It’s undeniably difficult to know what to say about the latest Coen Brothers effort. It’s pretty much flawless, far, far better than the ‘original’ John Wayne vehicle and much more faithful (apparently) to Charles Portis’ source novel, about a young girl wreaking, with the help of gnarled bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (here played by ye olde The Dude with a whisky-breath hangover), vengeful havoc upon her father’s murderer (Josh Brolin’s grizzly village idiot). The difficulty in commenting is that it’s precisely what you might imagine, if you’re familiar with the Coen oeuvre, only slightly better and slightly less memorable.
Jeff Bridges (superb) never puts a foot wrong, is likeable even when delivering gruff rebuttals to young heroine Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, shockingly mature and adept) although surely would be even if he were shooting a toddler in the face with a cannon. He becomes yet more likeable when Ross’ persistence wins him over and enlists him in aforementioned quest for revenge, dovetailing paths with Twain-‘tached ranger Matt Damon along the perilous, oddball-strewn way.
The film is ultimately too much of a gloriously tidy homage to a certain kind of cinema to stand out on its own merits. You’re thinking of too many other films when you’re watching it, and it isn’t visually daring enough to shake this or quite stand alongside O Brother or Barton Fink or Raising Arizona, for example. You’re too conscious of the ‘Coen’ factor throughout and you’re anticipating something, at this point, that never really arrives. Barry Pepper turns up, brilliantly, for a cameo that you want them to pad out somehow, but no. True Grit delivers everything you want and ticks all the boxes, almost maddeningly so, and is therefore not quite great.
It’s always good to see a bank raid, hostages being taken, divided loyalties, and unpredictable eruptions of violence, as well as throwaway sex, well-conceived car chases, things being bullet-riddled, perilous and unlikely attempts at going straight and escaping your past, prison scenes, grim locale nightspots and murky revelations. The Town is endowed with a flashy, impressive array of such things, and, crucially: good, slick-yet-raw direction and fine performances all round*.
The Town, as it begins, concerns Ben Affleck and cohorts disguisedly barging into a bank and emptying the vault. The combination twiddler: Rebecca Hall, who is soon a hostage, briefly, as they make a getaway. Hall, it turns out, got a bit of a look at the miscreants, in particular the giveaway tattoo Jeremy Renner helpfully displays on the back of his neck. And she’d ‘…recognise the robbers if I heard their voices.’ Even though she swiftly ends up in a fairly preposterous relationship with a perturbed Affleck, who needs to glean her state-of-mind and whether she has any incriminating memories and ends up romancing her and cajoling her out of her disquiet instead.
Jon Hamm is basically a dyspeptic Don Draper minus the complex charm (and a few IQ points) as the FBI hound going after the crims. He assuages Hall and gently presses her for relevant info, but she’s soon being coached by Affleck to keep schtum and avoid being shipped-off into a witness protection nightmare, ‘Cleveland, Arizona, somewhere safe.’ Disappointingly, Hamm isn’t given much to chew on and has one decent speech throughout (and even then he’s being lined up to have them casually snipped by Affleck, who generously gives himself every single decent bit of dialogue in the film). He’s a bit of a neutered, hollow, generic character that Hamm couldn’t conceivably do any more with.
The rest of the cast seem to be on a long-leash. It’s good to see Pete Postlethwaite turn up as an indubitable Irish kingpin masquerading as an indubitable Irish kingpin florist. He has a sidekick with bleach-blonde hair. What is it that’s so worrying about bleach-blonde hair on a heavy? Chris Cooper has one perfectly measured scene to impress as Affleck’s finished dad. Rebecca Hall is fine apart from (see footnote) a fatal drawback, and Jeremy Renner is excellent as Affleck’s fuseworn best friend. Blake Lively is also clearly destined for (possible awards consideration?) Evan Rachel-Wood-esque great things.
There’s a rigorous refusal to break new ground here and a stubborn commitment to simply doing a good, perfectly unoriginal but estimable job. Nothing will surprise, every plot development is within the reach of easy guesswork but the film never drags and manages to cleverly employ endlessly reused and recycled genre mainstays. Affleck wants out of a dead future and the inevitability of prison-rot, but, of course, there are myriad nefarious influences that need him where he is and Hamm somewhat sluggishly in his wake. And then there’s Hall, who is a hopeful manifestation of a way out. Despite these familiar arc touchstones, The Town works on its own terms.
And Ben Affleck does a good job of both helming a relatively logistically-fraught enterprise and delivering a believable performance as a complex, emotionally tangled character with demons, living and dead, plaguing his high-stakes life. With The Town, his second film as director, he’s added a superior example to the genre.
