Archive for July, 2011

Killer Performance

Posted: July 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hanna ****

It’s somewhat incredible to consider, but everything about HANNA, an incredibly exciting, visually arresting, sonically fascinating, location-brilliant, well-directed, cleverly scripted movie, rests on none of these things. The entire thing – the whole weight of the movie – rests on the remarkable abilities of Saoirse Ronan, possibly the most intriguing actor working in movies today. You’ve seen her, in ATONEMENT, as the girl who makes a big mistake; she got nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She is incredible, a prodigy. The camera records her every thought and nuance as though it had a high calling to do so: she can make Eric Bana, and, even more surprising, Cate Blanchett – The Sort Of Acknowledged Best Film Actor In The World – look like they’re “acting”. And she does, in HANNA, which will forever remain, I can only imagine, the best time she will have ever had on set in her entire career (which will be life-long), because she gets to kick ass like nobody’s business.

The film’s concept is absolutely bonkers, and the only way you’ll enjoy it is to run with that. Hanna is the product / daughter of Eric Bana’s character Erik; they live in the Arctic circle, and he teaches her to kill. She’s a kid (her age is never specified; I picked her for thirteen or so). You quickly discover that he’s connected to a nefarious US organization – a “Rogue Asset” – and that she’s his protégé, and that together, they have some unfinished business involving Marissa (Blanchett), some freaky high-level super-operative within that same CIA-like agency. There’s bad blood, and Hanna is being groomed to make it clean.

What follows is absolutely nuts and completely enjoyable, none the less for being supplemented with a score, by The Chemical Brothers, that is one of the most perfectly suited to its images that I have seen in years.The beginning is fascinating and weird: there is no soundtrack as Bana and Ronan create a tiny, enclosed (and completely insane) world; but the next sequences recall RUN LOLA RUN and KICK-ASS: hyper-kinetic and action montages full of cinematic thrill-seeking (and, like RUN LOLA RUN, anchored by an unbelievably charismatic heroine). Then the film switches gear, and, it must be said, changes tone – quite intensely – for a prolonged middle section, almost totally devoid of action, where we watch a variation on the “cave child” trope: what happens when a young girl, grown in the Arctic woods, meets electricity, a friend, and music – while pursued by psychopathic Euro-freaks?

Don’t worry. The film’s raison d’être – Hanna’s skills – come back into the play. The plot is so insane I can’t ruin it (it ruins itself, which doesn’t matter) so no need to go into it more here. There is no reason to see this film for the plot. You see it for Saoirse Ronan. There’s a key scene about twenty-five minutes into this film where the camera catches her eye, and what it catches is this: Look out, because the next great actor on the world stage is me. The fact that she’s staring into Cate Blanchett’s frame of vision – and that Blanchett falls back into her chair, gasping in horror – is telling.

Jo Wright previously directed Ronan in ATONEMENT, and they’re working together again on a new ANNA KARENINA. Of course, Ronan’s playing Kitty. And as befits people who play Kitty, she’ll be on the very top of many directors’ lists for years to come. Wright is lucky to have, in the parlance, “discovered” her. He’s a very good director. But she’s an exceptional actor. She’s one of a kind.

Bad Bad Teacher! Bad!

Posted: July 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

Bad Teacher *1/2

You run some pretty significant risks in calling your movie “Bad” Anything. The main one, of course, is that snide critics may simply say “Bad Teacher. Bad Movie” (they’d be right). Also, when your lead character is “Bad”, they run the risk of being unlikeable, and as we all should know by now, movies with unlikeable leads don’t work. For an example, see “Bad Teacher”.

