Review: Please Give (2010)

Director: Nicole Holofcener

****

The centre of Please Give’s universe is a crabby matriarch called Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert). Frankly, she’s a senile old witch who doles out uncomfortably frank criticism to whoever will listen, especially her granddaughters, the caring Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and spoilt little rich girl Mary (Amanda Peet). Next door, Andra’s neighbours Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a second-hand furniture business, with much of their merchandise coming from the families of recently-deceased persons clearing out their belongings. Not that they don’t like their neighbour, but they secretly hope to add on Andra’s apartment to their own once the old bag dies. Ah, what lovely people. Still, they’re saints compared to Mary, who just wants Grandma dead for the sake of convenience.

Nicole Holofcener has a reputation for making films about women; it’s true that the protagonists of Lovely and Amazing and Friends With Money were all women, but to call them and Please Give films about women is to force them into too constricted a category. For example the latter, Holofcener’s latest, juggles a great many themes and ideas and expresses them with humour. Harkening back to Woody Allen’s 80‘s satirical streak (think Alice or Crimes and Misdemeanors), this setup permits the actors to juggle Holofcener’s script and the thematic delights therein. Kate feels guilty about her business, and compensates by giving money to homeless people on the street, and her guilt is not helped by Andra. However, Rebecca and Kate have much in common, though these two women are separated by class divisions and a certain animosity. There are easily identifiable lessons about consumerism (Buying things won’t complete me. Who knew?), the blandness and guilt of wealthy urban life and class divides in Please Give, but it ultimately boils down to our appreciation of the things we have.  All these characters are surrounded by reminders of aging and death, be it an dying grandmother, an image-conscious daughter (Kate and Alex’s, played by Sarah Steele) or the mammograms Rebecca issues to check for cancer. These characters all feel guilty about the things they’ve taken for granted, first and foremost the simple things of life. Thankfully, the film is never emotionally exploitative, maintaining a certain emotional distance and a biting wit all the way.

Guilbert steals many a scene with her blunt opinions about everything, and therein lies the point of Please Give: simple truths and basic remedies are all that are required to muddle through sometimes. Why please others when you can’t please yourself? Thankfully, this moral is brought to life through choice dialogue and unfussy performances. Guilbert and Steele provide great foils for their respective family members to bounce off, while Keener, Hall and Platt are wonderfully likable, despite some huge character flaws. The Holofcener-Keener team has produced another likeable slice of suburban angst, both entertaining and identifiable. Let’s face it; we all know some old bag we’d like to get rid of, but couldn’t do without sometimes.

Advertisements

Review: The King’s Speech (2010)

Director: Tom Hooper

****

imageThe obvious piece of British Oscar bait for the 2011 race, The King’s Speech possesses so many of the traits that audiences (American audiences in particular) love to see in their awards contenders. Not only does it involve somebody trying to overcome an affliction (in this case, a stammer), but it’s based on a true story involving a member of royalty (Colin Firth’s King George VII) and his relationship with a commoner (his speech coach Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush). Look at those credentials; it’s crying out to be honoured, and thus it was!

George VII (known to those close to him as Bertie) led Britain through the Second World War, a time when charismatic leaders were not only desirable, but necessary to bolster morale. Churchill may get most of the kudos but Bertie’s struggle to overcome a crippling stammer before becoming king is indicative of British wartime pluck. As Tom Hooper’s film details, Bertie may not have got the help he needed had he not ascended to the throne following the scandal surrounding his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) and Mrs. Simpson. Whilst stories of British royalty have got the Academy’s seal of approval in the past, the events precipitating Bertie becoming George VII are captured in a much more cinematic and interesting way than the similarly-themed The Queen or Mrs. Brown. Hooper (The Damned United) keeps events pacy and zipping along, whilst David Seidler’s script zings with an appropriately dry wit and clever one-liners (When asked if he knows any jokes, Bertie laments, “T-T-Timing isn’t exactly my strong suit”).

The awards Colin Firth earned for his performance are well-deserved. It’s one thing to get a stammer right, but it takes great restraint not to over-exploit it. Firth nails the anger, fear and moral rectitude of Bertie in a performance to match his acclaimed turn in A Single Man. Firth is matched scene for scene by Rush, who excels in a role that utilizes both his brilliant comedic timing and his natural warmth. Helena Bonham Carter makes the most of what could have been a thankless role as Queen Elizabeth, Bertie’s wife, and the rest of the cast do well (even if Pearce’s accent comes across as overly plummy and Timothy Spall doesn’t really resemble Churchill).

As mannered and well-worn a storyline as it may be, The King’s Speech is still a rousing piece of film. By the end, you’ll desperately want poor old Bertie to succeed. It may have all the stuffy trappings of most award-baiting period pieces, but there’s a pulsing heart behind it all, encapsulated in Firth and Rush and delivered with sprightly verve. The King’s Speech deserves the royal seal of approval.

