Archive for July, 2013

We Need A Dirtier Falstaff

Posted: July 28, 2013 in movie reviews

The Way, Way Back *** (out of five)

Iimgrest certainly doesn’t break the mould, but coming-of-age drama The Way, Way Back, from writer / directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is sweet, gently funny, and full of terrific attention to detail.

Duncan (Liam Jones) is fourteen; his mom Pam (Toni Collette), having been divorced for over a year, is dating a jerk, Trent (Steve Carell). When the three of them and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) spend a summer at Trent’s beach house, Duncan learns some life lessons from the owner of a local Water Slide park, Owen (Sam Rockwell).screen_shot_2013-04-11_at_4.53.39_pm

Nothing is unexpected here; the humour is gentle and safe, the situations well covered in many other coming-of-age films. What edge there is comes from Carell’s Trent; it’s quite a brave performance coming from a guy who’s made a career out of playing nice. But the richness is in the details: the production design is terrific; the houses, the clothes, the flip-flops and bathing suits, and, most importantly, the water park itself all smell completely authentic. Visually, everything rings true.

The film would be nothing were it not for Rockwell and Jones, and they achieve a very nice chemistry. Rockwell’s Owen is kind of a Falstaff figure, except he’s essentially benign; he doesn’t take drugs, or drink too much, or screw around, or really show any bad behavior at all. He’s a fun-loving, perhaps slightly lazy fellow, but, on almost every level, he’s a brilliant role model. Jones has the unenviable task, the job of all leads in coming-of-age films, of gradually showing enlightenment; he pulls it off, without announcing the arrival of a revelatory new talent. Special mention should be made of AnnaSophia Robb, who is fresh and lively as the girl Duncan kind of falls for, and Faxon, who, besides writing and directing, plays Owen’s blonde dude offsider Roddy with such laid-back ease that he may well start getting the roles Owen Wilson rejects. Overall, it’s a pleasant and gentle ride, not unlike a water slide. You won’t have a heart attack, you’ll just get a little wet.

What’s In A Name? ** (out of five)

imgresThere’s been a particular type of play around for a long time: it involves (usually) a couple of couples, usually affluent or academic in some way, who, due to booze or simply some comment best left unsaid, begin to reveal more and more about how they all actually feel about each other, and, by the end of the night, destroy their relationships, as lovers, friends, whatever, simply by speaking too much of the truth. The earliest one that springs to mind is J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner (1932); the best of all is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962); the most recent that was a worldwide success was Yasmina Reza’s Le Dieu du Carnage / God of Carnage (2008). All have been turned into films.

prenomWhat’s In A Name? (Le Prénom) was also a play and very much follows the template set by its antecedents. The trouble is, it’s not nearly as good, and somehow seems so much… stagier. It tries to belie its stage origins with a prologue that leaps around as much as possible, from location to location and character to character. Then a couple of friends start arriving at a Parisian apartment for dinner, and… a third-rate God of Carnage plays out, but, rather than that film version’s crisp eighty minutes (called Carnage and directed by Roman Polanski), this one yells at us for nearly two full hours.

And yell it does. I have rarely heard five people scream at each other so much in a movie. There are supposedly two kids sleeping in the other room (of a small Parisian apartment) and unfortunately the movie keeps drawing our attention to this absurdity, by constantly having characters saying “Shh, you’ll wake the children.” It’s like having a character from The Shawshank Redemption say, “But how are we gonna get that poster back on the wall once we’re on the other side?” If you don’t remind us of it we might let you get away with it.

Shut the fuck up. Exactly.

Shut the fuck up. Exactly.

Four of the five characters are really unlikeable, and the effect is of being trapped in a small place with five hideous people yelling at you – it’s crushing, oppressive and claustrophobic. To the film’s credit, there are some genuine laugh-out loud moments, and the acting is never less than highly committed and believable. But it’s a grueling hundred and nine minutes. I suspect it was better on stage, and better left there.

