Archive for September, 2012

GFC: Gere Fully Clothed.

Posted: September 24, 2012 in movie reviews

The Global Financial Crisis looms over Nicholas Jarecki’s extremely confident debut feature (as director and writer), but Arbitrage is not about the crisis; rather, it’s a much more intimate financial thriller than, say, Margin Call. Richard Gere, always at his best when given an expensive suit, high status and a major crisis, is in his element here as Robert Miller, a billionaire Manhattan hedge-fund CEO whose world spins out of control in multiple directions over the course of a few days. The stakes are high: besides possibly going to jail, he risks losing his fortune, the love of his daughter (and CIO) Brooke (relative newcomer Brit Marling, excellent) and his long-standing marriage to Ellen (Susan Sarandon, who seems to have stopped aging at 50).

The intricate, richly detailed screenplay is full of surprises, smart dialogue and intriguing minor characters, and manages to be smart and adult while still making all the financial stuff comprehensible. Manhattan is shot stunningly by Yorick Le Saux, making the most of an independent budget with actual locations such as The Four Seasons, The Plaza and the GM Building, making the whole thing look as cashed-up as its protagonist. There’s excellent support work from Chris Eigeman (where’s he been hiding for the last decade?), Stuart Margolin and newcomer Nate Parker, as well as surprising turns from William Friedkin (yes, that William Friedkin) and Vanity Fair Editor-In-Chief Graydon Carter, bringing the upper-crust New York vibe as authentically as anyone can. The one bummer in the mix is Tim Roth as a dogged NYC detective; Jareki, a self-confessed massive fan of Roth’s, allows him to shuffle, hunch and otherwise deliver a completely mannered performance that seems to be based on Peter Falk’s Columbo. Luckily it doesn’t derail this highly intelligent film. It has one of my favourite lines of the year: Gere, at his own 60th Birthday, has retired to another room with Marling, to do what rich families do: sign papers. He mentions that he might want to pull way back on his work. She looks at him and says, in total honesty and devoid of all irony, “Then what would we talk about?” Recommended.

A Nasty Cuppa Joe

Posted: September 18, 2012 in movie reviews

KILLER JOE *** (out of five)

Some film adaptations of plays use the original material as a jumping-off point to create a cinematic work; others are more content to be a faithful, filmed version of the play (I’m not talking about filmed stage performances, which are completely different beasts). The best one of the faithful kind I know is Glengarry Glen Ross; it essentially maintains the play in its entire form (and adds a character and a scene, famously owned by Alec Baldwin). Films of plays in this manner celebrate dialogue, and thus, to some, come across as “stagey”. To me, they inevitably have a very particular voice, that of the playwright; enjoy the playwright’s work, you’ll generally enjoy the film (as I did, very much, of David Mamet’s Glen Ross.)

Tracy Letts is not as good a playwright as David Mamet but he certainly has a particular (and strong) voice, and William Friedkin, now in his 70s, is happy to capture it in full, essentially filming the play “out in the world”, but not carrying it over into a full-on cinematic adaptation. He did this with the author’s Bug (2006)and he does it again with Killer Joe, a funny and terribly nasty little piece of trailer-trash porn (not real porn) that has no redeeming qualities but is undeniably good fun if you’re willing to leave your (good) taste at the door. Emile Hirsch plays a no-good young man who concocts a scheme to kill him mother to get her insurance money; he enlists a cop who is also a hitman, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to do the deed. Trouble ensues.

McConaughey is terrific (Hirsch less so) and there are also excellent performances from Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon. Towards the end it goes a little over-the-top – even for my tastes – and the final scene really is misguided in its desire to shock (it is shocking, but it’s also stupid). It’s like a cheap, nasty dessert: completely devoid of nutrition, probably very bad for you, but kind of delicious while it briefly lasts.

Gumbo and Bubblegum

Posted: September 10, 2012 in movie reviews

Beasts of the Southern Wild **** (out of five)

It is very rare to see a film that is truly, absolutely original. Beasts of the Southern Wild is exactly that, a rich, strange extravaganza that can honestly be promised to be like nothing you have ever seen before. In The Bathtub, a southern Delta bayou community that is like an alternate-reality micro version of New Orleans, six year old Hushpuppy and her daddy Wink face many challenges, including natural disasters and the impending arrival of ancient beasts known as aurochs.

First-time director Benh Zeitlin (who is white, although the film is almost entirely populated by black people) has drawn an absolutely astounding performance from six year old Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, who is in every scene and will be nominated for an Oscar. Dwight Henry, as her father Wink, is every bit as brilliant – but he is an adult. The film itself is essentially unclassifiable. The closest genre it comes to is drama, but it has every right to be called a tone poem, a fantasy, or even a fantasia. The only logic that applies is the logic of dreams (and nightmares) but the father / daughter relationship and its attendant emotional challenges are all very real, and deeply moving.

