hair smirking his way through 2D love match-ups.
Fitting, then, to see him in Mud largely patrolling the confines of an island: sand, palms, glinting water under permanent sun. But no surfboard anywhere to be seen. He’s in a characteristic environment, for all the wrong reasons, unlikely to slap any bongos. He’s currently a shameless suit for Scorsese and can soon be seen here as a redneck-turned-HIV-hero in Dallas Buyer’s Club (that’s forgetting an apparently great turn in cop TV drama True Detective. Renaissance is no understatement). He’s always been very good (and was great in Lone Star and Contact, intermittent substance amid all the wisecracking Chippendale fluff) but now he seems to have arrived as a serious actor.
Not that we see in the film at all initially, which until his second act appearance centres on two kids, one in particular. They tear about on a boat (this is nearly always boy’s-own stuff, adventurousness compromised by fate) and, whilst visiting a nearby island, following a brief biographical sketch of both family situations (broken, living with uncle; breaking, painfully obviously), McConnaughey’s Mud enters stage left, curiously inspecting their boat as they wander back up the beach to make what will be the film’s main triangular acquaintances.
Quickly (perhaps too quickly; the fableish tendencies here are at the expense, occasionally, of dramatic likelihood) the boys befriend this outsider, largely due to the immediate unaffected colloquy they form. They’re in the same boat (or will be): they’ve been let down by adults and are far from conventional normality, the kids by circumstance, Mud by circumstance (orphaned young) and intent. And yet, things as they are, the kids understand Mud is from the adult world, albeit reluctantly. He’s a role model as well as a psychological peer. So they defer to his dubious wisdom, and it’s one of the peculiar triumphs of the film that the audience can’t help but advocate their allegiance and mutual unconfinability whilst at the same time recognising and accepting the subsequent peril. It’s a film of vicarious ridiculousness that makes its characters too indelible and empathetic for them to be compromised by a throwaway trope: Nichols is more interested in the mindset of two kids wrestling with a volatile set of scenarios and emotional turmoil than he is with verisimilitude.
Mud has formulated a plan of escape that involves the repair (and rescue, from treetops – this really is full of fairly preposterous boy-scout setups) of a wrecked boat: the kids gradually scrabble together the necessary bits and bobs needed for a pretty neat fix-up job. The other, trickier request he makes of his loyal assistants involves contacting his girlfriend, Reese Witherspoon (not quite right for the role, I’d argue: I can only guess Nichols has gone for an actress that looks childlike for obvious reasons, or couldn’t get his first choice. Backing this up is the line at one point describing her as having ‘legs that go on forever’. Well, whatever qualities Witherspoon has, she doesn’t have those. Blake Lively?) and getting her onside for a getaway reunion. They soon become part of a murky retribution sideshow via Witherspoon that slowly expands as a looming threat to the escape plot as the kids are watched to track the whereabouts of Mud.
The brief involvement with Witherspoon’s damaged, reluctant ex compounds and solidifies a lot of the film’s major themes. She’s way out of her depth, getting knocked around a cheap motel room by a hothead cop on Mud’s trail, and is loyal to Mud to an extent. When the time comes, however, for the trip to the island and a reconciliation, she doesn’t show, and can instead be found (unconvincingly) acting the role of dive-bar floozy. A lot of people in the film are both their assumed roles and the very different reality at different points: aptly enough, Mud doesn’t change, as the elemental title character, and remains consistent throughout: unrealistic and unchangeably quixotic, a child, despite effecting a rapid maturity in the two kids that have become his sidekicks.
The revelation that Mud has murdered a man in the name of his futile but undeterred longing is, crucially, of little dramatic consequence: we’re already inexorably onside as the alternative is impossible. Two smart, likeable, troubled kids and Matthew McConnaughey piecemeal building a boat to escape closing doom beats any number of cipher cops and stick-on vengeful axe-grinders. In the absence of a compelling victim, no number of faceless rivals would pose any moral questions with which to create any intrigue. (Perhaps a lack of such dubiousness – McConnaughey is never anything but a lovable rogue admirably outside the law – is a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t particularly feel that way in such an elegiac piece.) It’s very much a child’s fantasy: Mud’s surrogate father figure Sam Shepard has read the riot act and that’ll do: any more would be spurious. He’s murdered someone but it was in the name of love and he’s a rough-diamond with a hellish past and a dream we can get behind.
The main kid, furious at both the dawning realisation that this long-shot caper may end badly, and due to his perception of being used by Mud, doles out yet another dressing down to our adult protagonist and then ends up in a snake pit. To leave the island at this point would be potential suicide for Mud…but to not leave the island at this point would be dramatic hara-kiri, so he does, commandeering both kids’ vehicles, gunning the boat back to risk-ridden civilisation before biking up to the hospital foyer with the swaddled kid precariously onboard, and jumping off the bike, which he leaves sprawled and running as he dispatches his imperilled cargo before beating a quick retreat under the gaze of a dozen or so patients, all fully aware of who’s in their midst, not to mention the reward on his head.
