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The Royal Tenenbaums

April 12, 2014

The Royal Tenenbaums (2002)
Director: Wes Anderson
Actors: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson

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Synopsis: The estranged patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), of a legendary New York clan, fakes a fatal illness to insinuate himself back in to the family unit. At the same time, the three grown-up Tenenbaum children find themselves descending on the family home once more, seeking solace from their respective troubles….

Review: Easily one of the best American pictures of the new millenium, The Royal Tenenbaums stands as apotheosis of the Wes Anderson ‘brand’ – where all his constituent elements, from a narrative imbued in deep pathos, to his hallmark visual delectations, to a quite exquisite sense of humour, are at their best.

Re-acquainting myself with the film after a number of years, what really stands out is how amazingly thought out and rich the story’s technical canvas and narrative textures actually are. There literally isn’t a shot, scene, or line of dialogue without some fine level of detail – and these touches aren’t mere indulgent window-dressing, but Anderson is a great storyteller, and really knows how to out each character’s sly trajectory so acutely (and he does a great job in making tangible the inner-lives of such a motley array of personnel). In other Anderson pictures, he hasn’t always justified his proclivity toward nostalgic and sentimental themes, but his conception of a legendary New York family fallen on hard times is spot on, and as I mentioned in a previous article (http://pnabarro.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/in-defence-of-wes-anderson-the-horizontal-tracking-shot-in-the-royal-tenenbaums/), Anderson finds an ingenious, cinematographic way of honouring that sense of poignancy with a remarkable tracking shot near the film’s close that subtly outs the tensions and undertow of sadness, that has beset the various characters throughout the film’s running time.

One or two commentators have chastised Anderson for his reliance on ‘cool’ soundtracks throughout his oeuvre, but it’s at its most permissible in The Royal Tenenbaums - after all, one of pop music’s great legacies is as sensory artefact, and being a film so doused in nostalgia and the feeling of the past as a ‘paradise lost’, the songs really compliment that ethos and the accompanying images. My only slight quibble is perhaps a marginal condescension towards Danny Glover’s character, Henry Sherman, and how Royal’s outward (and more insidious) racial remarks seem to go without reproach – the film valorises him as a loveable rascal – but that aside, this is a true cinematic gem. (April 2014)

The Big Wedding

April 11, 2014

The Big Wedding (2013)
Director: Justin Zackham
Actors: Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon

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Synopsis: Adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes), of the well-to-do Griffin clan is due to marry his sweetheart, but when he learns his strict Catholic biological mother will be coming to the wedding, he asks his now-separated adoptive parents, Don (Robert De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton), to fake still being together for the sake of the ceremony…

Review: Over the last half-dozen years, I’ve set myself the goal of committing my thoughts to writing for every single movie that passes before my eyes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a rigorous critique, a tangential piece loosely inspired by the film, or simply an obligatory paragraph – I felt it would be a great practice to get into for my writing as a whole, but also fantastic discipline for my cinephilia – to be engaging with the art of rhetoric and the medium itself on a continual basis.

Never has that practice felt more laborious and obsolete, than after being privy to the 85 minutes of utter fluff they call The Big Wedding. It comes from that highly questionable subgenre of films I call ‘lifestyle porn’ (usually helmed by a Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers). These movies are based round the notion that throw a starry ensemble cast together, put them in luxurious, ultra-bourgeois settings (somewhere like The Hamptons or a preppy suburb of Connecticut), give them a crowd-pleasing, ‘familiar’ screwball narrative, and Hollywood magic will be manifest. The problem with that recipe is in its smug, self-appointed sense of affluence and ‘fun’ – as the Oceans Eleven series pretty much proved, the sight of Hollywood stars enjoying themselves and clowning around, doesn’t necessarily a motion picture make. The only one that kind of got away with it was Santa Barbara farce It’s Complicated - the gold-dust Streep/Baldwin/Martin trio keeping the energy just about bubbling over its flaws…

