Archive | August, 2013

The Paperboy

30 Aug

the paperboy

 

 

Director: Lee Daniels

Writers: Peter Dexter (screenplay), Lee Daniels (screenplay)

Stars: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 107 minutes

 

Peter Dexter’s novel The Paperboy was an award winner in 1995 and here he adapts the screenplay with the director Lee (Precious) Daniels. It has taken years for the novel to reach the big screen with Pedro Almodovar set to direct it for a long time, but ultimately acting as producer. That Almodovar loved the story is not surprising. It is a pulpy mash up of themes close to his Spanish heart (closeted love, strained familial bonds, and the devil inside). That an American director took the reins is a good thing as Daniels gives it a thorough drenching of southern liquor, violence, sex and sweat.

The film opens with the 1969 murder of a sheriff in the south of Florida as recalled by retired housekeeper Anita (Macy Gray). A local swamp-living petty criminal called Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is quickly convicted of the murder. The swiftness of justice alerts Miami journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey). He returns home to investigate the Van Wetter case. He brings on board his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) as a driver as he heads out to interview the convicted murderer. Besides Jack, the visitors include Ward’s writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) and a local woman called Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) with whom Van Wetter has been corresponding.

Jack is the eponymous paperboy and Anita is the long-standing Jansen family housekeeper. There is no shortage of interesting characters and most are supported by overlapping plots. It is a complex stew of stories, but at its centre are the criminal Van Wetter, his ‘girlfriend’ Charlotte and the crusading journalist Ward. The actions of the three of them drive the behaviour of the rest, but it is from Jack’s perspective that we mostly observe the drama.

As with the underrated film Killer Joe (with McConaughey again), The Paperboy focuses on imperfect protagonists living in impoverished surroundings. It is the so-called under-belly of America. And in this 1970’s Floridian setting it is a hot, sticky, racist, homophobic and violent place to be. There are some brutal scenes in this movie and they will upset many. Cusack plays his character to perfection, but he is a horrible piece of work and deeply unsettling. Kidman is also fantastic as the doomed object of Van Wetter’s and Jack’s attention. She captures a bit of Satine from Moulin Rouge, but it is a much bigger performance with some outlandish scenes.

I finished this film open-mouthed and feeling more than a little punch drunk. I was also exhilarated. It is satisfying to see such a bold and black tale from a relatively mainstream US cast and crew. If you have the stomach for it, this is definitely worth two hours of your time.

Safety Not Guaranteed

24 Aug

Safety not Guaranteed

 

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Writer: Derek Connolly

Stars: Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 86 minutes

 

 

Mumblecore actor Mark Duplass is back with another smart little indie film backed by some of the makers of Little Miss Sunshine. Duplass comes from Your Sister’s Sister whilst the Sunshine folks arrive via Ruby Sparks. These films are primarily character studies that deal with dysfunctional families and that portray the vagaries of millennial love. They can be heavy on the quirkiness, and Ruby Sparks is definitely in that camp, but mostly they are warm, fun, literate and entertaining.

Duplass here plays lone amateur engineer and sci-fi nerd Kenneth. He lives a few hours from Seattle and is completing the finishing touches to his time travel machine. He needs a partner and searches via a small newspaper ad; “…bring your own weapons…safety not guaranteed…I have only done this once before.” The ad catches the eye of Jeff (Jake Johnson), a journalist with a Seattle-based magazine. He drives out to find and interview the clearly demented time traveller and takes with him two interns (Aubrey Plaza as Darius and Karan Soni as Arnau).

Jeff fails to ingratiate himself with Kenneth, but that’s OK because Jeff has an extra agenda in connecting with ex-High School sweetheart   Liz. Whilst he is off trying to relive his glory days it is Darius that engages loner Kenneth and she becomes his partner for the great journey ahead. Young Arnau watches with amusement, but he only took the internship to bolster his CV so he’s non-committal about the magazine and the story. The three magazine staffers make a fun miss-matched team just as Darius and Kenneth make an odd, but compelling couple.

This is an unapologetically sweet and sincere film about people wishing they could travel back to relive better times. Most of the characters have reasons to be intrigued by the concept of time travel. That they are in their late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s did not put me off the film, but might be hard for some viewers to swallow. Kenneth, Darius and Jeff are disenfranchised and drifting, but they don’t wallow in that. They are snarky, but not self-absorbed. And the dialogue is very funny at times.

