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Hereafter

March 30, 2011 10 comments

Clint Eastwood, then: late-career renaissance (Flags Of Our Fathers, Iwo Jima, Gran Torino) and a series of perfectly good films, an admirable late period of respectable, bankable efforts coming after Million Dollar Baby and before the fairly stuffy Invictus. And then we’re onto Hereafter – and a very, very curious offering indeed.

A not entirely uninteresting one, I may add: the opening sequence, in which Cecile De France is swept through streets amidst a hurtling tsunami-conveyed procession of lorries, cars, other people and stray trees, for example, is extremely impressive, believable, even a bit worrying. CGI is not a total write-off, not when it’s employed as aptly as it is here. So far, so surprisingly thrilling.

The wonderful French actress appears to have succumbed, but splutters to life shortly thereafter, and in the midst of all this has had ‘visions’ of an afterlife – visions that lead to a bit of a sea change, shall we say. She becomes obsessive about her experience and what it means, and cheekily starts writing a book all about it, despite signing on to write something that sounded far more interesting about Charles De Gaulle. She also sees through her exceptionally transparent rat boyfriend and gives him the shove.

Anyway, before all that: we switch to Matt Damon, who’s rolling a forklift around Blue Collar Inc and living a rather monkish life in San Francisco. We soon learn that he’s boxing beneath his weight – he has serious skills as a medium under wraps: they were, of course, more trouble than they were worth.

Then we lurch right into the grubby bowels of a London tower block to meet two twins (‘I’m 12 minutes older!’) who have a mum that’s a bit worse for wear courtesy of drugs. A near-miss with the authorities improbably averted, the older twin fails to avoid an oncoming van and perishes.

(There is a sequence that follows, involving Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, that serves one purpose: to emphasise how alone Matt is, and how attempts at kickstarting a relationship are tragically doomed. He knows about this, that and the other, doesn’t he? He is the unfortunately privy-to-every-demon kind of chap that girls soon want to avoid. Anyway, they meet at an Italian cooking lesson and have a rather sensual ‘palette-testing’ coming together. They go back to his: his brother has left an irrefutable answering message regarding his recent ‘step out of self-imposed retirement’ to provide a reluctant ‘reading’ for a work colleague. Howard is intrigued and begs for a reading: cue doom. 10 minutes that could’ve been snipped, no danger. This is not Apocalypse Now: just throw in a bit of expositional, 30 seconds, job done.)

Anyway, all three plot strands are yoked together at the London Book Fair. Surely you know what’s coming?

The performances are all game: you do wonder what it would’ve taken for these actors, some of whom hardly need the work, to say no to Clint. I bet he could’ve got them all to do The Human Centipede. In other words, how many of them wanted to turn this down? A few I’ll bet. It’d be interesting to find out…

Peter Morgan wrote this, and it’s kind of admirable the amount the script dares to ask of the viewer. He was in a proper mushy old mood, Peter, when he wrote this. Though it veers into ‘sinister’ territory at times, what with all the conspiratorial conversations about ‘suppressed afterlife information’ and proclamations about Christ, there’s surely nothing wrong with a bit of unashamedly romantic fare. And Eastwood renders the whole thing presentable (particularly with that opening). But this is a mess; if there is an afterlife, surely God will offer up at least a ‘Tsk!’ at this when running through Clint’s CV. Or even better: excise it from the records. It is not worthy.

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Somewhere

March 25, 2011 2 comments

Sofia Coppola comes in for a lot of stick, in much the same way, to my mind, Justine Frischman of Elastica used to. Rich girl daring to have a go at film-making, daughter of Francis, easy ride, nothing to say, hiding to nothing. And whilst it’s very much a case of ‘the less said the better’ regarding any Elastica album beyond the first, Coppola demands a much fairer assessment.

The Virgin Suicides is often brilliant; Lost In Translation is perfection; even the much-demolished Marie Antoinette has many good things to offer and cleanly clears ‘turkey’ country. All of the above also look great and sound great, and possess an impressively tasteful Zwigoff-meets-Van Sant imprimatur.