Pretty quickly thereafter the convalescent kid’s riverside home (silence prevailing before the action commences: such silence, during or precluding a denouement or key scene, is often the precursor to an eruptive, emphatic countervailing cacophony. You only get such quiet, in films such as this, on loan: it’s there to be filled at some inevitable point. Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers are keen exponents of such quiet-quiet-loud moments. It really is the favoured way, it seems, to introduce a mad spray of bullets. Keeping your powder dry, literally, for slightly signposted but undoubted effect) becomes the scene of a cagey riverside shoot-out, as a fleeing Mud, attempting to make a reconciliatory pit-stop to his recuperating accomplice before exiting for good, dives into the river, neither he nor the bullet with his name on it re-emerging.
Director Jeff Nichols has allied all the elements that make McConnaughey perfect for this Huck Finn meets The Fugitive meld (unconfinable, esoteric, elemental) with a sense of stubborn, dangerous adolescence and naivety. The film is populated almost entirely by squabbling, dreaming children. McConnaughey is probably less mature than the two kids that become his go-between confidantes; Reese Witherspoon wears the face of a withered 12-year old playing at slutty oblivion; Michael Shannon is a big kid, lounging around with a guitar, juvenilely irking women, diving to the bottom of the river for gleefully accrued, worthless booty. The only recognisably ‘adult’ adult is Sam Shephard, who is still quietly mourning the death of his beloved wife, until Mud’s whereabouts and a reunion bring about that father-son chastisement, as late as it is futile. The onlooking kids wryly remark on the ferocity of the assault, but they’re beyond shock at such an eruption, in turn orphaned and shacked up with good-natured deadbeat uncle, and witness to the exponentially tumultuous demise of his parents’ marriage.
So Mud, amongst other things (gender roles, the painful marvels of adolescence, friendship, freedom etc) is about kids, both adult and child, unmoored and adrift, trying to find solace and refuge against the vagaries of pending or full-blown adulthood, which is, as Nichols has it, pretty vicious: he seems to prefer the bruised magic of kidulthood to Mud’s bullet-ridden freedom-at-a-huge-price. He’s pretty convincing, and Mud is a supremely entertaining film about serious questions, set in an alluring if volatile backwater, that should, along with other imminent releases, put its lead where he belongs and give director Nichols plenty of opportunity to try and best this. Not easy.
The Mud landscape never feels quite real: this is very much Mark Twain country, unrelenting sun from dawn to dusk and then the immense humid hush of nightfall interrupted by nothing beyond the creak and clatter of porch screens. Again, it’s not recognisably adult: all of the tumult beyond home that you might expect has been excised; all other life outside our story has been paused until resolutions are finalised. The price paid, here, for dallying with danger and near-death is scaring yourself into the realisation that some people, to survive, need to accept that they have no part to play in the commonly-held version of the adult world. The finale Nichols gives to his titular protagonist is a vast expanse of beautiful nothing, freedom equalling exiled solitude.
The film, ultimately, would seem to be about the necessity of ignoring all the deleterious accumulations of contemporary life and retaining a sense of awe. Nichols gets away with such a Malickesque premise partly by being, unlike that director, completely uninsistent about the fact and by making irresistible comparisons between sunkissed motels, bars and soon-to-be vanished shacks and that stereotypically alluring combo of clear water and remote island. Man is an island – tick. Everything is fleeting – tick. The child is father of the man – tick. There are no new stories – it’s the way you tell ‘em. If you do it like this, you can create something powerful and form part of a welcome career renaissance. Next up: Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd in Waiting For Godot.
There seems little point writing a lengthy review of Gravity: it’s scooped every ‘Film of the year’ accolade going and you couldn’t avoid the advertising campaign. (Pleasant, though, to see the poster on bus shelters and billboards: that early-morning pre-commute stroll enhanced by a becalming shot of Earth from space, as opposed to, say, Mark Wahlberg pointing a gun at something.)
But still, it ran, to an extent, against expectations. I didn’t expect it to be so charmingly funny, as it so often is, and imagined it might be a little more po-faced. It’s all the better for not for a moment taking itself too seriously. I felt (incorrectly) that it was going to be a dazzling widescreen stack-up of breathtaking visual pyrotechnics and fraught, tightly-wrought near-misses. Well, it’s all that as well, but it manages to be a film that capitalises on the pawky appeal of the two leads without compromising any dread or tension. It’s often, whenever Clooney’s around, a bit like Frank Capra and Stanley Kubrick teamed up for a kickass themepark ride.
It’s nervy stuff with a soothing commentary, largely provided by the loquacious, diligently-affable Clooney. A few miles above Earth, three astronauts on a supposedly run-of-the-mill (for them: the lurching, awe-inducing vertigo isn’t easily acclimatised to) repair mission (although Clooney is about to break the all-time record for ‘space minutes’) hit a bit of a problem: debris from a satellite that’s hit a roaming asteroid is flying around their neighbourhood and may, unlikely as it may be according to Ed Harris’ ground-control update, cause them a bit of very dangerous bother. When this quickly becomes a distinct likelihood, they abort their manoeuvre. Alas, a somewhat misfiring Sandra Bullock, on her first such mission, doesn’t relinquish her task quickly enough, the third member of the crew succumbs in the bullet-quick wave of satellite shards and the team is down to Clooney and Bullock.