The cinematography is spectacular and some of the images are of the “once seen, never forgotten” level; the party that is celebrated on the film’s poster is one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen. The music, composed by Zeitlin with Dan Romer, is stunning (I will be seeking out the soundtrack album) and all the performances are beyond authentic; there are only fleeting characters outside of the two main ones but they all seem plucked from reality – if The Bathtub existed in reality. This movie has to be seen to be believed, and to be believed, it simply has to be seen.

Hit and Run *** (out of five)

Dax Shepard, a huge car enthusiast, wrote and co-directed this amiable jaunt that is simultaneously a love letter to his car collection and his girlfriend, Kristen Bell. Shepard and Bell play Charlie and Annie, a young couple in love who attract the attention of various  antagonistic types while Charlie drives Annie to another state for a new job. These types include a low-level criminal played by Bradley Cooper and a federal marshall played by Tom Arnold. Much rubber is burned along the way.

Inspired by the great car chase movies of the seventies and eighties, Hit and Run has a bouncy, goofy charm. Shepard used his own cars and his own girlfriend in the film and he obviously loves them all very intensely. Charlie and Annie’s relationship is subtle and extremely endearing; there is no doubt Bell and Shepard must really love each other in real life. Arnold is funny and Cooper is funnier; he’s got some terrific comic lines and is a very enjoyable presence. You won’t be seeing Hit and Run at the Oscars, but it’s got an independent, lively and loving spirit, and the enthusiastic energy of the enterprise rubs off on you as easily as the film then is to forget.

The Worst

Posted: September 9, 2012 in movie reviews

The Words *

Sometimes you can be flabbergasted when very good actors are in very bad films. Then you remember: no-one sets out to make a bad movie. They just turn out that way. But, seriously, there’s no way that the script of The Words could have appeared good to anyone, could it?

Maybe. Maybe it’s simply the direction that is utterly, utterly wrong with this incredibly slow, mind-numbingly misjudged tale of literary ethics. It’s the feature film debut for its two writer-directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, and it makes all the mistakes a first film can: the music is absurdly over-the-top, every scene is over-lit so that absolutely none of the sets look remotely natural, and the actors are encouraged to ham it up – that, or they simply weren’t given any direction and didn’t know how to play their (very poorly written) scenes.

It’s a relief to discover that the very fine actor Bradley Cooper is old friends with Klugman and Sternthal, because otherwise you’d very strongly have to question his judgement in accepting this film at this point in his career, which is trending straight up. His role is thankless. He plays a character in a book written by Dennis Quaid’s Clay Hammond, a highly successful author of literary fiction. Essentially, the story is this: Clay reads two chapters from his latest book to an appreciative New York audience, then takes a hot girl home to his groovy pad and tells her how the book ends. We see Cooper, Zoe Saldana and Jeremy Irons play the main characters of the book, as Clay reads and subsequently explains it.

You know you’re in trouble the moment Clay starts reading, because the book he is reading is supposed to be really good, but, in reality, it’s dreadful. Really, really bad. So you’ve got a film that hinges on one massive prop – a supposedly brilliant novel – and the novel is terribly written. It’s very hard to recover from that.

Jeremy Irons plays a ninety-year-old character in the book and it simply doesn’t work. His age make-up (which seems to come and go) doesn’t work. Irons has developed a weird trans-atlantic accent of late (see also Margin Call) and it’s a shame, because his natural voice was so beautiful. Oh well. He certainly left that at home, along with his A-Game, because his age work here is simply embarrassing.

Jeremy Irons looks ludicrous in THE WORDS.

Dennis Quaid cops it worse. He bobs and weaves manically, as though no-one told him he was in close-up (which he is nearly the whole time he’s on screen). When an actor is over-acting this much (and when you bob and weave that much in close-up it simply becomes horribly annoying) you have to assume they don’t get the material, and aren’t being helped to get it either. Seriously, Quaid is a good actor. Just not in this film.

Zoe Saldana (again, playing a character in a book) and Olivia Wilde, as a predatory graduate student and aspiring author who really wants to get into Clay’s pants, fare better, if only because sit still and say their lines without over-doing the whole thing like the others. And there is a brilliant supporting cast in small roles: J.K. Simmons (who works surprisingly well as Cooper’s father), Michael McKean (in a tiny role), Zeljko Ivanek and Ron Rifkin.

As for Cooper, he does his honest best. But he’s not only saddled with playing a character in a book, he’s unsympathetic, whiny, self-serving and essentially unbelievable. A hard task for anyone. I suspect The Words will languish low on his, and the other fine actors involved in this horrible misfire, CVs. Mawkish and self-important, The Words is predictable, non-sensical, and terribly boring. Avoid.