Review: Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

*****

At one point during Inception, a crack team of dream invaders led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb attempt to enter a person’s dreams despite the fact that they are all in fact already inside a dream, which is itself within another dream. Are you following? If not, it helps that one team member, Ellen Page’s Ariadne, chips in with the question “Who’s mind exactly are we going into?”

One possible answer to Ariadne’s question is the mind of director Christopher Nolan. Eessentially a giant ‘thank you’ for making The Dark Knight the success that it was, Warner Brothers gave Nolan $160 million to create worlds and images that have been in his mind since he was a teenager (by the director’s own reckoning). He pitched Inception to Warners while making Insomnia in 2002, and wrote the script over the following 6-7 years. Given the complexity of the resulting script, its long gestation period is not surprising; Nolan has created not just a fascinating representation of the dream world, but a believable and realistic one too, with its own rules and regulations. It sounds like The Matrix meets Dreamscape (with more than a dash of Paprika), but Inception differentiates itself from these titles by means of combining involving storytelling with visual chutzpah. Cobb explains to Ariadne how dreams are made and how they work; she then experiments by mentally folding the Parisian cityscape over itself like origami (this shot was glimpsed in most of the trailers and TV spots).

There are so many rules in the dream state that man of them pass by on a first viewing. Second helpings reveal the true depth of the story. Cobb is wracked with demons of his own in the form of memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, mysterious to the last) which threaten to derail the processes of dream extraction. Indeed, her mysterious death forbids Cobb from returning to the US, but when a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to help Cobb get back home in return for planting an idea (the ‘inception’ of the title) in the mind of rival suit Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Cobb feels he has no choice. The true theme of Inception is choice, and how the decisions we make affect our entire reality. Choosing plans, choosing routes, choosing truths in which to believe: these decisions and many more play key roles in Inception. It’s a lot deeper than Iron Man 2, during which the only choice to contemplate was “More popcorn or an ice-cream?” That said, depth can be balanced with stuff blowing up and fight scenes, and any fight scene that borrows from Fred Astaire deserves a positive appraisal.

On the CVs of everyone involved, Inception will be seen as a progression. It certainly is for editor Lee Smith; this is a cleaner-cut film than The Dark Knight, and juggling four simultaneous dream states in one go is no easy feat. With Nolan guiding him, however, Smith does it with aplomb. For this critic, this year has seen the first two films starring DiCaprio in which he didn’t look prepubescent. As evidenced in Shutter Island, Leo has grown into a hungry and immersive actor, and his performance here is excellent. No showboating, no freaking out, just coiled pain and occasional lashes of anger.There’s still a chance Leo could suffer an acne outbreak at 40, but Gilbert Grape is gone, leaving only Dom Cobb, Teddy Daniels and the like. For Ellen Page, despite being mostly expository in nature, Ariadne is the first role that actually allows her to play someone her own age, and not before time. Michael Caine and Tom Berenger do well in small roles, while Cotillard and Murphy hold the screen with their big blue/brown (delete as appropriate) eyes. Watanabe’s presence is awesome, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Tom Hardy’s Eames steal the show with playful banter and subtle glances. Expect rapid career progression in both cases.

Has Nolan progressed? From The Dark Knight, he has progressed out of the shadow of studio sensibility and franchise ties to create a personal, profound vision. It would be equally fair, chronologically at least, to see this as a regression to Memento, and the fractured workings of the mind therein. On the evidence of that film and this latest masterpiece, Nolan is a creature who works best unfettered and free to create his own visions. What does Chris Nolan dream of? Like Sam Lowry in Brazil, he probably dreams of flying free of the system to do what he pleases. If this is the case, we can only hope that dream comes true.

Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Director: Edgar Wright

****

Is there any way to make an adjective like ‘nerdy’ sound good? The connotations are pejorative, but ‘nerdy’ is the best way to describe Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. One could argue that the ‘nerdy’ tag is one of the reasons why it has underperformed at the US box office, but this flailing B.O. take is undeserved; Scott Pilgrim is an achingly hip, deliriously energetic little flick. Nerds rejoice: your ship has come in!

Using the word ‘nerdy’ is unavoidable when referring to Michael Cera, who stars as the eponymous Mr. Pilgrim. Cera has made his career from playing awkward geeks who somehow still get girls with relative ease (How does he do it?! I wish I knew sooner, because my teenage years were lonely ones!). From ‘Arrested Development’s lovable George Michael, to the likes of Juno and Superbad, he’s a geek running the risk of serious typecasting. However in Scott Pilgrim, Cera’s nerd boasts one important difference: he kicks ass! After falling for the kooky Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Scott is confronted by her Seven Evil Exes, whom he must defeat in order to be with her. The exes include a jackass action movie star (Chris Evans), a dopey rocker (a blond bewigged Brandon Routh) and a slimy music executive called Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, clearly having fun with this role). Meanwhile, Scott has to dump the girl he was dating before (Ellen Wong, adorable), try to find success with his band Sex Bob-Omb and tolerate his sister’s (Anna Kenrdrick) nosy advice. Game on!