Although, unhappily, Bullock (genius casting: perfect throughout) has managed to become separated from her ship-tether and spins out into the starry void. Brilliant use is made here (and previously) of clever visual sleights-of-hand. There is an instant problem in making a film set in space: framing. Earth is the obvious point of reference, but where are the straight edges, the visual balance, for it not all to become a little samey at best? No horizon, no angular aids to offset one another. Director Alfonso Cuaron gets around this by punctuating black incomprehensibility with gleams of visor reflection, interior first-person shots flashing anchoring reminders of perspective, and one or two other tricks that feel as story-propulsive as they are clever.
Thereafter, pretty much whatever can go wrong does: Clooney gets to Bullock but in doing so compromises his own chances of survival; it’s during these sequences that the heart of the film is generated. We discover back stories, particularly Bullock’s, and the film coalesces into a multi-dimensional emotional drama augmenting our involvement with terror as opposed to relying on scares to keep us watching. Clooney and Bullock’s final scene together is completely wonderful: a heartfelt hark to halcyon Hollywood, yes, ‘Capraesque’, a few minutes of magic that take the film to still further, unexpected heights.
The casting seemed a bit of an eye opener initially but, with hindsight, shouldn’t’ve. Cuaron has opted for two instantly likeable actors, perhaps worried about the dramatic element superseding the emotional. If it had, we may be talking about an admirable, gloriously-mounted failure. As it is, the film is quite possible a masterpiece, managing as it does to fuse such polarities: the bleak chill of empty nothingness and Earthbound, human euphoria.
(Other must-sees from 2013: The Place Beyond the Pines, Upstream Color, Only God Forgives, Mud, Short Term 12, Blue Jasmine.)
A lot of people walked out of the screening of Only God Forgives I attended, some early on, perhaps in revulsion at the deliberate, nightmarish pacing, perhaps at the film’s provocative, neon-basking refusal to offer much in the way of recognisable narrative or cinematic succour of any kind: it’s claustrophobic, arid, glacial, and often jarring, both in terms of its purposefully ruptured sequencing (more on that later) and in its rapid switching between solemn, anomic poise and bursts of luridly upsetting violence.
(I always enjoy these mid-film evacuees: you failed! Off you go! (Which is ridiculous, really, as you want cinemagoers to enjoy such efforts in the hope that more will be made etc etc.))
The film opens in a manner that might’ve fooled many of those dozen or so drop-outs: it’s decisively solemn and one-speed but a lot of comforting popcorn tropes are there, even if they’re deployed a little strangely and suggestively. Many a well-loved Hollywood cop film begins in peculiar fashion (though soon slips into type), or makes room for odd moments, and this, from the off presented in bleak, saturated comic book tones, still gives you an agreeable ‘in’. It looks initially like a straight-out revenge thriller set up with a backdrop of exotic testosterone run amok: signpostedly-malevolent and wired drug-dealer brother (Tom Burke: the face of a ruined and rancorous boxer) of Ryan Gosling’s kickboxing-gym proprietor gets a bit lairy, before getting a whole lot more lairy and murdering a prostitute. In marches, like some implacable, inexorably mental restaurateur-alike taken to strolling the nocturnal Bangkok night streets, a man hardly ringing any initial alarm bells, who we are soon to understand is a martial, commanding police officer, a dapper, inscrutable angel of death, glintingly shod, his approach marked by the tolling clop of his shoes.
He is, and I hasten to employ such cliché but for its necessity, a ‘force of nature’, not really a human being as such, more a personification of corrective, inventively apt justice. He has a sword that appears to be sequestered in his back that he ceremonially unsheathes to dole out the hand of Bangkok’s ire. He is the man charged with dealing in unspeakable, inarguable, eternal truths, which arrive, at his bidding, in the form of savage punishments.
He in many ways adheres to a long line of eccentric screen crazies, and urbane psychosis or deadpan bloodlust is far from new. What marks this particular manifestation apart is all in Vithaya Pansringarm’s performance. It just feels wrong, not only to witness the appalling violence dealt to those that fall under his fatal attention but that a guy that looks so avuncular might be nuts enough to commit such principled, carefully-chosen cruelty…and that of course adds to the peculiarly nasty dread factor. (The film is interspersed with Pansringarm’s increasingly gruesome and piquant karaoke renditions of cheesy songs, the cop audience more like churchgoers: reverent and unflinching. Justice, entertainment, all part of the same regimen. And such musical intervals exacerbate the sense of a fatalistic disconnect.)
(Brief aside: director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, more than ever, to bear Kubrick’s influence here. You have the sense of extreme, almost too-perfectionistic care with every frame. But yet more redolent of Kubrick is the way everyone moves. Pansringarm glacially marauds around like the mysterious antagonist stalking Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, or Cruise himself moving through sanitised night streets like a designer spectre, or Malcolm McDowell tipping his glass in exuberant slow-mo, or Philip Stone’s warped Jeeves suddenly and solidly statuesque as the mask slips…a very deliberate, dreamlike stultification, or a floating, menacing, immutable gait that just doesn’t remotely cohere with comfort. It’s the movement of a being neither dead or alive, but somehow eternal and inexorable. We might term it Kubrickmotion: akin to something both recognisably sentient and troublingly inhuman. Outside time perhaps? Languid and inevitable. Something set in slow-motion by something awful. David Lynch is similarly affected, but rather than forcing his performers into a disquieting and exacting one-speed unheimlich-glide, he has them filmed backwards, or uses very obvious (albeit powerfully disorienting) slow-mo.)