The stand-out performance comes from Aubrey Plaza as Darius. She should become very hot property after this, but we shall see. Seemingly doing very little, she steals the film and is a magnetic screen presence. Johnson and Duplass are good and no doubt they had fun on set as the whole cast really commits to what is a rom-com and sci-fi hybrid. As such it is hard to pigeon hole, but it is all the better for it. I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it highly.

Arbitrage

22 Aug

Arbitrage

 

 

Director: Nicholas Jarecki

Writer: Nicholas Jarecki

Stars: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 107 minutes

 

I am not sure about Richard Gere. I have always been unsure although I count American Gigolo (1980) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) as guilty pleasures. Maybe he was at his best in the 1980’s. Certainly he does not get too many meaty roles in the new millennium. This one is about as big as it gets with Gere in every scene playing the smooth and successful head of a New York family-run hedge fund. He is Robert Miller and the film opens with him celebrating his 60th birthday with his handsome family. The kids, grand kids and loving wife (Susan Sarandon) are all there in an impressive mansion.

Miller is an arrogant man. He is rude, dismissive and a borderline sociopath. He is obsessed with business and money, dispensing advice such as “money fixes everything” to his underlings. He is a classic fat cat / big banker character. There is little subtle about him and his ultimate demise is hardly novel. Miller is having an affair with a young artist and hiding some bad deals off the books whilst trying to cement a merger. Both acts of moral turpitude come back to haunt him via plot devices that have been done before (Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities, Margin Call). His arrogance catches up with him and in trying to save himself he pulls in his family, close associates and the son of an ex-friend (Nate Parker) – all whilst being pursued by a dogged cop (Tim Roth).

The point of introducing the ex-friend’s son and the cop is to emphasize the gap between super rich bankers and normal working class folks. Nate Parker’s honest and hard-working character is compromised by Miller’s actions whilst Tim Roth’s cop has simply had enough of the wealthy buying themselves out of trouble. The cop is the best character in the film and Roth does an excellent Columbo impression to bring him alive. Elsewhere the acting is solid, but unimpressive. The film is the same. It is solid enough, but it carries little real weight and the simple themes are handled with little fair. As a criticism of Wall St the film is lightweight and as a thriller it is not tight enough.

Side Effects

19 Aug

side effects

 

 

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Stars: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes

 

As a Brit looking at the US there are few subjects that boggle the mind more than the American fascination and part addiction to guns and pharmaceuticals. The former seem to be more deeply debated than the latter, but at their core are similar arguments and interest groups. If the fabulous 2005 film Thank You For Smoking was remade today I wonder if a pharmaceutical lobbyist would be added to the small group of tobacco, alcohol and gun spokespeople. Certainly it makes sense to me. The pharmaceutical business in the US is massive and the Government’s Centre for Disease Control & Prevention has classified the abuse of prescription drugs in the US an epidemic.

This film focuses on prescription drug abuse by Emily (Rooney Mara) during and after her husband Martin’s (Channing Tatum) stint in prison for insider trading. He comes out and hopes to restart his life with Emily, but she becomes distracted, depressed and distant. To counter those feelings Emily’s doctor (Jude Law) prescribes her a new anti-depressant mentioned to him by a friendly psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta Jones) and that Emily had seen advertised on TV. In that period of consultation the director Soderbergh highlights the many ways that liberal advertising rules, widespread drug trials and physicians in the pay of drug company’s combine to flood the US with prescription drugs. And every character in the film appears to be on one drug or other.

Mara is becoming a supreme actress and she is first-rate playing the fragile and lost Emily. Her decline once on the new anti-depressant is sadly believable as are the bemusement of her husband and the frustration of her doctor. Tatum and Law do well in support as does Zeta Jones and Soderbergh pulls the strings beautifully. The first half of the film is a smart meditation on the effects of over medication, but the movie then shifts gears.

The second half is more of a thriller. The four main characters are more tightly involved than it first appears and in revealing the connections Side Effects becomes gripping and clever. The change up is handled well enough, but in hindsight this is a case of two different films being pushed together; the polemic on the abuse of prescription drugs and a straight-up conspiracy thriller. The talented Soderbergh gets away with it and Side Effects is an entertaining film, but with so much material it would also have made an outstanding six-part TV series.

