Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review - Whatever Works

Whatever Works is the title of the new Woody Allen film, but we might be mistaken for thinking it's the mantra Allen has adopted in some of his recent features. In the past few years, Allen has tossed off a couple of movies that have the feel of an inconsequential shrug, and this one, which marks his return to his native New York, is no different. The fact that Whatever Works feels a little stale is perhaps unsurprising when we learn that Allen wrote this screenplay back in the 1970's before leaving it in a drawer for a few decades. Needing to fill a gap in his relentless production schedule, Allen recently retrieved the old script, dusted it off, and made a half-assed attempt at bringing it up to date with a few contemporary references – although when those references are at the level of "A black man can get into the White House, but he still can't get a cab in New York," you really wish he hadn't bothered.

Wherever you look it's standard Woody Allen fare, a recycling of storylines, characters and themes that he already covered in the years when he still had something to say. The Allen stand-in this time is Boris Yellnikoff and he's played by Larry David, in what appears at first glance to be a perfect storm of neurotic Jewish comics. This curmudgeonly character is a blend of Allen and David's distinctive styles, and David's delivery gives the script's misanthropic one-liners some weight, but David has never been much of an actor and his limitations are exposed during the course of the movie. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, David has surrounded himself with fine comic performers who can share the comedy burden, but he seems uncomfortable delivering many of the long speeches Allen has written for him, and his one-note performance precludes any real emotional investment in the character.

Most of Boris' tirades rail against the stupidity of people and the meaningless of life, and he repeatedly tells us what a charmless character he is to be around. Boris has both a ridiculous limp (a failed suicide attempt) and a superiority complex (he believes he's a genius and the only one who can see 'the big picture'), but in true Woody Allen style, there's a hot young blonde on hand to fall in love with him. Her name is Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), and she turns up at his door one night hungry and homeless, pleading with him to give her a bed for a night, an arrangement that lasts a lot longer than Boris originally intended it to. Melody is from the south and is a ditzy Allen bimbo in the tradition of Mighty Aphrodite's Mira Sorvino or Bullets Over Broadway's Jennifer Tilly. Wood plays her with a light charm and has a few good lines ("If you throw me out and I wind up an Asian prostitute, that's going to be on your conscience."), but did she really have to fall for Boris and end up marrying him? Oh Woody, give it a rest.

In Allen's worldview, everyone who lives outside New York appears to be a god-fearing hick, a notion that's reinforced when Melody's bible-bashing parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) turn up and are instantly transformed into free-loving bohemians by the big city. It's silly, unbelievable and not particularly funny, and at times Allen seems unsure of who exactly in his story to focus on; Boris takes a back seat for a large stretch of the picture while we watch Clarkson's Marietta loosen up and Melody get involved with a drippy British actor (Henry Cavill's Randy, who lives on a boat and says things like "I think, I read and I play my flute"). Some of these scenes are almost rescued by the ever-excellent Clarkson, who gives her thin caricature as much juice as she can, but there's only so much one woman can do.

Is Whatever Works funny? Sure, in fits and starts, but for the most part it's just flat and over familiar. Allen seems to have completely lost interest in the look of his films (Harris Savides is a great cinematographer, but the film suffers from clumsy compositions and ungainly lighting) and he is now simply repeating himself year on year, only occasionally showing flashes of the old inspiration. The message of Whatever Works is that life is short and death is coming, so try to take whatever happiness you can from your time on earth. Is Allen really happy churning out so many mediocre features? Has he got one last great picture in him? It's just over a decade ago that he was making films as diverse and clever as Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry and Everyone Says I Love You. I'd like to think Woody Allen will surprise us with one more masterpiece that bears comparison to his greatest works, but he seems satisfied just moving from one half-baked picture to the next, shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Whatever."

Review - Tetro

Francis Ford Coppola is in his 70's now but Tetro feels like a young man's film. It is a work overflowing with passion and exuberance, as if made by a director exploring the limits of his own abilities and throwing everything he has into the mix, not a filmmaker with four decades in the industry already behind him. Perhaps Coppola, like the protagonist of his 2007 film Youth Without Youth, was struck by lightning and imbued with a fresh, young spirit that has rejuvenated his artistic soul, or maybe it's simply the fact that financing this small-scale project himself has finally given Coppola the freedom to be the filmmaker he always wanted to be.

Tetro is the first film Coppola has directed from one of his own original screenplays since 1974's The Conversation, and many of the themes that have preoccupied the director throughout his career are present. This is another Coppola tale of familial strife, opening with young cruise line worker Bennie (impressive newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Buenos Aires in the hope of reconnecting with his brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Years ago, Angelo left the family to escape their domineering father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and he has now cut all ties with his clan, having reinvented himself as the writer Tetro. "Angie is dead," he tells his brother in no uncertain terms, but at the behest of his girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdú), Tetro reluctantly lets his younger sibling stick around for a couple of days. This simple setup allows Coppola to tell a melodramatic story that unfolds with operatic grandeur, but what really struck me with Tetro was less the story being told than the style with which the director tells it.