 The Big Wedding lets us know what we’re in for, by nailing its cards to the table in a diabolical opening stretch. Robert De Niro’s voiceover warns us what’s to come with a lamer-than-lame pun about marriage (presumably the screenwriter got this from a cheapo Christmas Cracker), and the ‘humour’ begins with – wouldn’t you know it – Diane Keaton caught in an ‘awkward’ position when stumbling across ex-husband De Niro about to perform cunnilingus on his current squeeze, played by Susan Sarandon. The jolly scrapes don’t stop there though – characters are continually falling into water (a ‘scared of heights’ De Niro slips off a diving board, and the guests all jump into a lake after the main wedding ceremony has taken place). More pathetic than this though is the main narrative cog, which wants to propel separated pair De Niro and Keaton into a position of enforced coupledom during the wedding weekend. It seems a fair enough comic intention, but writer-director Justin Zackham has come up with the most ill-thought through and truly dumb conceit imaginable. Namely, he has created the character of an adopted son, Alejandro, who was sent by his poor mother in Colombia to be brought up by De Niro and Keaton (clearly the writer doesn’t know his viable adoptive countries at all, as long as they’re ‘Other’ than the US of course), but now that he’s getting married, this actually well-heeled, intelligent Colombian woman is shoe-horned in so that her unfathomably dogmatic Catholicism and her clichéd randy Latin daughter can rub up against the neurotic all-American family. If the whole set-up wasn’t so apologetically dire, you could call its politics offensive (also De Niro gets to sleep with both of his leading ladies in the space of a few hours, but it’s all laughed off as part of his charismatic, lothario ways). If you like train-wreck, ‘how on earth did that see the light of day’ Hollywood projects – then this is for you….(April 2014)

Upstream Colour

April 4, 2014

Upstream Colour (2013)
Director: Shane Carruth
Actors: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Selsenig

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Synopsis: Kris (Amy Seimetz) is drugged with a sinister parasite which renders her totally submissive to a thief who strips her of all her financial assets. A sampler (Andrew Selsenig) transfers the parasite from Kris to a pig he is farming, and when Kris ‘wakes up’ she loses her job, and has to work with fellow victim Jeff (Shane Carruth) to try and piece the puzzle of their mutual ‘violation’…

Review: Shane Carruth’s staggering, rhapsodic follow-up to his more measured and clinical debut Primer, is totally up my street – complete vindication for my maxim that invariably the most moving and immersive of cinematic experiences are those that dispense with the presumption that diegesis need only be concerned with things dramaturgical.

In Upstream Colour there almost isn’t any dramaturgy, or at the very least, Carruth places us in the same radical position as his two stranded protagonists – forced, by being stripped of all their financial assets and previous vestiges and assumptions of first-world ‘status’, to reconnect with their intuition, their senses, their emotion (a Thoreauvian journey into discovering their inner ‘drummer’) to solve the narrative puzzle. Thus, what Carruth has crafted is a parable about life-cycle and the enduring battle in humans between the organic and the machine. I know there’s little point in trying to ascribe empirical meaning to what is essentially a hugely metaphoric work, but I almost took it that in some way the ‘Thief’ and the ‘Sampler’ were spiritual terrorists – breaking down corporate types and forcing them to reconnect with their inner-selves (hence the subtle hypnotic technique of making them write and recite Walden while ‘under the influence’, and suggesting kinship between man and that most earthy of beasts, the pig).

At times, with the prodigious amount of editing and sound design going on, one could accuse Carruth of coming a hair’s breadth from over-aestheticising the film, but even so, it imprints the notion that Carruth is trying to build his film (and the moral of that film) through experience and sense, rather than conventionally dramatic means. Who knows where this maverick auteur goes from here? I, for one, can’t wait to find out….(April 2014)

Key Largo

April 4, 2014

Key Largo (1948)
Director: John Huston
Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson

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Synopsis: Dissolute war veteran, Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), pitches up at Hotel Largo in the Florida Keys, ostensibly to pay his respects to the family of a colleague who died in Italy. He chances upon a group of gangsters hiding out, and when a hurricane hits the Key, all personnel inside the hotel are thrust into a war of nerves….

Review: This is a classy little Forties’ chamber piece that is competently handled by writer-director John Huston and supremely well acted by its starry cast. It offers all the quality of really good theatrical cinema: there’s the conceit of having the characters holed up in one central, memorable location, there’s a maguffin crime mystery, and all the characters get their own little ‘moment in the sun’ where their backstory is recounted, they deliver a choice monologue, and all receive their respective instances of epiphany or just desserts by the film’s end.

