Talking Movies

August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

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God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

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October 5, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (aka Ted from How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in a romantic comedy about a disappointed thirtysomething intoxicated anew by the college lifestyle.

Radnor plays Jesse, working in NYC as a college admissions officer; a deeply unfulfilling job. He jumps at the chance to escape back to his alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his mentor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). However, other protégés of Hoberg arrive for the shindig, and their improv drama student daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) makes an immediate impression on Jesse. Not least because her effervescence, thoughtfulness and wit are favourably contrasted with his ice maiden English lecturer Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse and Zibby begin to correspond as she shares her intellectual discoveries with him and he begins to wake up from his jobsworth stupor. Jesse returns to Ohio to see Zibby but should Jesse really be looking for a more age appropriate girlfriend, like cute bookseller and Carla Gugino lookalike Ana (Elizabeth Reaser)?

Liberal Arts at times feels like Radnor looked at Manhattan disapprovingly and decided to write a wiser version of the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character and an ethical version of the 42 year old Woody Allen character. There is a deliriously funny silent scene where the tortured Jesse uses mathematics to convince himself that a relationship with Zibby would be okay. Allen is an obvious reference point; this being the second film in two years that Radnor has written, directed and starred in. This is a cottage industry to get behind though as this is far warmer and wittier than his higher profile HIMYM co-star Jason Segel’s magnum opus Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And that’s despite a fantastically cold supporting turn by Allison Janney; channelling CSI’s Lady Heather as an aloof sexually dominant sage who teaches Jesse some hard lessons.

Radnor fills his film with hilarious sequences. The letters between Jesse and Zibby recall 84 Charing Cross Road and are both charming and very funny; as when Jesse notices that opera does make passersby look prettier. There is a sensational lengthy fight between Jesse and Zibby over a trashy vampire novel that is obviously the Twilight series (Lunar Moon?!), and an unlikely actor makes a simply spectacular cameo as an enigmatic student feeding Jesse Zen wisdom. This is also a film of great heart. Jenkins’ heartfelt regrets at retiring are compassionately treated, and Radnor as well as being a likeable sparring partner for the sparkling Olsen volunteers himself as a mentor for a brilliant but depressed student (John Magaro); during which story thread there is a dismissal of what is surely Infinite Jest that would warm Bret Easton Ellis’ heart.

To Rome with Love confirmed Allen’s rediscovery of his comic talent, but with Liberal Arts Radnor could very well have announced himself as the heir apparent.

4/5

April 10, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Five American teenagers travel to a remote cabin in the woods in the South for a debauched weekend; terrible things ensue, and by gad sir is it hysterically funny…

Alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth) invites his loose girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her sober friend Dana (Kristen Connolly) to join his bookish friend Holden (Jesse Williams) and their mutual stoner friend Marty (Fran Kranz) at his cousin’s vacant cabin in the woods. Once there they unwittingly unleash forces of evil that pick them off by one. The set-up and execution is the stuff of parodic cliché. But then, it is parodic cliché, because the script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard; with the great Goddard making his directorial debut. The sinister blood-stained opening credits are interrupted by coffee-making, and then the mundane office drones sequence that launched is interrupted by the inappropriately sound-tracked title card. This is by far the funniest film I’ve seen in quite some time…

Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins play the office drones in the control room of a giant military-industrial operation that Goddard uses to undercut all the horror clichés. They have tremendous comedic chemistry and make this move terrific fun as they organise office gambling pools, snarl at video monitors, indulge in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank sequence, and humiliate Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk; a harassed chemist and intern respectively. It’s a privilege to see Studio 60’s Whitford again rampaging thru great comedic dialogue, his delivery of lines like “I think, mostly, that I just want this moment to end now” guaranteed to bring the house down. Great lines like “Yeah, I kind of dismembered that guy with a trowel” abound and Kranz, despite his irritating vocal delivery, grabs a lot of them. The true acting revelation though is just how likeable Hemsworth is when he’s not playing Thor.