This is a ravishing piece of filmmaking. Shot by the gifted young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, who also filmed Youth Without Youth, Tetro's visuals constantly manage to delight and surprise. Filming in black-and-white, Coppola and Malaimare make brilliant use of light and shadows and find sumptuous imagery in the stark contrast between them. Coppola's direction is thrillingly imaginative. From the opening close-up of a moth flitting around an incandescent light bulb, his compositions are daring and inventive: a scene of confrontation with Tetro appearing only in silhouette; the sunlight glinting off his sunglasses; a wonderfully lit production of Faust. If these brilliant, Fellini-esque images weren't enough to satisfy cinephiles, Coppola finds a way to pay tribute to Powell and Pressburger with glorious Technicolor inserts referencing The Tales of Hoffman. On every aesthetic level, Tetro is sensational work of art.

It is only when we dig beneath that surface that we may be inclined to question Tetro's credentials. How you react to the film will depend on your tolerance for the kind of operatic, loopy storytelling Coppola indulges here. The narrative's oedipal themes are writ large and with little subtlety, as are the numerous dramatic ironies (matching leg breaks, for example, or the dramatisation of family traumas in a climactic play), but the director's decision to play his film in such a high emotional register pays off, with the picture's passionate thrust helping to sweep us through some clunky storytelling. The acting helps too, although this is to be expected in a Coppola picture. He has always drawn excellent performances from his cast, and here he helps Vincent Gallo channel his natural abrasive intensity into a compelling characterisation, which contrasts nicely with Alden Ehrenreich's effective underplaying. Throughout the film there are fine character turns, with Maribel Verdú giving a strong, empathetic performance as Tetro's patient partner, and actors such as Carmen Maura, Rodrigo De la Serna and Leticia Brédice popping up on the many unexpected tangents Coppola takes us down.

Many viewers will undoubtedly roll their eyes at Tetro's hysterical climax and gripe that the picture is a good deal longer than it needs to be, but I was rapt throughout, intoxicated by Coppola's vivid, haunting imagery and the turbulent drama. 2010 has been good to the leaders of Hollywood's 70's revolution so far, with Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese having already made their mark on the year's cinema with The Ghost and Shutter Island. However, while those films simply showed us their directors can still do what we always knew they could do, Francis Ford Coppola has shown us another side to himself and presented us with a picture that's unlike anything else. Coppola has reinvented himself as a completely independent artist, working free from the constraints of Hollywood, and if Tetro is anything to go by, we could be entering a fascinating late period for the director. This is one from the heart, and I adored it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review - Good Hair

Who could have guessed that black women's hair was such a complex and contentious issue? Good Hair is a film that tells you everything you could ever wish to know about weaves, relaxers and the multi-billion dollar industry that has capitalised on the black female desire to have 'good' hair, whatever that is. According to Jeff Stilson's documentary, good hair for many black women equates to white hair, so it is understandable that Chris Rock was perturbed to be asked by his young daughter whether her hair qualifies as 'good'. That question prompted the comedian to investigate the issue in this fun documentary, a film that sees him travelling the globe and interviewing people from all walks of life in an effort to understand just why black women feel compelled to go through the pain and expense that 'good' hair involves.

It's eye-opening stuff and it's often very funny. Rock spends time in barbershops and hair salons in order to attain both male and female perspectives on the subject, with the women he meets being completely unapologetic about the thousands of dollars they spend on their hair while the men relate anecdotes about dating women who refuse to let their hair be touched during sex. The comic is a very likable guide – compare his easygoing vibe here to the stiff and strained acting performance he recently gave in Death at a Funeral – and the people he meet all seem to be comfortable and happy to share their points of view in his presence. Beyond American shores, Rock travels to India where he observes a Hindu head-shaving ritual of purification – the hair is collected and sold for a major profit – and listens with astonishment to tales of girls' hair being stolen as they sleep. Alongside his encounters with the general public, Rock has assembled an impressive array of celebrity contributors who air their views in interview segments, with Ice-T, Al Sharpton and Raven-Symoné among the appealingly candid stars. Throughout Good Hair there's a nice balance between the time allotted to the famous and non-famous alike, and the editing by Paul Marchand and Greg Nash keeps the tone light and jaunty.

