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Brooklyn’s Finest

October 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Antoine Fuqua, as well as sounding like the protagonist of a Grand Theft Auto-type game, is a bit like John Singleton with polish. Brooklyn’s Finest, despite the odd flaw, is his best film to date.

Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle are the three heavy-handers tasked with familiarising themselves with peril on Fuqua’s gilt-edged and sun-gilded Brooklyn streets. They share the merest of scenes (an unseen criss-cross here, a shoulder collision there) but are all vantage points unto and amongst which plenty can, and does, unfold.

Gere is ebbing towards the end of a miserable career as a city cop. He isn’t popular with the fellas at the station, he isn’t popular with women (he has an arrangement – one that he clearly hasn’t got the hang of, as becomes apparent, pivotally, towards the close – with a prostitute that lives in his apartment building) and he’s far from popular with himself. He offers no succour nor comforting, aphoristic repartee to his new-blood partner, who is younger than Gere’s police career stint. He just wants to get to the end of the week and a silent, embittered but eagerly awaited retirement.

Hawke has a cluster of kids and a wife (Lili Taylor) pregnant with two more; he also lives in a wreck of an apartment that’s so ruinous and rotting that it’s a serious health-hazard. His desperation and continuing goal: procure, by whatever means and by a looming deadline, the money to cover a deposit on the new home, which waits tantalisingly in some unseen salubrious haven.

Cheadle is an undercover cop entangled (in much the same way that Lawrence Fishburne’s cop was in Deep Cover) with just-out-of-clink Wesley Snipes’ extended drug cartel. Snipes, by the way, took the martyrish, punitive aspects of ‘method’ to an admirable extreme before filming and made the likes of DeNiro and Cage look like half-arsed pretenders, by going to jail for tax evasion. That’s the kind of authenticity that you just can’t buy. Cheadle wants out of this knife-edge setup, and wants his life back. But his bosses (including a nail-hard turn from Ellen Barkin) keep squeezing him, and are squeezing him for one last favour.

So there’s nothing new to entice you, and nothing original to superficially mark this out as intriguing. However, the combination of impeccably frazzled performances and tight, often gloriously evocative direction from Fuqua fashion something of genuine interest. Of the three story-strands, too little of Gere’s backstory is illuminated to truly get to the nub of his malaise: we assume he’s lonely, burnt-out, truly misanthropy-muzzled by his imperilled daily hellbind. But he does a typically good job of hinting at a tortured undercurrent, an immanent disquiet, and is perfectly cast to get the most out of his slim character means. Hawke is tremendous: teetering and tendon-bulgingly tense as he ponders ethical swandives and bungles nightmarish swag-grabs. Cheadle, ever-superb, deftly vacillates between soul-pained duress and ingratiating infiltrator.

As mentioned, Fuqua infuses Brooklyn with a disquieting-yet-alluring palette of warped, chemical hues (great use of lighting throughout) and washes the streets with a summery restless energy Spike Lee would be more than happy with.

As the film closes, Gere walking towards us, backlit by a swarm of red and blue flashes, close-up freeze-frame fading out to blood-red credits, it’s striving for some kind of 70s-riffing gravitas that it already has in abundance. Not wanting to be picky, but this sequence has a slightly amateurish, tacked-on feel to it. Better to have had a stock coda, crane-retreating and rising shot, of Gere’s cop-car floating off into the widescreen night, or Gere appraising Cheadle’s bullet-ridden body, thus gleaning the kind of circularity Fuqua was clearly pursuing. That we are asked to draw our own circumstantial corollaries between the three main players seems a bit bogus: the film, viewed in this way, reeks of three different scripts spliced into one hodge-podge yearning for Altman-esque magnitude. That these characters are all led to the same geographical destination is not enough to warrant any dimensional or elliptical hermeticism.

Despite the flimsily orchestrated finale, where the join is not so much evident as dissuasive and clunkily distracting, the film is a success. The performances are all just the right side of hysterical and the message is age-old but powerfully evoked: chaos reigns and bad decisions always outweigh good intentions.

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The Ghost

October 22, 2010 2 comments

The Ghost

In ‘Chinatown’, Roman Polanski’s cameo hoodlum waves a knife in front of Jack Nicholson and offers the following observation: ‘You know what happens to nosey parkers?’ This is just before Nicholson gets a flashing cut across his conk and hence the iconic white strap dominating his face thereafter. Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost should be so lucky.

McGregor’s particular snoop is an invited one: join the deposed former Prime Minister Adam Lang (two syllables/one syllable – keep on hinting!) in his American fort and be his ‘ghost’ – and finish his forthcoming memoir. Undeterred by the extremely suspect manner that the original amanuensis/interlocutor met a beach-bound demise, he signs on for a sizable fee and heads off into the largely unknown: what he does know is that the ex-PM is as unpopular as, say, Tony Blair during the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly nightmare. For example. And the parallels with Blair so thoroughly dominate the piece (and Harris’ source novel) that you take it as a given that here is a version of a take on Mr Tony.