*Rebecca Hall simply cannot bring herself to maintain any semblance of a Boston accent, and often, not unamusingly, seems to simply give up mid-sentence, bored, and slips back into her ‘normal’ delivery. Which wouldn’t be that much of an issue, if only she didn’t sound quite a lot like Keira Knightley. It’s quite embarrassing and almost mangles pretty much every single scene she’s in. You’re looking for the boom to slip into view as someone shouts ‘Cut!’ Well I was.
127 Hours seems an ask upon ascertaining the story basics, but it’s a film that transcends the grim facts, that of Aron Ralston falling into a cave with an arm-pinning boulder following suit. It becomes a hymn to life, individuality, family. It’s an exultant film and, blood-spattered escape aside, is way more feelgood than whatever recycled dribble this month’s rom-com is peddling.
James Franco (put your money down for an Oscar nomination but remember, Firth is playing royalty) plays Ralston as an indefatigably pumped outdoors dude who heads off into Robber’s Roost for some serious mountaineering. He’s a heel-bouncing sprite (dervish?) of a man with an overspill of energy in want of adrenalised kicks, and he’s infectious. He crosses paths with two initially cagey women out cave-hunting but effortlessly extinguishes any doubts they might have and soon has them plunging through darkness into cave pools. Upon the parting of their ways they invite him to a house party: an affirmative later and he’s off, bounding towards the next win.
Shortly thereafter the aforementioned disaster precludes any further advancement and he, and you, are stuck for a considerable duration dangling amid a rock fissure. Various potential exit routes bear predictable levels of success (a dull penknife scraping away at boulder mass; Ralston’s free-arm pummelling at the rock for a bit of give; a flash-flood enabling a timely and relatively effortless escape being of delusional magnitude) and he begins to hallucinate, run out of water, self-admonish and ‘make his peace’, all the while undergoing various states of retrogression and re-evaluation. He reminisces about a failed relationship his solitary nature may have done for. He recalls childhood idyll. He experiences blissful premonitions. He realises, in the end, that his desire to live will eclipse notions of the unthinkable becoming impossible.
Danny Boyle and James Franco do such a skilful job of making you complicit in Ralston’s plight, you endure the severing-obligation and will every agonising second onward towards what feels like, in more ways than one, a rebirth. Boyle deserves credit for not only confronting such a potentially tricky set of problems but for improbably and triumphantly playing the film for laughs at well chosen moments and fashioning something compulsive, compelling and involving from such constraining elements. Consider the facts – man trapped in hole for five days until eventual bloody reprieve – and Boyle has cleverly managed to offer up a pretty unconventional solution that’s defiantly entertaining.
And James Franco gives a vital and superb performance here: the role demands a likeable actor but is also a seriously daunting proposition. The material offers little apparent opportunity with which to evoke easy responses and delineate moments of recognition and empathy. But for Franco’s brilliant, subtle, funny job the slow devastation of Ralston’s plight would doubtless have been less involving and certainly of less consequence. In turn, the film might well have been a curious, intriguing sidestep for Boyle, an admirable footnote. As it is, it may be his best work.
There is a sense of loss prompted by the film – that the hellish prelude to Ralston’s eventual release re-invested his life with spurned meaning, a meaning that only a serious reality-check and intimacy with the grim reaper could reignite. In turn, Boyle seems to say: this is how far we have languished. Or is he saying, ‘We merely need a perilously-near disaster to remind us of what we have’ and so on? Hard to say. But this is an ecstatic and anti-existentialist cocked snook to be sure.
And don’t let that scene dissuade you from 127 Hours: it’s horrific enough (they do extraordinary things these days with fake latex arms etc) but, when the time comes, you will be willing Franco to lop it off and reclaim his life. An enrapturing film that’s as much about impending, urgent life as it is imminent death.
The Fighter is here just in time ‘for Oscar consideration’ and often feels like it was made specifically for an awards committee to whoop over.
It also arrives with a few heavy-hitters on board, and is a pet project for the film’s star and hero, Mark Wahlberg. It concerns a couple of boxing brothers from New Joisy (not really, but that was my assumption – they actually hail from Lowell, Massachusetts), one a drug-addict has-been (Dick Eklund, played by a rangy, sinewy Christian Bale, who seems happy to do slightly too much once again), the other a misguided talent coasting towards undistinguished fizzle-out (Wahlberg as Mickey Ward). The has-been, a livewire, erratic presence, trains Wahlberg and initially there’s more than the suggestion of Bale liking top-dog status in the boxing family and not really being too worried as to the prospects of his younger brother. So, he lines him up with a fight in a heavier weight class and watches him get stomped. Both are going nowhere.
