Talking Movies

May 31, 2013

Populaire

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Competitive speed-typing is the unlikely subject of this French mash-up of a sports flick and a rom-com set in 1959.

Rose (Deborah Francois) is a shopkeeper’s daughter eager to escape the ennui of her provincial existence. She applies for a job as a secretary in Lisieux, a position that attracts a large number of conspicuously attractive applicants who dismiss her chances. Rose indeed makes a mess of her interview, but her formidable typing skills gain her a reprieve. Her boss, insurance agent Louis (Romain Duris), sees potential for her to win the regional speed-typing contest, even if this means enduring her disastrous performance in handling paperwork. In a nod to Pygmalion he even bets his American friend Bob (Shaun Benson) that he can train this girl to become the French national typing champion, a wager strongly disapproved of by Bob’s wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo); who was once almost married to Louis. But can Louis and Rose’s relationship remain strictly sporting?

So, how do you make speed-typing exciting? Well, the answer is to shoot the contests in what is probably the closest we’ll ever get to John Healy and I’s dream of ‘Un Film de Michel Bay’. ‘Un Film de Michel Bay’ should be thought of as an archetypal black and white Eric Rohmer film like Ma Nuit Chez Maud in which very serious and literate discussions of Pascal’s philosophy are organically interrupted by explosions of vehicular mayhem and spectacular pyrotechnics. The national championship in Paris is shot in just this fashion, with fast tracking back and forth between typewriters followed by bombastically heroic panning in a circle around the two typists. Director Regis Roinsard even inserts a proper Rocky training montage into proceedings just to demonstrate that speed-typing really is a sport; a point struck home to a snooty journalist.

But that nice visual gag and the elan of the typing sequences cannot disguise that this is merely an insubstantial rom-com mashed up with a sports movie set-up that is lacking in either good gags or character insight. The mind wanders so much that in a pivotal scene you tut-tut that Berenice Bejo is once again appearing in a film that explicitly steals from Vertigo, and then, as that scene changes completely in nature, you realise the appropriate 1958 movie to reference is in fact Les Amants. Far too explicit for its 12 rating, and falling between several stools in its attempt to address the legacy of the Resistance and the American liberation, feminism and sexual exploitation, you will be immensely frustrated when Populaire fails to stop at its natural ending, but persists on for an unconvincing parade of cliché.

Populaire is a feather-weight confection that could be commended as amusing were it 25 minutes shorter, but the fatal mistake of running thru a contrived finale renders it dull as it outstays its welcome.

2/5

Any Other Business: Part VIII

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What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

May 23, 2013

The Moth Diaries

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American Psycho director Mary Harron returns with a Carmilla-indebted horror of female vampires at an upstate New York private school starring Irish actress Sarah Bolger.

Our heroine Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is inseparable from her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Indeed, haunted as she still is by the memory of her father’s suicide, Lucy may have been the only thing that kept Rebecca from spiralling out of control a few years previously. However, their bond is tested with the arrival of ethereal new student Ernessa (Lily Cole). The growing friendship between Ernessa and Lucy is resented by Rebecca, especially as other girls in their close-knit circle seem to self-destruct in various ways after getting too close to Ernessa’s baneful influence. And then Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) starts to teach them about Gothic fiction and Rebecca realises that Ernessa is undoubtedly a vampire, slowly draining the life out of Lucy. But is Rebecca merely suffering from nightmarish hallucinations as she slides towards the fate of her father?

I’m reviewing this film from the odd perspective of having attended the screening at JDIFF which featured a Q&A with Harron, and Jeff Bridges’ insistence that ‘the intentions are always good’ in film-making is true with a vengeance here. Harron’s explanation of the ambiguity she wanted to imbue the film with make it fit perfectly beside American Psycho in her canon. But… The Moth Diaries doesn’t actually possess that intended ambiguity. This is partly because you can see the twist a mile off as Ernessa isolates Rebecca by breaking up her social circle. But mostly it’s because Lily Cole does not look remotely human. Dressed in flowing black clothes that accentuate her height and porcelain doll head she might as well sport an “Hello, I’m a vampire” nametag on her first appearance. And a muted horror without ambiguity is dubious.