That tone can be at odds with some of the more unsettling areas Good Hair cautiously ventures into, though. There are scenes here that depict the dark flipside to the film's jokey discussion of black hair, but Rock and Stilson seem unwilling to push those angles. Perhaps that's unfair – after all, Rock's background is observational comedy rather than journalistic rigour – but it's frustrating to watch a film about the extremes of female beauty that's only skin-deep. The history and context of the issue is only briefly touched upon, as is the disturbing trend for applying toxic relaxant to toddlers' heads, and there is little investigation of the ethics behind the enormous industry that promotes this particular look. One scene stands out for me as the most crucial and sadly underdeveloped in the film, and it involves four black students who are all on the verge of entering the workforce for the first time. Three of them bluntly tell their companion that they wouldn't take her seriously if she turned up at an interview with her natural afro hair, but the questions this exchange raises about black self-image and value of a natural look in today's society are barely commented upon. The subject of Good Hair is a great deal more complicated and politically loaded than the filmmakers seem happy to admit.

Instead, the film finds a more comfortable spot for itself at the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show, a glitzy haircutting contest that's so ludicrous and over-the-top I can't even begin to describe it here. The decision to follow four aspiring contestants on the road to the final gives Good Hair a satisfying sense of structure and a natural climactic point to end on. In the end, does it matter that Good Hair is happier poking fun at the absurdities of the hair industry than getting to the heart of it? I've seen the film twice now and my first viewing was when it played as the opening night film for the BFI's Black Film Month. I was one of the very few white male faces in the audience, and the women around me roared and cheered their appreciation throughout. Their laughter was the laughter of recognition, making it clear that Rock and Stilson have hit upon an issue that matters a great deal to the black community and their film is almost guaranteed to entertain a wide audience beyond that, even if it never really answers some of the most interesting questions it raises.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review - Please Give

The worst thing about Please Give is the feeling we're left with as the closing credits roll, when we realise it might be another four or five years before we see another Nicole Holofcener film. Since making her directorial debut in 1997, Holofcener has worked at a steady pace and the infrequency of her films has made them all the more valuable. The director's latest film contains all of the attributes we've missed since 2006's Friends With Money; the film is another delicate mix of comedy and drama, written with insight and wit, and performed expertly by a well-chosen cast. Please Give develops a subject that was already touched upon in Friends With Money, the guilt of wealthy liberals, which is risky territory for any filmmaker to tread into. After all, having a bunch of affluent characters bemoaning their lot is hardly likely to win the audience's sympathy, but Holofcener negotiates that hurdle by ensuring all of her characters are flawed and interesting, and that the themes of the story, if not the milieu, are commonplace enough to be relatable.

The fact that we empathise with the central characters in Please Give is even more surprising given the nature of their occupation. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are vultures. The couple runs a New York furniture store stocked with items bought cheaply from homes of the recently deceased that they can sell at a considerable profit. Even at home, the couple are waiting for death, as they keep a close eye on their 90 year-old neighbour Andra (Ann Guilbert), whose apartment they plan on buying and renovating as soon as she has passed on. While Alex seems to take all of this in his stride, Kate is crippled with guilt and she tries every tactic to assuage those feelings. She offers to run errands for the doddery but acid-tongued Andra, she gives $20 handouts to beggars in the street – much to her daughter's chagrin – and she volunteers at centres for the elderly and disabled, but these approaches fail to exorcise the ghosts that have begun appearing in her store. Keener, who has appeared in every one of Holofcener's films, plays Kate with her usual understatement and acuity, making her a plausibly complicated figure who's just trying to do the best she can but isn't sure how to go about it.

As ever with Holofcener's films, there are a variety of characters surrounding the main narrative, all of whom are well-developed and beset with their own issues. Andra's two granddaughters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet, giving her best performance) couldn't be more different. Rebecca is a shy, caring nurse in a mammogram clinic (prompting a startling opening sequence) whereas Mary is a brash, perma-tanned beautician with a cruel streak. There's also Abbey (Sarah Steele), Kate and Alex's daughter, who suffers from extreme insecurities about her acne and her weight, and all of these characters remain individually intriguing throughout, with Holofcener juggling her various strands beautifully. Everyone in the film is afforded the same respect by the writer/director, and each character is shown to have multiple layers that only reveal themselves in subtle ways throughout the picture. We find out towards the end just how damaged Peet's Mary is from a broken relationship, while Guilbert's superb performance gives us a hint of the fragility and vulnerability lurking under Andra's brusque manner, and Steele perfectly encapsulates the anxiety of a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Holofcener allows these characters to drive the film. She doesn't really do plot, instead giving us a collection of scenes in which our understanding of the story comes through the dialogue and the characters' reactions to one another. The themes of guilt, empathy and family frustration are dealt with in a sharp and subtle manner, and the director maintains a lively, edgy tone throughout, bringing her film in at a brisk ninety minutes with hardly a moment feeling wasted. Holofcener served her apprenticeship on Woody Allen films in the 1980's, and her work bears the traces of his best work in that period, recalling films like Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanours. I'm tempted to wish that Holofcener would develop a work ethic comparable to Allen's, so we wouldn't have such a long period between her features, but then perhaps the films wouldn't be as finely crafted and satisfying as her work so consistently is.