Somewhere is another light-heavy success that continues to inconspicuously prowl Coppola’s obsessions: bleached sunlight; people frittering time as some inevitable crisis encroaches; the poignancy of boredom; awkward conversations between disconnected people; pretension as comedy.  Once again there is a kind of pregnant languor that suggests all kinds of things but leaves them all off-screen, where they belong.

Stephen Dorff is a near burn-out film star shacked up at the Chateau Marmont, infamous haunt of other lost tinselled souls, languishing in his own lack of ‘there’ as so many Coppola protagonists are (think a two-decades younger Bill Murray from Lost In Translation). He’s a ghost waiting for the next fictitious body to fill. (There’s a great scene where he’s buried in glooped layers of prosthetic, sat in a dressing room chair, silently inhaling and exhaling, not really there, though perhaps enjoying the nearest he’ll get to some kind of repose, as the camera slowly approaches: eventually we jump to him as an old man, fully made up, recast, literally, as himself in 50 years. Coppola is simply giving the character his unlikeliest ever role: himself, old.)

He’s grimly, solitarily hedonistic and the only thing that shocks him is his own reflection in an early-morning mirror: he’ll pay for a couple of blonde strippers to assemble a makeshift set of poles in his hotel room and smirk morosely at their far-from-seamless routines, sipping at his JD-and-Coke all the while as tinny music blares from their cheap stereo. They’ll leave when he falls asleep.

He doesn’t know the difference between the two rented dancers and doesn’t need or want to. He doesn’t notice as Coppola emphasises the join where the illusion of artifice ends and a gleaming red stiletto slips from sexual accessory to piece of footwear. He barely notices, initially, as his daughter (Elle Fanning, perfectly cast), who is on a presumably fleeting visit, skates in front of him, on an empty rink, as he sits in the stands. He’s too busy texting. But something changes: he’s taken aback suddenly, and an improbable awakening of sorts has been stirred. In the car, he asks: ‘When did you learn to skate?’ His daughter replies: ‘I’ve been skating three years.’ He’s so out of the loop his Ferrari restlessly screeches around in the opening shot that his child is a stranger.

He’s the kind of guy who will follow a girl in a sports car for a thrill, and head back to his hotel room to find a party in full swing. He is hardly mobbed and mingles and observes what he’s bankrolling: one nervy young actor approaches with fannish, faltering enquiries; a groupie hovers waiting for him to push an open door, then suffers his premature evacuation into slumber as he putters out of steam. His proximity rankles his dismissive co-star at a promotional photo-shoot. He sends the stand-in male masseur packing when the latter’s trousers come off mid-rubdown. He bangs the starfucker across the hall then finds his daughter waiting outside. He lies in blue TV glare late at night watching a Gandhi documentary which might as well be beaming in from another galaxy. It’s a sequence of drifting occurrences that merely puncture palsied plenitude that are beginning to stack up against him and accrete nameless dread.

His daughter, though, is the antidote to space-filling self-abuse, and when he has to take her with him to Italy for a preposterous awards ceremony, he begins to thaw in earnest as what might’ve been meaningless moments are now infused with paternal significance. Not quickly enough to avoid a midnight rendezvous with a hanger-on, but he’s getting there. He sits poolside in his six-star hotel room and slurps beer as his daughter swims and tentative intimations of rebuilding ensue, and he even sneaks away from press-and-luminary captivity early with her and heads home. Here is something, there all along, with which he can fashion an aim in his life as he has had no need for one: he is on a conveyor, is a product and barely exists off-camera.

Of course, he can’t shed his old skin with any ease: on his return there’s a topless woman in his bed. But she’s no longer a pleasant distraction: she’s now inappropriate. However, his daughter, who is increasingly revealed as being as fragile as she has every right to be, is soon heading off for summer camp: what then? How to replace this new found need in his life, his daughter? He capitulates briefly in a late night phone conversation after he has seen her off (and there’s yet another ‘What did he say?’ moment a la the close of Lost In Translation where chopper-blades override his parting exclamation). ‘I’m fucking nothing. I’m not even a person.’ He is briefly frozen in agony through a series of Edward Hopper-esque moments as the final self-assessment quietly bears its open-ended outcome.

