Review: Killer Joe (2011)

Director: William Friedkin

****

There’s only so many times Matthew McConaughey could make lobotomized rom-coms with Kate Hudson before thinking, “I’m better than this.” A violent crime thriller sounds like a jump into the deep end, but if Hudson can prove herself in Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly nasty The Killer Inside Me, what’s to stop McConaughey’s move to the dark side?

William Friedkin is now in his late ‘70s, but his longevity has not blunted the raw edge he showed in the likes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Boasting the trashiest of white-trash characters and a penchant for gallows humour that barely offsets the violence (both physical and mental) inflicted on that white trash, Killer Joe would probably make directors half Friedkin’s age flinch. McConaughey is the eponymous Joe Cooper, a Texas police detective with a neat sideline in contract killings. When Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in danger over a drug debt, he and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) decide to hire Joe to kill Ansel’s ex-wife (and Chris’ mother) to collect on her life insurance. In theory, this sounds foolproof, but Chris and Ansel are fools and the plan isn’t so proven in practice. Joe wants his payment in advance, but decides to take Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a bizarre form of retainer. Dottie is adorably simple; if she were any smarter she would have thought twice about blindly going along with her father and brother’s rather optimistic plan. However, her obedience probably spares some premature bloodshed; ignorance sometimes can be bliss.

Tracey Letts (who also wrote Friedkin’s underrated Bug) adapts his stageplay for the screen, and it’s a story that translates well. The violent nature of the story already renders it very cinematic. There’s plenty of dialogue to chew over, but the violence (or even the persistent possibility of violence) and Friedkin’s nimble direction keep the energy flowing. The atmosphere is thick with heat and threat, and neither the bloodshed nor the none-more-dark laughs (mostly at Ansel’s expense) provide catharsis or closure. The cast are excellent, but McConaughey (the chiseled rom-com star turned ac-tor) and Temple (the new indie girl on the block) have the most to prove, and they absolutely shine. His coiled, barely-veiled menace and her melancholy naïveté drive the action and ground Killer Joe, even when the bloodshed comes back to haunt the family. An encounter between Joe, Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and a chicken drumstick would make even Colonel Sanders think twice about ordering KFC.

There’s little that’s nice about Killer Joe, especially not the characters nor their actions, but niceness isn’t Friedkin’s oeuvre. The evil in Killer Joe isn’t Pazuzu; it’s more banal and efficient. If you’re prepared for a little Southern-Fried murder (with extra blood, natch), Killer Joe might float your boat. You won’t like Joe Cooper, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

Review: Albert Nobbs (2011)

Director: Rodrigo Garcia

***

From the start, Albert Nobbs presents us with a challenge. Rodrigo Garcia’s film wants us to believe that someone as glamorous and gorgeous as Glenn Close can convincingly portray a man (or, at least, a woman posing as a man). Close is clearly very invested but her make-up job, like the film, only just manages to convince.

The title character of Albert Nobbs is a waiter in a crummy hotel in late 19th-century Dublin. Nobbs is one of the camaraderie of staff, a full cohort of fine Irish talent wasted on bit parts. The likes of Maria Doyle Kennedy, Antonia-Campbell Hughes and everyone’s favourite onscreen Irishman Brendan Gleeson whizz by adding little beyond whimsy. The plot focuses on Albert and his attempts to make his dreams come true, namely to start his own business and find a wife. This runs parallel to the story of hotel waitress Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Theirs is a tumultuous relationship and, as time passes, desperation leads them to exploit Albert’s newfound interest in Helen. It’s all very dour and drab, as the script (co-written by Close, Gabriella Prekop and John Banville) and Garcia’s direction takes a potentially probing tale of hidden identity and gender roles and, for lack of a better word, castrates it with melodrama and self-importance. A grim backstory is told but, bar Close’s interpretation of the role, we never truly get under Albert’s skin.

Wasikowska struggles with the accent, though Johnson’s is passable, but their relationship is far from the most interesting aspect of the film. That would have to be the relationship between Albert and Hubert Page. In the role of Page, a painter-decorator who is also concealing a secret, Janet McTeer is absolutely mesmerising, blending humour, pathos and strength in a performance worthy of awards. The scenes between Albert and Hubert provide some of the dignity that the rest of the film struggles against itself to find. A scene in which the two try on dresses could have been either mawkish or played for laughs, but Close and McTeer have far too much invested in these roles to make the scene any less than joyous.