Your first question is probably this: what the hell is an Evil Ex? It’s an ex-boyfriend, but quite why they’re evil isn’t clear to me. Where did they get their powers? Why does Scott have to defeat them to get Ramona? And why does Scott share a bed with his gay roomie (Kieran Culkin, possibly the best thing in the film)? The latter occurs because it’s hilarious. The first two questions result from underplotting. Michael Bacall’s script with director Edgar Wright is as slight as the comic book from which it’s adapted. The plot mechanics make little sense, but then the direction tells us that sense is going out the window on this one. Sound effects are written onscreen. Boxes appear next to characters listing their stats. One scene even plays like a scene from ‘Seinfeld’, music and all! Why? Because it’s freaking cool! The world of Scott Pilgrim bleeds colour, from the sound waves from Scott’s guitar that morph into giant creatures (!) to the greens and blues Ramona dyes her hair. The palette is varied and neon-bright, whilst the battles between the exes are intense, edited to within an inch of their lives. Epileptics need not apply.

The 12 to15-year-olds at whom this film is aimed will be in heaven; the opening Universal logo is rejigged to resemble a pixelated image from a video game, whilst the strongest bad language is (brilliantly) bleeped to ensure a PG-13/12A rating. Frankly, if you’re over the age of 40 or have never played a video game or guitar before, you might be left wanting by Scott Pilgrim. It’s fairly shallow once you prod below the surface, but that surface is full of laughter and vim. Like Wright’s first film Shaun of the Dead, the film has a clear affection for its main character, and does its utmost to ensure you will too. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a wild ride and dares you to keep up.

Review: The Town (2010)

Director: Ben Affleck

***

After the success of Gone Baby Gone, Hollywood waited with baited breath to see what former J-Lo accessory Ben Affleck would churn out next. He (along with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) set about adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel ‘Prince of Thieves’, about a gang of bank robbers operating out of Boston’s notorious Charlestown district. Intrigue was increased by the casting, as a line-up of fresh faces (Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively) met with old hands (Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper) to shoot it out on the streets of Boston.

Thus, we arrive in The Town. Affleck’s second film as a director boasts all the energy of his first, but has to carry a lot more narrative flab. Affleck himself stars as Doug MacRay, the leader of a bank-robbing mob whose latest robbery (which opens the film) leaves their hostage, bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), traumatised. Afraid she may know too much, MacRay sizes her up to see what she knows, but ends up falling in love with her. Meanwhile, the FBI are on the gang’s tail, and S.A. Adam Frawley (‘Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) is determined to catch MacRay dead or alive. As the gang continue to rob, the noose around them tightens, leading to VERY LOUD gun battles in Charlestown.

Heat was made 15 years before The Town, but its influence is felt in almost every cops-n-robbers movie made since. The Town is so indebted to Michael Mann’s masterpiece that it borrows heavily from it and in the process forgets to do anything that marks it out as original. Affleck’s gun battles are as loud and as exciting as Mann’s, but the characterization lets him down badly. MacRay is the focus of the story, and Affleck does well in the role but it’s hard to empathize when he falls in love with the one person who could give him up to the FBI. A little stupid, no? His friend and fellow robber Coughlin (the excellent Jeremy Renner) certainly thinks so, and he and MacRay exchange hard banter and blows. Hall and Lively (as MacRay’s floozie ex) impress, and Postlethwaite and Cooper (as MacRay’s boss and father respectively) do much with underwritten roles. Hamm is the standout, however, as his hard-as-nails Fed chews the scenery with apoplectic aplomb.

The characters, as well inhabited as they are by the cast, are clichés. Mann beefed them up in Heat, but Affleck struggles to make them seem interesting here. Affleck and Hamm don’t have the spark of De Niro and Pacino, and you can probably guess what’ll happen to each character long before the end. The Town is 135 minutes long and yet feels rushed, with an ending that tries too hard to wrap up loose ends satisfactorily. It’s a sufficiently entertaining and well-acted ride, but the evidence suggests Affleck may be a more talented director than he is a writer. There’s not enough originality in the script to back up his directorial verve.