What follows is a deterioration in said dwindling stock of our sequestered heavyweight as a torturing scandal threatens further ignominy and disrepute. Concurrently, McGregor finds the whole situation, and his morgue-fresh predecessor in particular, as a barely sentient child would, a bit fishy. He experiences strange encounters, makes alarming, slow-fed discoveries and prods his toe into murky waters. And the sharks, inevitably, show a bit of fin. The unannounced arrival at the inconspicuously grand retreat (a wonderfully oleaginous turn from the great Tom Wilkinson) of Harvard professor Paul Emmett, a former college alumnus of Lang, is a superbly sinister few minutes, the best of the film.

What Polanski does particularly well – better than anyone since Kubrick? – is to infuse the quiet moments of his films with poised menace. And The Ghost is at its best during such stretches: McGregor waiting in the airport lounge as Lang’s alleged misdemeanours play on the TV and lights in the dark night wink beyond; a brief meeting in a hotel bar; a bike ride in a miserable, desolate landscape.

Polanski always seems to place the camera in the exact spot from which you can get least purchase on the film. There’s a pervasive malevolence maintained throughout that, Kubrick parallels continuing, Polanski achieves through very stagey deliberation, evident in every scene (both directors being quite happy to run into three figures with takes) that broadens a sense of unheimlich, uncanniness. This factor tends to virtually extinguish any sense of real-time or vicarious indulgence: you are kept very much at a remove, passively engaged and unsettled, and his films inhabit a dreamlike torpor that provokes blank, elusive dread in even the most innocuous scenes.

The film is best considered a success as a snapshot of fairly impervious, inscrutably chameleon-esque characters. As a Blair portrait it’s fairly hopeless, as it doesn’t really delve into the inner-workings of the man: Brosnan as Lang, like Blair, just isn’t menacing or versatile enough to carry any sense of depth. He is engaging, of course, and believably magnetic. He also carries the suggestion of a man of no compunction: again, accurate. But ultimately not interesting enough as a fictional character.

Olivia Williams, as his brunt-bearing, grumpily resolute better-half, is as good as she’s ever been and then some. She’s truly brilliant. A worn, likable sense of loyal hardiness betrayed by ruthlessness, perfectly captured. And, without giving the game away, she has to be this good considering the dramatic weight she has to withstand.

Ewan McGregor is a strange choice for this. He’s a fine actor but his mockney is majestically un-negotiable. It ends up prompting thoughts of Jimmy White doing George Smiley. I know the role is that of a journeyman populist hack, but he seems a little miscast. Tom Hardy should be fronting the queue for stuff like this, surely.

The Ghost, then, is an enjoyable and impressive attempt at a thoughtful thriller and contains many good things, none of which add up to a great deal.

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The Social Network

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment

‘Nah, I’m not bothering with a film about Facebook.’ Oft have I been met with said response upon mention of The Social Network, David Fincher’s initially potentially confusing choice as his latest project – as though a perceivably frivolous tool of gossipy social glue would be unfilmable or pointless. And, when the film and attached director were announced, you could be forgiven for being at the very least bafflingly curious as to why the Zodiac director might opt for a film concerning itself with the friend-poking internet application of debatable import.

The Social Network starts with our equally debatable central protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg with all the charm bled out of him and replaced with the deadened focus of a stuffed animal) talking his way into a break-up with his girlfriend in a glucose-hued frat bar. We can quickly ascertain this much: he dresses like a dorm bum, observes little in the way of social etiquette conversation-wise and is his own worst enemy in terms of honest appraisals. He swiftly burns threadbare bridges with soon-to-be-ex (Rooney Mara, hard to fault in any of her three scenes) by talking himself up and her down. Indeed, his two disastrous encounters with Mara propel him through the film: his aghast rejection and the pointedly priapic response instigating and feeding his rancorously accelerated rise.

His intitial snub prompts a late-night blog-rant and quickly leads to ‘Facemash’ – a campus-only (with crucial algorithmic aid from college buddy Eduardo Severin – the excellent Andrew Garfield – like an emaciated Eli Roth channelling Werewolf In London-era Griffin Dunne) ‘comparison’ page juxtaposing various female student pics – including that of Mara – with not only each other but also various farmyard animals. Yes, we’re in the presence of beer-pepped students. Zuckerberg and Severin quickly and gleefully crash the Harvard site.

