Archive | November, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

30 Nov

five year engagement

 

 

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Writers: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller

Stars: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris Pratt

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 124 minutes

 

In film-making they say that luckily there is always room for horror films and rom-com’s. That’s lucky because both genres are low cost to make and easy to market. It’s no coincidence that we are bombarded by both whilst deprived of more intellectually challenging fare. It’s not to say that horror films and rom-com’s can’t be good – see my reviews of Kill List and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen for nice examples – it’s just that in the main they are poor. And any rom-com featuring Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and / or Matthew McConaughey are actually far worse.

With The Five-Year Engagement we have a high concept rom-com. Talk about easy to market – it’s all there in the title…Anyhow, this one features Jason Segel (also a co-writer and producer) as Tom and Emily Blunt as Violet. They meet cute, date for a year, get engaged and then struggle to get down the aisle. Her PHD studies in psychology force them to move from San Francisco to Michigan where she thrives, but he struggles having given up a top chef’s job back on the bay for work in a sandwich bar in the mid-west. Violet blooms via her studies whilst Tom regresses and becomes a bit of a hick (long side burns, drinking in the morning, deer hunting etc.)

This film starts with a track by Dexys Midnight Runners so it’s off to a flyer in my book. The couple’s meet cute is nicely done and also matched by the funny engagement scene. Thereafter you root for what is a believable and amusing couple – Segel is very good in a lot of comedies and Blunt is great in everything (again see Salmon Fishing). Around the pair are some excellent cameos, especially Mad Men’s Alison Brie as Violet’s sister, and there are a number of good recurring jokes. It is genuinely funny and perceptive stuff. It runs slightly too long and it pushes the core “pick a cookie and take a bite” message a bit too hard at times, but overall it’s rather charming.

The Woman in the Fifth

27 Nov

 

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Writers: Douglas Kennedy (book), Pawel Pawlikowski (screenplay)

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas and Joanna Kulig

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 85 minutes

 

 

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s last film was the 2004 festival hit My Summer of Love and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s odd to me that he has taken 8 years to deliver The Woman in the Fifth and the film itself is a bit of an oddity. It is based on the best-selling novel by Douglas Kennedy. Pawlikowski has adapted the book and condensed it into a fascinating, but flawed 85 minute film.

Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American author in Paris trying to reconcile with his ex-wife and to get to know his young daughter. He has been out of their lives and it is clear that his ex-wife has moved on and is nervous of him. Tom finds temporary lodging and work via a small-time hood called Sezer. He runs a bar, rents some fleapit rooms and takes an interest in the down and out author. The fairly dubious work involves monitoring a CCTV camera overnight and Tom uses the time to try and start writing again.

Whilst Tom settles into his humble Parisian life he watches and grabs minutes with his daughter when he can. At the bar he starts an affair with a young waitress. Tom also meets a mysterious woman called Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) at a soiree for book people. She is intelligent, refined and seductive. Tom falls under her spell and she decides to become his muse. They meet at her apartment in the fifth and have lots of adventurous, but perfunctory sex.

What is it all about? – Having seen it, I am still unsure. There is something about writers not knowing who they are. The blocked author Tom is cold, slightly aloof and lost. He is looking for excitement and for thrills to write about and possibly to define him. Apart from that theme I am not sure what else to take. It is a strange piece of work and the ending is frustratingly ambiguous. It might well be the case that much of the film takes place in Tom’s head. Certainly his mental status is called into question more than once.

Regarding the director, Pawlikowski helms this in a dreamy languid style. It is visually interesting and there is a sense of menace or dread throughout. The film has a ‘70’s vibe to it and almost recalls the early work of Roman Polanski, another Polish director. It is mostly accomplished film-making, but unfortunately it leads nowhere. Odd indeed.

Delicacy

24 Nov

 

Directors: David Foenkinos, Stéphane Foenkinos

Writer: David Foenkinos (novel) (screenplay)

Stars: Audrey Tautou, François Damiens and Bruno Todeschini

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Runtime: 108 minutes

 

What is it about Audrey Tautou? Probably the Amelie effect. Ever since she arrived in that stunning 2001 film she has been able to make movies like no other actress. In this film and many others (Beautiful Lies, Priceless, A Very Long Engagement) she is in almost every scene and placed right in the centre of every frame. She is allowed a voiceover and the camera seems to be at her beck and call. Her pixie presence is exalted. The pouty overbite, the ink black eyes, the asymmetric haircut, the megawatt smile are all on display and one wonders if the director is not a little smitten. It’s a strange phenomenon. I roll with it as I am partially smitten myself, but there are many out there, men and women alike, who struggle with Tautou.

In this French film she plays Nathalie, a young woman that loses her husband to a tragic accident and thereafter throws herself into work. Her career flourishes, but apart from fending off her lecherous boss she lives a very quiet and self-contained life. Men are attracted to her, but she is ambivalent towards them. She is difficult to read which makes her a strong boss, but exasperates close friends and family unsure about her recovery. Into her small life stumbles a colleague called Markus (Francois Damiens). He is a geeky accountant with fashion issues, bad teeth and a limited amount of life experience. He is delicate in the French sense of the word IE tactful and respectful, but he is no lady killer and physically a bit of a slob.

