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 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

May 7, 2013

Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returns with a Southern tale that owes much to Mark Twain as two teenage boys help Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive.

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The inseparable Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) are our modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They ride motorbikes, pilot motorboats, and enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the Mississippi river. Orphaned Neck lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a womaniser, oyster fisher, and collector of riverbed trash. Ellis endures the disintegrating marriage of his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and MaryLee (Sarah Paulson). Then, boating out to an island in the river to see a boat stranded in a tree by a flood, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a superstitious fugitive waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to rendezvous with him, and hiding out from the law and Texan cowboys the while. Neck is wary of Mud but Ellis is drawn to his irrepressible romanticism and soon the boys find themselves conspiring with Mud, and inviting danger…

If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn you’ll grin at Mud’s entrance being announced by distinctive footprints because of nails forming a cross in his boot just like Pa Finn. You’ll also enjoy an absurd moment worthy of Twain’s warring clans the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons bringing their guns to church. That blood feud is echoed in the vendetta against Mud by implacable Texans led by the smooth Carver (Paul Sparks) and his gruff father King (Joe Don Baker). Nichols manages to make such touches not seem anachronistic by giving a timeless quality to proceedings. People ring landlines and ask for the person they want to talk to, Galen uses a 19th century diving helmet with a 21st century skin-suit, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ gets its most prominent use since 1980s show ALF. Nichols pulls this off largely by his insistence on shooting on remote, strikingly beautiful locations in Arkansas, which his regular cinematographer Adam Stone imbues with heavenly sheen.

Nichols’ Take Shelter was one of the finest films of 2011, and Mud shows startling range in being expansive and optimistic where that was intense and foreboding. Tree of Life star Sheridan gives a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacts to his parents’ separation and the loss of his riverside life by bonding with Mud because of his unquenchable belief in everlasting love. Ellis projects Mud’s love for Juniper onto his own putative girlfriend MayPearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) despite the warnings by his mysterious neighbour Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) that Mud is a fool for love, and that Ellis and Neck are making themselves as great fools by running messages for Mud and scrounging materials for his tree-stranded boat. Nichols draws uniformly flawless performances from his perfectly judged ensemble to make this a deeply felt tale of love and wisdom, played against the rolling Mississippi and endless local charms against bad luck, which builds to a climax suitable for a director whose debut was called Shotgun Stories. The ending makes you think of Huck’s closing peroration, but the final image then makes you think Frederick Jackson Turner got it wrong – the frontier spirit is well-nigh indestructible.

Nichols’ third film is his most ambitious and warmest. Rich and absorbing, it is lit by a deep affection for his characters. The best film I’ve seen this year.

5/5

February 28, 2012

This Means War

Candy-floss director McG returns to what he knows best, after the disaster that was 2009’s Terminator: Salvation, but this action rom-com never fires on all cylinders.

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are CIA agents. The nicely done cold open sees them bungle a covert operation in Hong Kong against terrorist Karl Heinrich (Til Schweiger). He swears vengeance against them, and their boss back at Langley (a bizarrely under-used Angela Bassett) swears at them while demoting them to desk duty as punishment. Bored out of their minds, their bromance is threatened when Tuck finds a date on an internet dating site and FDR accidentally makes a play for her just after Tuck’s successful date has finished. The date in question is workaholic Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), signed up to the site by her friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) following a humiliating encounter between Lauren and her cheating ex and his new fiancé. Lauren decides to date both guys, and the rivals funnel the resources of the CIA towards wooing her. Hilarity ensues…

Or rather it doesn’t. McG can actually fashion a decent sequence. He nicely spoofs Goodfellas with a long-take as FDR leads Lauren into the plum spot in a nightclub glad-handling all the staff and patrons along the way, and another fluid track sees FDR and Tuck independently bug Lauren’s house while she does the obligatory for McG sexy dance oblivious to their stealthy presence. The spectacularly funny highlight of the film is Tuck going full-on Bane thru a paintballing tournament to impress Lauren with his edginess. Tuck feeding FDR disinformation about Gustav Klimt thru his earpiece as FDR tries to impress Lauren is a delightful touch, as is Til Schweiger’s occasional appearances always being accompanied by a rumbling synth score which is as OTT as his Inglourious Basterds entrance music. But touches don’t make movies…

This Means War is painfully short on jokes. Pine, Hardy and Witherspoon do their best (Hardy mugs particularly well) but the script is so slapdash that it’s never even explained why Tuck, a British national, is bafflingly working for the CIA, not MI6. The whole film is insanely predictable, there’s even the inevitable romance-destroying revelation of a secret near the end, but most gags fall very flat. Chelsea Handler is unbelievably awful, with her character displaying the corrosive effect of the Apatow School of Comedy’s success. Saying outrageously crude and coarse things may get cheap laughs as a shock, but if everyone starts saying such things in every comedy, then there’s no shock value anymore – all that’s left is just crudity and coarseness. This isn’t a good film, but Handler’s turn makes it one to avoid.

McG as producer is responsible for Supernatural and The OC, but as director he’s made a comedy whose best jokes and best uses of its high concept are all in the ads.

1.5/5

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