Film: A Most Violent Year

November 17, 2014
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Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain

 

It’s not the smoothest ride, but J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year satisfies as an original, potent tale of American individualism. Energized by a commanding performance from Oscar Isaac, the complex story drives home a cynical view of life in the jungles of small-scale capitalism in the not-too-distant past.

The jungle in this case is New York City in 1981. Isaac plays Abel Morales, owner of a fuel trucking company who envisions controlling the market through purchase of waterfront property that will become the hub of fuel delivery from foreign suppliers. But he has 30 days to find the money to buy it, and things don’t look good. For almost 2 months, his trucks have been repeatedly hijacked, then abandoned after the fuel has been drained. Although he suspects rival companies, there is no proof of this, and none of the hijackers have been identified. On top of this, his company is being investigated by the DA for criminal violations, and an indictment seems imminent.

Although too long – at least 10 minutes could be cut from the first half – we are held in suspense over the identity of the hijackers and whether Abel can achieve his dream, which is resolved satisfactorily in a terrific final half hour, featuring a breathless action sequence in a NYC subway. The view of New York at that time – filthy, neglected, graffiti-covered – is a shocking thing to see.

The casting could not be faulted.  As Abel’s wife, Jessica Chastain gives a strong, steel-edged portrayal of a woman who shares her husband’s ambition, if not his idealism. The others, including an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks, are solid. But uncertainties in writing and direction blunt the overall impact. It is never explained, for instance, why the hijackers target only Abel’s company. Also, the break-in at his home makes no sense; what would the hijackers have to gain? And can we really believe that the police would not find the files that he hid under his house?

Even more bothersome is the flat, metronomic pacing of the early scenes. The actors say their lines like they’re passing around a hammer to hit a nail. This is why, I think, it takes a while for the story to take hold.

But the story intrigues, I think, because of its insight into the immigrant experience. We never learn Morales’ background, but Chandor succeeds in presenting a man burdened with conflicts, like many outsiders driven to “make it in America”. Morales seems to think that perseverance and commitment to quality are enough, and that playing by the rules will protect him. We see a man obsessed with the image of success: a beautiful wife, a Mercedes, a physique fit for a GQ wardrobe and, amusingly, a camel-haired coat that seems to be a character in itself. But what he learns by the end of the film is this: the rules only work to keep you at your assigned level. If you want to rise above that, you’ve got to break those rules, but only with the support of those who will protect you.

The film’s final scene, one of the best written and directed, conveys this forcefully. Morales meets with the DA, a black man played by David Oyelowo. The DA has had his own struggle to get where he is, but of a different kind. He quietly gives Morales an education about the way American business is really conducted. And it puts everything we’ve seen before into a new perspective. It feels right.

 

 

 

 

New York Film Festival: “Two Days, One Night”

October 13, 2014

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The Dardenne brothers are back, and their latest festival entry is only partly effective. The major change from what we’ve come to expect from them is having an international star, Marion Cotillard, as the lead in their film.

The story is simple, even schematic. Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker in a small factory in Seraing, an industrial suburb in Belgium. With her husband, and two small children, the family is struggling to maintain an orderly life with both parents working. Sandra’s job is essential for that, and the story opens with her in a desperate state because she is likely to lose it. After an absence due to chronic depression, she had been targeted for termination because the company needs to lay off one worker. The other workers were given a choice: they could save her job if they gave up their bonus. Sandra lost the vote, but it is found that management rigged the result by suggesting that others would be fired if Sandra won. When this is discovered on Friday, the boss agrees to another vote Monday morning. The film is the story of Sandra’s efforts – over the time span of the title – to convince the others to give up their bonus to save her job.

I won’t tell you the result, but the ending satisfies the premise of the Dardennes’ philosophy: that people are basically good, but their natural sense of cooperation and mutual support is blocked by the dominance of an anti-human economic system. While Cotillard provides the artistry we’ve come to expect from her, the Dardenne formula is strained here. The story is driven by the “High Noon” plot device of Sandra confronting her colleagues to plead her case. She’s got one weekend, and that’s it. But this seems a pretty artificial device. Is Sandra left with no other choices for support? In the real world, there are institutions that buffer the power of business owners. In this country, the press, the local politician, the church and, more significantly than ever, the social media, are called upon to cast a harsh light on this kind of abuse. I was waiting for Sandra to take stock of her real situation and contact the power groups who could really help her, but that never came.

Perhaps I’m missing the European perspective on this. America has long relied on cultural and social groups to fight the excesses of the marketplace. In fact, we expect  to hear about people like Sandra every day, and have even become a bit cynical about it. Sandra could be trying to publicly embarrass her boss to get a promotion, or get evidence for a future lawsuit. But in Europe, where civic virtue is deeply embedded in the culture, working class people take a personal responsibility for each other. Every one of Sandra’s colleagues – whether voting for her or not – displayed great distress at her predicament, and felt so personally involved that their choice was likely to be a significant event in their lives, one they would never forget.

