Steven Soderbergh: is he too restless to ever be a truly great filmmaker? Is he in such incessant need to wield a camera that he’ll point it at anything? You can imagine him on set, going through an insane number of set-ups, but all the while thinking about his next five projects. Perhaps he just can’t multi-task that effectively. The Informant! is in many ways very good indeed but it would seem to be either the work of a man too determined to get as many films made as he can before he runs out of goodwill or a man just not that into the majority of projects he ends up helming (or both).
The Informant! seems to be a film that Soderbergh might’ve found an alluring time-marker – corporate intrigue, difficult hero – but that doesn’t quite work. Matt Damon is excellent – all aw shucks who me? one moment and determined self-deceiver the next – and it’s a well-observed effort. He manages to convince as someone continually running the gauntlet with both himself, his employers and the FBI, with just enough fleet of foot to keep everyone dangling, as he whips up a storm of self-absorbed whistle-blowing and high-stakes wire-walking, filibustering and off-the-cuff brinkmanship and devil’s advocacy. Encapsulating all that as effectively as Damon does is no cakewalk and he deserves a lot of credit.
He’s a senior manager for ADM (how?) and his rapid rise has quite possibly led him to his ultimate fate: hubris-heavy demise. He seems out of his depth and boyish either in the office or at his own dinner table, as though he’s playing at adult and can’t quite believe it, the upshot of this being that he feels immune and able to toy with a huge organisation. He quickly gets in too far but by that point it’s too late, and rather than face up to his proclivities to fabricate subterfuge, he dives in. Initially reluctant to go much further that wearing a wire, he’s soon bought his own story and the further embellishments become absurd and quicken his doom. He’s as good as convinced himself that he’s a beyond reproach super-spy by the time it all winds back to zero.
It’s shot superbly, of course (though pointless Scorsese-esque trickery early on prods you out of the film with its naff playfulness), and there’s fine support from Scott Bakula and Melanie Lynskey in particular. There is an interesting, humorously at-odds voiceover employed sparingly to good effect and the whole thing ticks along enjoyably towards an inevitable conclusion, but Damon has had a fair bang out of the escapades that lead to his stick-on downfall so it’s difficult to sympathise or to feel anything other than mild satisfaction.
Peter Jackson is due a bit of a hammering. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a pretty unmitigated success and he is (was!) yet to make a bad film. With The Lovely Bones, he seems to have invited the inevitable with an almost gleefully bad effort.
The strange alchemy of film: everything here works; the performances are fine (they just belong in different films, other than Stanley Tucci), everything looks suitably seventies and the music (opening up with Brian Eno – bang on) is perfect. But the whole thing, after a decentish opening half-hour, falls to bits in such a calamitous fashion you have to admire the stubborn wrong-headedness behind it.
Saoirse Ronan is great as Susie Salmon, a spritely moppet with everything to look forward to: a potential boyfriend that looks like a cross between Lewis Hamilton and Mick Robertson from Magpie, and at the very least several more decades of carefree, gladhearted existence. This is until Stanley Tucci’s wonderfully creepy neighbour George Harvey builds an underground lure and unconvincingly veers Susie off her trip home (across extremely exposed ground that can be seen for miles around, surely) and into a cosy, child-friendly trap. Tucci really is impressively unhinged, like Rainman meets Hannibal Lecter, and the flimsy mask of normality slips from an at best teetering position. You see the attempted escape but not the grim fate; Susie is already jogging around a limbo version of her old home town in slow-mo before you realise that what was earlier promised in voiceover (‘I was raped and murdered’) has come to pass. (Though there is a bizarre and effective ‘dream’ sequence in her ‘afterlife’ house, where Ronan wanders into an eye-clenchingly white bathroom to find a bloodied razor on the sink and Tucci laying in the bath, cloth draped across his face, the removal of which prompts her to scream.)
Thereafter Tucci rids himself of any trace of Salmon, burning items of clothing and tidying up and tries to reposition his façade of innocuous suburbanity. Dad Wahlberg is a man possessed and won’t rest until the perpetrator has come to justice, avidly scrutinising and background-checking all the neighbours (until he’s hospitalised in a contrived scene). Mum Weisz capitulates and drags Grandma Sarandon in to keep things afloat before eventually heading off to an apple orchard. Sister Lindsey eventually continues to pursue suspicions of Harvey on her own as Susie looks on from Heaven. She’s made a new friend since being murdered and they encourage her to forget about Earth, but Susie can’t.
From there it all comes together with shades of Ghost and everything works out. And it’s always good to see the baddie offed (but rarely as unsatisfying). Susie notices that her sister is about to get married to her potential boyfriend and that she’s still dead, but it’s not all bad. She will never be in a film as ridiculous ever again.