Close’s passion for this project is palpable; she first played the role off-Broadway over 30 years ago, and besides co-writing and starring in it, she co-produced it and penned the lyrics for the Sinéad O’Connor ditty that plays over the end credits. Unfortunately, it’s a passion that seems to have passed by so many of those working alongside her in Albert Nobbs. She leads a film that doesn’t seem sure what to make of old Nobbs. Is Albert tragic, foolhardy or delusional? We never get a satisfactory answer. Close and McTeer make Albert Nobbs worth your while, but it tries too hard to be lovingly weepy and thus denies itself the confrontational grit that could make it truly stand out. Like its title character, Albert Nobbs works too hard at blending into the crowd.

Review: The Cabin In The Woods (2011)

Director: Drew Goddard

****

The Cabin In The Woods is not a subversive homage to horror à la Scream. It’s a full-tilt middle finger to horror. Granted, horror is a genre that’s easy to mock, but TCITW rips the almighty heck out of it until it lapses into ridiculously entertaining giddiness. Every conceivable horror trope and subgenre is referenced here in some way; rictus grins at the ready, gorehounds! It’s like the biggest, bloodiest game of road bingo imaginable: spot the film and tick it off your mental list.

Even well before release, The Cabin In The Woods has gained notoriety as being so twisty and tricky as to be near-impossible to review without being spoiled. However, even the trailer could be interpreted as giving away too much (in retrospect), and it’s already known to be an attempted subversion of horror, so aren’t twists to be expected anyway? Well, yes, but TCITW just goes to extremes (and not necessarily in the gory, full-blooded sense) that you would not expect. The initial plot sees five friends (Chris Hemsworth’s jock, slutty Anna Hutchison, nerdy Jesse Williams, stoner Fran Kranz and the virginal Kristen Connolly) travel to a cabin in the woods for the weekend. Now, we know that’s the plot of Evil Dead right there, and the cabin comes complete with scary basement, dark wooded surrounds and an eerie wolf’s head mounted on the wall. To say much more would be to deprive prospective viewers of some off-kilter delights. This much can be said plot-wise: the story starts treading familiar ground, and then the initial suggestions that all is not what it seems are fully realized with delirious abandon.

Writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon make two things clear from the beginning: they love horror, and they’re not happy with the repetitive tropes that have come to define it. Whedon toyed with these ideas in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but TCITW is the opportunity to break horror down to its very foundations. Why do we always end up with cardboard cutout characters acting stupidly (“Let’s split up to cover more ground!”) and inevitably getting garroted? The answer is teased in the opening, as two white-collar guys (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, both clearly having fun here) discuss the day’s work ahead of them, before one of the biggest jumps in the film appears out of nowhere (Despite reading this, it’ll still get ya!). What do these guys have to do with the teens in the cabin? Finding out is just half the fun!

As the film continues on, and some characters succumb to gory fates, the answer draws closer in a tidal wave of self-referentiality that treads the line between giddy and plain silly. The audience is laughing both at AND with The Cabin In The Woods. In any other genre, that’s be a criticism, but horror is just too daft to be taken seriously in the first place; surrendering to the chaos is a must when watching TCITW. A lack of subtlety does deny TCITW the scalpel-sharp satirical edge of Scream, but then this isn’t dissection; this is destruction with a wrecking ball, and Whedon and Goddard are having a blast swinging that ball about without a care in the world.

The first two-thirds, full of Evil Dead-alike mania and mystery, segues into a final 30 minutes of referential frenzy that will have most any horror fan in a tizzy, jammed as it is with wry asides, winks and cameos. Any film that can reference J-horror, Hellraiser and Michael Haneke in the name of parody is clearly doing something right. Though Scre4m may have got the jump on TCITW in highlighting some ideas on recent horror, TCITW lets the scares and the clichés speak for themselves, never overwhelming them with either snarky smarts or over-sincerity. The Cabin In The Woods is naturally self-aware, but comes armed with a healthy disdain for what has come before and a dark sense of humour. The best word for it is Groovy!

Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This Must Be The Place is blessed and cursed by a dichotomy; it features sights and sounds that must be seen and heard to be believed, but the film as a whole is not an essential view. It’s a portmanteau of tones and quirks that threatens to be derailed by its own self-awareness, yet is held together by Sean Penn’s taste for eyeliner.

Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging rock star based heavily on The Cure’s Robert Smith (right down to the fear of flying) and sounding like Bill Murray in Ed Wood. Slow of walk and slower of speech, Cheyenne seems burnt out by excess gigging and narcotics. There’s a melancholy surrounding him that belies his wealth, his happy marriage to firefighter Jane (Frances McDormand, kookily lovable as always) and his penchant for lipstick. This eccentric sadness is also clear in Paolo Sorrentino’s direction. The acclaimed director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo makes his English langage debut with a film that is so bafflingly and self-consciously bizarre that its impossible to forget, yet just as impossible to define. Picture, if you can, Cheyenne traipsing around Dublin, childlike, depressed and looking for definition. Where can this story go?

It’s unlikely you’d guess ‘Nazi hunting’. Cheyenne returns to the US for his estranged father’s funeral, and ends up finding the opportunity he’s been looking for: to hunt the Nazi commandant (Heinz Lieven) who humiliated his father in Auschwitz. This unexpected turn takes Cheyenne across the US in a beautiful but episodic trip that plays like The Straight Story as directed by Terry Gilliam. Along the way, Cheyenne befriends a fellow Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch), a diner waitress (Kerry Condon), plays ping-pong in the desert and gets under the nose of suspicious old ladies (“Would you like to kill me, dear?”). It’s Sorrentino’s outside view that makes this dive into the depths of Americana a decidedly different trip. Played straight, it’d fall apart; This Must Be The Place’s aspirations to curio status may not bind Sorrentino’s vision together fully, but you’ll rarely be bored. Stare agog as giant bottles of whiskey and men dressed as Batman flit across the screen. What does it all mean? Damned if we ever find out, but hey, at least we got a laugh! Once we do, however, the Nazi hunt continues and we’re left unsure what to think.

Right from the start, This Must Be The Place is doomed to be cinematic Marmite. On the one hand, it’s pleasantly weird and flirts with deep ideas. On the other, it’s tonally awkward and uneven, reverting constantly back to the self-conscious efforts at artiness. The story begins in Ireland and hints at tragedy in Cheyenne’s past, but is then dropped like a hot potato as Cheyenne hits the road. At least Penn is an excellent constant. Appearing in practically every scene, his performance is understated but full of off-kilter presence and likability. Supports are underused but well-acted (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson is of note as Cheyenne’s daughter), and the whole affair looks great (DP Luca Bigazzi keeps things crisp and clear). Best of all is the soundtrack; the film’s title comes from the Talking Heads’ classic song, and David Byrne’s performance of the song is a high point of the film. Byrne and Will Oldham also contribute several songs to the soundtrack under the guise of a band named The Pieces of Shit. Admit it: you’d buy the CD just for that band name.

Flitting back and forth between plots and tones, TMBTP is too distant to be embraced, yet too interesting to be ignored. Cheyenne observes that “Life is full of beautiful things”. This Must Be The Place is also full of beautiful things, but this beauty is in dire need of a stronger context.

SPECIAL REVIEW: Margaret (2011)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

****

When writing about Margaret, it’s probably worth noting at the beginning that there is no actual character named Margaret in the film. The title is a reference to the poem ‘Spring and Fall: To A Young Child’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is a bleak reassurance to a child of the fragility of nature and the omnipotence of death; it comes to us all, a fact that the lead in Margaret has shoved in her face. We’re going on a personal quest here, people; hold your breath as we take the dive.

The journey that 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) undertakes in Margaret is mirrored and eclipsed by that undertaken by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to get the film released. The film was shot in New York in 2005, but then came the post-production process. It’s a long and complicated tale, but it boils down to Lonergan, his financiers and Fox Searchlight getting litigious over the editing process (Lonergan’s original cut was over three hours). In 2009, Fox Searchlight actually declared the film ‘unreleasable’, and the lawsuits went on. Eventually, a finished cut was declared and released in September 2011. It debuted on one (1!) screen at the London Odeon but was far and away the highest-grossing film on a per-screen basis upon release. Despite this, Margaret has grossed less than $50,000 back from a $14 million budget. Despite a vehement push by some critics (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls it “mysteriously, mesmerically, operatically compelling”), the post-production wrangles and bungled release has rendered Margaret an cautionary footnote in the annals of Hollywood. After a viewing, it’s clear that Margaret’s ‘also-ran’ status was all but unavoidable, but also undeserved and unreflective of what bubbles ‘neath the cruel surface and all the talk of lawsuits. It’s a combative piece, eschewing easy options such as likeability and clear emotions, and offering stories and people you’d perhaps not like to see or hear.

