Talking Movies

March 2, 2016

Time Out of Mind

Actor/producer Richard Gere teams up with The Messenger writer/director Oren Moverman for a portrait of homelessness in New York City.

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George (Gere) is rudely awakened from his slumber in a bathtub by Frank (Steve Buscemi) and thrown out of an apartment that his friend Sheila has been evicted from. George is a nuisance in Frank’s eyes, in fact he’s a nuisance to most people. Nurse Maire (Geraldine Hughes) tells him he can sleep in the ER waiting room but an orderly countermands her compassion. Private schoolboys and frat boys mock and prank George when he’s at his most vulnerable. His estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) can’t stand the sight of him. When he falls at his feet at a shelter he’s quickly intimidated by the younger, physically stronger Jack (Jeremy Strong). But there he also makes an unlikely friend, former jazz musician and current garrulous optimist Dixon (Ben Vereen). Can Dixon steer George back on to the straight and narrow?

That description makes Time Out of Mind sound almost plot-driven. It’s not. To a fault. At an ADIFF Q&A last week actor/producer Gere was proud of how he and Moverman had worked hard to strip away almost all elements of plot from the movie. There is no true arc nor backstory. We begin abruptly in media res ,and our feelings of disorientation are heightened by a chaotic sound mix; reflecting the long-lens cinematography of Bobby Bukowski that captures from afar the astonishing verite of real people blanking Richard Gere because of his shabby apparel, as well as emulating 1960s anti-Magnum photography by wrapping images in and thru reflections. But this lack of backstory greatly hurts the father/daughter dynamic. Without context Maggie appears hypocritical and narcissistic, her repeated ‘What else?’ reminiscent of and as irritating as Diane Keaton’s ‘As what?’ refrain in Reds.

Time Out of Mind lacks the bravura camerawork Bukowski and Moverman deployed on 2011’s Rampart, but there are numerous long-takes that are so unobtrusive you start with surprise when you suddenly realise that minutes have passed without a cut. Gere doesn’t match the recent gold standard of his barnstorming turn in Arbitrage, because he’s essentially a passive, if occasionally self-destructive, figure. Instead Vereen remains long in the memory. His Dixon is a comic creation given to lengthy monologues, but also gifted incredibly affecting notes of despair and delusion that come to a head when he hesitates agonisingly over playing an out of tune piano. Moverman’s previous directorial effort Rampart was just as much a character study, but it was driven by a ferociously complex and layered character actively moving through a reasonably fleshed out plot. Moverman’s pared back too much…

Time Out of Mind is that most frustrating of things: an important film. It’s incredibly depressing, paints a not too rose-tinted picture of urban homelessness, and is exceptionally well-intentioned. It’s just not great film-making.

3/5

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January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

March 7, 2013

Robot and Frank

Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

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Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

February 28, 2013

Arbitrage

A Golden Globe nominated Richard Gere plays a high-flying Wall Street magnate  juggling crises financial, emotional, and ominously legal in screenwriter  Nicholas Jarecki’s feature debut.

Photography By Myles Aronowitz

Robert Miller (Gere) is the CEO and founder of investment firm Miller  Capital. He’s about to sell his company to the fabulously wealthy James Mayfield  (Graydon Carter), but needs the deal to happen urgently before the $400 million  hole in his accounts, hidden by his pliable auditor, is discovered. His personal  life, juggling his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and his mistress Julie (Laetitia  Casta), is stressful enough. But between trying to stave off his wife’s  suspicions, visit his mistress’s new art exhibition to avoid her hysteria, and  finagle the forensic accountants, Miller finds himself asleep at the wheel,  literally. He enlists the help of an old lieutenant’s son, Jimmy (Nate Parker),  to cover up his deadly accident, but it seems certain either his  daughter/business partner Brooke (Britt Marling) or embittered NYPD homicide  detective Bryer (Tim Roth) will unravel Miller’s lies.

Richard Gere is a puzzling actor. He’s occasionally self-satisfied but can  generate audience sympathy out of thin air in films like Red Corner and The Jackal, but, as the necessity of doing so  in films like those indicates, he just can’t seem to recognise good scripts.  Gere does have some barnstorming rants here, and he’s brilliant at saying  abrasive things and then instantly apologising; as if the stress Miller is under  causes his social filters to malfunction. But Gere alone cannot carry a film  dripping cliché. His mistress Julie is the most irritating, high-maintenance,  art gallery owning French stereotype imaginable. It is simply impossible to care  about her, when you want to slap Miller for carrying on with her given how great  his privileged life is. And this is the script’s fault as Casta excelled as  Bardot in 2010’s Gainsbourg.

The slowly tightening legal vice  around Jimmy as he tries to stonewall his way out of admitting any involvement  with Miller’s situation is compelling, but not nearly as tense as that in Side Effects. Jarecki also nicely heightens  the suspense of Miller trying to meet the elusive Mr Mayfield to settle the  buyout of his firm in person like men. But this film doesn’t really shed a light  on high finance like Margin Call (or  even Wall Street 2’s central speech)  did. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, Dickens and Ibsen are melodramatic;  what’s unforgivable is turgid melodrama. And, when Sarandon finally comes into  her own near the end, her grandstanding reveals that, for all Marling’s gameness  in showing how Brooke’s suspicions of her father’s honesty cause her to unravel,  this is melodrama about a tycoon masquerading as biting social commentary.

Jarecki was dropped from directing his 2008 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers. This proves his  competence directing, but his script offers many individual gems without overall  impact.

2.5/5

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