This is not a scary movie. There’s gore aplenty at the end, but it’s so ridiculous that one setting in particular seems like it was a bet with Piranha 3-D auteur Alexandre Aja on who could use more fake blood. Having read Buffy season 8 I’m inclined to praise Goddard for everything that’s great, especially all the hilarious nonsense with Whitford, Jenkins & Co, and blame Whedon for everything that doesn’t work, namely the final act’s descent into VFX overload and lame mythology. The collision of military science and magic screams Whedon’s disastrous Initiative in Buffy season 4 and the increasingly silly mythic tone is pure Season 8. Goddard meanwhile has always specialised in joyous (and undercutting) comedy preceding incredibly bleak shocks. Here his comedy soars before unveiling the most fitting character death you could hope for.

Sure the ending is deeply unsatisfactory and the whole third act is increasingly preposterous, but this so damn funny that it must be judged an excellent film overall.

4/5

November 4, 2010

Let the Right Script In

If you haven’t seen Let the Right One In now would be a good time to stop reading as I’m about to do a spoiler-tastic comparison between it and the American version Let Me In.

I was whelmed last year by Let the Right One In, not least because I went to it many weeks after its release having read nothing but ridiculous praise for it. Most of those reviews were littered with condemnations of Twilight mixed in with praises of how this movie was Art, unlike, say, Twilight. The trouble was that many of these hyperbolic notices had confused glacial pacing with artistic substance, and vacuous ambiguity with intellectual integrity. I was thus intrigued when I heard Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to write/direct an American version. Could he fix the problems? The answer is yes, apart from the pacing. It turns out that glacial pacing is structurally embedded because of the way Lindqvist unfurls his story. It’s at this point I should state that I still haven’t read the book so I’m basing my assumption that this is Lindqvist’s modus operandi on his screenplay adaptation for the Swedish version. Reeves’ version is thus slow-paced but considerably better at generating suspense, with one scene where the detective hunts Abby becoming unbearably tense, courtesy of a violin crescendo by LOST composer Michael Giacchino.

Reeves’ opening disrupts clichés about Hollywood simplification by upending the straightforward chronology of the Swedish version in favour of a film-noir style opening which renders the first half of the film an extended flashback. His sustained long-shot of an ambulance and cop-cars roaring down a snowy road in New Mexico leads to interior shots of an unseen criminal with acid burns being taken to hospital where Elias Koteas’ detective tries to interrogate him. The manhunt by this cop is one of the huge changes of this version and it injects considerable momentum. Also interesting is how the Familiar’s melted face is never seen during this lengthy pre-credits opening sequence. Reeves replaces utter ambiguity with clarity for his own purposes, but substitutes an off-focus camera style when it’s needed; for instance Owen’s isolation is rendered by having his mother’s face never being glimpsed while his father is a mere voice on the phone. I criticised the Swedish film for having utterly pointless scenes. One of the most epically purposeless was the scene where the boy visits his father and his father’s friend/boyfriend, here replaced by a short to the point phone-call. Reeves also dispatches with an entire sub-plot with the female neighbour who accidentally gets turned by Abby. That awful padding led to unintentionally hilarious scenes as she burst into flames in the hospital when a nurse opened the curtain, after being attacked by preposterously bad CGI cats. Reeves simply has her attacked by Abby and then kills her in the hospital scene after a gory moment that stifles any laughter at her subsequent conflagration.

Reeves instead uses CGI in long-shots to make Abby super-agile in her vampiric attacks, which, alongside close-ups of her demonic veined face, renders her far scarier in this version. He also inserts a new highly realistic scene where Owen takes Abby out to play Pac-Man at the local arcade and Abby takes some of his favourite sweets, which she knows will make her sick, rather than hurt his feelings. This appears cute on the surface but because Reeves has made Abby more sinister we’re suspicious and so pick up on the ambiguity of her actions, which is hammered home in the scene where she starts bleeding after Owen forces her to enter his flat uninvited. In the Swedish version it seems like this is a surprise to her but here Abby states that she knew it would happen, but also knew that Owen would belatedly invite her in. Once again Abby is being sweet but there’s a certain level of a vampire manipulating a potential Familiar underneath the surface interpretation.

