Talking Movies

October 25, 2019

From the Archives: Rendition

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

An Egyptian man resident in America (Metwally) is the victim of extraordinary rendition to Morocco where a CIA agent (Gyllenhaal) ‘observes’ his interrogation. In Washington the man’s wife (Witherspoon) tries to find out what has happened with the help of a friend (Saarsgard), an aide to a key Senator (Arkin).

Oh My God, it’s Syriana: Part 2. Once again a small army of talented actors stand around waiting for someone to throw them some dramatic meat they can get their teeth into. And again with the baffling idea that constantly intercutting between nothing happening in four different stories is an artistically impressive substitute for developing any of those plot-strands. This film may have some use as a compendium of torture techniques, from water-boarding to electrocution via naked beatings, but if it’s meant to be anything other than a CIA training manual it fails badly.

The CIA does not torture people of course. It merely hands them over to people who will. Of course Jake Gyllenhaal’s Agent Freeman has a crisis of conscience as he ‘observes’  Fawal (Kojak lookalike Yigal Naor) torturing the unfortunate Anwar. Of course Reese Witherspoon runs up against a brick wall in Washington as Peter Sarsgaard is warned off by his Senator with the line “If you want to be the guy who never compromises, go join Amnesty International!” But the logic of the French General in 1960s classic The Battle of Algiers has become unnervingly convincing, if you want to beat an enemy this hate-filled you have to go to extremes too, or you will lose.

The tricksy structure of the film revealed at the end of the film is deeply pointless. At first as it’s telegraphed well in advance it seems like a leap into poetic metaphor for the cycle of violence, then you think that it’s flat out fantasy and makes a nonsense of the whole film, then you slap your thigh and go ‘By Gad Sir I get it!’ and realise that it’s still lame even though it makes sense. It’s also quite easy to miss if you’ve dozed off as is highly likely by that point. If you have nodded off on waking you should just point at the screen, mumble “You’re the Canadian” in a stoned manner, and leave. You won’t have missed anything.

1/5

April 27, 2016

Demolition

Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns with a considerably less ‘prestige’ tale of mental disintegration and rejuvenation than his previous film Wild.

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Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a jaded investment banker so inattentive he hasn’t noticed his refrigerator leaking for 2 weeks. His wife Julia (Heather Lind) is reminding him anew just before a fatal car-crash. Work is no escape from his grief because he works for his disapproving father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), and also he doesn’t really have any grief. A confession Davis makes in a series of over-sharing letters tangentially seeking a refund from a hospital vending machine. The letters touch stoner customer services rep Karen (Naomi Watts), and soon Davis is hanging out with her and mentoring her troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). This does not impress Karen’s boyfriend Carl (CJ Wilson). Phil and Margot (Polly Draper) are even less impressed, especially as Davis disdains their plan for a scholarship in Julia’s name; being busy demolishing Julia’s open-plan house.

Bryan Sipe’s script appeared on the 2007 Blacklist of unproduced gems, but it feels like a script that should have doing the rounds in the late 1990s. There are similarities with Fight Club, American Beauty, and, as Joe Griffin pointed out to me, Falling Down. Jay M Glen, editing his first movie, offers some terrific disjunctive cuts but this does not have Fight Club’s bravura nihilism despite Davis’ enthusiastic destruction of all the consumer comforts of his oh-so-modern abode. Instead, with Yves Belanger lighting his third straight film for Vallee and casting a warm sheen over everything, it’s more akin to American Beauty’s concern with the beauty of the quotidian. The slight note of Camus’ L’Etranger in Davis pointedly not crying at his wife’s funeral deceives; this is as philosophically facile as American Beauty’s plastic bag flapping in the wind.

So thank heavens there is another film in Demolition’s DNA: Vallee’s own towering C.R.A.Z.Y. Davis, in preferring to pay contractor Jimmy (Wass Stevens) to allow him destroy condemned properties than engage with Julia’s scholarship recipient Todd (Brendan Dooling), is quite obviously dynamiting his career and life, but Vallee’s skilful use of music magicks this nervous breakdown into a spiritual awakening. And even more importantly the ‘rejuvenation’ of a bored career man by a disaffected teenager would be a tired retread (not just American Beauty but Meet Bill) were it not for Judah Lewis. Lewis, in some shots reminiscent of the young Tina Majorino, gives a star-making performance as the Bowie-adoring androgynous teenager who bonds with Davis. There are notes of Edward Furlong’s John Connor in his bravado, but the notes of vulnerability sing, and Gyllenhaal matches them with nuanced despair.

Demolition is a good, engaging film that you keep hoping will find a higher gear but when it never does its obvious good nature predisposes you to liking it more than it arguably deserves.

3.5/5

June 22, 2011

Top 5 Cinematic Big Sisters

I recently saw Donnie Darko at the IFI Open Day and the brilliance of the double-act by the Gyllenhaal siblings made me think about compiling a shortlist, not of the best sisters in cinema because that’s a very long and different list, but of the best big sisters in film.

(5) Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep)
It may seem odd to isolate this iconic film noir femme fatale role for this one particular quality but a huge part of Vivian Sternwood’s motive for keeping tabs on the investigation of Philip Marlowe is to protect her crazy little sister Carmen, and she’s prepared to do a lot to keep her safe…

(4) Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim)
Anna Kendrick’s character is perhaps the best example of the hilariously unappreciated big sister. She’s perpetually put-upon by her younger brother’s best friend, who is constantly stealing her boyfriends, but continues to risk it, and hilariously continually suffers, for her loving compulsion to be forever doling out good advice to her irresponsible and inattentive sibling.

(3) Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Ferris’s big sister is eternally infuriated by his popularity, but, after a day where his shenanigans once again drive her up the walls, an encounter with a drug-addled Charlie Sheen (how little things change in 25 years) leads her to loosen up and finally stick up for her conniving but loveable younger sibling.

(2) Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko)
Always keeping an eye out for Donnie; quizzically observing his antics at their party; but never doing so without a good deal of snarkiness; the opening dinner scene; Elizabeth is probably the most convincingly nuanced big sister in recent memory, undoubtedly helped by the fact that this exuberant double-act is an actual brother-sister acting team.

(1) Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous)
“Listen to Tommy with one candle lighted and you will see your entire future”. Zooey’s break-out role was the impossibly idealised cool older sister who defies their mother on her younger brother’s behalf, before setting him on the path to his eventual career by bequeathing her awesome record collection to him; with handwritten cryptic instructions…

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