Add to this the mother (Melissa Leo – too much of a plucky caricature) who ‘manages’ the dwindling career and dotes on the haplessly chaotic Bale. A palpably imminent, time-honoured turning point is soon reached, manifest in the form of Amy Adams’ barmaid, who does little other than encourage common-sense (the prospect of a new trainer, new regime, curtailment of bad influences ie his family etc) but is quickly scapegoated as a Yoko Ono figure.
Wahlberg forges ahead, grimly possessive matriarch out of the picture and brother soon behind bars, and eventually gets a title shot. And, well. What do you think?
The film is careful to adhere to boxing-movie conventions, so you have the usual ‘rousing’ emotive elements and terrible fight scenes. When will there be another realistic boxing match in cinemas? I mistily recall Triumph Of The Spirit and Raging Bull as containing authentically stupefying crosses and jabs, spit and blood spraying over the canvas and both guck-drenched pugilists. Here we have the usual, charmlessly employed ‘fighter gets pulverised without response, then suddenly awakens at the same time as the musical backdrop to out-of-nowhere reverse roles and stick it to the previously dominant enemy whilst family borrow pained-then-relief-stricken expressions and clutch their faces and our hero looks rueful-then-post-coital’.
The Fighter is strange. One moment it lurches into ‘Warp Records does Raging Bull’ territory and looks like it’s about to throw off its reluctance to defy the tried-and-tested, feels pleasantly lo-fi and experimental, then slides back into crappy TV movie mode and has you cringing and chewing your knuckles and groaning. It’s another reasonably compelling ‘triumph over adversity’ biopic and contains several good performances (particularly Amy Adams) but (clears throat and looks away) it’s no knock-out. Unless you’re an ageing Oscar committee member that likes this sort of thing – in which case you’ll also need to remember that Colin Firth is playing royalty this year in a triumph-over-adversity picture and narrowly missed out last, and this trumps (just) phoenix-from-the-flames sports stuff every time.
In the pre-amble to watching Catfish, I read an awful lot of stuff I now wish I hadn’t. I eagerly anticipated the film/documentary (knotty issues yet to be resolved clouding the determination of genre) and scoured the internet for information: this might normally be useful but in this case, not so.
For example, every single review touched on (unavoidably) the ‘reveal’ that’s of pivotal place just the other side of the second third, and whilst no spoiler revelations were forthcoming (apart from on The Guardian website, which I’d been warned about), the idea of such a ‘twist’ as the rug is pulled (or yanked, or furled in a messy clump) from under the viewer is something I’m a bit of a sucker for: any unforeseen surprise that jolts you out of your comfort-zone and reconfigures the whole enterprise anew. So I spent a stupid amount of time trying to figure out what it might be (without really wanting to know). And everything I came up with was far more sensational than the reality, and luckily, less interesting. But still: I was expecting baseball-bat wielding hillbilly paedophiles to turn up and go mental, and they didn’t. So I spoiled things for myself.
In any case: a young photographer, Nev, working out of a Manhattan office, develops a Facebook relationship with a young girl, Abby, who paints renderings of his photos and sends them back. The photographer’s brother and friend, who also work out of the same office, start to record this burgeoning friendship (though I did, perhaps cynically, wonder why they bothered – was it that pressing a necessity or that exciting a development?) . This becomes a charming, flattering sideline to Nev, who corresponds in benevolent, amused, grateful fashion. Soon enough, Abby’s relatives add him as friends and the frequency of contact and size and magnitude of packages increase. The address-to-camcorder nature of the project begets a level of uneasiness inherent in most similar examples of such film-making. There’s just something about the immediacy of the ‘pseudo-amateur’ handheld format (strangely exacerbated in digital), the lack of artificiality and stringent framing, that refuses centrality and comfort. You cannot relax watching shaky-cam, and feel less in control. Not only does it feel more authentic, there’s nowhere to hide. Accustomed as we are to home video recordings, we find it harder to gain access to a sense of detachment from them as they don’t assume a pointedly artificial form and are not recognisably ‘cinema’. Your subconscious is never brought into play: it’s all visceral and sensory.
Abby’s mother Angela and sister Megan eventually move into the foreground and begin to jostle for primary attention. Gambits are made re: commitments of intimate vulnerability. Songs they made are posted for Nev, and something clicks as to the nature of the connection that is flourishing here. Something doesn’t add up, it’s all too much, and cracks begin to appear, inconsistencies and bits of contradictory misinformation become apparent. The building, for example, where the prodigious Abby’s ‘exhibition’ of paintings is being held, is found to be empty, as it has been for four years. And those songs are ripped from elsewhere. What is the game here, and where is it going?
Well, it becomes eroticised very quickly: Megan, who wouldn’t know the ugly stick were she to trip over it, starts to ramp up the sex-factor and Nev happily colludes, shyly entranced. He creates a superimposed image of himself and Megan together, and disquiet as to the bogus nature of some claims is put on the back-burner as inexorable curiosity takes hold. Cue a trip to Michigan to check the internet family out, nerve-shredding late night drives along quiet streets and the eventual revelations…which are both depressing and horribly mesmerising, in the same way that a car that’s just ploughed into a house must be.