The Moth Diaries was a nightmare to finance because of its female focus, and, unlike Orson Welles’ Othello, which is stunning despite many jarring effects caused by its interrupted shooting, it feels as if Harron simply fell over the finishing line with relief rather than with the confidence that buoyed The Notorious Bettie Page. There’s some very clunky dialogue, especially in Speedman’s scenes, and many of the characters are clichés, though Valerie Tian does stellar work with a tokenistic role. But Bolger is a very sympathetic lead and Cronenberg favourite Gadon is a good foil for her. There’re some beautiful touches by DP Declan Quinn in varying the drab colour scheme of the school with vivid torrents of blood, ghostly moonlight walks, and disruptive flashbacks and sex scenes that drip bright colours, while Harron’s final Apollonian image is also impressive.

Harron is an interesting writer/director but this film is a disappointment. It outstays its welcome despite its short running time, largely because it never emerges from cliché’s comforting cocoon.

2.5/5

May 7, 2013

Mud

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Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returns with a Southern tale that owes much to Mark Twain as two teenage boys help Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive.

The inseparable Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) are our modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They ride motorbikes, pilot motorboats, and enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the Mississippi river. Orphaned Neck lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a womaniser, oyster fisher, and collector of riverbed trash. Ellis endures the disintegrating marriage of his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and MaryLee (Sarah Paulson). Then, boating out to an island in the river to see a boat stranded in a tree by a flood, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a superstitious fugitive waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to rendezvous with him, and hiding out from the law and Texan cowboys the while. Neck is wary of Mud but Ellis is drawn to his irrepressible romanticism and soon the boys find themselves conspiring with Mud, and inviting danger…

If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn you’ll grin at Mud’s entrance being announced by distinctive footprints because of nails forming a cross in his boot just like Pa Finn. You’ll also enjoy an absurd moment worthy of Twain’s warring clans the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons bringing their guns to church. That blood feud is echoed in the vendetta against Mud by implacable Texans led by the smooth Carver (Paul Sparks) and his gruff father King (Joe Don Baker). Nichols manages to make such touches not seem anachronistic by giving a timeless quality to proceedings. People ring landlines and ask for the person they want to talk to, Galen uses a 19th century diving helmet with a 21st century skin-suit, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ gets its most prominent use since 1980s show ALF. Nichols pulls this off largely by his insistence on shooting on remote, strikingly beautiful locations in Arkansas, which his regular cinematographer Adam Stone imbues with heavenly sheen.

Nichols’ Take Shelter was one of the finest films of 2011, and Mud shows startling range in being expansive and optimistic where that was intense and foreboding. Tree of Life star Sheridan gives a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacts to his parents’ separation and the loss of his riverside life by bonding with Mud because of his unquenchable belief in everlasting love. Ellis projects Mud’s love for Juniper onto his own putative girlfriend MayPearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) despite the warnings by his mysterious neighbour Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) that Mud is a fool for love, and that Ellis and Neck are making themselves as great fools by running messages for Mud and scrounging materials for his tree-stranded boat. Nichols draws uniformly flawless performances from his perfectly judged ensemble to make this a deeply felt tale of love and wisdom, played against the rolling Mississippi and endless local charms against bad luck, which builds to a climax suitable for a director whose debut was called Shotgun Stories. The ending makes you think of Huck’s closing peroration, but the final image then makes you think Frederick Jackson Turner got it wrong – the frontier spirit is well-nigh indestructible.

Nichols’ third film is his most ambitious and warmest. Rich and absorbing, it is lit by a deep affection for his characters. The best film I’ve seen this year.

5/5

May 2, 2013

Dead Man Down

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Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes his American debut with a thriller starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace.

Victor (Farrell) is a low-ranking criminal working alongside fellow foot-soldier and friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) in the gang headed by Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), a sharp-suited villain who specialises in clearing buildings of tenants for the Mob. Hoyt is coming apart at the seams due to a three month barrage of cryptic notes, and surveillance photos with his eyes crossed out. And that’s before Paul, the trusted lieutenant he tasked with identifying the mystery stalker, turns up dead in the basement of Alphonse’s mansion. As Alphonse goes on the offensive Victor strikes up a low-key romance with his high-rise neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautician horribly scarred by a car accident who now shuns the world and lives with her mother Valentine (Isabelle Huppert). But embittered Beatrice may hold the key to solving the mystery of who is harassing Alphonse…

Dead Man Down’s best feature is its patient drip-feeding of surprising information in the first act. There is one truly extraordinary scene in which a victim is revealed to be a predator, and Terrence Howard’s villain on the make interestingly has something of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday about him. Oplev defamiliarises NYC to an astonishing extent; making it a city of warehouses in deserted urban locales, docklands overgrown with green trees, and lush vegetation surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. There are a number of nail-biting sequences in the film as Darcy takes over Paul’s investigation and gets closer to the truth which got him killed, but somehow Oplev doesn’t milk the tension from them Fincher would, while his action sequences are staged efficiently rather than dazzlingly. Really this is TV’s Revenge, writ large, and not quite as attractively.