Anna Paquin has played her share of precocious young madams, but Lisa Cohen outdoes them all. Lisa is confident, opinionated and very intelligent, but still lacking in maturity and emotional restraint. In other words, she’s a teenager. A product of a good private school and an Upper East Side upbringing, Lisa dabbles in sex and drugs and is distant from her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), whilst her father (director Kenneth Lonergan) is literally distant from them both, having separated and moved to California. At the apex of immaturity, this hot house flower has her world turned upside-down when she witnesses a bus running over a pedestrian, Monica (Allison Janney), an accident Lisa may have caused. Monica dies in Lisa’s arms, and from this point Margaret becomes less a portrait of spoilt little rich kids and more of a search for definition.

Lisa has all she wants, but Monica brings a sense of moral upstanding to Lisa’s otherwise self-interested world. The bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), is getting away scot free, and Lisa aims to have him punished for his actions. It’s a challenging dichotomy for an audience whose emotions are usually clearly signposted in post-9/11 New York film; Lisa wants justice for Monica, but it stems from the fact that she feels guilty and wants Maretti to feel the same guilt as she does. This is moral relativity at its most biased, but then Lisa is just one of a rogues’ gallery worth of shitty characters. Maretti appears to have no guilt, Joan can be as emotionally immature as her daughter and Monica’s best friend and executor Emily (Jeannie Berlin) is an honest-but-bitter pill. All are surrounded by smooth talkers (Joan starts dating a smooth Columbian businessman, played by Jean Reno) and lawyers. Sartre’s analysis of other people springs to mind. Ironically, probably the only character that can’t be judged in some way is Monica, and that’s mostly by virtue of the fact she dies shortly after appearing onscreen! Lisa’s frequent use of the c-word may stem from the fact many of the people here are plain c**ts.

Margaret is populated by horrible people, and yet is so interestingly empathetic that it manages to paper over most of the problems that plague it. Like its teenage protagonist, Margaret is immensely self-confident, wittily intelligent and frequently over-dramatic. This latter comment is not intended as a criticism; in fact, considering the sordid and contemptuous actions of so many characters, a little drama helps introduce emotion and offer a little perspective. Should Lisa report what she knows about Maretti to the bus company’s investigators? She’ll do Monica justice, but get Maretti fired and leave his family with no income. Lisa’s decisions have the potential to split an audience, and that’s what seemed to have scared the distributors and marketers. Heaven forbid the matinée crowd might not be sure what to think about someone onscreen! As we see Lisa have her rather impersonal first sexual encounter with stoner Paul (Kieran Culkin), we feel voyeuristic but have to remind ourselves this is our heroine. Had we not seen that scene, would we think any less of her?

Lonergan offers us something special indeed: a lesson in context. Margaret is an acknowledgement of the narrow scope of cinematic diegesis. As the preparations for the bus company’s trial continue to frustrate, Lisa over-reacts and Emily is forced to remind her that she (Emily) is not a side player in the drama of Lisa’s life. Margaret is not an ensemble piece in the vein of Magnolia, but many supporting characters feel more fleshed out than most other dramas might allow them to. It helps that some characters are played by big names such as Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick (as Lisa’s English teacher) and Matt Damon (as Lisa’s Geometry teacher). Others are just fleshed out through great writing and performances (Joan benefits especially here, and Smith-Cameron is excellent). We care more than we otherwise would about Lisa because we are interested in those around her and they care about her.

Having pointed out the refreshment offered by Margaret, it seems a pity to point out some problems, but they are there. At 150 minutes, it could test patience. This cut may have been edited by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (and approved by Lonergan), but Margaret may be a true rarity: a film with too many ideas to juggle at once! This may explain why some characters, for all their development, get dropped at random points and picked up in others. Come the final reel, some of the hard work done by Lonergan starts to fall apart, and some of the side roles do begin to feel like cyphers, despite their protestations. This cut may have Lonergan’s blessing, but should the director’s cut of Margaret ever see the light of day, it may well be miraculous. As it is, Margaret is a testament to a hobbled directorial ambition, and a stylish challenge to a mindset that has been spoon-fed emotionality and comforted by bland convention.