One of the (many) reasons “Bad Santa” worked so well and is remembered so fondly is the fact that being a department store Santa is not a great gig: it is degrading, shockingly seasonal, commercialized to the max and considered by others to be the last refuge of the fat, hairy damned. We could sympathize with Billy Bob Thornton’s terrible Santa because we could see how badly his job sucked (in the appropriate parlance of that wonderfully profane movie); we would’ve rebelled against it too. But teaching, as we all know, is the most important of all professions, and being a terrible teacher is simply not funny. It is off-putting. Indeed, it is enough to make us dislike Cameron Diaz’s lead character Elizabeth even before the other stuff – and there’s plenty of other stuff. Elizabeth is the most dislikable character I’ve encountered in a film in a long time (lead or not). She’s extremely lazy, incredibly mean to people, shallow, narcissistic, a liar and a thief. The fact that she drinks at her classroom desk and smokes pot in the school’s parking lot don’t even rate when compared to her simply despicable personality. That’s all piled on top of her being willing to destroy her students’ lives by not teaching them a thing. Cameron Diaz (looking strange – I wonder if she’s had a bit of wonky surgery) plays all this with great commitment, to the death knell of the film: she’s so believable as a truly horrible person, we despise the character, and it ruins any chance of being able to like the movie. Elizabeth also has the worst Character Objective I may have ever seen in a real movie: to get a pair of breast implants. Seriously.

The filmmaking is sloppy. Scenes exist for no reason (including any of the incredibly awkward – and not in a good way – scenes with Elizabeth and her roommate (played by “Modern Family”’s Eric Stonestreet) which don’t even seem to be trying to be funny). Jokes fall disastrously, embarrassingly flat. The mise en scene is strictly “point and shoot”: At one point, in a bar scene, the camera actually has a dolly move – one! – as if to remind us we’re actually watching a movie, not a particularly cheap and nasty television show from the 1990s. And, in desperation, the film resorts to hugely loud sounds of a man defecating and an absurdly lengthily held shot of a woman’s enhanced knockers.

Of course there’s redemption – of a sort, and only to a point – but it’s way too little way too late, and we don’t buy it for a second. Diaz has spent an hour and a half building a very believable portrayal of a royal bitch and five dashed-together minutes at the end is not going to make us care for her one iota. It’s all almost weirdly, impossibly ill-conceived. Justin Timberlake – who has proved he can act in other, good films – flounders very seriously in a terribly-written role: perhaps that’s why they’ve kept him out of the ads. The kids – so important to a teacher movie – are insipid, uncharismatic and unmemorable. The very little joy there is in the film comes from the performances of the second-tier players who bring their sheer professionalism: the always-reliable John Michael Higgins is, as always, reliable; like wise the ever-reliable Phyllis Smith, Thomas Lennon and David Paymer (wasted in a one-scene role: how much did he get paid for that?) It’s also the first time I’ve really enjoyed Jason Segel on the big screen – he actually finds a little depth in his schlubby, carefree Gym Teacher With A Heart of Gold. Lucy Punch, an actor I haven’t encountered before, is excellent in the film’s hardest role: as Amy Squirrel, the best teacher in the school, she has to go from being seemingly perfect to taking over the villain’s part so Elizabeth can – unsuccessfully – try to attract our sympathies. And, as noted before, Diaz is thoroughly committed to her role; she’s very good and very believable as this horrible wench, and it makes for a lousy movie.