So the plot beyond Pansringarm’s introduction: he affords the father of the murdered prostitute the chance to redeem his daughter by doing ‘whatever he wants’ to Gosling’s brother: cue scene of hotel room carnage splatter and clattered remains. Gosling’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in to creepily cajole him into wreaking revenge, all cheekbones and chic tones, and suggests a kind of Madonna/Ellen Barkin modulated psycho fusion. We also learn that, as well as being a dubious diva, she’s behind the gym setup which is a front for mass drug running into Bangkok.
Gosling sets about a queasy rendition of dutiful, obsequious son, hiring a prostitute to play girlfriend, refusing to succumb to mother’s belittling provocations (not easily, and not without a bit of unsubtle Oedipal shenanigans re: scene staging) and, in the end, bending to her wishes. Such observance of maternal demands initiates a sequence of murderous deliverance that begets predictable mayhem, including a hard-to-watch comeuppance for one of Scott Thomas’s underlings of Un Chien Andalou proportions and a swift and sardonically apt farewell for Scott Thomas, all concluding in a peculiarly-drawn finale involving yet another not-quite-real assemblage of a surreally contrived nature and another ‘fitting’ act of violent reproach that in terms of internal logic manages to pass as curiously coherent.
Only God Forgives is in every conceivable way an unusual take on the revenge thriller, and you could easily argue the notable influence of a raft of directors, from Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated, to De Palma, Scorsese, Lynch, Kubrick, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Von Trier, Fassbinder, Roeg…all of which suggests that Refn has, in fact, produced something genuinely unique. Queasy though it undoubtedly is, your best bet with Only God Forgives is to follow the impeccably-uniformed acolytes observing the aforementioned grisly karaoke performances: it’s not necessarily about enjoyment – deference is often the correct response.
Killing Them Softly opens with a longish shot which slowly jump-cut shakes down a tunnel leading onto a debris-strewn, wind-whipped expanse full of scraps of swirling litter, a ticker-tape parade from which the revellers have long fled, backdropped by ’08 McCain/Obama campaign posters. The shot is intercut with interference-scratch over black-panel credits, a warping of an already post-apocalyptic cityscape, and the effect is apt. The rain-spattered ruins of New Orleans, already Katrina-pummelled and moribund, is now host to Andrew Dominik’s bleak update of the George V Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade, a doubly-depressive setting for economic meltdown and an opportunistic heist gone predictably and disastrously askew.
Ray Liotta’s Markie runs Mob poker games from a gruesomely lit (rusting metals and colour-sapped portent) rogue’s den on the fringes of town. The scene is all rain rattle on cold corrugated roofs and blue-tinged twilight. These characters are ghosts hiding from humdrum life, and Liotta looks ever more like a wraith, some ghoulish, recently whacked marginal hoodlum refusing to expire. (He gets a kicking later on in the film so monumental that his reappearance thereafter only exacerbates this suspicion.) The game is interrupted by masked thieves who scarper with the kitty; Liotta, in flashback, maniac-laughs a concession as to his involvement in the in-house robbery.
Said flashback appears as part of Brad Pitt’s opening monologue to Driver (Richard Jenkins). Pitt is hitman Jackie Cogan, enlisted by The Mob via the uncomfortably straight interlocutor Driver to sort out various quandaries and internecine squabbles, ‘sort out’ in this context running from menaces to morgue-induction. Cogan runs through the backstory: Liotta, who has been robbed a second time, has to be ‘taken out’, irrespective of his involvement in the latter job, as to fail to would be to invite ridicule and a suggestion of Mob weakness: Liotta’s original give-a-shit confession, following the second heist, means his position is untenable.
The actual perpetrators of the second take are a cobbled-together duo (a superbly cast, gloriously wasted/out-of-their-depth team-up of Ben Mendelsohn (Russell) and Scoot McNairy (Frankie)), involved at the behest of Vincent Curatola’s Kenny (front: dry-cleaners), who recognises Liotta for the sitting duck he is and believes any further poker hits would lead to him bearing the brunt for both jobs, leaving any new opportunists in the clear.
It’s a dubious-at-best idea left for these self-confessed buffoons to execute: they schlepp into the poker meet through the back (wonderful sound editing during this scene that captures the sense-heightened terror of the uninvited swag-grabbers) wearing bright-yellow rubber gloves, and such bumbling conspicuousness typifies the assault. We’re never sure whether or not the pair are going to get out alive or wounded, whether or not a last-ditch Liotta plea will fall on sympathetic Mendelsohn ears or not, whether any of the empty-pocketed players will act on their understanding of the invaders’ panic and turmoil and call their bluff; we sense that something must go wrong. But, eventually, they both get out with the briefcases of booty and the raid is a seeming success.
But, of course, the amateur cash-collectors’ all-round indiscreet ineptness leads to the introduction of Cogan, who soon easily gets wind of the entire, flaw-fevered farrago. Cue the first of the film’s real problems (an overriding problem, not fatal but duly irritating, being the constant radio/TV overkill, a burbling, over-burdensome feed of carefully selected 2008 media coverage of the financial meltdown and subsequent sloganeering/commentary). There’s a drug scene, in a wonderfully obvious wrecking-ball-ready living room, involving Mendelsohn and McNairy. You get (I assume) a decent approximation of equivalent oblivion. There’s a tricksy but useful splicing of sunburst-euphoric flare effects, weird rotating fish-eye sweeps, amplified drag-and-burn spliff sounds and hollowed-out conversational fades, all coalescing and combining to comprise easily one of the better such cinematic examples. Yet it seems a little rather like a fabulous moment that the director was never going to relinquish than a crucial component. Nonetheless, the scene cleverly coils itself around a fatal revelation played accurately for hapless blissed-out laughs and is a delirious moment of respite amidst all the grimy gloom.
However: not even Scorsese (who is an unavoidable precedent in such matters, no longer merely ‘influential’ but often ‘inadvertently referenced’), who Dominik clearly and admiringly retreads, can get away with the kind of soundtrack howler that has a slow-zoom slow-mo drug (yes, heroin) scene accompanied by that Velvet Underground song. It has the feel of a slipshod post-production tinker: you can’t help wondering whether the scene was initially minus music and this was considered far too raw; it surely would’ve benefited from silence rather than a piece of music so obvious as to leave you agog with the sheer laziness of it. He may as well’ve thrown Gimme Shelter over the top of Liotta getting whacked and be done with it: we could’ve all had a heartfelt laugh rather than suffered an involuntary and rueful guffaw. Anyway: you can’t use the song Heroin during a heroin scene without running the risk of clanging a spanner into your works. Dominik then uses Nico’s Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (do these guys get a job lot of songs cheaper? Can you soundtrack a film in bulk at a reduced rate? When they got in touch with Universal, did someone return with, “Hey, you’re taking Heroin from The Velvet Underground & Nico: how about Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams for 75% the normal fee while you’re at it? Marty did likewise with Devo, Virgin flogged him Whip It on the cheap on top of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction…”) and it starts to feel a little token. There can surely be no decent justification for such by-numbers musical equivocation. *
Cogan enlists another hitman, the exceptional James Gandolfini, to take down the assorted miscreants, but the latter is in a bad way: jumpy, seriously alcoholic (he quickly, in his opening airport bar scene, downs every drink in sight and orders another), bitter, melancholic, a vacillating ruin. Gandolfini soon proves far from up to the task (he holes up in a hotel room and continues to get hammered, ramble-rants, samples every whore in town, despairs, everything but complete his assignation) so Pitt frames him to get rid and steps into the breach (he doesn’t seem too slighted by this inconvenience). Mendelsohn has, by this point, been snagged and canned whilst procuring his carelessly stashed shank of heroin.
There’s a speech at one juncture pertaining to the title and to Cogan’s reluctance to shoot anyone close up, lest they ‘start to plead for their mother. It all gets touchy feely…I hate touchy feely. I’d rather kill them softly, from a distance.’ Cogan, in quickly amending his sloppy delegation, has to relinquish this principle. He nails the much-maligned Liotta from an adjacent car in what can only be described as a lovingly over-orchestrated sequence: you get a close-up of the gun, which is here a pornish contraption of ineffable wonder. Every drop of rain on the device is crystal-clear, and even those, as they slow-mo roll off the velvety-rubber-looking chamber or float away during recoil, seem deferential, delighted to have been extras in this particular execution. At one point Liotta falls back in death throes like a grand martyr in an operatic apocalypse. The first bullet leads Liotta’s car into a lurch-and-careening-crash-shunt that eventually swings him headfirst through the windscreen, and the slow, crisp tinkle-shatter, like the gentle, reluctant crack of a sheet of ice, that unfolds is pointlessly forensic in its languorous indulgence. It’s a bizarre finale for a character who has barely been on the screen, and yet, as well as being afforded a darkly-funny but merciless battering, replete with all kinds of outlandish sound-effect extravagances (it gets a bit arcade beat-em up cartoonish in its breathlessly inventive sonic vigour), he then gets an almost comically magnificent exit, for no good reason. So we have to assume that Dominik is just having fun. Death scenes surely need to befit the victim, at the very least. Personally, I’m never sure about cinematic demises that soften the intent, from the severe and remorseless vanquishing it is meant to represent here: the actual effect is that it feels like a kind of pyrotechnically avid hiatus of vacuous violent lust. The shards that slowly roll through the air in the wake of this murder click and tap off surfaces, the streetlight shimmer off each glass shred offering a sparkling array of euphoric sex-death luminescence.**
Cogan then punches grim-reaper sized holes in his remaining quarry to no fanfare whatsoever: just the cold blam of his gun, no longer a lingered-over angel of death, just a vicious, unanswerable tool. I’m happier with the sheer surfaces of Dominik’s films: he’s better when simply framing a spiritually abandoned, rain-sweating street in New Orleans (or, say, an approaching train in cold dark, Jesse James waiting), trails of garbage skittering in icy breezes, as two dead-men-walking conjecture their own imminent erasure than he is obsessing over artfully empty incidentals. When the film sticks to this, people talking, unadorned gloom and capricious undercurrents, pawns being moved around and misdirected by misanthropes, it’s a blast. There are just too many issues for it to be considered anything other than an interesting failure. Having said all that, it originally ran to 150 mins, the restoration of which may well unveil a masterful epic (this is the Jesse James helmsman, after all) and cast a more favourable light over moments such as the for now jarring Liotta death scene. Best wait for the DVD.