Somewhere veers towards the Van Sant end of Coppola’s visual spectrum, and the result is a powerful miniature portrait of a sliding performer approaching accord with ‘normal’ life, possibly, and is to be applauded.

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Round-Up

March 17, 2011 8 comments

Here’s a bit of a round-up of the more forgettable of recentish films. And one Woody.

First up, Unstoppable eventually grinds to a merciful halt when the runaway train that Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are stuck with hits the 80-something minute mark and we alight at Thank Fuck. The credits have scarcely been as blessed. This was, I read somewhere, ‘Tony Scott back on form!’ Not so: this is Tony Scott strapping his camera onto a stomach-swivelling ‘carousel-cam’ in a ridiculous, lazy, laugh-and-sick inducing conceit clearly intended to invoke ‘tension’ and ‘compulsive thrills’. It’s a disastrous and howlingly-bad (and way, way over-employed) move that kills any ideas the film may have had about being a decent chase-thriller. And the hard-faced gall of expecting us to buy Chris Pine and Denzel Washington (fine, and therefore wasted) having a heart-to-heart about Pine’s unravelling family situ whilst the train they’re on is rattling towards high-speed imminent carnage is yet more heckle-enticement.

Due Date features Robert Downey Jr failing to endure Zach Galifiniakis on their unlikely race-against-time road trip from Atlanta to LA, amidst which you get the usual picaresque standards as dogs pulling themselves off, crippled thugs, dead people being mistaken for coffee and car smashes. There are 15 great minutes buried in here, honestly – the other 75 or so are a hammy, dull borefest.

Date Night pairs Tina Fey and Steve Carell as a couple trying to rekindle their stale marriage by getting tangled in all kinds of mistaken-identity peril. It works, but the film doesn’t, not even as a harmless comedy. Watch it only to see two fine comedic actors that have understood they are in a turkey phone in their interpretation of a flaccid script.

Finally, Whatever Works is a ‘return to form’ for Woody Allen – not that I am the best person to judge. I would watch any Woody Allen film, even the wretched, savagely misguided ones, and get plenty out of it, since he is God. So that fact that I think this Larry David vehicle is both extremely funny and may well be the best thing he’s done since Bullets Over Broadway is probably meaningless.

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World’s Greatest Dad

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve watched some really terrible films just because Robin Williams is in them. This is not one of them – World’s Greatest Dad is one of his better outings and is his best film since One Hour Photo.

Williams plays an under-subscribed and over-the-hump poetry teacher, who turns up each day with a regretful benevolence to face his handful of assorted lost souls and their plagiarised ‘poems’. He can only look on as a much younger creative writing populist racks up the numbers. He faces having his class snuffed out before the next enrolment unless the unlikeliest happens: the numbers go up. They could hardly go down.

He then gets to trundle home in his sadmobile and survey his lot, which consists of a house emptied of all but his unpleasant son, who we first encounter engaging in a spot of auto-erotic asphyxiation. When I tell you that Williams storming in on this act, which he believes to have been a successful suicide attempt, is extremely funny, you get an idea as to whether this film is for you or not. It’s very much part of the Todd Solondz extended cinematic family, and therefore concepts such as ‘confrontational’ and ‘offensive’ don’t hold much sway.

From there, we discover that Williams is a failed writer, who has mailed off his manuscript one last time. He is also busy attempting to maintain something resembling ‘family’ with his impossible son and, when he has a spare moment to himself outside the collapsing nightmare that is his job and home life, he’s trying to keep a fellow, much younger teacher amorously interested (as the painfully more appealing ‘creative-writing’ guy circles). In any case, he heads home one day and his son is dead from further risky hi-jinks (a genuinely devastating moment that dares you to laugh) and an opportunity is taken of which Williams grasps with both hairy hands. Cue: the ‘suicide journal’ that never was and an uncomfortable rise in fortunes. For my money, an ensuing scene on a daytime talk-show brilliantly and agonisingly showcases what’s great about both the film and Williams, as he barely keeps it together and prompts the kind of complex laughter most films never get close to realising.