It All Ends, Well

Posted: July 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two (3D) ****

I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies since the very first one, and I haven’t read the books, so I’m really not qualified to comment on this one’s context, fidelity, or attraction to the series’ gazillions of fans (I did, however, take a young person with me who had seen all the films and read all the books, so I was able to be brought up to some degree of speed, as well as get an insider’s opinion at the end). What I can do is comment on the quality of the filmmaking, which is, simply, astounding. Director David Yates has delivered the climax to the largest “closed ending” franchise of all time (the Bond movies are ongoing) without ever resorting to histrionics. Indeed, the most striking thing about the film to me – the thing that took me most pleasantly by surprise – was its restraint. Yates allows huge story moments to earn their own dramatic heft without smacking us about the head with absurdly loud music, flashy effects or attention-drawing editing (and, even better, and unlike the trailers imply, the lead characters don’t let out primal screams every time they launch an attack at their nemeses). The film announces its somber tone and serious intent with the Warner Brothers logo itself: they’ve done a special one, conjured by the evil Lord Voldemort  (Ralph Finnes, who is fantastically scary throughout), in black and white, slowly creeping (in 3D) towards the audience, accompanied by the subtle, ominous and, essentially, perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat, doing, for my money, better work here than on his Oscar-nominated score for The King’s Speech). That tone carries throughout the movie; there are a few deliberate laugh lines (appreciated by the Potter-crazy audience I saw the film with) but they arise naturally from the situations rather than feel obligatory, and, in general, nothing about the film seems to cowtow to either expectations nor Warner Brothers marketing department. It has a vision, a specific look and feel, and it feels totally true to itself. The few nods to audience appeasement only enrich the experience, never drawing you away from it: the main example I could see was that it was obviously desired to get as many familiar faces (read: Old British Theatre Luvvies) from the entire series into this final episode, with the result that the great Miriam Margolyes appears in a single group reaction shot! (I’ve met Ms. Margolyes, and I have no doubt she found her day or so on the set, and her tiny appearance in the film, nothing other than a great chuckle and a weirdly extravagant paycheck). The three main actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, have all obviously grown up in the world’s most unique film-acting academy (being the series itself) and all are completely believable as wizards on the verge of adulthood. As mentioned above, Fiennes is a terrific villain: he commits to every aspect of his make-up, demonic nature and obsessive boy-wizard hatred with great professional integrity, and I’m sure that Voldemort is, for the target audience, as powerful and beloved a villain as Darth Vader was for my generation. All the Old British Theatre Luvvies do their jobs with aplomb (the largest pieces of screentime pie in this episode going to Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman);  the production design is immaculate; and, I have to say (not being a fan) the 3D is used excellently (we tried to get into a 2D session, which was sold out; we were glad, as the 3D really works). Above all, though, I come back to the restraint that Yates uses, avoiding all manner of action-movie / franchise-movie / studio-movie / hero-movie / money-making movie clichés. Whether or not its his “British sensibility”, this is a massive, tentpole, franchise movie with impeccable good taste – its most essential, surprising and exhilarating ingredient.

Exotic Journeys

Posted: July 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

MEEK’S CUTOFF ***1/2

There are differences between films that are long, films that are slow, films that are boring and films that are infuriating, and it is interesting to watch Meek’s Cutoff in the immediate wake of The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s bloated, expensive and ambitious film was long, slow, boring and infuriating, whereas Kelly Reichardt’s extremely modest film Meek’s Cutoff is slow, but it is also intriguing, moving and meaningful. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it probably requires being in the right mood (contemplative and relaxed is the way to go), but it offers many rewards for what is at times arduous viewing. The extremely (at least on the surface) story follows a small group of settlers heading through Oregon in 1845, guided by one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has promised to lead them to rich land via a “cutoff”, or shortcut, that he claims can deliver them there in two weeks. Complications arise when those weeks pass and they have not reached their destination, and the settlers begin to worry that Meek, who is an egotistical, self-promoting blowhard, has no idea of where he’s taking them. Tensions are further stretched when the group becomes aware of a Native American (Rod Rondeaux, billed as “The Indian” in recognition of the sensibilities of the era) who may or may not be following them. The small group of settlers – only seven in all, three couples and a child – now have two individuals with whom to be alternately suspicious and afraid of, and a huge theme in the movie is that of trust: in the case of Meek, trust in someone who, as each day passes, is proving less and less deserving of it, and in the case of The Indian, trust in someone with whom each member of the group holds the prejudices of the time. Meek’s personality – which includes more blatant bigotry towards “Indians”, against whom he holds many personal grudges culled from a supposed and increasingly unlikely sounding personal history of danger and adventure – does not help matters.