This errant escapade (‘22000 hits’) attracts the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who throughout are slightly-behind-moneyed-relative-duncery figures and the antsy butt of much of the films superior chortling, who have the embryonic fancy, but not the means, of implementing a Harvard social networking site. They enlist Zuckerberg to help them only for him to quietly discard everything about them but the kernel of their idea. He impassively expands on that, bankrolled by Severin, and ‘The Facebook’ flourishes – and the second of the disastrous ex-confrontations plays out, energising his wronged competitiveness – amidst ‘cool’ if relatively minor exclusivity. (Sexual rejection and lascivious self-consciousness are prominently attributed as Facebook fuel, along with a keen sense of sexual competitiveness and a cynical but inarguable eye on what the kids want – yep, mainly sex.)  

It’s at roughly this point that a Sean Parker (of Napster fame – aptly embodied by a sleazily opportunistic Justin Timberlake) inspired quantum leap occurs; his contacts and their resources enable genuine global advances (the UK appearance of ‘Facebook’ being humourously covered in a Winklevoss twin humiliation scene at a gloriously depicted Henley Regata) to the chagrin of a by-now marginalised Severin, who is eventually and crushingly sacrificed indirectly as his shares become diluted to insignificance without warning. Zuckerberg will, of course, step on anyone, so beholden is he to his unquenchable drive. But there’s a strangely pointed sense of him being far from merciless in this. His indifference stretches far and wide, and goes beyond his physical appearance and sense of social decorum to actually thinking about the consequences of his actions. We are led to take the view that the necessarily advancing nature of the entrepreneurial mind is far more important than intimate relationships, and you wonder how far you might be able to (perhaps unfairly, but you know how autobiographical films and indeed any form of art often tends to be) assume any concessions on the part of the director.

The biggest problems the film has are both conjoined: an over-terse closing third that wraps things up far too swiftly for the strands to mesh as brilliantly as they do in the first two-thirds, and a too-abrupt souring of Zuckerberg’s relationship with Sean Parker, which is rapidly (and unsatisfactorily) explained via house-party drug misdemeanours; instead there’s a cluttered sense of running-time adherence or a glaringly cramped pacing that manages to slightly enervate the film and dwindle the tension. It’s a credit to The Social Network that it could easily bear another half-hour of realistic, character-driven unravelling.

Fincher, after the total debacle of Benjamin Button, is back on form. The film is, as mentioned elsewhere, perhaps his least flashy effort to date, but is predictably brilliant visually. Simple tricks such as Sharpy-sketched equations etched on window panes and low-depth focus are expertly employed and there’s the usual sense of elegant, wasted malaise leaking from every frame. Crucially, perhaps, this is also Fincher’s funniest film. Not that he’s lightening up – the cineaste semiotic games are as rife as ever and would take at least three viewings to begin to map.

The film closes neatly: we have Zuckerberg advised to pay off (‘In the scheme of things it’s a parking ticket’) the players he has hitherto been determined to ostracise from his story, and everyone’s a winner. Although no-one is afforded any triumphalism – multi-million dollar payoffs or burgeoning billions aside – the last shot is of Zuckerberg refreshing his awaited friend request for, yes, the spurning girlfriend that fuelled this improbably vast ascension.

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Greenberg

October 11, 2010 2 comments

We need mindless knockabout laughs right now, don’t we? Isn’t this the worst time imaginable for a director to foist a glum forty-something on us? This isn’t austerity entertainment. But it’s my kind of perky exercise: hope through queasy observation of someone even more hopeless than me.

Greenberg is the junior brother brought across America to his old stomping (meekly acquiescing) ground to look after senior Greenberg’s plush abode. It’s hardly a spanner in the works: Greenberg doesn’t, work that is, has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and spends his time specifically and diligently observing the ultimate no-hoper discipline: doing nothing. Which he continues apace from the first moment we see him, misanthropically appraising himself, from a suitably afar window, of the pool-hogging neighbours. Beyond heading out for sustenance (food, alcohol) and mooching around the house, he would appear to be a compulsive bleater-via-letter, eking out missive after missive in response to perceived/flimsy/intensely pedantic slights. He would also appear to like a drink.

On hand to offer assistance is his brother’s assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig – Chloe Sevigny meets Kristen Wiig), who seems equally suffocated, in her case by aimlessly drifting from one unhappy scenario to another with little defence beyond a mumbling commentary of despair to fight her careening hoplessness. She’s too fragile and submissive (we see her drifting into an empty one-night stand without a word of resistance other than: ‘Maybe this isn’t the best way to start a relationship?’ Response: ‘This isn’t going to be a relationship,’) to deter Greenberg’s clumsy intentions when, from out of nowhere, during a nondescript second half-encounter, he makes a move. Perhaps he sees her vulnerability etc but it doesn’t ring true. In any case, it becomes a painfully stop-start non-romance, he too erratic and combustible to accept anything that seems to be going well, she too yearning and open to ever be entirely as offended as she perhaps should be by his antics.