Catfish, for the most part, feels like a government-subsidised rail against the perils of the internet, then swerves off into murkier terrain and ends up an uneasily ambivalent altruistic/voyeuristic portrait of a lost America. It feels less like a slowly, fortuitously unravelling documentary than an opportunity grabbed a little too enthusiastically with both hands. Rumours proliferate as to the bona-fide status of the film as straight-out documentary, some suggesting that it’s partly staged, others that the all-too-real finale has been back-storyboarded. Many argue that Catfish is grievously and inexcusably manipulative. (It’s fair to point out that the individual central to the final part of the film insists that they manipulated the film-makers, not vice-versa.) The film-makers are currently embroiled in a dispute as to the ‘fair use’ of music in the film in light of the questioning the veracity of ‘documentary’ status has undergone. Here’s hoping the whole furore was a masterful marketing exercise by Mark Zuckerberg. Catfish, whatever it is or isn’t, is a powerful, fascinating example of raw film-making that posits a nebulous, endlessly ruminative conclusion well worth pondering.
Four Lions, off the back of glowing end-of-year re-appraisals and much involvement in ‘Top Ten’ lists of must-sees from the year that was 2010, is an oddity, and not a particularly good one. Have those extolling this as a film comparable to the likes of The Social Network actually watched it in its entirety?
Four Lions, then, is about a group of not-particularly-sharp suicide bombers that meet up to discuss the most impactful way that they can kill themselves. Various botch-ready ideas are given little shrift and two of our group head off for Taliban training in realistic desert locations. They are quickly sent home in disgrace and shift their focus, eventually (after a counter-intuitive move to smithereen a mosque is unsurprisingly vetoed by group leader Omar (a superb Riz Ahmed)) to the London Marathon.
A great idea that doesn’t quite work is the disappointing summary of what unfolds. Great performances are largely buried underneath wince-inducingly tepid knockabout laffs. To get this kind of film off the ground must’ve been hard – the BBC and Channel 4 wouldn’t touch it – but in any event the result seems fatally compromised and slight.
There are great scenes here that redeem a willingness to throw gentle, domestic comedy together with irreconcilably alien cross-cultural/religious normalcies. The scene where, in a cosily lit living room, father, mother and son chat endearingly about the father imminently killing himself. This kind of example treads a perfect line between aghast commentary and factual, non-exploitative or caricatured portrayal. Indeed, no real commentary is needed, nothing but the reality need be put on screen – that this subject matter is difficult to even subvert for laughs (surely it’s beyond normal comprehension anyway? Particularly to this atheist) becomes all too apparent.
The one joke here Morris is comfortable with regarding purely fictional intervention – that these happen to be bumblers, incompetent suicide bombers that aren’t worthy of being taken seriously – doesn’t stretch particularly far in any case. The dialogue just isn’t funny enough or engaging enough, dramatically or otherwise. The performances are largely turned up to 11 (and impressive) but the material just isn’t ridiculous enough, inventive enough or compelling enough for this to work as any kind of absurdist metaphor or to even properly work, period. These are unquestionably likable characters with a potentially horrific (to most audience members) death looming. (That their warped, slapstick demise is handled as it is seems the one truly Chris Morris element that’s present and correct.) Dialogue exchanges edge into uncomfortably pointless territory. There is too much emphasis on tedious, sub-BBC3-sitcom sequences that go nowhere.
The point at which the film really works, throughout the final 15 minutes or so, where Four Lions descends into glorious, breathless farce – ‘Catch the peanut!’ – arrives all too soon and yet rather too late to save it. Conclusion? This is a one-off 30-minute episode of Brass Eye padded out with exceedingly dull plot filler.
We expect more from Morris, particularly more edgy laughs. There just aren’t enough here and it’s a squandered exercise. Ronnie Corbett could seamlessly stroll on at any moment. Nothing inherently wrong with that (I guess) but a great, inflammatory idea is doused in comfortable, low-comedy and there seems to be a strange reluctance to take the difficult, rewarding route. Imagine what Python might’ve done with this? Unfortunately for Morris, that’s one of the yardsticks – and Life Of Brian was much more potent, decades ago.
From Wikipedia: ‘Morris has said that he does not find the film at all controversial and that attempting to cause controversy is “one of the most boring things you can do.”’ Fair enough, and while the idea is unavoidably ‘controversial’, what’s left needs to be edgy, or funny – nothing wrong with either, and both were seemingly at Morris’ whim before this. Surely they will be again despite this well-meant, too-gentle mis-step.