Behind The Candelabra ***1/2 (out of five)

Behind the CandelabraMichael Douglas is excellent as Liberace and Matt Damon is astoundingly good as his much younger lover Scott in Steven Soderbergh’s self-proclaimed last film, although it has now been revealed that he’s directing ten episodes of a television show soon.MV5BMTYyNTU0ODkyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTc3NjkwOQ@@._V1._SX640_SY450_

There is much fun in Behind The Candelabra, especially in its first half. It is a starkly honest look at a relationship influenced by the weird spotlight of intense fame – the fame shone on the glittering pianist in the fifties, when he was, bizarrely, simultaneously both very obviously “out” and not… for a while. He certainly wasn’t confused; it was the audiences who didn’t really seem to have a clue. The production design is terrific, revelling not just in period detail but in all of Liberace’s excesses, and, typically, Soderbergh’s camera and use of music are never anything other than top notch.

www.indiewireAs time goes by – the story spans years – and we get deeper into the central relationship, things get weird, creepy and ultimately nasty. It’s kind of a shame where we end up with these characters; they’re not very likeable by the end. There’s not really a lot of thematic depth going on; it’s a triumph of precision filmmaking over meaningful filmmaking. But, really, I guess that’s perfectly in sync with what Liberace’s brand of entertainment was all about.

There are excellent supporting roles for Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Debbie Reynolds and Paul Reiser amongst a very long cast of characters; Lowe and Bakula in particular make fabulously tasty meals of their roles. Everyone looks like they had a lot of fun.slide13-ytv-WATN-BehindTheCandelabra-BobBlack-jpg_012059

Soderbergh is one of my Top Five favorite directors. It would be very sad for me for this to be his swan song. It’s a well-acted, incredibly well-made, but episodic and not thoroughly entrancing, movie. It was shot as an HBO telemovie, and I hate to say… it feels like a telemovie, albeit an absolutely top shelf one.

Style Over Everything

Posted: July 16, 2013 in movie reviews

Only God Forgives ** (out of five)

only_god_forgives_movie_poster_top_movies_2013Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is a hyper-stylized and incredibly sombre mood piece that is unashamedly influenced by, to the point of possibly being an homage to, the work of Stanley Kubrick, particularly The Shining, 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut, while also evoking Derek Jarman (particularly Edward II), Pier Paolo Pasolini (particularly Salo) and David Lynch (particularly Fire Walk With Me). Unfortunately it is not close to being as memorable, or interesting, as any of those films.

only-god-forgives13-2The Kubrick influence is the most obvious, in Refn’s use of mise-en-scene, camera movement, spare sound design, blocking, color and score. Refn frames his shots mainly with the subject in the centre of a frame that is symmetrical not only in composition but within its own production design; characters are seen bordered by door frames, columns, walls or other, stationary characters, who are so static as to essentially be breathing props. He occasionally creeps up on disturbing or strange images, very evocative of the camera moves in The Shining; one scene, where “hero” Julian (Ryan Gosling) faces a closed door, terrified, deliberately references the famous “blood from the elevators” of The Shining, especially when complemented, as it is here, with a section of score that is so similar to the music of that film that it may perhaps be considered more rip-off than homage. (Later parts of the film see the score turn away from this motif, but the first third of the film is rife with it). Other than the booming music, the sound design is spare and hyper-stylized; characters stare out at the city of Bangkok with a total absence of traffic noise; nature itself seems devoid of animals, wind or ambiance of any kind. We are in a dream-like world (actually, we are in a nightmare, or, I think, in Hell).only-god-forgives07

Like Kubrick and Pasolini, Refn continually reveals impassive spectators to acts of violence after they are committed. Everything in this film is witnessed, but very little is commented on or judged. Other scenes of non violence are full of witnesses at all times, sometimes stoic police officers, sometimes rooms full of women of the night. The final – or you might say primary, as it is so blatant – Kubrickian reference is the blazing coating of red and blue light that bathe almost every interior scene. Kubrick used red light baths throughout his career but this is exactly the red light of 2001, evoking the terrifying second act of that film.