* Scorsese has form here, incidentally, and it’s something that perhaps Dominik might’ve been a little more wary: these moments are so potentially powerful, so loaded with reference points, so harking to other similar moments in the crime/thriller pantheon, that you can derail the whole thing with a bad musical selection. That Scorsese somehow gets away with so much Rolling Stones is partly something to do with his mastery of the form: when Nicholson is unveiled to the strains of Gimme Shelter in The Departed, we buy it because: it doesn’t directly reference the scene, other than as a back-reference to Scorsese’s own stuff (and prompts all kinds of self-referential questions that may be interesting in themselves) and Scorsese owns these moves now: yes he borrowed from myriad other directors but the shoot-em up and jukebox-domineered scenes you see in any film now automatically smell and feel like Scorsese-riffing tributes. In Casino, mind you, Scorsese gets it wrong: he has decided Devo will work in his film. He’s wrong. But he throws two Devo tunes on there, and the geek-bubblegum freneticisms of Devo do not align themselves well with a recreated Vegas shot Scorsese style: he even ratchets up the speed of a particular scene to adhere to Devo’s mad-synth pace on the song Whip It. The result is, to say the least, jarring. It’s like your dad rolling a Justice tune over his latest Crown Green Bowling footage: not what the action needs. And even worse, all I could think during the Devo-led Casino scenes was: someone has told ‘Marty’ about a quirky cover of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, he’s gone out and bought Hot Potatoes to have a listen and got a little over enthused. Dominik’s use in Killing Them Softly of Jack Hylton & His Orchestra’s Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries, just before the final reel, however, is comparatively stupendous. It’s still Scorsese-esque but you can’t really play songs over violence if you want to elude that fact’s grasp. And there’s something about playing the right song over such action that’s unfathomably exhilarating and always has been. Tarantino has based an entire career on raising those hackles. Sofia Coppola still thinks her Gus Van Sant + indie records blueprint is inviolable. Dominik is as susceptible to setting the scene just so he can pop a quarter in the slot and let you know he’s happy for you to go ‘Dah-nah-nah-nah-nang!’ like Beavis or Butthead and feel the vicarious testosterone-cool buzz afforded by such lavishly unreal mash-ups. And it detracts, in the end, from Killing Them Softly. There’s too much of it that serves no purpose other than to dilute the film with thoughtless sameyness.
** Scorsese murder, be it in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, wherever, is always stylishly conceived: it is not excitable or deferential or, at any point, anything other than horrific. His mastery is in part his marrying of laughter and sheer terror: think of car boots and knives, a meal with mother and a painting. You feel everything, constantly. He’s not making cartoons; he’s certainly not making films with any sense of technical grandeur that doesn’t directly reference characterisation.
Hugo has, for a considerable portion of its swiftly elapsing running time, a grand alchemy about it, as though Scorsese has bottled this up for a while and unleashed it as his last word. That’s how it often feels: a conscious fulcrum, a summation, a tribute to an art form. It’s also great fun: Asa Butterfield sneaks, sprints and scurries amid the unseen byways backstage at a Paris railway station, jinking impishly along forgotten corridors and clattering up dusty stairwells to fulfil his inherited and diligently preserved clock-keeping role. Ben Kingsley as George Melies nowadays runs a toy shop at the station, and the two become crucially embroiled, via Melies goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, best thing in the film), some stolen items pertaining to a coveted silver automaton and, of course, the serendipities and compulsions of fate and narrative arcs that are the stuff of movies. It doesn’t seem fair to quibble, but Scorsese is perhaps too close to this for it to breathe as much as it might’ve. There isn’t a frame that feels scruffily spontaneous, and some of the thrills seem crushed by zealous propriety or immaculate orchestration. This is a mounted and polished effort, which somehow seems strangely at odds with the frenetic, boyish Melies (Kingsley in great form) bustling around his chaotically wondrous sets, grandly recreated here. Scorsese obsessively throws images of clockwork and clicking geometrical precision at the viewer and the effect is hypnotic but perhaps too freighted with insistences of legacy and wilful prestige. Regardless, there’s plenty of magic here, largely due to the great child leads.
The Descendants is a gently scathing return (overdue: he’s not Kubrick painstakingly assembling Napoleon each time, is he?) from Alexander Payne, which never quite hits his previous heights, and has George Clooney wrestling with two kids he barely knows after his estranged wife ends up in a non-returnable coma following a waterskiing accident. Cue unwelcome revelations of the adulterous sort and a troubling, sizeable family legacy he has potentially party-poopering final say over.Hawaii’s hardly an apt cinematic place in which to plonk beleagured characters that might evince maximum empathy, regardless of Clooney’s voiceover suggestions that ‘…paradise can go fuck itself.’ This isn’t hard times in Skidsville: Clooney is an affluent bumbler with a paunch whose job consists, like so many in film, of having a sprawling desk laden with teetering stacks of important looking documents you can scarcely see the protagonist recalling the import of. He also co-owns a large chunk ofHawaii as well. But money isn’t everything: inevitably reconnecting with your family is, as well as being a nice guy and forgiving your cheating, soon-to-die wife. The film, in any case, possesses some genuine belly laughs, is great fun and Clooney as slob is impressive enough. Robert Forster, though, who is barely in it as Clooney’s father-in-law, delivers the more memorable of the performances as a codger with a decent rabbit punch.