This film has its heart in the right place and is concerned with grief and how people move on with their lives. The central story is Nathalie and her surprising relationship with Markus. They are an unorthodox couple and the French obsession with social convention is dealt with in how others, mainly Nathalie’s friends and family, react to his appearance by her side. Those awkward scenes mostly provide humour and the film is certainly set up as an unconventional rom-com. That’s fine and it kind of works, but the few bigger laughs all come from Damiens as the unsuitable suitor. Besides him, it is not quite funny enough and Tautou for once can’t save the day. She’s nice, he’s charming and the oddball pairing is fun, but not a whole lot more.

The Hunter

21 Nov

Director: Daniel Nettheim

Writers: Julia Leigh (novel), Wain Fimeri (original adaptation)

Stars: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Morgana Davies

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 102 minutes

This film is labelled as an eco-thriller and it is set in Tasmania. Those are two fairly unusual elements and a fine combination that ably support the story (from the popular novel by Julia Leigh). With the increase in awareness and interest of ecological issues I am sure that we shall see more ‘eco films’ and this one is a solid benchmark for them.

Willem Dafoe is a mercenary hired by a biotech company to hunt down and kill a wild animal. The company has evidence that the legendary, and assumed extinct, Tasmanian Tiger is still alive and inhabiting a mountain range on its namesake island. Dafoe is contracted to hunt, kill and to draw samples from the animal (as the biotech firm believes that the DNA is invaluable). Whilst Dafoe prepares for the hunt he comes into contact with a widow and her two children and with both sides of the ecological debate – with the loggers working in the local mountains and with the activists trying to shut them down.

The upfront eco argument here concerns the balance of forestry jobs and nature preservation. Behind that is a wider and deeper issue of species obliteration in the face of big business. The Tasmanian Tiger could in essence be replaced by the white rhino or the sea turtle. Amidst the arguments and emotions Dafoe’s character tries to remain impassive and focused on his task at hand. That focus is shaken by his burgeoning relationship with Frances O’Connor as the widow and with her two children (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock).

Watching Willem Dafoe act is fascinating. Just like Joaquin Phoenix, there is a constant edginess and unpredictability to his craft. That edge fits his character perfectly in this film and Dafoe is really on form. He is ably supported by O’Connor, Davies and newcomer Woodlock. Scenes with the four of them as an impromptu and awkward ‘family’ work very well. The wild and untamed Tasmanian mountains are also beautifully shot. Unfortunately, I still have problems with the film. However worthy it might be the film is too slow and not nearly as gripping as it could be. It is a decent eco-thriller that is heavy on the eco, but light on the thrills.

The Dictator

18 Nov

Director: Larry Charles

Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 83 minutes

 

 

The dedication for this film is to the late Kim Jong Ill. The last time that dictator made me laugh out loud in a movie was in the brilliant 2004 comedy “Team America”. That’s an appropriate link as this film also looks to satirise modern geo-politics and to laugh at the hypocrisy embedded in western foreign policy. As a Sacha Baron Cohen film it does so with big laughs and in a highly non-pc manner (which reflects what Trey Parker and Matt Stone did with their puppets 8 years ago).

After playing a small-time street gansta (Ali G), an idiotic political envoy (Borat) and a hyper camp fashionista (Bruno), Baron Cohen this time is General Aladeen, the ruler of the rogue North African state of Wadiya. Aladeen is one part Saddam Hussein and one part Colonel Gaddafi. He rules with an iron fist, has a desire for nuclear weaponry, splashes cash on western vices and has a line of stand-in doubles for those trickier engagements. During the film’s first 15 minutes, as we are introduced to the dictator, there are some wonderful gags. The hit frequency once Aladeen gets to New York to address the UN diminishes slightly, but it is amusing throughout.

In New York, as the result of scheming by his not so loyal uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen is stripped of his title, shorn of his beard and thrown on to the street. The pauperized ex-ruler seeks solace in Brooklyn as opposed to Queens which harboured Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem in rather similar circumstances in 1988 (“Coming to America”). Aladeen takes shelter in a vegan market run by the very pc Zoey (a perfectly cast Anna Faris) where his dictatorial approach quickly upsets colleagues and shoppers alike.

This is a very funny film. It is short, sharp and entertaining. It does borrow from films such as “Team America” and “Coming to America” and there is a sense of Mike Myers in some of the set ups. It’s not original as such, but Baron Cohen pushes the odd boundary, openly questions the US approach to countries such as Iraq and is typically unafraid of bad taste (as per the birthing scene on the floor of the market). He is not yet and may never be a genius like Peter Sellers, but Baron Cohen is a fine comedic actor with a knack for fully embodying the most ludicrous of characters.

Your Sister’s Sister

16 Nov

Director: Lynn Shelton

Writer: Lynn Shelton

Stars: Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

 

Iris has a half-sister Hannah that she loves and a best friend Jack that she adores. In fact her feelings for Jack run deeper, but it’s a complicated relationship as Iris used to date Jack’s departed brother (the death of whom Jack is still coming to terms with one year on). Inadvertently, Iris puts troubled Jack and newly single Hannah together in the family cottage out on a Seattle island. They are both there to get some quiet alone time, but that plan, as well as their respective celibacy, goes out the window after a serious tequila session.