World’s Greatest Dad is admirable, very funny and scathing, and is often so deadpan as to feel likeably deranged and fairly disturbing; there is little way of second-guessing the first two-thirds beyond the parameters of each scene. Goldthwait and Williams – scarcely better used, a masterclass in how to get uneasy laughs – pull off the nigh-impossible trick of maintaining, for a good 70 minutes, a sense of both hellish poignancy and guffaw-imminence, in much the same way that Daniel Clowes somehow manages time and again. It’s a feat and Goldthwait should be given license to make the territory his own: pitch-black interesting character comedy is hardly abundant. And rare is the director that can get away with such an assortment of caricatures without invoking shruggery. If the film loses a little of its hold towards the closing exaltations and jumps ship for a cosy finale, you’d have to be seriously curmudgeonly to feel short-changed by then.

Director Bobcat Goldthwait was, of course, the cat-voiced madman from various 80s films such as the Police Academy series and One Crazy Summer. I hated that voice. Goldthwait, though, is clearly a decent director, and if he can convince Williams to do more of this ilk and stop farting about in kidflick codswallop, more the better.

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Easy A

March 9, 2011 4 comments

Whilst being a little too snarkily self-satisfied, Easy A is a reasonable success – it’s funny in parts and works in a slight-but-sophisticated way. But for Emma Stone, though, you’d have to mark it up as merely ‘reasonable’ – John Waters without an edge that decides it wants to be John Hughes without the lack of cynicism.

It has the requisite snappy sarcasms and ingratiating lefty self-criticisms, and a decent script, but the actors are all a little too chuffed with how, like, cutting-yet-charming the whole thing is. The address-to-camera conspiratorial ‘we’re the cool kids’ familiarity. The trendiest parents ever committed to film. The multi-cultural family. The bored-yet-flamboyant erudition. The collective shrugs as to the dumbass machinations of the assorted characters.

Stone is a student that hasn’t really had much in the way of boyfriends. They ‘don’t notice her’ (of course not) and so, when her friend presses her to spend the weekend with her and her ‘weird’ family, to evade such matters she concocts a ‘date’ with a mysterious fellow and then, when Monday rolls around, spins the yarn out too far to take in affirmatives as to having had sex. A few mobile beeps later and she’s an instant dirtbag and the restlessly voyeuristic youth are all fascinated in her every further move.

Furthermore, the douchebags not getting any want her to take more reputation flogging in the name of their lowly star, as, obviously, any fat kid not getting his end away will flourish off the back of scurrilous rumours as to his bagging the school’s newest slut. Even the gay kid wants to pass himself off as scuzzily hetero – Stone to the rescue. All these for a fee, of course.

As all this is rattling along we get Stone addressing the camera with what will prove to be a ‘live webcast’ to all the significant players absolving herself of guilt or harmful intent in playing along with the truth, etc, and gently and unbitterly admonishing everyone who jumped on the bandwagon for their dire willingness to grind someone into the dirt. 

I must mention – though I’m tempted not to – that there’s a ‘Scarlet Letter’ reference running through the film which buys some easy laughs, and aims for a bit of reflected kudos. But the parallels feel a little bogus and are, it seems, a little too swiftly and eagerly employed – ‘This is an intelligent, considered and multi-faceted teen-comedy!’ Stone also manages to get a few references to John Hughes films in, and there’s a Say Anything moment towards the end, before we’re all ushered through the exits with elasticated smile appliques to snap on around our happy faces.

To be fair, this is a pleasant and enjoyable film that goes after all the right targets and raises enough smiles. Emma Stone, a young Aniston (pray it doesn’t go as awry) is about as perky and appealing as it gets and does comedy effortlessly well (though is less successful when trying a little too unnecessarily hard – some of the winning mugging is too much) and Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci and Thomas Haden Church do far too few films. Even Lisa Kudrow – perhaps the only ‘Friend’ to have a cleverly (though no less exacting) cultivated career post Central Perk – has deigned it worthy and it’s never less than amusing. It’s no Election, though, and isn’t even quite Mean Girls (though it surely thinks it is).