only-god-forgive1sThe story, such as it is (and it is the story that is the film’s weakness) sees a young American in Thailand being urged by his mother to avenge the murder of his brother, who was in turn killed for revenge. A weird (and often confusing) cat-and-mouse game is played out on Bangkok streets strangely (but obviously deliberately) devoid of cars, crowds or other realistic elements. This is a story not afraid to be told on a stage, and not afraid to be obtuse.21_onlygodforgives

It is useless to offer critiques of the actors as they are directed with as much precise control as the extremely artificial lighting; they behave robotically, talking strangely, usually bound to the spot (including not even moving their heads or blinking), or, when walking, walking in a bizarre, arms-straight-down fashion that you will not see on any actual sidewalk in the world. The Thai actors come across best with this method, as they blend better with the world; Kristen Scott Thomas, as Julian’s demonic mother, comes off by far the worst, with about a third of her lines eliciting derisive laughs from the audience. Whether of not she fulfilled Refn’s vision, her performance is embarrassing and a blot on her exceptional body of work.Only-God-Forgives_1

There is violence, but not as much as Cannes seemed to think; there are certainly striking images, the music is powerful, and a mood is set. It’s a sensuous experience first and foremost, but it becomes very dull far before it reaches its brief running time of ninety minutes. Drive, and many of Refn’s other films such as Bronson and the Pusher trilogy, were thrillingly kinetic; here, by gluing his actors to their spots, their chairs, their exact pinpoints within the frame, he gives us beautiful images but nothing to watch. About halfway through, there is a brief foot chase; it is the best scene in the film, because at least it moves.

This Is The Funny.

Posted: July 15, 2013 in movie reviews

This Is The End ***1/2 (out of five)

this-is-the-end-posterThis is the End is one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in ages. It’s a silly extravaganza, a huge bunch of nonsense, but, boy, it’s entertaining.

Seth Rogan picks up his friend Jay Baruchel at the airport, and takes him to a party at James Franco’s house. While there, The Rapture occurs. Left behind, a small bunch of movie stars deal with each other. That’s the concept.

Well, not entirely. The other concept – the killer one – is that the movie stars play themselves. Not like “Harrison Ford always plays himself”; Seth Rogan literally plays “Seth Rogan”, James Franco plays “James Franco”, and so on down the line. This was obviously a huge gamble, and, if it hadn’t paid off, this could have been a thirty million dollar piece of masturbation, the most self-serving, self-indulgent, self congratulatory exercise in artistic history. But it does pay off. It’s really funny.this-is-the-end

To run with the Harrison Ford analogy, these movie stars play themselves in the way that “they play themselves”. So Seth Rogan is genial, a pot smoker, a great bloke who means well. James Franco is outwardly cool while actually being up himself, pretentious and needy. Jonah Hill is “America’s sweetheart”. The second tier includes Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and, best of all, Danny McBride. I have seen very little of McBrides’s work, but he is fantastic in this movie, playing himself as a sort of piggish, self-centered Eric Bogosian. He’s got a real charisma.

reg_1024.ThisistheEnd.JamesFranco.122012Of course, they’re all self-centered: it’s a pre-requisite to being a movie star. To their credit, they play it to the hilt (and in minor roles, Michael Cera and Channing Tatum take it to even further hilts). To his credit, Rogan, who wrote the screenplay – and directed the movie – with Evan Goldberg (who I’m assuming has a cameo in there somewhere, it’s that kind of party) is one ballsy guy. If I was James Franco’s friend, and I wrote him as this “James Franco”, I’m not sure I could have shown it to him, let alone hired him, directed him and then released this version of him into the multiverse. This film is one big in-joke, but it’s a very good one.

A New De Sica

Posted: July 7, 2013 in movie reviews

Reality *** 1/2 (out of five)

reality_ver7Don’t believe the marketing: Matteo Garrone’s new film, Reality, is not “very funny” – it has no intention of being so – nor is it “Fellini-esque”. If anything, it is grounded in the harsh realism of De Sica, combined with the operatic camera moves of Coppola. It is a brutal, frank, painful and highly meticulous look at an ordinary man undergoing a very modern crisis amidst a very simple life.