Review - Shed Your Tears and Walk Away

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away is not the best-looking film you'll see this year. The images are clumsily shot and often crudely edited, but perhaps that's because director Jez Lewis has more important things on his mind than artfully composing his picture – he's trying to save a friend's life. Lewis left his home town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire over twenty years ago to move to London, but he still hears stories about the people he grew up with, and the news is rarely good. A series of suicides in the community prompted Lewis to head back to Hebden, camera in hand, and to make this documentary in an attempt to gain some insight into why so many locals have taken their own life. In this quaint tourist town he finds a dark underside of drink and drugs, and it is from this bleak situation that he tries to rescue Cass.

Graeme Cassidy was Jez Lewis' closest friend when the pair were schoolchildren, and he remains a much-loved figure among all who meet him. Warm, funny and amiable, Cass spends his days sitting with a group of companions in the park, drinking the days away. Cass, however, may not have many days left to waste, as he has already received a grim warning from his doctor that he will have less than two years to live unless he changes his ways. The central narrative of Shed Your Tears and Walk Away becomes Jez's attempt to help pull his friend out of the alcoholic spiral he finds himself in, and the revelation of just how difficult – perhaps impossible – that task may be. One notable sequence shows us a completely different Cass, when he moves to a rehab centre in London and remains sober for a significant period in which he starts studying, grows healthier and begins enjoying a life outside the bottle for the first time in years. However, his emotional connection to his hometown soon starts drawing him back, and even on the train north he gets the urge for a drink once again. It's as if Hebden Bridge itself is a kind of alcoholic vortex that sucks everyone into it.

Lewis occasionally expands his focus beyond Cass, but there's tragedy wherever he looks. A 25 year-old dies in the town centre after a binge-drinking session, and when Lewis interviews his mother she admits she spent so much time worrying about her other son's heroin abuse she overlooked his brother's self-destructive drinking habits. The director achieves a remarkable intimacy with his subjects and gets them to open up to his camera in a way that they sometimes can't do with anyone else. One of the most tragic figures in the film is Michael Silcock, known as Silly, who is one of the regulars in Cass' drinking troupe. In a heartbreaking scene, Silly breaks down on camera as he recalls the experiences as a soldier in Africa that keep him awake at night. These are memories he can't even share with his fiancée and they keep him drinking in an attempt to numb the pain.

A quote from Silly gives the film the title Shed Your Tears and Walk Away but Lewis refuses to walk away from this desperate situation. He keeps filming even when he is watching his friends in dire straits, only turning the camera off in one scene as a negotiating tactic to stop Cass from opening a can of Special Brew. Yes, the film is often technically slapdash, but the rough-and-ready nature of its construction seems fitting as it mirrors the raw, complex emotions contained within. As we watch Cass make a tentative step towards sobriety and Silly slip further into despair, Shed Your Tears and Walk Away remains compelling and occasionally painful viewing with a personal edge that gives it a particularly powerful impact. The film ends on an ambiguous note with Cass and Silly, despite the support and encouragement of Lewis and others, teetering on the brink of their old ways. I'd like to think there is still hope for Cass, but Silly seems to have no fight or heart left in him as he drinks himself into the abyss.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Review - MacGruber

There are three or four scenes in MacGruber that are really funny – unfortunately, that's three or four scenes in a long ninety minutes, but I guess that's the nature of taking a sketch character and asking it to carry the weight of a feature length movie. MacGruber was created for brief skits on Saturday Night Live and this drearily unimaginative cinematic outing exposes an inevitable truth about the character: there simply isn't enough MacGruber to go around. The character is a spoof of MacGyver, the TV action hero renowned for his ability to construct weapons and explosives out of everyday items and to defuse bombs with seconds to spare. Will Forte, who co-wrote MacGruber and plays the lead role, nails the unshakeable self-confidence and righteousness of the character, while also playing him as a clueless coward, whose blundering idiocy is often a greater threat to national security than the villains he is out to thwart. There is scope here for a decent action movie send-up in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker mould, but to pull that off MacGruber would have needed to display a greater sense of wit and ambition than any of the three screenwriters can muster.

MacGruber instantly feels old in one of its earliest scenes, finding its hero in the kind of reclusive, Rambo-style retirement that has already been effectively spoofed in Hot Shots! Part Deux, and that's essentially the film's problem. Everything in MacGruber has already been parodied somewhere else and – more often than not – done in a much funnier fashion. Instead of finding some unexpected new slant on the material, the writers and director Jorma Taccone play it safe and go lowbrow, resorting time and time again to jokes about shit, gay sex and the fact that Val Kilmer's villain is named Dieter Von Cunth ("Let's go pound some Cunth" is about the level we're at here). Perhaps an even greater crime is how repetitive the film is, with many of the dismal jokes getting a second airing as the filmmakers desperately try to pad out the running time. If you thought the sight of Will Forte with a stick of celery up his arse was comedy gold, stick around for your chance to see noted funnyman Ryan Phillippe doing the same thing!

The film's best performance comes from Kristen Wiig, an actress who is often the best thing in whatever film she's appearing in, and who effortlessly manages to rise above her surroundings here. She plays MacGruber's colleague/love interest Vicki St. Elmo, and her ability to sell a gag with just her facial expression or the quivering tone of her voice remains a treat to cherish. She's at the centre of most of MacGruber's highlights, the moments when you catch a glimpse of the movie it could have been. There's a good scene in which Vicki acts as bait for Von Cunth in a coffee shop, and there's a hilarious sex scene which is probably the single funniest sequence in the movie. Elsewhere, the film shows the occasional flash of surreal invention or blissful silliness, like MacGruber's irrational obsession with a number plate, or the subtitle that translates "You're loco, man!" as "You're crazy, man!", but these are isolated bright spots in a film that sets pathetically low targets for itself and still manages to miss the mark.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review - Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrî)

If you believe everything you see in the movies, 2012 is the end of the road for humanity. Last year, Roland Emmerich bombastically destroyed the world on that date, and now Fish Story predicts an equally bleak fate for us in just two years. This time, however, at least we have an obscure Japanese punk song from the 70's to save us all. Yoshihiro Nakamura's film spans multiple decades in less than two hours, giving us an apocalypse soon and finally spinning backwards to reveal the truth of its story, which has its roots in a book published in the 1950's. Near the end of the film, a character explains the meaning of the title, describing a "fish story" as a tall or exaggerated tale, and the picture has certainly earned that accolade. This shaggy-dog story is a good deal shaggier than most.

Where to begin with this most convoluted narrative? Nakamura opens in 2012, in an eerily deserted Tokyo, with its inhabitants having fled the city as a meteor looms high in the sky. With just hours left until impact, three men take refuge in a record shop and begin discussing the work of a little-known band called Gekirin who apparently invented punk a year before The Sex Pistols were formed, before they quickly disappeared from history. Their song Fish Story didn't sell, but in the years afterwards it became a cult item, partly for the cryptic lyrics ("This is the story of my solitude, if my solitude was a fish") and partly for the minute-long silence that occurs where the guitar solo should be; a gap that has been lent a variety of spooky interpretations. In 1982, we see Masashi (Gaku Hamada) being freaked out by the rumour that a woman's scream can be heard in the silence, and later being told that he has a future part to play in the world's salvation. In 1999, we see two of Masashi's fellow students waiting on the beach for the end of the world as predicted by Nostradamus. In 2009, we see schoolgirl Asami (Mikako Tabe) fall asleep on a ferry and wake up in the midst of a terrorist hijack, and Gekirin's Fish Story provides a constant soundtrack to this seemingly unconnected weirdness.

In the end, we find out that everything is connected, but Nakamura keeps the truth under wraps right up to the finish, and for a long time we just have to submit to Fish Story's momentum, trusting that the director knows what he's doing. He makes it easy for us to have that trust by directing with real confidence and verve. The camerawork and editing has a lively snap to it, and his staging is frequently witty, not least in the excellent sequence on board the hijacked ferry, when a waiter with ninja skills (Mirai Moriyama) is called upon to save the day. While it may appear at times that Nakamura is simply throwing everything he's got into the mix, Fish Story is actually crafted in an impressively coherent fashion, with the frequent shifts between time periods being handled gracefully, and the director only allows us to be as confused as he wants us to be. Tamio Hayashi's screenplay – an adaptation of Kotaro Isaka's novel – is peppered with smart dialogue and eclectic cultural references and the unexpected twists kept me gripped and entertained for at least an hour.

