Talking Movies

September 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Wackness

Rooting around deep in the dustbin of the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers the last (neglected) feel-good hit of summer 2008.

I mock Ben Kingsley with the best of them but damn it if he hasn’t succeeded in having the last laugh, again, as following his superb turn as an alcoholic hit-man in last year’s You Kill Me he’s once again godlike in a comedy-drama.

The Wackness deals with one summer in the life of Luke Shapiro, a friendless teenager whose parents are embroiled in money worries, as he frets about going to college. Luke is a small time drug dealer at his school and unrequitedly in love with the impossibly hip Stephanie. He’s also in therapy with her stepfather Dr Squires, who trades psychoanalysis for marijuana from Luke, part of his rebellion against the whole world for making him feel old.

Josh Peck as Luke holds his own against Kingsley. Who’s Josh Peck? He’s the Josh of Josh and Drake, on which he displayed an aptitude for physical comedy that rivals anyone else in the last 25 years – check out the scene where Josh and Drake attempt to get a job at a sushi restaurant and fail to keep up with the food on the conveyor belt despite their most frantic efforts… He’s almost unrecognisable here after a substantial weight loss and will surprise many by displaying considerable dramatic acting chops. It may also surprise that he’s playing a drug dealer, indeed during certain scenes this film feels like ‘Nickelodeon Gone Wild’ as Mary-Kate Olsen is frankly terrifying in a cameo role as a drugged out hippy chick.

Method Man is nicely understated in a small supporting role as Luke’s supplier Percy but you suspect his most important input was into the choice of soundtrack which is very mellow 1994 hip-hop and a joy to listen to even if you think you hate rap. Quintessentially 1994 is the hatred of the new NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his nigh on fascist crusade to clean up Times Square, which is the subject of a magnificent rant by a very stoned Dr Squires that ends in a hilarious Forrest Gump moment. Juno star Olivia Thirlby uses the part of Stephanie to get out from under the considerable shadow of Ellen Page and reveal she also can act. Stephanie is endlessly optimistic, “I see the dopeness of things and you only see the wackness” she tells Luke, but phobic of commitment despite her growing attraction to Luke.

This is a slight tale but it’s not possible to over-praise The Wackness’s gorgeous cinematography. You will not see a prettier film this year, under-lit in warm browns and oranges which create an entirely appropriate woozy feel to the action. Jonathan Levine previously directed cult favourite All the Boys Love Mandy Lane but this film deserves to be more than just a niche success, The Wackness really is the last feel-good hit of the summer.

4/5

February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

January 11, 2012

The Darkest Hour 3-D

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Emile’s fine…

Emile Hirsch stars as a young tech entrepreneur in Chris Gorak’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama set in Moscow, and produced by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. Hirsch and his business partner and lifelong friend Max Minghella arrive in Moscow to launch a Russian expansion of their social networking site Globe Trot. Only to find that they’ve been royally screwed by their dodgy business associate played by Alexander Skarsgaard lookalike Joel Kinnaman, who has the advantage over them of actually speaking Russian and has stolen their idea. Disconsolate they retreat to Zvezda nightclub where they meet two users of Globe Trot, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor. Kinnaman shows up for a celebration of his business deal, but a fight is halted by a sudden power-cut that heralds the descent of alien invaders. What resemble glowing jellyfish descend from the skies and then become invisible, before shredding any human who touches them with a blast of electromagnetic wave energy that reduces them to their molecular structure instantly.

The Darkest Hour recalls Cloverfield in its quick setting up of a small group of people before realistically killing them off in shocking and suspenseful ways as they grapple with an alien invasion they don’t really comprehend. The script by Jon Spaiht was originally conceived for small town Ohio by Leslie Bohem & MT Ahern but became a far different beast when the chance to explore Russia opened up. Unfortunately the script lacks Drew Goddard’s wit and so, unlike Cloverfield, you’re not fully on board with rooting for these characters before they’re thrown into peril. The peril though is very well handled. A sequence in a deserted Red Square is memorable both for its stunning location and its tension as our heroes try to escape detection by an enemy they cannot see. Gorak’s love of 28 Days Later is clear from the joy he finds in filming scenes in a Moscow whose 14 million citizens have been reduced to a thin dust on the eerily empty streets.

These Americans and Australian are totally lost in an urban environment where even the street signs are in an alphabet they can’t read. Gorak makes daytime a source of terror as only at night can the aliens be easily detected when they light up electric outlets. The science is explained by a nicely deranged Dato Bakhtadze as Sergei, riffing on Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later. Indeed the stars are comprehensively outshone by their support. Veronika Vernadskaya as Vika has some wonderful moments as the resolute teenage survivor. Gohas Kutsnko as Matveo is magnificent as a Russian soldier who has figured out to how to defeat the aliens and plans a Leningrad style resistance; he would rather die with Moscow at his back than survive in exile. This recalls Colin Farrell’s character in The Way Back, but with Bekmambetov advising we can apparently now regard this as a real Russian trait.

The ending stresses the note of hope too much, when the world’s population could now probably live comfortably in North London, but this is a solid piece of work.

3/5

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