Review: Carnage (2011)

Director: Roman Polanski

***

After two young boys fight in a schoolyard brawl, and one injures the other, the two sets of parents meet to discuss what happened and to rectify matters. The only problem is they end up getting into a nasty verbal brawl and prove themselves to be as childish as their offspring. Welcome to Carnage, a hilarious-but-smug little flick that isn’t quite as clever as it might think.

The parents of the children being childish?! Oh, how very clever! Like her stage play ‘Le Dieu de Carnage’, Yazmine Reza’s screenplay centres on the plush New York apartment of the headstrong Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). They host power couple Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) after their sons fight, but initial niceties and servings of peach cobbler give way to insults and snipes being regurgitated like so much gone-off cobbler. Carnage is brilliantly and inescapably funny. Try not to titter every time Alan’s cellphone goes off and he must go discuss business in a corner. The aforementioned dessert ends up causing the best scene of projectile vomiting since Terry Jones ingested a “waffer-theen mint”. As whiskeys are passed round and indignant noses are bent out of shape, all pretense goes out the window and all four characters are forced to acknowledge their submission to the ‘god of Carnage’. As the only four characters in the entire film, the leads are uniformly excellent. Foster’s snippy, Reilly’s blustery, Winslet is boorish, Waltz is cynical and they all compliment each other wonderfully.

Reza adapts her stage play for the screen with Polanski, and it touches on a lot of issues; however, it can’t help but seem like an exercise in farce before devolving into a battle-of-the-sexes power play. There’s not a lot new to learn from Carnage; people are beastly, women and men differ, and we can’t change that, whoop-de-do. Carnage is the closest the four leads can come to starring in a play without actually getting on stage, so it makes sense that Carnage plays to their acting instincts. It’s just a pity that that ‘staginess’ translates into the direction. On stage, it makes sense that Alan and Nancy never get to leave the apartment but, watching them on the big screen you’ll scream at them just to get up and leave! As well as that, these people seem to get drunk very quickly. The constrained setting draws attention to itself frequently, and Polanski never manages to overcome that problem. He’s lucky that he has a hilarious script and able performers to work with, because that’s all Carnage has going for it. Watching Carnage, you are guaranteed to laugh. Enjoy watching the actors be ridiculous; just don’t think too much about what they’re saying. You just may end up feeling patronized.

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Director: Sean Durkin

****

At one point in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a cult member tells Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) that “there’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film alive with creepy potency, reminding us of just how fragile and shifting our trusts and allegiances can be.

Sean Durkin’s feature debut is a scary and scarily good portrait of a mind damaged by misplaced trust. Cults prey upon those who are confused about themselves or their lives, and the fact that Martha has become someone else, this Marcy May persona, shows the corruptive and hypnotic powers a charismatic cult leader can have. The group in MMMM isn’t necessarily a religious group, but it is a dippy hippy commune centered around a charismatic leader (Patrick, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes). Martha is pretty and blossoming, a perfect piece of prey for this happy camp. However, sexual freedoms and idealistic portrayals of nature morph into something else, and it’s not long before the newly-christened Marcy May is running home. This is the point where MMMM actually begins, and the film jumps back and forth (sometimes confusingly) between Martha’s time in the commune and her struggle to readjust to life with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Her awkward and erratic behaviour can all be traced back to her time in the catskills commune; bizarre attitudes to sex, outside contact and family leave Martha disoriented once taken out of the commune context. Olsen steps out of the shadow of her famous family with a mesmerizing performance. It’s not just her beauty that keeps you watching; it’s her gutsiness masking an identifiable frailty. The same confused waif who was seduced by Patrick(‘s cult) is the same girl who found the courage to run away. Meanwhile, Hawkes seduces and disquiets simultaneously (and sings too!) and the unease builds as Martha begins to fear the cult are looking for her once more…

The greatest horrors build suspense from the everyday; MMMM slowly builds up the suspense to emerge as something genuinely creepy. One can sense writer-director Durkin’s confidence in the story he wants to tell, and the confidence is justified. It’s a cautionary tale, a mystery and piece of art rolled into one, like Michael Haneke by way of Terrence Malick. The beginning sees Martha seeking liberation, but by the end you will be held hostage to MMMM’s intensity. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow-build experience that chills the spine and engages the imagination.