After that point, Fish Story began to grind its gears a little. The longest section of the movie (at least, it feels that way) takes place towards the end and explains the meaning behind that mysterious minute of silence on Gekirin's final record. Unfortunately, the travails of the band, whose members are easily the least interesting on display, have now dramatic weight, and this portion of the film feels baggy and self-indulgent. Even more disappointingly, the truth of the silence, when it is unveiled, is a desperately mundane and underwhelming one. It's a letdown, sure, but it's not enough to cripple the movie, not when Nakamura draws so many fine performances from his actors in the other strands of the film, and the director still has an ace up his sleeve that manages to rescue his film from a flat climax. In the final scenes, Nakamura and Hayashi reveal how every character and every unusual event in this bizarre film was connected, creating a dazzlingly inventive butterfly effect that's both impressive and charming. It takes a long and winding road to get there, but right at the last moment, Nakamura's tall tale finally won me over.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Review - Greenberg

Noah Baumbach's last three films have had monstrously self-absorbed characters at their core, and the films have grown increasingly hard to take. The director's latest is Greenberg, and the title character is one who is so irritating and charmless I found it a fruitless chore to endure two hours in his company. This is a source of great frustration to me, because I always find a lot to admire in Baumbach's work. His direction has a tight sense of claustrophobia that places us right alongside his neurotic characters, and his caustic writing frequently offers up moments of clarity, insight and dark humour. Against all of that, however, there's the simple fact that I found both Greenberg and Baumbach's previous film Margot at the Wedding quite exhausting to watch, and there is precious little reward here for those who stay the course.

Despite the overwhelming narcissism of the central character, the first person we see onscreen in Greenberg is someone other than him. Her name is Florence, and she's played by Greta Gerwig, the actress making her first attempt to build on her mumblecore popularity in higher-profile pictures. Florence is the personal assistant to the Greenberg household, and when the family leaves for a month-long vacation, she is left to contend with Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a depressive carpenter who has moved temporarily to Los Angeles while he recovers from a breakdown. Florence's brief is to check in on him occasionally, and her prime concern is for the family's dog, but the pair of them – both bored, lonely and lost – begin a hesitant and awkward relationship. Neither Roger nor Florence seem to get a great deal of fulfilment from this on-again off-again setup, and there's not much fun to be had in watching it either. He's a miserable, selfish jerk who lures her in only to repeatedly reject her; she's a passive doormat who offers little resistance to his emotionally abusive behaviour.

Despite this, Florence remains an appealing, sympathetic character, thanks to the charming understatement Gerwig brings to the role. Rhys Ifans also excels as the only one of Roger's former bandmates who is still on talking terms with him, Greenberg having ruined their dreams of a record deal years earlier. It's quite touching to see how Ivan dutifully stands by his old friend out of some vague sense of loyalty, even as he is belittled and aggravated by Roger, and this relationship is one of the few in the film that really feels true. The central character never quite rang true for me, though. Greenberg trades heavily on Ben Stiller's frustrated, neurotic, aggressive screen persona, but he plays his part in a single tiresome register.

We expect Greenberg to soften slightly towards the end of the film, and he does, just a little, as he finally begins to show a hint of consideration for those around him, but is it worth wading through the self-loathing and misanthropy for this brief moment of epiphany? Particularly when it is depicted through such laboured scenes as the extended party sequence in which Greenberg makes a fool of himself, or the silly morning-after sidetrack that almost sees him journeying to Australia on a whim? Greenberg is a film defined by its eponymous figure – it is narrow, cold and sour – and while Florence keeps giving him a second chance, I couldn't find the will to embrace something that was so intent on pushing me away.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Review - Four Lions

With Four Lions, Chris Morris is making his feature debut as a director and the result is every bit as bold and uncompromising as we have come to expect from him. The notorious satirist, who brilliantly spoofed TV news with The Day Today and caused a media storm with his Brass Eye paedophilia special, has chosen Islamic extremism as the subject of his new film, following a group of would-be suicide bombers as they prepare for their forthcoming jihad. The film opens with the group making their video testimonies, which are disrupted by a toy machine gun that looks ridiculously small on camera and debates over which of them is "the most Al-Qaeda," and Morris subsequently charts their progress through a Pakistan training camp, experiments with homemade bombs and arguments about what exactly their target should be.

This might not sound like natural comedy material, but that's presumably why Morris has ventured into this territory in the first place, to mine fresh laughs in an area that other filmmakers have shied away from and to make light of a subject that only inspires terror and fear in the public. Four Lions is set in Sheffield and uses the standard comedy template of a gang of likable losers getting into something that's so much bigger than they ever realised. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the leader of the group and, by some distance, he's the most level-headed character, which isn't hard when you look at the numbskulls he has aligned himself with. The second most prominent character is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an ignorant, permanently enraged white Muslim convert who has fixated on the idea that the best possible target would be a mosque, in order to radicalise fellow Muslims across the globe.