It is fascinating to watch this somewhat post-modern, and certainly original, examination of the misunderstandings between “cowboys and Indians” played out on such an intimate scale (it would make a surreal and revealing double bill with The Searchers). There are only nine actors in the movie, accompanied by their horses, steer and three covered wagons, placed against the arid, sunbaked, pitiless Oregon landscape through which they trudge. It is up to them to keep the big ideas in the film buoyant enough for our interest to be sustained at feature length, and they are not helped by Reichardt’s absolute minimal use of close ups (nor is Greenwood aided by Meek’s massive bushy beard and huge mane of hair, which, combined with the shadow of his large hat, often reduce our visibility of his actual face to a cypher). But Reichardt’s ace in the hole is Michelle Williams, whose character Emily Tetherow is the anchor of the film; Williams is emerging as one of the finest, and most authentic, screen actors, and her obvious intelligence allows her to communicate vast amounts of interior thought through the often unspoken shots that Reichardt favours. They’ve worked together before, in the just as modest (and even more affecting) Wendy and Lucy (2008) and they display all the signs of being one of those perfect director/actor marriages, whereby the performer is able to understand exactly what the director wants to get across, and, somehow, can display it in as little as a look – even in mid-or-long shot. It is also great to see one of my favourite “oddball” character actors, Will Patton, in the considered, thoughtful and definitely un-oddball role of Solomon, Emily’s older husband and the default leader of the settlers, and Paul Dano, the acting whizz-kid from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, who takes a very modest role, obviously because he liked Reichardt, the script, and his fellow performers.

There are slightly infuriating elements to Reichardt’s direction that seem almost deliberately provocative. She has incredible landscapes within which to frame her exotic settlers, in their covered wagons, pioneer hats and (most touchingly) white bonnets, yet she shoots – stubbornly, it feels – in the old fashioned ratio of 4:3, as if to constantly remind us that this is not your father’s western. It is a choice that feels selfish rather than interesting – something that she wanted to do but which definitely deprives us of all the rich pleasure that could have lived to either side of the screen in a wider format (it is also just weird watching a modern movie, in a modern movie house, in that format – the cinema I saw it in could’t even close its’ side curtains tight enough to frame the image properly, so there were two black bars visible on either side of the frame, making the thing feel a little like projected television). She has – I’m assuming deliberately – allowed much of the dialogue to be muffled and hard to catch; the choice seems to be to echo the actual audibility of the characters to one another (such as when the men discuss matters just out of earshot of the women), but it may frustrate some viewers. By eschewing close ups for so much of the film, she denies us traditional intimacy, and when you’ve got the quality of actors assembled here, the approach, although deliberate, seems a little churlish; finally, there’s that abundance of hair on Meek’s face and head, making the chief protagonist of the film visually obtuse. Again, this is obviously an extremely deliberate choice, making Meek as much of an enigma to us as to the settlers, but, again, some viewers might just find it annoying. Reichardt is a stylistic, expressionistic, bold, original and stubborn filmmaker, and her style and methods will simply not be to everyone’s taste. And yes, the film is slow – but it is not boring or infuriating. It is thoughtful, extremely well acted, and presents a very original and fresh take on a trope that goes back to the very first days of narrative cinema, in one of cinema’s original genres. The moments of suspense scattered throughout the film are extremely tense, and there are shots of Williams doing what she does so incredibly well – portraying her character’s turmoil or resolve wordlessly and beautifully – that are so beautifully etched that, despite the film’s essential simplicity, I think I’ll want to see it again.

