Talking Movies

April 22, 2015

The Good Lie

Quebecois director Phillipe Falardeau makes his first Anglophone feature with a riveting tale of colliding cultures inspired by a true humanitarian crisis in 1980s Sudan.

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Rural Sudan in the 1980s would be recognisable to a Sudanese villager of the 1880s or 1780s. A simple life of cattle-farming is carried on, with tribal traditions intact. Brothers Theo (Okwar Jale) and Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok) bicker over a game of naming ancestors, while sister Abital (Keji Jale) despairs of them. And then civil war erupts around them, with helicopters raining gunfire on the village. As the elders grab spears to repel invasion, the three siblings run for safety. However, safety is a perilous thousand mile trek to a Kenyan refugee camp, during which they meet brothers Jeremiah (Thon Kueth) and Paul (Deng Ajuet). Thirteen years later the adult Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Abital (Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) are sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to be helped successfully integrate by employment agent Carrie (Reese Witherspoon).

Ah, Reese Witherspoon… The Good Lie is an engaging film, but the first 35 minutes are by far the most interesting, because thereafter Witherspoon and Corey Stoll as her taciturn but secretly compassionate boss Jack take the focus away from the Lost Boys of Sudan. Without going into Marxist overdrive, it’s not reasonable to criticise this shift in narrative focus, because it is so self-evident a truth that there is no way this movie gets a $20 million dollar budget without Witherspoon and Stoll being given leading roles. It is though admissible to lament this self-evident truth. The reality that in 1987 a lifestyle belonging to bygone centuries was still alive is fascinating, the realities of growing up in a ‘temporary’ refugee camp intrigues, but these stories are displaced by a ‘Coming to America’ culture clash, played for odd laughs.

Falardeau’s last film, Monsieur Lazhar, showed his enormous skill in working with child actors, as well as his concern (building on Congorama) in exploring collisions between cultures. He elicits wonderful characterisations from his child stars, especially the responsible Theo, and from the adult actors Duany and Jal who are both former child soldiers. But the culture clash feels patronising, even though American culture, much like PC Montreal in Lazhar, doesn’t seem as shining as one might expect when interrogated by refugees. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Warm Springs) doesn’t shrink from portraying the heartless bureaucratic insanity (that only increases after 9/11) of the American government. She also encapsulates the horror of civil war in a tense moment when the young Jeremiah takes a bible from Theo after he joins them, and you’re unsure if Theo’s led his siblings into danger.

The Good Lie is a solid but frustrating movie that makes you wish Falardeau had instead been let loose on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story about literal African-American culture clash.

3/5

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January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

April 23, 2014

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s Quebec-set thriller Tom at the Farm only played for a week at the IFI but it deserves to be seen by large audiences.

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L’Ambiguitie

Dolan’s film, adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, maintains ambiguity masterfully. Tom (Dolan) is bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from his mother Agathe (Lise Roy), but Guillaume’s elision of Francis’ existence, and the true nature of Francis’ need for Tom to stay at the farm, remain murky: when Francis menaces two men who insult him, we assume a motive which is later expertly cast into doubt. Nothing is obvious here.

 

Two to Tango

The moment when Francis takes Tom to a shed in the family farm that is revealed to be a nearly professional standard dance-floor is a startling character revelation. But when Francis then shows Tom how he used to practice as a teenager with his deceased brother Guillaume, by whirling Tom around to music memorably used in a Nip/Tuck finale, and Tom responds by assuming his dead lover Guillame’s place and tangoing perfectly makes this scene deliriously transgressive.

 

Bright lights, Dark story

When Tom goes for a drink, to kill time while waiting for a bus to roll in, it’s hard not to be struck by the lurid colour scheme his very green jacket makes against the very yellow bar he sits at. As the barman starts to tell him exactly what Francis did to be so shunned by the local community, the lurid colours seem ever brighter as an almost Hitchcockian contrast against to the ever-darkening monologue.

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Letterbox ex machina

At first I thought I’d been half-asleep and had somehow missed the entire film being in letter-box format when the screen seemed to close in as Francis choked Tom in the cornfield after Tom’s early futile escape attempt. Then the film reverted to normal ratio… And, sure enough, now on the lookout for it I noticed the boldly expressionist format shift happen twice more: when Tom chokes Francis later, and when Francis makes another bolt for freedom.

 

Freudian Slips and Chokeholds

Freud you imagine would have a field-day with this movie… The macho swaggering farmer Francis seems to represent the powerful eruption of the suppressed sexual instincts. Except Francis also seems to equally represent a powerful rage against just those instincts, while Tom in his relationship with Francis veers somewhere beyond Stockholm Syndrome and the embodiment of Freud’s death-drive thanatos being intimately related to the sex-drive libido in his acceptance of beatings and positive pleasure in choking.

February 7, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey’s acting renaissance continues as Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to Anglophone cinema with a far surer script than Julian Fellowes’ dire Young Victoria.

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Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is introduced in Hemingwayesque style as he gets busy with two prostitutes in a spare pen at the dangerous rodeo. An archetypal good ole boy he is soon punching his favourite cop (Steve Zahn) to ensure arrest before irate gamblers demand their money after his friend TJ (Kevin Rankin) ruins the book. Running some gambling, and spending the proceeds on drink and hookers is Woodroof’s contented life, with electrical maintenance at oil-fields providing a steady income, until he collapses and awakes in hospital to find himself being diagnosed with HIV by Drs Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner). Given 30 days to live, Woodroof goes into furious denial, before stealing AZT supplies, and eventually ending up in a squalid clinic in Mexico, where Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne) re-educates him about the FDA and supposed wonder-drug AZT…

McConaughey is initially rake-thin, as the HIV victim the doctors are amazed hasn’t died before this point, and he wastes away before your eyes over the course of 2 hours to harrowing effect. McConaughey also has no problem in being unsympathetic. He’s a perfect cliché of redneck hostility when he meets HIV+ gay transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) in hospital. But soon Woodroof himself is on the receiving end as TJ mocks his sexuality and Woodroof finds an invisible force-field around him at his favourite bar as everyone fears catching his disease. Soon Woodroof’s quest ceases to be to save his own life, but to outwit FDA regulations for the good of all his fellow AIDS sufferers, thru the Dallas Buyers Club; run in an unlikely partnership with Rayon, whose honour he chivalrously defends in a supermarket against TJ’s homophobic slurs.

Dallas Buyers Club has one major problem, given its ‘based on a true story’ status. Barkley of the FDA (the reliably oily Michael O’Neill) makes for a strong villain, but was AZT really as poisonous a treatment as Woodroof believed or is this film cleverly playing on our fears of Big Pharma’s ability to corrupt regulation for its own profits? But against that factual concern is the superb acting and affecting arc; even as Woodroof hustles Dr Eve she warms to his hidden softer side – on being evicted he breaks into his trailer to save a painting. Woodroof’s friendship with Rayon, which sees them bickering in a supermarket about processed food like a married couple, is beautifully developed, and Rayon’s drug spiral is extremely moving. Leto didn’t play a character called Angel Face in Fight Club for nothing, he looks prettier in a dress than many actresses, but his fierce commitment to the role includes deliberately ravaging his appearance as Rayon nears the inevitable end.

McConaughey’s renaissance continues to be as spectacular it was unexpected, while Jean-Marc Vallee finally achieves an Anglophone success to rank alongside his Quebecois triumphs C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore.

5/5

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

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