Of the bunch, only these two seem fully committed to the cause, and one of the weaknesses of Four Lions' screenplay is the sketchiness of its characterisations. Morris doesn't elaborate on the reasons behind his characters' actions, and the rest of the group seem to be going along for the ride purely because they are suggestible enough to follow whatever Omar and Barry tell them to do. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) is an amiable dope whose big idea is to attach explosives to trained crows and fly them into "one of those buildings that's full of Jews and slags," while Hassan (Arsher Ali) is a teenager hired by Barry after causing a stir with fake explosives at a public debate. However, the most stupid character on display is Waj (Kayvan Novak), a childlike figure who can't even tell the difference between rabbits and chickens. Morris is sometimes guilty of writing Waj as too stupid to be believable, although the manner in which Omar treats this character allows the director to make his point about the way extremists manipulate those weaker than them.

But what exactly is Omar's motive? At times, even he seems unsure of the path he has chosen, and I was mystified by the glimpse Morris allows us into the comfortable middle-class home he shares with his supportive wife and young son. "You were much more fun when you were going to blow yourself up, love," Sophia (Preeya Kalidas) tells Omar during one of his many moments of self-doubt. These gaps in Morris' characterisation leave Four Lions feeling a little raggedy and slapdash, and the film is uneven in its distribution of laughs, but it's worth waiting through the dry patches for those moments when Morris hits the target. He has a brilliant knack for blending surreal elements into dramatic scenes, such as Omar explaining the jihad to his son by using The Lion King as a metaphor or a pair of police snipers trying to ascertain whether a wookie and a bear are the same thing. The dialogue is grounded is a very prosaic reality, mirroring the small-time mentality of the characters (Fessal wants to blow up Boots because "they sell condoms that make you want to bang white women"), and Morris' direction is superbly detailed, with great little touches like the glimpsed news headline, "Asian man's head falls out of tree."

The most interesting thing about Four Lions, however, is the way Morris sacrifices laughs in the final twenty minutes and makes us realise that he is going to follow through on the harsh realities of his characters' choices come what may. His direction becomes energised with a nervous pulse, and as the final reckoning looms, Four Lions develops a sense of pathos, and these absurd characters suddenly become oddly sympathetic figures. "I'm sorry lads," Waj states, "I don't really know what I'm doing," and in these final moments Morris lays bare the futility and misguided nature of the violence they have put so much preparation into. It is a daring filmmaking choice, and it pays off, delivering a powerful and resonant climax. By exposing his characters' foolishness and underlining the way they have painted themselves into a corner through confusion and peer pressure, Morris cuts through the ridiculous comedy of their bumbling to end on a note that feels painfully, tragically real.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Review - The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)

The Girl on the Train is based upon a shocking real-life story. A young woman, riding alone on an RER train, was set upon by a gang of thugs who mistook her for a Jew. They ripped her clothes, they cut her hair and her face, and they drew swastikas on her stomach. In a country already simmering with racial tension the incident became a huge story, enraging the nation and drawing the condemnation of President Chirac. Then people discovered it wasn't true. The woman had completely invented the scenario, cutting herself and drawing the swastikas on her own body, and when the truth emerged, the focus shifted from the crime itself to France's complex race relations and the media's sensationalistic coverage of the event. All of which is ripe material for André Téchiné, the French filmmaker whose films have often focused on intriguing personal stories against the backdrop of political unrest.

In adapting Jean-Marie Besset's play, Téchiné – who co-wrote the screenplay with Besset and Odile Barski – has created a fascinating character study, even if the true motives of its central character remain murky. He spends the best part of an hour letting us spend time with Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), and in that time he drops in a variety of potential reasons why this seemingly ordinary young woman would suddenly decide to cry wolf in such a spectacular way. Jeanne is a woman in her early twenties who seems lost. She begins a relationship with the charismatic Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and her mother (a slightly miscast Catherine Deneuve) sets her up with a job interview at the law firm run by an old friend. But when her relationship with Franck ends in disaster and she is rejected by the influential Jewish lawyer Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), it appears to send her into an emotional tailspin that prompts her outrageous accusation.

Téchiné has always enjoyed fracturing the narrative structure of his films, and he divides The Girl on the Train into two parts, labelled Circumstances and Consequences. The first gives us the opaque causes of Jeanne's behaviour and the second details the fallout, with Téchiné employing the same detached yet energetic approach to both. The Girl on the Train is hardly the director's most fully formed work, there are too undeveloped strands lingering around the edges of the picture that leave us with a clutch of loose ends, and Téchiné's take on the narrative fails to really explore the themes and dilemmas in sufficient depth. Particularly perplexing is the amount of time spent following Bleistein's son and his relationship with his ex-wife, which seems to have little bearing on the main subject. It remains terrifically watchable, though, with the lively editing keeping the film in a compelling state of perpetual motion that's encapsulated by its recurring motif of Jeanne gliding through the streets of Paris on rollerblades, free and without a care in the world.