This film was shot in less than 2 weeks and highly improvised. As a piece for just 3 actors, and with a single primary location, Lynn (“Humpday”) Shelton intentionally wrote and directed it in that theatrical way. The feeling of improvisation comes across nicely and whilst the direction is subtle the performances are strikingly good. It is an excellent ensemble piece and very astute in its observations on familial and sexual bonds. Iris, pitching up at the cottage the day after the tequila incident, has her feelings and composure sorely tested by her sister, her best friend and more so by their strange chemistry.

Mark Duplass is very good as the slightly dishevelled and mumbling Jack and Emily Blunt is as reliable as ever as Iris. It is, however, Rosemarie DeWitt as Hannah who really shines in this. There is something a little Diane Keaton about her unconventional beauty and ease in front of camera, but boy she can really act. Hers is the meatier role, but she attacks it with pure honesty and pushes the other 2 actors on to greater heights. Together they do tug at the heartstrings. For a film that starts a little self-indulgently it finishes up as a warm, smart and very enjoyable ride.

Killer Joe

5 Nov

 

Director: William Friedkin

Writers: Tracy Letts (screenplay), Tracy Letts (play)

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple

Motion Picture Rating: 18

Runtime: 102 minutes

 

 

It’s clear very quickly in this film that we are in the good old American south and on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s raining hard, chained up dogs are barking fiercely and the camera pans a dirty trailer park. Killer Joe is mostly a piece of ‘southern noir’ with some very black humour thrown in for good measure. The setting, just outside of Dallas, is bleak and the characters are dark.

Killer Joe is a detective who moonlights as a contract killer. He is hired by a scruffy and dim-witted father and son combo in Ansel and Chris Smith (Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch). They agree to pay Joe from the insurance policy that they expect to redeem after Joe has killed Ansel’s ex-wife and Chris’ estranged mother. That $50k policy actually names Chris’s younger sister Dottie as the beneficiary and she is the real catalyst for the drama that ensues. Although a rather odd and shy creature, young Dottie catches Joe’s eye and soon enough Ansel and Chris are presenting her to the killer as a form of down-payment on the contract.

As written by Tracy Letts and directed by William (The Exorcist) Friedkin, Killer Joe is a morally dubious tale. At its heart are a dark exploration of the disintegration of the American family – the trailer bound, fried chicken eating and drug-taking Smiths – and a very non-pc courtship between a veteran killer and a naive teenage girl. Killer Joe moves into the Smith trailer, whilst planning to kill the absent matriarch, and as such takes young Dottie to bed and lays down some new laws for petty criminals Ansel and Chris.

This is a violent and warped film. It is outrageous in parts and hard to defend in others. It is, however, exciting, intense, comic and very well acted. Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe is slick and scary in equal measure. He starts off channelling Jack Palance and ends with Dennis Hopper (specifically as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet). It is a fine performance and Juno Temple shows up almost as well as Dottie. They are this year’s, and possibly any years, oddest celluloid couple bar none. It is definitely not politically correct, but it’s exhilarating.

Moonrise Kingdom

1 Nov

 

Director: Wes Anderson

Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward and Bruce Willis

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

 

I always look forward to seeing the new Wes Anderson film, but I don’t come away completely satisfied every time. Rushmore was stunning, but I struggled with The Royal Tenebaums. I enjoyed The Life Aquatic a lot and The Darjeeling Limited was a pleasant distraction. Here on Moonrise Kingdom, however, I think that Anderson has surpassed those and delivered his best (live action) film to date. The expected Anderson whimsical themes and quirky production design are all present and I smiled widely from start to finish. It is a 90 minute delight.

The imaginary setting is the Island of New Penzance and the year is 1965. Bob Balaban, as the narrator, tells us that a big storm is approaching. Whilst the weather worsens we follow the exploits of two 12 year olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward). They run away from the khaki scout troop (Sam) and from a big eccentric family (Suzy) to meet up and to have an adventure. Sam and Suzy are in love. They are also misunderstood by their friends and family. Sam is described as being “emotionally disturbed” whilst Suzy is tagged with having “so many problems”. As such they get each other and are content to leave adults and other meddlers far behind.

Like all of Anderson’s films this one is meticulously styled and shot. It is beautiful to look at and each scene opens with some artfully clever framing. The opening credits alone are genius. Colours are vibrant throughout and the imaginary island, that in the real world would be somewhere like Martha’s Vineyard, provides great backdrops to the search for the runaways. Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman return and are both typically excellent. In addition Edward Norton is great as the zealous scout leader, Bruce Willis convinces as the tired police chief and both Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand impress. It is a great cast.

There are few laugh-out-loud moments in Moonrise Kingdom however it is sweet and funny throughout. A lot of that comes from Sam and Suzy as the runaway couple – he with the Davy Crocket hat and her with the binoculars. Sure their romance is over-blown and open for cynicism, but you would have to be stone hearted not to root for them.

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