Compliance

29 Oct

Compliance

 

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Craig Zobel

Stars: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

Compliance is a film that is “inspired by true events”. As such it is a shocking piece of cinema. It focuses on how people react to immoral direction from persons in authority. The setting is not in the military or on Wall Street, but in a fast food restaurant in middle-America. It is all the more powerful for that. What starts as a small and easy going fly-on-wall film about fast food workers morphs into something that is very troubling and very powerful.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages the ChickWich and appears to do an effective job. Becky (Dreama Walker) is one of the few staff members that show her a lack of respect. When an Officer Daniels calls Sandra to report a customer complaint of theft, the finger is pointed at Becky and the cop on the phone asks Sandra to keep Becky in the storeroom. The officer reassures Sandra that she is just doing her job and that he will take the fall if the accusation is proven false or if Becky is uncooperative. What follows is a detour into a dark and damaged place where Becky is detained and mistreated on the instruction of Daniels.

The cop on the phone is masterful in his manipulation. He plays characters off against each other and dispenses thanks and threats to great effect. He pulls the strings of those brought in to watch over Becky and he convinces them to overstep the mark. The result is a claustrophobic and taut story with a true escalation of shocks.

Compliance feels like a real-life demo of the Milgram Experiment. That measured the willingness of subjects to perform acts conflicting with their conscience when prompted by an authority figure. Milgram’s work is subject to a lot of debate, but he completed it to try and make sense of Nazi war crimes. Were German people accomplices? Were Nazis just following orders? Those are controversial and uncomfortable questions. Milgram’s conclusions were the same. He felt that compliance can sustain brutal behaviour and Craig Zobel’s film supports the hypothesis.

This is a short, small, but impactful film. The story is shocking and made more so by its basis in real life events. Zobel keeps it tight and the acting is good across the fairly unknown cast. It is no wonder that this did so well on the indie film festival circuit. It is exactly the surprisingly great type of film that breaks out of Sundance etc every few years.

Passion

27 Oct

Passion

 

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: Brian De Palma, Natalie Carter

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 102 minutes

 

 

This is a remake of a 2010 French film called Love Crime from writer-director Alain Corneau. This time around the driving force is Brian De Palma; the 70 year old Hitchcock enthusiast famed for Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987). It has been a while since De Palma produced a great film and the wait continues. Still, most of his neo-noir patchwork pieces of sex, manipulation and mind games are fun to watch.

One of this film’s taglines was ‘No backstabbing; Just business.’ That sums it up nicely. Noomi Rapace is Isabelle, a quiet and low ranking advertising creative who comes up with a clever mobile phone campaign. She has the credit for it taken by her ambitious and arrogant boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and thereafter they play a strange game of one-upmanship with undertones of sex and obsession. The two female leads flirt with each other and Christine’s sexual preferences tend to S&M. There is a murder and the second half plays out like a crime thriller. It is certainly odd, and relatively fun, but for a movie called Passion there is a lack of fireworks.

Christine dresses in red and Isabelle dresses in black for most of the film. There are a lot of primary colours on display and plenty of stripped back sets. It looks like a De Palma film from the 1980’s and that aesthetic is enhanced by the lighting, décor and soundtrack. I have never seen a workplace like this one, but the lack of reality almost suits the outlandish story and characters. Passion plays like Basic Instinct at times which in 2013 you cannot seriously get away with.

De Palma filmed and financed this in Europe with Berlin the prime location. Just like Woody Allen, here he is reliant on past film glories and undiscerning Euro investors to bring his cinematic ‘vision’ to life. It is a strange phenomenon, but it gets older US directors out of the house, funds them to visit Europe for a while and allows local investors to get that Hollywood feeling. That the resulting output is invariably poor (Match Point, Scoop!) is by the by. With this film De Palma tries hard, but is actually doing little that’s original and he delivers a strangely cold, calculated and dull film.

The Place Beyond the Pines

6 Oct

the place beyond the pines

 

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Writers: Derek Cianfrance (story), Ben Coccio (story)

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 140 minutes

 

This slow burn drama was hot property on the film festival circuit, but its heat dissipated at the cinema. Regarding the cast, story and end product I am surprised by the poor reception. This is a good film and deserves an audience beyond Sundance and Venice. The issues for the ‘mainstream’ I am sure lay with the rather ambitious layering of three connected stories, the slow-quick-slow pacing of the film and Ryan Gosling’s character. His fairground stunt rider dominated the marketing of the film, but the story actually revolves around Bradley Cooper’s character.

The transition from Gosling to Cooper is the first of two significant shifts in a film that aims to tell three connected stories. Both gear changes have the propensity to frustrate, but I went along with them and ultimately enjoyed this from writer-director Derek Cianfrance. No doubt Gosling die-hards will be disappointed by this and the snobbier film critics scoffed at Cianfrance’s ambition. All of that is understandable up to a point, but I was taken with this. It reminded me of a couple of films from Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby and In the Valley of Elah) where stories veer suddenly off in unexpected directions, but then come back again to connect the dots.