Along with painfully abortive on-off relationship resuscitation attempts, Greenberg (Stiller, excellent) has his old band/schoolmates/girlfriend to reacquaint himself with/try to avoid. His ex-band members loathe his causing their demise by contract veto way back whenever. All but one, that is – Rhys Ifans (best thing in the film) doesn’t (initially) seem too perturbed by his one-time fatal kibosh of their potential careers, and nor does their easy rapport seem glitched or corroded. He seems largely indifferent to any missed opportunities, as does Greenberg – but this will eventually be revealed (as it in turn reveals a glimpse of their respective buried inner-turmoil) as way wide of the mark for both.

Jennifer Jason Leigh gets two scenes – one of which must rank as one of the more painful revisits of old, long-dead romance in cinema. He tries to rekindle things in typically impertinent-slacker-trying-to-seem-at-peace mode only to be swiftly and mercilessly rebuffed-then-abandoned by someone clearly never that enamoured with him. His arrogance – ‘I could’ve seen us having a few kids’ – is nullified with assertions to the negative and a quick, mortifying (thoroughly deserved) desertion looms.

So, he’s hapless and socially-crippled – the demanding amongst us might have hoped for more mirth from such a character – and, when he’s not dodging the guests at his own gathering, instigating a road-rage incident before fleeing a riposte, or erupting at the temerity of a restaurant birthday rendition in his name, he just about hangs onto our goodwill, ditto the film, which starts well but, even though I like deliberate, unflinchingly low-key films, doesn’t possess enough levity to truly work. We will only ever, it seems to me, buy such a curmudgeonly central character if the laugh-count is high or we’re in another genre entirely (and what genre does Greenberg even belong to? I might suggest a new one: Bipomo). About Shmidt is an easy reference point here.

Greenberg, then, is well worth a watch, with reservations. But for Ben Stiller and the quietly superb Ifans it might not have been.

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Toy Story 3

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Woody, Buzz and the rest are here for a final time (they say). You know beforehand what a final outing must involve: either the lid slamming shut on the toybox or some kind of obsolescence/charity jaunt to Africa. The kid is going to grow up and leave them behind, tears will be shed (by you, bucketloads), they may even be binned or incinerated (surely not?).

It speaks volumes that I speculated about the fate of animated characters. I didn’t want it to end badly. I know we’re talking about renderings and computer graphics and so on, but still…I took my little brothers to watch the first film in…etc. And that (and the follow-up) was a great piece of ‘family entertainment’ appealing to one-and-all. It was funny, charming, smart and sophisticated. It looked good. Randy Newman did the soundtrack (as he does for all three films). It was genuinely ‘feel-good’.

And this is more of the same, only slightly less so. The feel-good factor, naturally, takes a back seat as matters are drawn to a close in a (partly) necessarily unhappy fashion. Andy is college-bound (this being a handy demarcation point between youth and adulthood) and is finalising his packing before the trip away. The toys anxiously await their fate: he can’t take them with him, but will they end up attic-ridden and box-ensconced or something more auspicious? Or perhaps melted down or mangled by the garbage collectors?

Well, he sentimentally opts to include Woody amongst his departure effects and decides to shove the rest in the loft. Only they don’t get there after a predictable mix-up – and instead end up at a day-care centre where they get a serious (and seriously funny) workout at the clammy, clasping hands of amok toddlers. It’s the kindergarten equivalent to a relentless mafia hiding. Things have taken a macabre turn, our beloved toys are pahtzeed into hard labour and brunt-bearing the whims of savage infants by a nefarious group of ruined toy masters (a Ned Beatty-voiced character turning dastardly – who’d’ve thought?), and so it goes. And that’s without mentioning a comparitively massive baby-doll with nightmarish, wonky Thom Yorke eyes cast in the role of a rather impassible Frankenstein-esque conveyor of torment. Troubling.

Woody, meanwhile, ends up fluking a berth amongst a delightful future-geek’s playthings, but does the right thing and sets out to rescue his incarcerated chums. The film sags slightly as the run-up to the showdown kicks into gear (impossible though this suggestion is: I couldn’t help thinking that Toy Story 3 might’ve become an almost unbearably poignant masterpiece if, at this point, most of the toys met their demise in order to save Woody and Buzz – a kind of mass-toy-suicide-for-the-greater-good that could speak subtle volumes re: the current economic crisis/worldwide instability/environmental resources/etc – like I say, perchance an ill-advised speculation) and we head toward a far-too-schmaltzy final scene that, played more assiduously and with less yanking on the tear-ducts, could’ve been far more devastating than is the case. I vacillated, as the franchise wound down, between genuine sadness and gurning cringing.

Anyway, the whole thing looks as invigorating and inviting as it ever did and, mere quibbles aside, is a relatively fitting resolution to still the best of Pixar.

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