Review: I’m Still Here (2010)

Director: Casey Affleck

****

It has always been this critic’s contention that cinema is a liar. Unless you have been told otherwise beforehand, you can assume that the events one sees onscreen are a fabrication. Early on in I’m Still Here, the directorial debut of Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix states that he is sick “of playing the character of Joaquin”, thus setting out to find his real voice. This is the chronicle of Phoenix’s shaky transition from brooding actor to aspiring rap artist. Arguably, this story has already been played out in the tabloid rags of America, with piss-poor public performances culminating in a car-crash interview on the Late Show with David Letterman in February 2009. Affleck collates these clips with behind-the-scenes footage of Phoenix as he descends into arrogance and delusion fueled by drugs and yes men. However, is Phoenix being honest, or is he still “playing Joaquin”? We’ve been told it’s real. But still…

Before I continue, I will (perhaps unprofessionally) give a little personal context to this film. As soon as Phoenix announced his retirement, I called shenanigans on the entire ruse. His subsequent public appearances reinforced my position. When the initial reviews (Roger Ebert, for example) treated the film as real, I was aghast. How did Affleck and Phoenix fool them all? I started to doubt. Then Affleck confirmed the ruse, and all was right with the world. If it had been real, I’m Still Here would have been Phoenix’s one-way ticket to the psychiatric ward. Unhinged, unkempt and often unintelligible, Phoenix has lost all interest in who he is in the pursuit of who he dreams of being. However, since we now know the film is a fake, there is no other way to describe this film than the high point of Phoenix’s career. He’s utterly magnificent as a version of himself that, whilst decidedly removed from reality, is still recognizably Joaquin Phoenix. Can one get an Oscar nomination for playing oneself? It might flout the rules, but Phoenix deserves it, committing himself to his ‘role’ as much as Sacha Baron Cohen committed himself to Borat and Bruno, only more so. Weight gain and the beard are only the tip of the iceberg; Phoenix becomes this hobo-like vision that shocked David Letterman. It takes a fierce talent to pull this act off.

Indeed, it’s a tribute to Phoenix that he convinced so many his career change was real, because Affleck is clearly making a mock-doc. The film, for all its hand-held grit, has its tongue buried deeply in its cheek. The excesses of Phoenix’s showbiz life are so many and so over the top as to be downright hilarious. It’s a good thing that Affleck admitted his deception, because I’m Still Here, once acknowledged as fake, is one of the funniest films of the year. Listening to Phoenix’s (godawful) hip-hop or watching him dance with call girls is a lot funnier when we’re in on the joke. It’s a satire on the media’s obsession with the lives of celebrities, and Affleck and Phoenix have the last laugh.

It might be a little overindulgent (the behind-the-scenes footage can get a little too talky), but I’m Still Here is still a triumph for Affleck and (in particular) Phoenix. It’s a brave film with a brave performance at its centre. Joaquin, we’re glad you’re back! That said, we’re even happier you never left in the first place. Clearly, Affleck and Phoenix share my opinion of cinema as a great liar.

Review: Buried (2010)

Director: Rodrigo Cortés

****

There are certain truths that cannot be denied. Some people may sneer and deride, but there is no escaping the fact that Ryan Reynolds can act. For a number of years, his natural charisma and ability has elevated the mediocre likes of Just Friends and The Amityville Horror to a watchable and enjoyable level. Arguably, in the named examples he had the likes of Anna Farris and Melissa George to help him, but Buried demands that Reynolds hold the screen all on his own for the the entire 95 minutes. Hold it he does.

When contract worker Paul Conroy (Reynolds) awakens after an attack on his convoy in Iraq, he fins himself buried alive in a wooden coffin with nothing but a torch, a cigarette lighter and a cellphone with a rapidly-dying battery. Wisdom tells us that less is more, and director Rodrigo Cortés (making his English-language debut) takes this maxim to its limits. These may be Conroy’s last minutes, so he has to decide who to call with the limited time he’s got. While he calls his mother, wife, boss and the FBI, the tables are turned when his abductors call him demanding ransom. Buried twists and turns with breakneck speed, and as Conroy squirms and struggles in his coffin, you’ll squirm with him. Reynolds effectively captures the sheer frustration of the situation, though while he snaps and curses those on the other end of the phone, he never becomes unsympathetic. We desperately want him to survive, and this is due to Reynolds’ undeniable screen presence in his best performance yet. He’s backed up by solid voicework from Stephen Tobolowsky (as Conroy’s boss) and Robert Paterson (as a US State Dept. agent specialising in kidnapped civilians).

Buried is a film that many will admire, but may find it hard to actually like. A few slivers of humour aside, there is no let-up in the tension for either Conroy or the audience. With only the voices from the cellphone for company, the claustrophobia is amped up by DP Eduard Grau’s (A Single Man) tight close-ups and a masterful build-up of tension by Cortés. A scene with an unwanted visitor is one of the most tense scenes of the year.

Buried is a masterful thriller, an unrelenting nerve-shredder that burrows into your mind, refusing to escape. Does Conroy escape? That’d be telling, wouldn’t it? Best you go dig up the truth for yourself…