 

THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER ** 1/2

Eran Riklis’ adaptation of Abraham B. Jehoshua’s novel, which was Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars, follows a strange trajectory. It starts out with a phenomenally strong dramatic question concerning corporate and personal responsibility: a woman, killed in a suicide bomber’s blast in Jerusalem, and who had three weeks earlier been let go from employment at Israel’s largest bakery, is discovered by a journalist to have still been on the bakery’s payroll; when the bakery’s Human Resources Manager (the excellent Mark Ivanir, who will almost certainly become a bit of an international star after this) investigates, he discovers a secret which exposes the company to a potential public relations disaster. Dogged by a tabloid journalist, dealing with a divorce and the mercurial “widow head” of the corporation, his moral, ethical and professional dilemma is powerful, tangible and interesting. Unfortunately, the resolution of said dilemma is not the climax but only the kicking off point of what becomes a road movie that weirdly combines elements of everything from Little Miss Sunshine to Leon The Pig Farmer. The never-named Human Resources Manager soon finds himself accompanying the woman’s coffin from Jerusalem to Romania, and then to a tiny village on a thousand kilometre journey in a van, accompanied by a crew including the journalist, a couple of Romanian eccentrics and the woman’s estranged son (a respectable Noah Silver, whose initially one-note performance gives way, eventually, to a complexity almost manages to enrich the movie to another level). While the locations and faces along the way are never less than exotic (and how many movies have you seen that take place in Israel and Romania?), the long, long journey that makes up the bulk of the film is bizarrely undramatic: with the Human Resources Manager’s mind pretty much made up as to how to deal with his situation, we are left with not much more than somewhat quirky (but never actually comic) episodes along the way to what we can all predict is coming. It’s a sad irony that a movie that starts so startlingly and surprisingly should end exactly as we might expect it to.

But what does it all mean?

Posted: July 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

THE TREE OF LIFE *1/2

 

Terrence Malick’s Palme D’Or winner at Cannes 2011 is absurdly, spectacularly self-indulgent. Ostensibly a coming of age story with pretensions to great meaning, the story – such as there is one – concerns a man (Sean Penn) remembering a series of events from his childhood, and in particular his relationship with his father and mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Obviously autobiographical, Malick has gone to extraordinary lengths to re-create his own childhood, and the production design is truly astounding: a fifties-era town in the American South seems to have been created entirely, and every car, hat, house, article of clothing and haircut feels truly authentic – it’s as though the film was actually made someplace that has never grown up. The problem is that the memories Malick has decided to commit to film may have huge importance to him, but they are slight and trivial for the viewer. They don’t add up to a story: we may see young Jack (the charismatic Hunter McCracken) observe his mother wash her feet with the garden hose, but to what end? The film, which is extremely long at two hours and nineteen minutes and feels far longer, is full of these moments: tiny slices of life that not only don’t add to any sense of story or meaning, they are boring and frustrating (indeed, we later see Chastain wash her feet again, this time with a sprinkler: I have no idea why this trope was repeated, unless it was simply Malick liking the visual image itself). A couple of incidents in Jack’s life pose questions that approach the dramatic – in one scene he deliberately hurts his beloved younger brother, which gives him a sense of anguish and does create in us a memory of the development of goodness in childhood – but mostly it’s images, images, images, without dramatic thrust. The father character is obviously the impule for the movie’s existence, and Pitt plays him well, but he’s simply not that fascinating, as a movie character should be: he’s a little bit stern, a little bit hot-tempered, and he espouses views – about money, success, and what a man should be – that are very consistent with the circumstances of his time and place. But mostly he is loving, which is not a great vehicle for conflict (and thus drama), and Chastain’s mother character may as well be a Saint – she is simply, and simplistically, perfect.

 

It would be nice to be able to comment on Chastain’s and Penn’s performances, but unfortunately they can’t really be said to be acting; for a start, neither is given the opportunity to speak. Malick’s huge stylistic gamble in the film (and one in which I think he makes a fatal error) is to have barely any dialogue in the film: it is mainly composed of visuals, accompanied by strange, obtuse snippets of voice-over, many of which are whispered incoherently (“I search for you” is one I was able to hear clearly, and it left me scratching my metaphorical head: the object of the search is somewhat clear, but where the searching is occurring is as obtuse as much of the movie). Pitt is allowed to speak the occasional line, but Chastain is muted (I think she says one direct line) and Penn never speaks on camera at all. Penn’s inclusion in the film is kind of embarrassing: staring mournfully out windows and staring mournfully into space, he finally gets to stare mournfully while walking through various natural spaces in a beautiful suit. His character is not constructed well and, unfortunately, Penn the actor comes off looking bad: he’s too mournful, too hang-dog, and unsupported by logic: why is he so sad, on this particular day – or is he meant to always be this glum and disconnected?