In The House

15 Aug

in the house

 

Director: François Ozon

Writers: Juan Mayorga (play), François Ozon (screenplay)

Stars: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 105 minutes

 

 

Unlike the film Carnage this sub-titled French film does not betray its roots as a play. Its themes include modern manners, class, parenting and paranoia just like Carnage, but In the House benefits from having a number of internal and external locations and director Francois Ozon makes the best out of them. It remains a highly intelligent and literate piece of film-making, but it is that much bigger and smarter than Carnage and there is something indelibly French about it.

Fabrice Luchini plays ageing literature teacher Germain, Kristin Scott Thomas plays his art gallery curating wife Jeanne and Ernst Unhauer is Germain’s favourite pupil Claude. They all live in a fairly large French town and Germain and Claude attend a contemporary school. The film opens there with the headmaster telling his staff that school uniforms are to be reintroduced. He talks about formality and equality, but Germain rolls his eyes. It is clear that he hankers for less structured and homogenized times. He is a little bored and a lot irritated.

Germain is depressed about the quality of his new students’ writing until he comes upon an essay from Claude. Whilst others write about having pizza, watching TV and shopping, Claude describes the house of his new best friend Rapha and of meeting Rapha’s parents. The writing is clinical and rather sneering. Claude describes them as lazily middle-class and it’s not clear what his intentions are. He has befriended Rapha and wheedled his way into a house that he once admired from afar, but why? Is Claude a stalker? Is Claude looking for surrogate parents? Could this film go the way of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and see blood on Claude’s hands?

The tone darkens, but also gets funnier as Claude gets more ensconced in family Rapha. Germain becomes more intrigued and coaches Claude outside of school hours on how to properly write a story. His failings as a novelist and his and Jeanne’s lack of children appear to be fuelling the enterprise. Claude gives little away, but is an odd young man at ease in the company of adults. Only Jeanne really worries about the boy, her husband’s growing obsession and some of their borderline immoral behaviour.

In the House is dark and it is comic. It walks that line incredibly well and includes some astute social observations. The lead characters are rarely comfortable with each other and we the audience are the same. There is something of Haneke and Woody Allen about this film. It is very clever. Such literate and intelligent film-making is rare today and this French wonder is thoroughly recommended. The acting is of high quality, with Luchini shining as the conflicted teacher Germain. The ending is also strong and not easy to foresee. The final images are highly effective and sum up so much about modern life.

Stoker

12 Aug

stoker

 

Director: Chan-wook Park

Writers: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 99 minutes

 

 

Park Chan-Wook is a hugely talented writer and director. I am a true fan of his and have been spellbound by his films (Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy for instance). He is from South Korea and Stoker is his first English language film. Whilst wary of the title – is this the biography of the author of Dracula by any chance? – I came to this with high expectations. Park always delivers clever camera work, unique transitions, balletic action and a hefty dose of brutality. His films are framed to perfection and this one is no different.

Stoker opens with the funeral of Richard Stoker, victim of a car accident. His widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) are graveside and away in the distance is enigmatic Uncle Charlie, Richard’s long-forgotten brother. Charlie thereafter inveigles his way into the lives of widow and daughter, but by giving little away. He is a genuine man of mystery. His past is pure speculation and less of interest to Evelyn who is immediately taken with his killer smile and easy manner. She is smitten, but India is unsure and tries to resist the overly sexualized attempts at relationship building by uncle creepy.

The cinematography in the first 20 minutes of Stoker is a thing of wonder. It is beguiling, familiar yet off-kilter and at times unsettling. That is the vibe for the whole film; a strange, creepy and odd feeling pervades the Stoker house. Mia Wasikowska is the central character and her unblinking and unfeeling India is also a thing of wonder. She is a talented actress and rarely tries too hard. India is a perfect role for her remote other-worldliness and is reminiscent at times of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie.

Kidman and Matthew Goode (as Uncle Charlie) do well alongside Wasikowska and the acting is up towards the very high standard of cinematography, early pacing and the original score (by Clint Mansell). This is a film with a lot of art and class. It is better than so many ‘psychological thrillers’ and would make Hitchcock proud. There are faults with it – it wraps up a little too quickly and the lack of knowledge of Uncle Charlie’s violent past is rather implausible – but overall it succeeds. It is an effective and menacing piece of family drama.

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