Talking Movies

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

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April 1, 2015

While We’re Young

Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach returns to the NYC art scene, but loses Greta Gerwig as co-writer and reinstates Greenberg cohort Ben Stiller as protagonist.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian. He’s married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer, whose father is the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin).  Josh and Cornelia’s best friends Fletcher (Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz!!) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have just had a kid. Indeed the misleading opening finds Josh and Cornelia gazing at the baby while a mobile playing a cutesy version of Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ hangs over the cot. Having lost Fletcher to the children cult Josh is receptive to a hipster couple he meets after one of his New School extension lectures. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a would-be documentarian, his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes home-made ice cream, and they live in a Brooklyn flat with friend and occasional band-mate Tipper (Dree Hemingway). Josh is enchanted, and soon so is Cornelia, but can this rejuvenation end well?

While We’re Young is less sunny than Frances Ha, but thankfully not as bitter as Greenberg, and, from the opening hilarious quotes from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is always engaging. Some montages of Josh and Cornelia’s rediscovery of their youth thru hip-hop and hats equal Frances Ha’s use of pop, and Baumbach also mocks ‘Eye of the Tiger’ motivational status (“I remember when this song was just bad”). But Frances Ha was about being lost and aimless. This is about a couple who have everything, and are jaded, meeting a couple who have little, but are liberated. Josh has spent 8 years not finishing a documentary, and laments “I only have two moods: wistful and disdainful.” For Jamie making a documentary is a free and easy process, as whimsy-driven as choosing to not know a factoid rather than google it.

But when Jamie uses a remote control to zoom-in for a close-up on his face during a ‘spontaneous’ tearful scene when interviewing old school-friend Kent (Brady Corbet), Josh realises Jamie’s directing is as affected as the love of vinyl and VHS… Then things get All About Eve as Jamie supplants Josh in the affections of Leslie (veteran Grodin on fine comedic form). It’s a bit silly, not least as it draws attention to Baumbach’s own idol-supplanting. Josh is Woody Allen in Crimes & Misdemeanours: a film-maker unable to finish a documentary showcasing an aged academic proffering arcane wisdom. It’s as odd as James Murphy’s music and Baumbach’s staging creating an oddly sinister intercutting of a valedictory speech and an ethical confrontation, almost as if Baumbach is parodying his own concerns: Woody’s stakes were life and death, his, just passé ethics.

While We’re Young has moments of genuine sadness, like Cornelia (who’s miscarried repeatedly) freaking out a baby music class, but Baumbach opts for an all too pat comedy ending.

3.5/5

January 2, 2015

Birdman

Michael Keaton makes a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s major change of pace from fractured chronology and introspective misery to faux-classical unities and backstage shenanigans.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was Birdman. In his own mind he still is. The film starts with him levitating in his dressing room while a growling voice in his head argues with him. But Birdman III was released in 1992. The aged Thomson is trying to salvage some respectability by staging his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ on Broadway. A happy accident sees his leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) introduce her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) to the cast; and ticket sales take off – to the joy of Thomson’s attorney/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). All Riggan has to do is keep his drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) on the straight and narrow as his PA, negotiate the hurdle of an unexpected pregnancy with girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), raise extra money to pay for the star attraction that is Broadway legend Mike, oh, and try not to murder Broadway legend Mike…

It’s not often a movie gets released on New Year’s Day that looks to be the best movie of that year, but Birdman is a good bet to pull off that feat. There is a lot to talk about with Birdman that’s unusual: whether it be Antonio Sanchez’s exclusively percussion score that quickly becomes adorable and only yields to strings when Keaton becomes Birdman, or Inarritu’s conceit of filming the movie as one single long-take that collapses time at certain points in order to trace some crucial days leading up to opening night of Riggan’s play. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work is spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion but the time-lapses make you wonder why doing one long-take made more sense than simply four long-takes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the need to show off so spectacularly in cinematic terms is because it hides the theatrical concerns of the script.

Inarritu and his co-writers Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, and Nicolas Giacabone have constructed a back-stage tale that mixes comedy and drama with aplomb. Keaton and Norton are transparently playing with their own personae, and having the time of their life doing it, but the hilarity of Mike’s preening self-regard and Riggan’s crises of confidence are balanced by their arguments over the nature of what they do. Lindsay Duncan’s ridiculous critic Tabitha wants to take Riggan down to score off Hollywood fakes who can’t act and aren’t interested in learning the technique needed to triumph on Broadway. And yet, for all Riggan’s critique of her reviews as being lacking in any dissection of technique, Riggan himself shares many of her concerns that cinema has left him behind because he is interested in exploring truth and the human condition. He fears maybe Mike is right that such concerns now only exist in the theatre, and only if someone like Mike is there to attract crowds and provide protection against poison-pen reviews.

Birdman is interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time is enough to overcome any quibbles.

5/5

September 18, 2013

Diana

Downfall Director Oliver Hirschbiegel reminds us he also directed The Invasion as he once again comes a cropper working with a famous blonde Australian actress.

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Diana opens with Naomi Watts’ Sloane Ranger getting into the elevator which will take her to a fatal chase thru a Parisian tunnel. It then jumps back two years to late 1995 with the unsettled Princess preparing for her ‘Queen of Hearts’ TV interview with Martin Bashir, and assiduously hiding this from her adviser Patrick (Charles Edwards). Diana, as she complains to her acupuncturist/psychiatrist Una (Geraldine James), is feeling detached from her children (by Palace meddling only co-ordinating their schedules monthly), hounded by the paparazzi, and generally unloved. When Una’s husband is hospitalised Diana rushes to visit, and falls for Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). But though she visits his family in Pakistan to ask for their blessing can she really marry a workaholic who insists privacy is vital to maintain the concentration he needs as a surgeon?

This, unlike The Invasion, feels like a Hirschbiegel movie. Bookended by showy (and ultimately pointless) tracking shots, his camera roves constantly. But this style and Rainer Klausmann’s narrowly focused cinematography is brought to bear on Stephen Jeffrey’s stilted script. Despite being based on the allegedly true behind the scenes story, you never believe for a second this really happened. Dialogue like Hasnat’s “You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you” should have been laughed out of the room at the read-thru stage, yet it remains; inciting unintentional hilarity. The longer the movie drags on the more it feels like a Mark Millar comic: history is a cover story, what we know about Diana’s romance with Dodi Al-Fayed was just an elaborate smokescreen created by her, in collusion with a favoured paparazzo, as part of her true romance with Hasnat.

Diana feels tediously endless because talented people are failing to achieve any insight. Watts’ head is pleasingly always tilted at an angle, but she and Andrews can’t make their characters escape the bad 1980s soap opera feel of their secret romance. Every one of their arguments is the same argument, rather like The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and so no dramatic momentum ever builds. The portrayal of Diana’s persona is just too much – especially as this is meant to reveal the woman behind the facade. A scene with a tearful blind man in Rimini joyously touching her face is the nadir: Diana as Jesus meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, power going out from her to console. Diana uses her children as an arguing gambit with Hasnat, but rarely seems to think of them otherwise; her full personality thus remains a mystery.

If you don’t believe that everyone in England was watching the Bashir interview, with entire pubs eschewing watching football or drinking for it, then Diana is not for you…

1.5/5

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