Fringe writer JH Wyman’s dialogue clunks almightily at times, not helped by Oplev shooting those scenes with lengthy pauses where the piano tinkles helpfully to suggest emotional epiphanies are being had by characters who don’t look like they’re even thinking. Oplev incredibly sabotages a scene where the voice of a dead girl says “Daddy got rid of all the monsters”, by showing us a board of photos of all the mobsters still to be killed. We got it, stop flourishing your Diploma from the Oliver Stone School of Subtlety. Wyman’s script has good intentions, but just when you’re thinking about quotes by Confucius and Gladiator on revenge the finale changes gears completely, almost as if a draft by Luc Besson of the Colombiana showstopper had got mixed up with the final pages of Dead Man Down, and profundity is banished.

You couldn’t say that Dead Man Down is a bad film, but you could only give it a very qualified thumbs-up because it so aggravatingly wastes its abundant potential.

2.5/5

21 and Over

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The writers of The Hangover turn  director with another elaborate tale of a drunken night’s debauchery, and the  results are even unfunnier than you’d fear.

Driven pre-med student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) gets an unwelcome surprise on  his 21st birthday when his best friends from high school, Miller  (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), arrive on his doorstep to party. He,  however, needs an early night because his fearsome father Dr Chang (Francois  Chau from LOST) has arranged an  interview for medical school at 7am the next morning. Bullied by the coarse  Miller Jeffrey cracks and gets very, very drunk. When he passes out Miller and  Casey realise they don’t know where he lives. And so begins an odyssey thru  sorority houses, frat parties, pep rallies – quite often in the company of  Jeffrey’s friend Nicole (Sarah Wright) – to try and find someone who can give  them an address to deliver the comatose Jeffrey to. But the strained friendships  threaten to fracture from drunkenly revealed secrets…

This is the type of R-rated comedy  which believes that comedy is derived from being crude and being obnoxious, not  from being witty or, God forbid, delivering jokes. If you have to explain a joke  it’s not funny – yet writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore actually do that  for the one successful joke in their movie thereby semi-ruining it. 21 and Over has some mildly amusing moments in  its final act, but then you realise you’re responding to them because they’re  shamelessly cribbed from the finale of Ferris  Bueller’s Day Off – Jeff’s dad roars towards chez Chang while a  semi-conscious Jeff tries to make it home first – not because anything funny is  happening. Russell Hodgkinson has a wonderful character moment as The Chief,  but, like the lyrical image of a buffalo wandering around the campus, it  deserves a better film.

I’ve written before that Seth Rogen and  Jonah Hill always add a rambling absurdity to their R-rated comedy, and this  film actually attempts that approach with a discussion of JGL; but it  fails miserably. There also appears to be a nod to 50 Shades of  Grey in the sorority sequences, but then the pay-off is Eyes Wide Shut. Really this film is all about  Miller – an incredibly obnoxious character who is racist towards Asians,  Latinos, Jews, and, well, everyone really. Amidst the slow-motion vomiting while  riding a bull, the stretchy member involved in an accidental circumcision, and  the inexplicably topless cheerleader, you’ll think two things. Rogen mis-fired  when he tried to use an obnoxious lead in The  Green Hornet, yet this film, like The  Change-Up and The Hangover  doesn’t think it needs to make its protagonist likeable. Or, indeed, the  supporting characters; the abrasive jock Randy (Jonathan Keltz) is as  unnervingly plausible as Bradley Cooper’s Wedding Crashers thug. Characters can be compelling rather than likeable, but  that’s really a dramatic prerogative. And, after The Hangover and The Change-Up, this is yet another paean to permanent adolescence by  Lucas and Moore, and ironically these asinine, simplistic, foul-mouthed and  predictable valorisations of irresponsibility are just getting old…

Did you know that it’s just over 10 years since The Rules of Attraction was released in  Ireland? Why not catch up with that classic of cinematic college debauchery?

0/5

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