Certified Copy is much touted, possibly because it contains an awful lot of supposed intellectual extemporising and concomitant tortured air, maybe because it’s so deliberately unwelcoming (other than the majesty of the largely ignored Italian countryside – these people are serious), or even, perhaps, as it purportedly interrogates notable matters – authenticity, idolatry, existence, identity through art, etc – and isn’t deterred by piffling troubles such as being particularly compelling. The script is probably worth getting hold of. As a film, Certified Copy is admirably difficult but divulges nothing and bleats an awful lot. It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t want to deter in any way, but actually watching this one is often tedious. And Juliette Binoche tries too hard to appear unactorly and ends up looking graspingly odd.
The Guard is a bleakly hilarious romp, set on the Irish west coast, which is gleefully determined to draw shock-laughs at which it plentifully succeeds. Brendan Gleeson is great casting exemplified as a conventionally unconventional small town Garda firebrand of aimlessness suddenly given more to do than he’s entirely happy about as murderous drug-smuggling thugs, including the ever superb Mark Strong, head to town and snuff out another local copper (would they really require the services of more than one in this part of the world?) as pretty much an afterthought. Gleeson’s gruff quipper is soon thrown in with square black FBI suit Don Cheadle, ample script opportunity to tease out guffaw-worthy racist humour and subsequent cantankerously chortlesome ripostes. It’s a tremendous effort that’s simultaneously hard-edged and benevolent and unsurprisingly broke Irish box office records.
Cowboys and Aliens is an oddity: completely standard western meets alien interlopers on the one hand. Well, as standard as that premise could get. And as uninteresting as you could possibly render such a potentially outlandish scenario. Lots of uninspired CGI clogging the screen, explosions and wide-eyed gun-toting and very few characters you’re too engaged as to the fate of. Plenty of widescreen frenzy behind which you can almost feel the presence of blue screen and weary mouse-pointers swooping about. And yet someone forgot to tell Daniel Craig, who won’t have any of it and puts in a performance that really makes a mockery of the film, so tenaciously commited is he. Harrison Ford is also in it, and is in a lazy comedy bad mood throughout. He doesn’t even phone it in: he scribbles it on a scrap of paper, rolls it up into a ball and tosses it over the fence on his way to the pub.
The Rum Diary was disastrous for the 45 minutes I lasted. I do have a soft spot for the Hunter S Thompson novel, though, so my being infuriated at the pernicious liberties taken with the source dialogue perhaps clouded a correct and fair appraisal. Badly cast, shot, scripted, with a horribly uneven, capering-then-sober-then-hey-how-about-some-wig-comedy tone, terrible locations, nil dramatic interest and lifeless exchange following drab, surreally uninvolving scene. Totally misjudged.
Both Juno and Up In The Air were likeably spiky comedies, froth with a kick, their accessibly potent nature formerly attributable to Diablo Cody and latterly to the subject matter (downsizing, redundancies and intinerant, fractured living). Although any bite was largely gum, these felt relatively unflinching, up against the admittedly flaccid competition.
Young Adult continues the trend and you wonder about two things: one being whether Jason Reitman is ever going to make a film that isn’t funny/serious/funny, pleasing but gruff, intelligent but beseeching. Mordantly magnanimous. And also: will he ever make a bad one? It must be tempting to adhere to these successful self-imposed strictures and keep churning out exceedingly enjoyable and lightly provocative films one a year for decades. You’d hope he might take a few risks at some point, but if he doesn’t, no problem.
The one thing that those two earlier efforts didn’t have is Charlize Theron, and she’s so good here as to elevate Reitman’s film to a level it couldn’t hope to attain with absolutely anyone else in the role. Try and envisage anyone else doing this as effectively: it’s difficult. There’s simply no one as good as Theron, certainly not at embodying so many facets, ambivalences, subtle shifts in character, likeably contrary attributes and graceful ferocity. Here she’s a writer of ‘young adult fiction’, formulaic, brash, guilelessly clichéd books, that seem to fulfil her to the extent that she greets her morning alarm fully-clothed, face down and stupefied on her bed each day, verging on alcoholic, skimming across life, but ostensibly ‘living the dream’ in her city apartment.
Cue an emailed photo of the first child of her school ex, Patrick Wilson, now married and still stuck in the old haunt, fading away as her abrupt and convenient refashioning of reality would have it, and in need of one thing: her to save him from his drab existence.
So she ignores the imploring calls for copy from her editor and sets off for ‘home’, flinging an old mix-tape into the car stereo to kickstart the nostalgia fest. She leaves a studiedly neutral invitation to catch up with Wilson on his answer machine and he agrees to meet the following night, at which point she rolls into a local bar and starts knocking them back, a former school peer ‘victim of a hate crime’ in attendance, and an unlikely reunion is struck.