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Animal Kingdom

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

There is an air of angry resignation at the heart of this Dostoevskian portrait of an unravelling outlaw family that lends it a sense of roiling verisimilitude. Little comment is passed on what happens, either visual or expositional, other than Guy Pearce’s emblematic and title-riffing speech two-thirds in, and we see thoroughly believable reactions and dissemblances to the often grim unfolding acts. Director David Michod’s only seeming concessions arrive through occasional elegiac slow-mo, a gliding portent of gloss that serve as timely employed breathers as much as anything. He doesn’t slam a clammy palm on any obvious emotional buttons, in other words.

Animal Kingdom has a late-eighties Melbourne family hitting a brick wall; their time has come and gone but they’re in ostensible denial. Petty criminality and in-fighting are their forte and there seems to be a pervasion of dread signalling their imminent devolvement. This effects each member differently; some self-destruct, others cop for an impatiently administered and opportunistic demise. Others, such as Ben Mendelsohn’s ‘Pope’, run the gamut between deliriously paranoiac and knee-jerk self-immolating. All of this under the gaze of creepily intimate matriarch Jacki Weaver.

Into this endangered lot comes young cousin/nephew Josh (a riveting opening turn by James Frecheville), taken on after his mother’s fatal heroin overdose (which we see the tail-end of, as paramedics stroll into the blare of an Australian gameshow and a slumped corpse) which Josh relays to his distant and unfamiliar kin in deadened tones.

Josh is seamlessly inducted into the clan amidst drug drop-offs and matter-of-fact gun-wielding rites of passage, and there is more than a little sense of Scorsese’s Goodfellas in early sequences. The voiceover emphasises the normalised nature of such escapades, and his reluctance to be ostracised from his familial remainder in motivating his head-in-the-sand equanimity. He’s going to survive, or at the very least stick with the gun-toters. As time passes, as his girlfriend becomes an integral part of the ensuing chaos and as the guns are waved in ever more uncertain directions, he has cause to reassess his loyalties, and the intervention of Guy Pearce as a police officer closing-in on this ruinous collective adds to the urgent pace of Frecheville’s looming moral/ethical crossroads.

There seems to be, from director David Michod, an underlying allegiance to these dying animals, a blackly-humourous respect for their doomed dominion and frantic self-destruction. It is an Antipodean aria of antipathy, a battened-hatches harking to eighties Melbourne and the end of an era. Mendelsohn’s paranoid-hellbent alpha male is a fascinatingly grim, seething locus of entropy. Glistening with drug-sweat and self-loathing, he exists on the tenuous possibility of febrile resolution. He is, throughout the film, struggling to embody the role of absent father (to whom no mention is made, to my recollection at least) and by rote offers unsolicited, vaguely sinister affectations of paternal guidance: ‘If there’s ever anything you need to talk about…I’m here, I want you to know that,’ is a typical example of his abrupt and uncertain attempts at ‘connecting’ and such exchanges seem to unsettle more than his stock fulminations. 

Despite a superb ensemble effort, this is Frecheville’s film. He’s particularly spot-on as an impressionable teen fast-tracked to bloodied adulthood. Jacki Weaver got a lot of attention for her performance in this, and it’s deserved. Although I’d curb the urge to pull out not one but two eyebrow-raise flourishes, like a daytime soap Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps a leering Mrs Robinson-lite, in an otherwise tense scene: it’s a jarring choice of gesture that has you jogging your memory as to whether or not it was her in Home and Away in 1989 after all.

Animal Kingdom is both fresh and cleverly cannibalistic. Scenes recall Malick, Scorsese and Lumet and Michod has an impressive dramatic hold on a potentially unwieldy number of plot strands, none of which are submerged or allowed to become incidental. No scene is wasted and everything counts, every moment further enriches characterisation and depth. These are menacing, sun-languored streets and Animal Kingdom is a powerful, engrossing and complexly-charged thriller, a must-see.

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