Reeves has Abby’s Familiar kill by breaking into cars and hiding in the back-seat before garrotting the driver and harvesting his blood. This is a more realistic and sustainable m.o. than the varied methods employed in the Swedish version and leads to the Familiar bungling a harvest, not because of random passers-by intruding on an absurd crime scene, but because he’s getting sloppy. He muses to Abby, as only the inimitably subdued Richard Jenkins can do to such involving effect, that he’s tired of this life so maybe subconsciously he wants to get caught. This realism extends to his self-inflicted injuries. The Swedish version presented a prosthetics Two-Face where Reeves opts for a simple melted off nose, lips and tongue, so that “I’m sorry Abby” are his last scrawled words. This is less of a horror moment, but it’s far sadder. It also of course means Abby has known she might need a new Familiar…

Abby explicitly tells Owen that the Familiar was not her father, removing the ambiguity of the Swedish version which traded on the fake pathos of a father killing for his cursed daughter. Reeves then places Owen in Abby’s room when the detective bursts into it, and has Owen save Abby from the cop, before closing the door as she feeds on him. The iconic image of the original was the splash of blood on that white door, but here the huge splash of blood on the door isn’t just Hollywood excess it’s a signal that the iconic image of this version is about to come; the blood-soaked Abby emerging from the room to hug Owen from behind for saving her; and in its own way it’s an even more stark image. Koteas’ detective is almost a variant on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in No Country for Old Men, emotionally troubled by vicious murders, and, here, ultimately fatally betrayed by a new amorality. The fact that an early nod to Rear Window makes all Abby’s victims known to Owen personally only increases his complicity. He embraces the role of the Familiar, even after seeing a photograph which confirms that Richard Jenkins’ character has wasted 50 years of his life on Abby after meeting her at the same age as Owen. The Swedish version achieved a ridiculously happy ending by glossing over the doomed fate he embraces in becoming her Familiar. Reeves by contrast makes that same ending bleaker by having emphasised throughout that Owen is in effect selling his soul. Re-instating moral horror into this sinister coming-of-age story reverses the clichés of Hollywood’s addiction to upbeat conclusions.

Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more emotionally affecting. A true re-imagining.

November 3, 2010

Let Me In

Hammer has risen from the grave! Let Me In, a decidedly classy affair, is somehow produced by the revenant English studio once responsible for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before trading in drenching quality thespians in scarlet blood for just depicting topless, lesbian, and sometimes topless lesbian vampires.

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves follows his bleak monster-movie with an intimate horror that eschews shaky-cam. Indeed Reeves inserts a number of fixed-position shots from the back of a car, a technique notably used in 1949’s Gun Crazy to achieve high style on low budget, culminating in a superb show-off sequence as he disconcertingly depicts a car-crash with an unmoving eye from the back-seat. Reeves also adapts John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish novel about a 12-year old vampire Abby, here played by Chloe Grace Moretz, relocating the action to a snowy New Mexico in 1983. Abby and her familiar (Richard Jenkins) move in next door to lonely 12-year old Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smith-McPhee). Despite Abby’s initial aloofness a bond quickly develops with Owen.

Reeves structures his story like a film-noir; opening with an ambulance complete with police escort bringing an unseen criminal to a hospital for emergency treatment before rewinding three weeks to the beginning of a killing spree being investigated by Elias Koteas’ horrified detective. Smith-McPhee’s blank Owen is traumatised from persecution by the scariest school-bully since Donnie Darko who hates to see Owen being happy. Such maliciousness for its own sake makes you want to see him suffer, an emotional response Reeves plays with repeatedly as Abby encourages Owen to fight back with results so disproportionate that, after a violent incident, all concerned remain silent for a stunned moment. Chloe Grace Moretz is superb as Abby, especially in scenes where her vampiric nature is overcome by her growing friendship with Owen, but she is surely settling into some weird type-casting as she follows up being Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass with another role showcasing age-inappropriate ultra-violence.

Such violence is unnervingly shot from a distance with CGI giving Abby super-agility. This distancing is typical of a subdued film where two tired characters carry much of the story’s emotional weight as Koteas’ detective pursues a suspected Satanist, who is really Jenkins’ familiar – a man starting to get sloppy as he wearies of cleaning up Abby’s unending trail of destruction. Reeves uses this measured pace to wring wonderful suspense out of a number of sequences involving Koteas’s manhunt and Jenkins’ cleaning and killing, including one where the crescendo of composer Michael Giacchino’s violins makes the tension almost unbearable. Ultimately Reeves improves on the Swedish original by making a bleaker film that emphasises the moral horror in coming-of-age with the help of a growling demonic-faced vampire.

Reeves proves Cloverfield was no fluke with a classy deliberately paced horror film that trashes human-vampire romance by making vampires bloodthirsty killers again.

3/5

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