It’s interesting to reflect on the Bogart/Bacall ‘legend’ in relation to Key Largo‘s more famous cousin, The Big Sleep. Gone is the ultra-stylised, glamorous, laconic edge of that film, and here, Bogart and Bacall play relatively unvarnished, ‘normal’ characters whose blossoming affection has a genuinely touching edge. Sadly, some other elements of the film are a touch ‘dated’ – from the ridiculously over-egged music score to Claire Trevor’s ‘obvious’, telegraphed performance as the drunken dame with a heart of gold. (April 2014)

In the House

April 4, 2014

In the House (2012)
Director: François Ozon
Actors: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas

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Synopsis: Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), slowly finds himself obsessing over the creative writing exercises of one of his students, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). In them, Claude recounts his bond to the family of fellow classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), while helping Rapha with his maths homework.

Review: Prolific French director, François Ozon, returns with another of those rapidly cobbled together, frothy little comedy-dramas he’s become so adept at. With that prodigy of output though can come a certain sketchiness (some might even say, insubstantiality), which sees Ozon merely skim the surface of potentially fertile premises and genre exercises (5×2 or Angel are good examples of this). Sadly, the same can be said of In the House. It’s an initially interesting riff on voyeurism-by-proxy, a sly parable on teacher responsibility, and a decent class satire, but by the halfway point its discourse becomes noticeably ragged – with Ozon exploiting the material rather predictably for an unconvincing, sub-Almodóvarian twist on fantasy projection, sexual awakening, and the unreliability of storytelling. (April 2013)

Sexy Beast

April 3, 2014

Sexy Beast (2000)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Actors: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane

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Synopsis: Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired British gangster, living out a low-key existence in sunny Spain with his wife. The psychotic Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is sent to bring Gal back to London for a daring heist, but the clash between Gal’s wish to be left alone and Don’s maniac fervour leads to a tense showdown between the pair…

Review: In anticipation of the much trumpeted Under the Skin, I decided to revisit Jonathan Glazer’s first feature film, Sexy Beast, to get myself ‘in the mood’ for the main event….

In many respects, Sexy Beast is quite a ‘slippery’ film – it’s very slight, and probably if it had run any longer than its breezy 85 minutes, I sense Glazer’s glitzy and image-centric approach to storytelling might have begun to crack at the seams. Instead, what we have here is almost an extended short film par excellence, and we’re permitted to luxuriate in Glazer’s skills – he’s a great ambience maker, both sonically and pictorally. Sexy Beast also features a riotous sense of humour, has a plausible undertow of pathos for its central character Gal, and makes great mileage out of its contrast between the crisp open spaces and baking air of Spain to the dank, claustrophobic climes of London.

Of course, let’s not overlook probably the best thing about Sexy Beast, and that is Ben Kingsley’s incredible turn as psychotic-schizophrenic Don Logan. Kingsley commits to his characterisation the proverbial ‘a hundred and ten percent’ and delivers a bravura performance both from the inside and outside –  from the implacable stiffness of the man’s posture, to his monotonic, nasal cockney twang as he lingers over his ‘dark Ls’, to the depraved violent, misogynistic rage which betrays all his psychoses. (April 2013)

The Past

March 30, 2014

The Past (2013)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Actors: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim

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Synopsis: Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris from Iran to finalise his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo). Little does Ahmad know that complications related to Marie’s new fiancé, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and her children from a previous marriage will make his stay a testing one…

Review: Doused in a brooding palette of oppressiveness and gloom, Asghar Farhadi’s initially intriguing Parisian family drama, The Past, ultimately descends into a very soapy affair, and becomes progressively less interesting the ‘plottier’ it becomes. What had started off as a nicely ambiguous, cinematically acute impression of disconnected lives (I liked the tense opening scenes in the airport and car, and the mise en scene of Marie’s ramshackle family house), soon becomes increasingly trivial by getting bogged down in the convoluted substory of whether Samir’s wife’s suicide attempt which has left her in hospital, may have been caused by the interference of Marie’s moribund elder daughter or an untrustworthy colleague of Samir at his drycleaning store. The point being that the film moves from a mature, macro-portrait of fractured lives and fragmented families to a “he said”, “she said”, whodunnit dialectic. Although Farhadi tries to pull the film back with a symbolically resonant final image of Samir clasping to the palm of his comatosed wife, the damage has been done by that point. Still, there’s enough in The Past to hint that Farhadi has the capability to match his excellent A Separation with the right material. We get a sense of the Larkinesque sentiment that, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, as Marie (and to a lesser extent Samir) seem content to bounce from serious relationship to serious relationship, leaving the by-products of these dalliances (the kids), as the collateral damage. I just think that in The Past, the problems feel more bourgeois, indulgent and less sympathetic than in the intriguing cultural, social and religious arena thrown up by A Separation(March 2014)

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