Luciano is a fishmonger in a very pretty square in a very working class area of Naples, which is presented as a very working class, day to day city. He has a couple of little girls; with his wife Maria and colleague Michele he runs a small scam on-selling promotional kitchen devices. It’s hardly organized crime, and it’s completely victimless, and it only serves to give him a living wage. He is also, essentially, content, although the spectacular opening sequence suggests he has frustrated dreams of being some sort of entertainerOne day his daughters call him from a shopping mall; the reality television show Big Brother is holding general auditions for its next season. They insist he come down and audition; he does, and his life is changed forever, but not in ways anyone could have predicted.

RealityGarrone is a major filmmaker. His previous feature, Gomorrah, was one of the best of 2008; it was a sprawling, ultra-realistic examination of organized crime in the Neapolitan region, perhaps the grittiest and most accurate mob movie ever made. Reality is much more contained, being, in essence, a character study, but he still shoots it with an epic perspective, with massive camera set-ups and moves capturing the incredible beauty of a worn, torn and overburdened part of Italy that is worlds away from the Rome and Tuscany we may be used to. I can’t think of another director who moves the camera so much; Garrone’s is almost never still. He favors a pan left to right and top to bottom, very much in Coppola’s style, usually uncovering, in beautifully blocked shots, spectacular Italian faces and bodies engaged in the business of everyday life. His actors really do seem to real to be actors; I suspect many of them are not, at least on a professional level. This is not to say they’re not believable; quite the opposite: they are totally believable, and the effect is almost that of observing documentary subjects within the rigors of a completely controlled, detailed and highly polished frame.

Aniello Arena, as Luciano, is a revelation, in his first ever role. At times recalling the forty year old De Niro (and his character is not at all unlike Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy, he is the movie, and he’s brilliant. Luciano is a tricky role that could destroy a mannered actor, but Arena is never less than completely natural while still commanding our attention. He has a a natural charisma without being showy in the slightest. If I was the casting director for Martin Scorcese, I’d be signing him to a first look deal now; Boardwalk Empire may also want to give him a call.

Reality is not a satire about reality television, so don’t go if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s not even a satire (despite the marketing), and it’s certainly not a comedy. It’s a sad, meaningful examination of contemporary dreams in contemporary daily life, and it’s glorious. I plan to follow Garrone’s career with precision, because I’m so thankful his films are so precise.

Hollywood Rebel

Posted: July 5, 2013 in movie reviews

00373705-590950_catl_500Kirk Douglas’ book I AM SPARTACUS: MAKING A FILM, BREAKING THE BLACKLIST is an amazing read, full of awesome portraits of Kubrick, Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, and most importantly Dalton Trumbo. Spartacus was a huge undertaking with its fair share of great challenges; it was essentially in a race with a rival film on the same topic, The Gladiators; it had an original troubled script by the author of the novel; and its initial director was not up to the monumental task.

Douglas, as the film’s producer (he was also its star), managed the latter of these problems by hiring Stanley Kubrick, with whom he’d worked on Paths of Glory, to take over, and what brilliance the film has is due to this bold decision. But the braver managerial decision Douglas made was to hire Dalton Trumbo, who was very much on The Blacklist, perhaps more than any other Hollywood writer, to take over the writing of the screenplay under the pseudonym “Sam Jackson”.

Trumbo

Trumbo

Douglas is an excellent writer, not afraid of expressing his opinions and also not shy of indulging in a little gossip; he emerges as a brave, committed and politically advanced man, someone of honour and decency. That he wrote this clear-eyed book at the age of 96, after two strokes and all sorts of other disabling events, is astonishing to me. Obviously his memory is entirely undiminished. This is a fascinating history of an intriguing production with a terrific cast of very famous characters and a great look at how the infamous Blacklist was finally beaten.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: when the infamous “snails and oysters” scene between Olivier and Tony Curtis (cut from the original release) was restored for the criterion release thirty years later, the audio was no good. Curtis was still alive and came in to re-record his dialogue. Olivier, however was dead. But, upon Joan Plowright’s recommendation, Anthony Hopkins came in and did his Olivier impersonation! Here’s a link — it’s a perfect impersonation: