Sunday, February 01, 2009

January Round-Up

Role Models
Role Models is a Judd Apatow production in all but name. It follows the Apatow template to the letter, but this is one mainstream comedy that hasn't dropped off his production line. Role Models stars Sean William Scott (reprising Stifler) and Paul Rudd as a pair of energy drink salesmen who are arrested and forced to do community service after a depressed Rudd binges on their own product and wrecks the company jeep. They serve their time at the Sturdy Wings centre, acting as mentors for lonely youngsters, with Rudd being paired up with an ultra geeky teenager (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Scott trying to cope with a foul-mouthed ten year-old (Bobb'e J. Thompson, who's like Chris Rock's Mini-Me). The misadventures this foursome subsequently become embroiled in are mostly predictable but they're also consistently funny, and the film as a whole is a lot sharper and more sensitive to its characters' needs than you might expect, with each of them developing in a satisfying if unambitious way. Director David Wain keeps Role Models running in a smooth and tight fashion, while the ensemble cast (with a scene-stealing Jane Lynch) is excellent, and the KISS-inspired finale manages the dual feat of being hilarious and lending the film an emotionally resonant climax.

Frost/NixonThe biggest problem facing Frost/Nixon is the fact that its most dramatic scenes are already widely available on DVD, and everything building up to those sequences feels like filler. Ron Howard's screen version of Peter Morgan's stage play is a solid if unmemorable drama, which the director orchestrates in his usual workmanlike fashion and which only feels worthwhile during the interviews when Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) go head to head. Langella is great to watch, Nixon is a plum part and he brings considerable gravitas to it, while Sheen plays Frost with a puppyish eagerness to please, although it's doubtful that he was as politically naïve as he is depicted here. Howard overplays the boxing match metaphor, dividing the encounter into rounds with each participant receiving advice from their corner men (Kevin Bacon for Nixon, an enjoyable Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell for Frost), and the whole first hour is weighed down by some useless faux-documentary segments in which the actors reiterate how important everything we're seeing is. Frost/Nixon is fine as far as Ron Howard films go, it offers a slickly engaging, moderately enjoyable film experience, but there's little here that will linger in the memory afterwards.

The ReaderWhen the Oscar nominations were announced on January 22nd, few people were surprised to see Frost/Nixon gaining recognition; after all, such classy, middlebrow drama is just to the Academy's taste. However, the nomination of The Reader alongside Howard's film in the Best Picture and Best Director categories was far more startling, particularly as many had tipped The Dark Knight or WALL•E to break new ground for superhero/animated movies. Instead, the Academy went for the Holocaust drama, and a particularly risible one at that. Kate Winslet stars as the mysterious Hanna, who indulges in a summer of passion with 15 year-old Michael (David Kross), insisting that he read passages from various books to her before they make love. Michael seems perfectly happy with this setup, but Hanna abruptly disappears one day, only to re-emerge years later when Michael discovers she was an SS concentration camp guard (gasp!) and also illiterate (double gasp!). This revelation raises many questions – wouldn't a concentration camp guard constantly need to check names on a list, or file paperwork? – but Stephen Daldry has little time for such details as he explores Michael's moral dilemma in the most shallow, pedestrian manner imaginable. Winslet and Kross are both very good, and their tangible chemistry makes the opening half hour bearable (while Ralph Fiennes' glum moping makes the climactic third almost unbearable), but their performances can't hide the fact that this is crass, manipulative bullshit which really would be laughable if so many people weren't taking it seriously. It has no interest in the Holocaust as a concept or an event; it only uses it as a tool to win awards, and it is happy to be forgotten as soon as the trophies have been handed out. Throughout the film I couldn't help thinking of Winslet's appearance on Extras, when she said, "Make a Holocaust film, win an Oscar" – a joke which has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What would Stanley Kubrick have made of The Reader? One suspects the themes of morality, sexual obsession and our place in history would have been right up his street. Aside from his directorial debut Killer's Kiss, all of Kubrick's films were literary adaptations, and no other filmmaker ever matched his ability to bring the substance of a novel to the screen, while stamping his own unmistakable signature upon it. Kubrick died in March 1999, and in recognition of that fact, the British Film Institute is holding a two-month retrospective of his work, showing all of his features, with his witty and elegant 1975 masterwork Barry Lyndon being screened on a brand new print. Best of all, the NFT will be offering three not-to-be missed chances in March to see Kubrick's unique and magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 70mm presentation. This is a great opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the true masters of cinema, and to see his films the way they were meant to be seen.

Better ThingsLet's come right back down to earth for the last two entries in this round-up. Better Things is the debut film from Duane Hopkins, and there's no doubt he's a filmmaker with talent to burn, but the brilliance of his approach only intermittently illuminates this bleak portrait of loveless lives. Based around the loosely connected experiences of a group of drug-taking youths, an agoraphobic teenager, and an unhappy elderly couple, the film observes its subjects in a series of beautifully composed tableaux, with Hopkins' background as an award-winning photographer evident in the frequently stunning images. He's a bold, adventurous director, and he produces some impressive cinematic coups here (pulling all ambient noise from an in-car conversation, cutting to a stunning landscape which is revealed to be a painting), but I often couldn't tell what he was trying to achieve with his distinctive camerawork or editing pattern, and ultimately I think his film lacks the thematic weight required to be as profound an experience as he wants it to be. The film's uneven performances and banal "realistic" dialogue also grates when held against its visual splendour, but this is still a hugely accomplished and vivid piece of filmmaking from an exciting young talent.

Hannah Takes the StairsEven more low-budget is Hannah Takes the Stairs, the latest film in the new independent cinema movement which has now earned the irritating sobriquet "Mumblecore". Heavily improvised, shot with handheld cameras, and free of any strict narrative, these films focus on the ups and downs of directionless twenty-somethings; and while I can see why people have responded positively to these films – there's something charming and intimate about their rough-and-ready approach – I'm not sure they're for me. Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs isn't a bad film, just an unremarkable and faintly tedious one which lacks any sympathetic or interesting characters, or any kind of visual style. It is diverting on occasion, though, and most of those diverting moments can be attributed to Greta Gerwig, who plays the eponymous character, and spends the film slipping in and out of relationships with three different men. She's comfortably the best actor in the film, possessing a great, open face which registers a variety of emotions, and in the film's sole memorable sequence she brings a genuine sense of feeling to a painful conversation with a friend. I'm looking forward to watching Gerwig in action again, but next time I hope it's in a better film than this, and it would be interesting to see what she can do with a proper script.