Such an enigmatic central character is a challenging role for an actress, but Émilie Dequenne's superb performance captures all of the role's complexities – Jeanne's sense of aimlessness, her yearning for attention – while maintaining an intriguing sense of ambiguity in her characterisation. Was there a clear thought process behind Jeanne's folly, or was it simply the irrational act of a frustrated, disaffected youth? Téchiné is drawn to these mysteries of human behaviour and he leaves us plenty of room to speculate on the reasons why, while he focuses on the family's attempts to rectify the situation. In the second half of the picture, Michel Blanc emerges as a figure of calm authority, lending emotional support to Jeanne's mother and patiently drawing a confession out of the misguided girl. In these scenes, Jeanne finally seems to appreciate the full weight of what she has done, but that self-realisation has come far too late. The effects of a single lie can be impossible to contain once they have begun, and The Girl on the Train portrays this inexorable ripple effect with style and intelligence, even if it never reaches the depths that Téchiné is capable of.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Review - The Killer Inside Me

Every discussion about Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me seems to centre on the film's violence, so perhaps I should start there before broadening my scope to discuss the film that surrounds it, a significant portion of the picture that some people seem to have forgotten exists. There are two key scenes of violence in the film, and both involve the protagonist Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) beating a female victim senseless. In the first, he reduces a once-beautiful woman's face to a bloody mess with his gloved fist, while the second sees him felling a female character with a single brutal punch to the stomach, and standing by as her body twitches in agony and shock, before all life finally drains from it. Ever since The Killer Inside Me premiered at Sundance, people have fixated on these incidents, they have dominated reviews and interviews, and they have drawn comparisons with films as notorious as Irreversible. That, I would suggest, is exactly how Jim Thompson would have wanted it.

Thompson's The Killer Inside Me was published in 1952, and over half a century on it is still a shocking, compelling and unforgettable read. The author places us directly inside the mind of a sociopath, although Lou Ford, the seemingly upstanding sheriff in a small American town, keeps his murderous impulses carefully concealed beneath a bland, genial exterior. Casey Affleck, who plays the lead role, has already shown us how brilliantly he can display the ambiguous motives and duplicitous nature of an unlikely killer with his extraordinary performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he is magnificent as Thompson's disturbed antihero. He uses his boyish good looks, lazy drawl and crooked smile to project an image of a perfect lawman for a small 50's American town. "I've known you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper," Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) tells Ford, "and I know you've never done anything wrong."

Lou Ford's wrongdoing begins when he starts a relationship with prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba). He has been sent to run her out of town but the pair are soon enjoying kinky sex and making plans for a future together, although he quickly ensures she won't be going anywhere. Thompson's book filtered its events through the warped mind of Lou Ford, with him acting as a seductive but wholly unreliable narrator, and Winterbottom gives his film the same skewed perspective. Even as he beats Joyce to a pulp, she continues to profess her love for him between blows, and throughout the film we are never allowed to be fully confident in the veracity of what we're seeing. This slant on Ford's violent acts is perhaps part of why they are so hard to stomach. The second murder of Ford's sweetheart Amy (Kate Hudson, doing her best work in a decade) is not explicitly violent compared to much of what we see in cinemas today – it consists of one punch and one kick – but the force of the impact and the fact that we experience it from the killer's point of view is what gives these scenes their disturbing edge. The director refuses to look away during these sequences, and he holds his gaze on Amy's slowly dying body for as long as Ford does.

On the whole, Winterbottom's handling of The Killer Inside Me is most impressive. This is a director with no signature style, one who can adapt his approach to suit whatever material he turns his hand to, and here he does all he can to bring the source material to the screen intact. His direction is unfussy and unobtrusive but graced with smart touches, with Marcel Zyskind's glossy cinematography and the eclectic soundtrack choices providing an effective contrast with the bleak darkness of the story. The tone of the film veers from the horrific to the darkly comic via the overblown, and Winterbottom follows that meandering path with confidence, only occasionally slipping in his judgement. He struggles most visibly in the final third, when his absolute fidelity to the written word threatens to backfire. Bill Pullman plays Billy Boy Walker exactly as written by Thompson, but his scenery-chewin', tobacco-spittin' cameo struck me as jarring, unconvincing and unbalancing for the film. It's the kind of thing that works so much better on the page than the screen.

The devotion shown by Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to the novel is ultimately The Killer Inside Me's trump card, however. Not only have they captured the details of Thompson's narrative, but they have captured something far trickier to nail down – the author's style and spirit. The film is pure pulp with a pitch-black heart, and the conviction shown by all involved gives it a weight and potency that is bracing. The violence will remain an insurmountable hurdle for some, and that's understandable, but the filmmakers were absolutely right to film these scenes with the faithfulness and forthrightness that they have done. The violence in The Killer Inside Me is shocking, vivid and painful, and why on earth shouldn't it be? Such an unwavering refusal to compromise is the only way to do a writer like Jim Thompson justice.