Coming after Drive this is another strong, silent and Steve McQueen-esque turn from Ryan Gosling. Here he shifts from expert getaway car driver to expert getaway motorbike rider, but again his criminality pays for his working class girlfriend to move on with her life. Eva Mendes is that girl and Bradley Cooper is the cop that goes after Gosling. It is a strong cast of gifted actors. We have seen it before from Gosling, but Cooper is stretched further than usual here and is convincing as the conflicted and ambitious cop.

There are two excellent supporting turns in this; one from Ray Liotta as a crooked and bullying colleague to Cooper and one from Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime. Liotta still has the ability to put people completely ill at ease and is nicely menacing here. Mendelsohn was fantastic in Killing Them Softly and is on top form again. He is a laid back actor, but somehow captivating to watch and his relationship with Gosling, including a nice Hall & Oates inside joke, is a highlight.

The second narrative swerve, into the third act and final story, is not as effective as the first and at 140 minutes this is a little on the long side. It is not a perfect film, but it is very watchable, genuinely moving, well-acted and well worth your time. The conflict between criminal Gosling and lawman Cooper ignites the film and what follows is a sincere deliberation on the relationships of fathers and sons and the struggle to outrun the past. Cianfrance is a talented and thoughtful film-maker and has followed up strongly on the 2010 film Blue Valentine (also with Gosling).

Sightseers

7 Sep

Sightseers

 

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Amy Jump (additional material), Alice Lowe (screenplay)

Stars: Alice Lowe, Eileen Davies, Steve Oram

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 88 minutes

 

What if Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers went on their crime spree in a cheap and cheerful caravan? That has to have been Alice Lowe’s launch point for dreaming up this dark comedy; two amorous psychopaths, the open road and a shabby mobile home. It is a unique set up and Lowe found talented collaborators in husband and wife team Ben (Kill List) Wheatley and Amy Jump. Together they have fashioned a twisted comedy that the sicker members of the English tourist board can have only dreamt about in feverish dreams.

The writer Lowe plays Tina to Steve Oram’s Chris. They are a quirky couple in their early 30’s and in the early stages of a romance. They head out in Chris’s car / caravan combo on a road trip of English tourist attractions leaving Tina’s invalid and disapproving mother behind. She is wary of geeky Chris and with good reason because it’s not long before he’s meeting out tough justice on litterers, opinionated ramblers and Daily Mail readers. Chris is sociopathic and possibly psychopathic. He is the Travis Bickle of the caravan society and carries a full rack of emotional baggage. He desperately wants to be respected, but is dismissed at every turn. Frustration and rage boil inside.

Simple minded Tina learns to understand her deadly companion and then wants to join him. We have seen a wicked side to her earlier in the film, but the relish with which she ups the murderous ante is shocking. Soon Chris is worried about Tina, but by then they are too far gone down the road of train museums, rough sex, caravan sites, and bloodshed.

Wheatley shoots this with panache and the script from Lowe and Jump has some very funny lines. The leads are convincing with Oram particularly effective as the edgy Chris. The film owes something to early Shane Meadows’ films (such as A Room for Romeo Brass) and as such mixes black humour with social comment. It is not easy to watch at times, but it is often surprising and certainly a lot more fun than the overblown Oliver Stone road trip rampage from 1994. I liked Sightseers a lot and, whilst sick and twisted, there is something undeniably English about it.

Spring Breakers

1 Sep

spring breakers

 

Director: Harmony Korine

Writer: Harmony Korine (screenplay)

Stars: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson

Motion picture rating: R

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

 

Spring Breakers opens with a montage straight out of a ‘girls gone bad’ reality compilation. Spring Break is that quintessential rite of passage for US college kids and the opening shots show them drinking, dancing and fooling around like there is no tomorrow. That is the primary theme; kids taking a time-out from ‘normal’ life to go completely crazy for a few days. They do act as if there’s no tomorrow or more likely as if they don’t want tomorrow (and another day of “seeing the same things every day” as nice girl Faith explains early on).

There are five main characters in the film and two distinct parts to it. Four best friends (Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty) head to Florida for Spring Break, having robbed a diner to fund their excursion. In prepping for the felony they tell each other to “pretend like it’s a video game”. That is the secondary theme; the desensitisation of young adults that are inundated with images of sex, drugs and violence. Certainly the girls take to armed robbery with glee. They also take to Florida and soon Korine is adding montages of them drinking, dancing, fooling around and riding scooters.

The film changes with the introduction of James Franco as local drug dealing rapper Alien. He bails the girls out of jail and takes them under his tattooed wing. He loses Faith (Selena Gomez), but keeps three of them interested by showing off his mansion, money and weapons. Alien is a youthful Tony Montana (with De Palma’s Scarface on a continuous loop in his crib). As such he is ambitious and he has enemies. Faith is right to be concerned about his lifestyle and once Cotty gets caught in the crossfire it is just Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) that remain. The final threesome thus head for a showdown with Alien’s nemesis and a bloody end to Spring Break.

Doubtless there is some cool camera work and a slickness to this that will appeal to college kids everywhere. The montages are overdone, but most capture the euphoria of reckless youth. It is impressive at times, but depressing for anyone older than 35. The kids are almost feral and their consumption of sex and drugs and rock n roll is boundless. They have no redeeming qualities and don’t care for anything. Accordingly it is impossible to care about them or the film.

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.

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