The film lurches from daft scene to weirdly twee sequence like a mad, oblivious Labrador and zips through the insanity with a kind of nonchalant infantilism. It all often looks wonderful but it’s a surreally wasteful collection of well-made scenes that collide rather than gel, and your sympathies will lie nowhere as the Heaven Susie ends up in looks like a bit of a blast.
Reading the preamble to an imminent film release normally involves the usual blinkered trumpetings and proclamations, and you get used to the idea that none of it is remotely relevant. Tom Ford, first-time director (day job: fashion designer), has given a series of annoyingly solipsistic musings to accompany the release of A Single Man. To wit: I wanted the thing to be a disaster. I wanted him to preeningly strut back to whence he came and leave the filmmaking to proven talent already struggling to get anything in cinemas.
Disappointing, then, to admire A Single Man a great deal. Despite the odd howler, it’s a tremendous, fluid, considered adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s exceptional novella.
Colin Firth is Oscar-worthy (has he ever been better?) as George Falconer, gay English professor at a low-key US college giving unconventional classes in which he manages to sound off grimly about what fear means, or maybe it’s just a bad week. Which, if you’re uninitiated, you might well already reasonably assume, given the fact that he placed a gun in his briefcase before the left his (lavish) house on the morning we join him. He’s in a bad way; popping pills accompanied by a few mouthfuls of whiskey and clearly devastated and still in thrall to a terrible grief. He’s had enough and is in limbo, waiting to die, or for something more indeterminate that looks unlikely, and is pottering around in a half-world in which taunting memories drag him out of an empty present at every turn.
There is some pretty horrible use of jump-cuts early on – normally the preserve of an unsure or over-exuberant filmmaker as a way of either compacting or fracturing time or jazzing things up. It rarely works and here it often feels ridiculous and tricksy; it’s glaring and unnecessary.
One other minor gripe: at the beginning of the film we have (after Jarman-esque shots of Firth floating in a somewhat disconcerted way in water) Firth/Falconer waking up after a nightmare; it’s another reconstruction of the death of his beloved partner (Matthew Goode, perfectly cast). A well-used visual emblem ties the subconscious to the present; then we have the initial monologue. One of the few mistakes Ford makes is to get rid of most of this (Isherwood’s quietly magnificent encapsulation of the daily ritual of becoming yourself in increments) and instead rewrite, cut and rejig. That Ford has at his disposal such brilliant, wryly sympathetic observation and chooses to ignore it seems churlish and wasteful. I’ve never been sure whether or not Isherwood was merely talking about a grief-stricken mind, but I’ve always taken the start of the book as a dead-eyed universal on the subject of the human plight, a perfectly realised attribution as to our daily fate in the slow accretion of whichever version of ourselves is deemed appropriate. In the context of the film, a fuller version of the opening would surely have helped augment a sense of Falconer having to construct a self out of the wreckage of his life.
Beyond a shaky first few minutes, the film is rather (but largely justifiably) over-assured but works exceedingly well, and Ford pulls it all off with room to spare, mixing light comedic touches with genuine emotional weight and a completely believable period detail. Preparations for Falconer’s suicide are given a farcical treatment that’s entirely fitting and the poignancy of a car-park meeting is quite brilliantly fashioned, a fraught Janet Leigh Psycho billboard offering a suitable backdrop. Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult are also both superb, the latter surprisingly so (no slight; I’d no idea what to expect having only seen him in About A Boy when he must’ve been ten).
Despite all that, it’s Colin Firth’s nuanced, amusedly deadened interpretation of Falconer that makes the whole thing work. He’s quite magnificent here, to the extent that D’Arcy epitaphs will surely be slightly unfair. He’s far better here; he is George Falconer.
Terminator 2 is possibly the greatest bit of breakneck, pulsating, effects-heavy smash-up in cinema, so you can see why James Cameron might want to plough new furrows and put the old toys away. He’s the boss, basically, of magnificent, hair-raising juggernaut B-movies you all know and he hammered, for what it was worth to him (misinterpreted, tipsy Oscar showboating aside) the all-time box-office numbers. So where do you go from the top?
In his case, you either recycle the same ideas and make a few more viscera-rattling thrill-rides with snappy, adrenalised, cynical heroes or you cut a hole in the top and check out what’s there. Just for the fun of it; you’ve got the keys to Hollywood so why not? In the first instance of his speculative technology escapade, many years in the gestation, cultivation and finally riotous anticipation, we end up with Avatar.
So is it a perfectly-primed justifiably painstaking game-changer or a shallow, soullessly impressive tiger-tank with no teeth? Neither.
Cameron was recently referred to, by ex-wife Linda Hamilton, as having said, ‘Anyone can be a father. There’s five or six guys who can do this, and I’m going after that.’ What he’s gone after is a world derived of ground-breaking 3-D technology, and he has postulated that we deserve to experience our entertainment in the same way that we experience our lives – as realistically as possible. All well and good. ‘Game-changing’ cinema and industry revolution aside, we need to know whether the first example of such endeavours works.