They’re a useful and obvious but enjoyable comic foil: the addled former Miss Popular and the earthbound marginal figure, both washed up and wasteful. They will fall into step throughout the film, he the only bod in town she can call on and she still a fantasy figure, now wily and wearied but still impossible to turn away: the shock of her presence, regardless of the circumstances, is keenly felt. ‘Guys like me,’ as he says at one point, ‘were born loving girls like you.’ A bit hammy but you get the idea. It’s a mutual ego-boost that becomes a reality check for both, and then an unlikely accord.
As Theron’s plot slowly, queasily accelerates, you get plenty of ‘misunderstanding’ laughs, and then the kind of looming Schadenfreude detonations of vicarious shame that bring Curb Your Enthusiasm to mind. We get the moments of misjudged propriety as Theron visits Wilson at home with wife and daughter; the over-zealous and oleaginously ill-advised attempts at re-kindling a decades-dead romance on a night out; the inebriated opportunisms; the final, devastating drunken disaster at the baby shower, where all is revealed and Theron’s brilliantly conceived performance hits its high point.
Where the film really, surprisingly succeeds, however, is where it departs expectation entirely. What might have eased into predictable and mocking mirth evolves instead into a pretty affecting tragedy, and recalibrates earlier moments of pained fun as something considerably more substantial.
Young Adult, then, does nothing new: but if we’re going to continue to have deeply cynical, double-edged comedies, as seems to be the hit-and-much-more-often-miss trend of late, then I’d much rather they span off from this enjoyably acid blueprint.
Baseball: not a game of which I understand the small print. I’m familiar with the terminology, particularly following Chad Harbach’s elegant and enjoyable ‘The Art of Fielding’, so I wasn’t totally oblivious during Moneyball upon hearing swift reference to ‘bunts’, ‘outs’ and ‘pinch-hitting’. But I’m not entirely sure about what these mean with regard to a game.
This isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Moneyball is a film partly concerned with minutiae, but not to the extent that it occludes the unbeknownst. It’s about squeezing the stats until several cheap, journeymen players pop out: unfashionable, awkward guys with peculiar pitching techniques, players that have underperformed or been misused, or that are mercurial or difficult – but may, were they marshalled auspiciously, ‘get to base’ and cumulatively get results.
Brad Pitt is the improbable Oakland ‘A’s ‘general manager’, Billy Beane, who, as flashbacks illustrate, was once a much-touted starlet, eventually signing for the New York Yankees and dropping any ideas of college. We see his younger manifestation choke and mis-hit time and again for a diminishing succession of clubs, the Yankees dream long over, and his luck eventually gives out. Having made a huge life decision ‘based on money’, his ill-fated memories serve as a cautionary provocation towards ‘integrity’, and his latter career on the sidelines is at a pivotal point: his owner has no money, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself and he’s backed into a corner once his best player (followed in short order by two other high-profile stars) is enticed elsewhere by the chance of success (and a big pile of green).
So, we’re privy to curmudgeonly, rankled meetings amongst Pitt and his ‘old-guard’ coaching and scouting staff, some pushing eighty by the looks. They’re not inclined to innovation, of course, and are looking to directly replace the departing talisman and make the best of it. Pitt knows the ace that’s jumped ship can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced, and the overhaul he clearly has in mind is set in erstwhile motion once a chance meeting with Jonah Hill happens: thereafter Hill is taken on as an ‘advisor’: he will utilise his economic nous to formulate a ‘sybermetric’ mathematical system that pinpoints the aforementioned marginal, affordable players that are in career slide.
Pitt, after much disagreement with his intransigent backroom boys, takes the plunge and drafts in his mooted ragbag assortment of underachievers. Head coach (I think that’s his working title) Philip Seymour Hoffman, very much a Rod Steigerish figure, gum-chewing dyspeptic, mumbling intent and mocking mirthlessness (and contract gripes), is a bit of an obstacle that holds considerable sway (and happily takes credit for Pitt’s eventually fruitful gambit) but even he’s eventually sidelined as the ideology reaps considerable success.
Pitt does a decent job of subduing the elements that might dampen this characterisation, but is still just a little too boyish, innocuous, for the suspension of disbelief necessary. The story and the execution are such that it doesn’t hamper Moneyball too much; that aside, he doesn’t pass muster as a motivator of myriad complex, insecure charges. He’s likable but he’s not particularly well-suited to the rousing demands here: not even as much as, say, Sam Rockwell or Matt Damon would be. (I’d’ve gone for Billy Crudup: probably not a big enough name.) Jonah Hill offers an impressive tranquil-but-nervy geek, enthusiastic but initially at sea, and Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly spot-on in a relatively minor role.
Bennet Miller, who did a very decent job of bringing Capote to life (again with Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t mire you in a stat tsunami, nor play too closely to the baseball-geek crowd. He keeps things going at a clean, unclogged clip and plays to the universal elements of a game, the intrinsics of which are perhaps beyond non-US audiences. The context and the traditional sweep of the film fills in or renders unimportant any troublesome terminology, in any case, and the gist is clear: this is Have Nots v Haves in a time of acute recession and hardship: you get your trad nerve-jangler, moment of truth and precipice-plummet-or-triumph scenes, with more than enough charm, wit and verisimilitude to squeak into the playoffs.