 

It could be that the day is meant to be the anniversary of one of his brothers’ deaths, but if so, that goes by unsaid. Yes, a brother dies, right at the beginning of the film: it is the closest event the film has to a dramatic event, and you would suspect it is the inciting incident: but it doesn’t incite anything. Instead, it leads us into a twenty minute depiction of the creation of the universe, Earth, and life on Earth, that is, in my mind, by far the most exciting (possibly only exciting) part of the film. It also reeks heavily of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film with similar ambitions that actually succeeds at every turn. The comparison that is inevitable for anyone who has seen that masterwork does this film no favours.

 

The depiction of the scientifically accepted process of the creation of life on Earth jars strangely with the quote from Job that opens the film, from the strongly religious nature of Jack’s family and township, and from the oddly “religious-sounding” nature of the voice-over snippets. What Malick is trying to say here is unfathomable, at least to me. It could be that he’s saying “I grew up in a religious family, but my brother died, and now I believe in evolution, not the myth of creation”. It could be “many tenants of religion are incorrect, but the cool thing about religion is the tenants of love and family it celebrates”. It could even be “Can you believe my parents believed this stuff when it’s so obvious the universe was created by a Big Bang and life evolved on earth in a natural, understandable, scientifically definable way”? But Malick remains too stubbornly obtuse for any one of these – or any other – meaning to reveal itself.

 

With the major exception of the tragic death of one of his brothers, Malick’s childhood seems to have basically been idyllic. Perhaps his father was a little stern, but, really, not of the level of The Great Santini or Nil By Mouth or The War Room or This Boys Life (stepfather in that one), and it doesn’t add up to the stuff of drama. It feels like Malick made the film for himself, rather than for an audience. I saw the film not at a critic’s screening but with a general, paying audience. There were titters, chuckles and collective guffaws at some of the film’s more blatantly pretentious moments (many, again unfortunately, involving Sean Penn). As I was leaving the theatre, I passed a pair of middle-aged female patrons, just as one said loudly to the other, “I’m so glad that’s over.” I turned to her, and agreed.

 

SPECIAL TREATMENT **

 

An odd film. Isabelle Huppert plays a discreet, high-end, “sole trader” prostitute who operates out of an apartment next to her own. When a client presents potential violence, she is shaken enough to want to pursue psychoanalytic therapy. Meanwhile, a psychoanalyst (Bouli Lanners) is left by his wife, and decides he wants to pursue the services of a discreet, high-end prostitute. What could have been a Woody Allen comedy (“Hilarity ensues when a prostitute seeking a therapist meets a therapist seeking a prostitute”) is played here, by co-writer / director Jeanne Labrune, as straight drama, with nary a joke in sight. Indeed, it’s a very Woody Allen-ish world, set in tasteful, expensive apartments, where almost every character that isn’t a tasteful, expensive, literate prostitute is a tasteful, wealthy, literate psychoanalyst. The tag line for the advertising campaign is bold: “A film that dares to tell the truth about women.” I, unfortunately, missed whatever truth that was: Huppert’s character is extremely specific, with a very particular and exotic profession and very specific problems that go along with it, and I couldn’t cull a wider truth about women from her story at all. Huppert is, as always, terrific and real (I think she’s one of the greatest film actors alive), and so are the rest of the cast, but the script seems oddly pointless: I really don’t know what point it is trying to make, and the drama itself just isn’t particularly intriguing, let alone suspenseful or moving. One for Huppert’s admirers (and she has many) but very limited in its attraction for anyone else.