First up, I have no idea whether the film is seriously compromised on an ordinary multiplex screen, though it does offer up a lot of perks for those with 3D specs. In the form it was meant to be seen, it’s hard to take your eyes off it, if only to get a few quivers out of the novelty of more plant fronds brushing past your face. It’s a world that works, due to perplexed, impressed curiosity initially, and then simply because it’s a world that’s been exquisitely imagined.
And it’s fair to say that audiences long since crushed under anti-climactic and egregious nonsense pile-ups like Transformers must be thankful that all the bolt-ons work, and that at least crap action films of the future might at least offer up a few jazzy visual variations courtesy of the ground that’s been laid.
There are moments in the film, if we can take a moment to look at the minutae of this new-fangled cinemascape, that are genuinely gasp-inducing. Plants and insects that seem neon-lit, radiant and luminous, graceful and effulgent bespoke creatures, a glorious, mesmerising series of lifeforms put into life with meticulous care. It’s an often astonishing environment replete with abundant, complex, vivid, convincingly rendered creations. And it’s only fair to tip the hat to such brilliant showmanship. There are sequences entirely about your presumed wonderment at the visual elements – if he’d got that wrong, he’d have very little in this instance. But you’re frequently dazzled into deference.
The Pocahontas similarities, as lampooned in a rife, finger-pointing internet campaign ribbing the humourless innovator are inarguable, and it’s hard to refute claims that the story itself is merely an off-the-peg ecological framework to hang everything on.
In a nutshell: Pandora is the Middle East/Earth and the Na’vi locals and the resplendent local landscape are a handy microcosm of Earth getting tonked by bad old Man. The environment is extremely important and is in serious trouble, and just in case you didn’t know, here is another helpful reminder.
It’s an insipidly delivered tale, with feeble coinages replacing much in the way of dialogue exchanges or even exposition at times. The script was clearly banged out whilst Cameron was tinkering with pixels.
In spite of that, it’s an enjoyable romp as you’ve never quite seen it (even though a lot of the 3D elements seem to be subsumed by the sheer pace of many of the scenes and are therefore presumably much ado about can’t quite tell what you’ve done there, Jim). You get your moneys’ worth, no question – even if it does all feel a little bit like handing over your Willy Wonka golden ticket at the gates only to be waylaid in the foyer by a few dancing Ooompa-Loompas with diverting hors d’oeuvres before being glass-elevatored round the place in a gaudy blur.
The performances? The ‘non-computerised’ footage: Sam Worthington is far better here than he was in Terminator Salvation, and gives the standard ‘Michael Biehn’ Cameron performance. Sigourney Weaver is the Greenpeace Ripley. Stephen Lang is a stick-on military fruitcake, and Giovanni Ribisi is yet another 2D dyspeptic wisecracker. Zoe Saldana is, according to Cameron, extremely good, but I can’t tell whether she is, or isn’t, or even if it’s Zoe Saldana.
Should Avatar trounce, as expected, The Hurt Locker or even Up In The Air at the Oscars it’ll be a travesty of ‘you’ve earned it, we love our envelope-pushing tryers’ proportions. It’s not remotely a great film; it’s a great experience. Big difference. And now Cameron’s marshalled the virtual troops effectively and mastered the sexy computerised geek techno-tomfoolery, perhaps bothering to come up with a decent story mightn’t be too much of a stretch next time. You do wonder: where is he going to go with this? It’ll be interesting finding out.
How often, outside Christmas, do happy film scenarios play out in snowbound landscapes? I can’t think of any. In the same way that rain-lashed darkness can mean very few things (most of them exceedingly grim) in cinema, wintry outposts tend to suggest that all is not well, or soon won’t be. Frozen River (set at Christmas) is no different, though a certain amount of hope lingers in such icy isolation once disaster has inevitably held sway.
Melissa Leo is an abandoned mother of two living in a trailer in the back of beyond; her husband having recently legged it with their remaining money. She has one obvious ambition: a double-wide trailer for her and the kids. We see it driven back to whence it came early on – disappearing husband having filched the funds – and as Christmas looms, nerves are frayed and fuses are short. Shortly thereafter, she spots hubby’s car and follows it. The driver is not he; rather, a young Mohawk woman. After an argument, the woman tells Leo she can get her a good price for the car. Upshot of their drive (across the titular frozen river) to the prospective buyer being that she ends up with two illegal immigrants in her boot and, soon enough, with a gun to her head and a request that she get out of her husband’s car. Scuffle later, Leo has a cut but retains the car. This was Bad Newsville to start with but quickly descends into an ever-complex nightmare, and the film seems over-busy, over-fraught with incipient disaster.
Back at home, eldest son wants to go out and earn but Leo refuses, and once she has her request for a full-time shift at work knocked back, she’s back with the Mohawk girl; she’ll have that double-wide trailer, even if it means shunting a few illegals in the back of her car: her life has hit bottom and potential jail-sentences are nothing to quell her at this point.
A strange but compelling alliance ensues thereon, and we know we’re going to hit ‘one job too far’ denouement country by the 90th minute, but the film works on its own, stripped-down, bleakly effective premise. Some of the acting is wooden and faltering, but you’re too worried about Leo’s plight by midway for it to stall the film. The performances of her two kids, on the other hand, are totally convincing and even touching.
Leo is excellent: worn, bristling and desperate but resolute and admirably tenacious, without ever resorting to histrionics or soap-operatics. She commands respect and gets it as a stoic hero with a well-earned cragginess and well-meant irascibility. And she slips the attentions of the local police officer, who looks like he might be amorously keen, until near-disaster precedes genuine disaster and a double-edged but hopeful close.
Frozen River will win no prizes for exquisite production values or great ensemble performances, but as a taut, affecting suspense film, set perfectly within an edge-of-the-world snowscape, it more than succeeds.
In Adventureland, though, they all ring true and are at no point unlikeable, even the largely unlikeable ones. Adventureland being the fairground that Jesse Eisenberg stoops to in order to bankroll his college plans when his parents admit their finances are none too good. It’s a typical affair – con amusements and underpaid staff moping about, sharing misfortunes and anecdotes and dovetailing in and out of each others lives. What’s out of the ordinary is the fact that Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds work here, the latter taking the former into his mother’s basement when the mood takes him. She likes Eisenberg, though, and a relationship kindles, threatening to go somewhere despite her reluctance and general discord (parent trouble). Reynolds drops a few rogue pieces of advice into chats with Eisenberg, Eisenberg pulls the cheerleader who fancies ‘normal guy for a change’, Eisenberg feels bad, Eisenberg gets wind of Reynolds mucking about with his beloved and it all goes sour, though not for long, obviously.
The last scene and shot are exactly right; the performances are perfectly underplayed and the musical touchstones and cinematography suitably evoke a time that never was but that you want to keep revisiting. Eisenberg is a slightly more winsome, appealing, humbly bumbling version of Michael Cera, Jon Heder is particularly wired but instantly endearing and Stewart is exceptional. Gregg Mottola deserves a great deal of credit for getting the balance between sunlit nostalgia and vitality right and the script is sharp but never arch; the gently disaffected protagonists are never submerged by the pervasive sense of summer nights long gone. Adventureland feels like a mish-mash of all the best contemporary indie comedy moments but stands alone as a teen film abundant with unassuming charm.
George Clooney is a happily itinerant and un-moored p45 ghoul, paid handsomely to jump on and off planes around the US and fire people (whose responses are jump-cut encapsulated: tearful indignation, perplexed numbness, proud rage, incomprehensibility) and then do it all again, 300+ days a year. Home is whatever hotel room he currently occupies and responsibility and normal life are the preserve of weaklings.
He meets female equivalent Vera Farmiga (superb) in an airport bar and their status-obsessed exchanges lead to a transaction of a non-business kind; they agree to re-rendezvous as and when their schedules tally as they criss-cross the US and each other. Clooney is also soon saddled with the baggage of a zealously blank, icy go-getter type (Anna Kendrick, suitably vapid and reptilian – initially, at least) who he has to ‘show the ropes’ and who has derived a computer-based means of terminating employees without the inconvenience of even addressing them in person. She is a deadweight for about five minutes – they soon thaw each other out. A staple Hollywood tool for achieving this – alcohol – is made good use of.
Clooney also has the looming wedding of his sister to contend with, and the lack of a ‘Plus-one’ on his arm should he trouble himself with attending. Vera Farmiga, anyone?
Clooney and Kendrick go about their work until Kendrick realises she doesn’t have the stomach for it (well, that and her boyfriend dumps her) and Clooney is temporarily grounded as Kendrick’s new idea is jumped on and given the go-ahead. His oft-empty flat is no home but that’s his lot. To refer to the last 10 minutes in any detail or so would reveal and ruin the best hand the film has: you’ll see it coming by then but it’s a strangely downbeat, admirable way to play things out, and it makes sense in a world in which the likes of Clooney and his boss (Jason Bateman playing Patrick Bateman) thrive.
The film feels like the Coen Brothers meets Alexander Payne, and could’ve been a masterpiece, a touchstone for the times, Clooney’s best film, but instead feels like a charming, engaging missed-opportunity that you’ll be more than happy to watch again, partly because, Michael Clayton aside, it has Clooney at his best and partly to recall what actually happens for most of the films’ duration.