From that perspective, European audiences might  view the film as very realistic. The other workers seem to be average, decent people who are responding on a human level. To me, those scenes blended into each other. The actors were believable enough, but the characters were mere sketches of various types, with each getting a few minutes to face a desperate woman and either show their support, or else try to justify kissing her off. Pretty good as far as political pageants go, but dramatically contrived and threadbare.

 

New York Film Festival 2014: “Hill of Freedom”

October 6, 2014
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Moon Sori and Kase Ryo

The director is South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo. This is the first film I’ve seen of Hong’s, but the eighth of this artist at the festival. It’s also the only Asian film to be shown this year.

To discover a new artist with a distinct style is always a delight. The rather misleading title is actually the name of the coffee shop where much of the film takes place. It is a short, simply filmed story that is so relaxed and unpretentious, you can almost imagine yourself as a visitor to a different country, just like its hero, Mori. Mori is a Japanese man who has returned to Seoul to convince Kwon, a woman he used to work with in Seoul, to marry him. The story begins when Kwon is given a batch of letters Mori has written since his return to Seoul.  He couldn’t find her when he arrived two weeks earlier, so he wrote of his experiences during that time. But Kwon drops and scatters all the letters, which are undated, so she doesn’t know the order of events when she reads them. The film we see is in that same dis-order, and the fun is in re-arranging the story – which is entirely about Mori’s relationships with the people he meets – so that the disjointed narrative starts to fall in place.  The motley crew includes his landlady, her unemployed cousin, the hostess of a coffee shop – with whom he has a brief affair – and others who pass through his life while he searches for Kwon. As played by Kase Ryo, Mori is a knockout charmer, and it seems that everyone he meets is competing for his attention.

The film kept me smiling throughout, even though its credibility is not airtight. As innocent as Mori is, I find it hard to believe he’d write the things he did if he wanted to win a woman’s heart. But you’ll see how it turns out.

All of the actors created finely etched characters, and worked as a smooth ensemble. Hong is obviously very assured as a filmmaker, and told the story with artful simplicity. And just from this one film, I can see why Hong has so many fans. His view of human nature is comforting and positive, not sentimental in the least. His is truly a unique voice. I would fly to Seoul just to have coffee with him at “Hill of Freedom”.

 

 

Boyhood: Part IV

September 27, 2014

 

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I don’t remember seeing any fiction film before this that made the growth of a young boy, and the child actor playing him, the actual theme of the film by actually filming the actor as he grows up. And to film that story over a twelve-year period is probably unique. I’m no film scholar, but none of the critical response to Boyhood mentions any other film that is even remotely like it.

Viewing the film, however, summoned up the memory of another work that did something similar, at least collaterally. For me, the story of “A.J.” Soprano, if separated from the rest of the series, can be understood as the story of how another young boy grew into young adulthood, and one that was told in a similar way. Robert Iler was only twelve years old when the series started, and for six seasons he portrayed a boy who grew up under circumstances that – most of us would agree – were pretty stressful. And certainly dramatic. We got to know A.J. pretty well during that time, and he was always fascinating to watch.

Robert Iler as A.J. Soprano SEASON 1

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Robert Iler as A.J. Soprano Season 6

When we first meet “A.J.”, he is just twelve, and pretty rambunctious. He gets into mischief, like stealing wine from the chapel, and drinking it with his school pals. He lies about it, of course, and howls when he is punished. These are character traits we will see again and again: no impulse control, resentment, dishonesty. As A.J. matures, we find these negative traits plague him throughout his adolescence. He continually latches onto goals that he abandons almost immediately. By the time the series ends, in 2007, A.J. has formed a vision of the world that is hopeless and unforgiving. After a suicide attempt, he is hospitalized and begins therapy. Returning home, he is stabilized for a while, but soon takes flight in grandiose fantasies,i.e. becoming a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump. Physically, he is darkly attractive and even charismatic. But emotionally he is a wreck.

 

Quite a contrast from the hopeful, benign vision of Mason Jr.’s world. And yet, I grew to care about both young men. Mason Jr. seems to be equipped for a bright future. He is confident, independent and self-disciplined. His self-absorption is likely to be replaced by sensitivity to others once he starts a family of his own. We have every reason to think he will.

A.J., of course, is a different story. We are given no reason to think he will ever overcome the traumas of his upbringing. And yet, he is a compelling fictional character. So compelling, in fact, that I’ll confess to this: I’d sooner watch the story of his future life than Mason Jr.’s. Maybe it’s my own preference for dark themes and downbeat endings. Maybe I just find him more interesting.

I don’t mean to imply that one film is better than the other here.  They are both so different, and have such different intentions, that a comparison on every level is ridiculous. But I think it would be wrong to ignore what The Sopranos did accomplish in A.J.’s story.  There was an excitement in seeing how Iler kept growing into as well as changing the role.  The change was due both to the writers’ conception of the character and to Iler’s physical growth into young manhood.  Like Mason Jr., the dramatic development was intensified by seeing Iler’s physical growth from year to year. But the impact of seeing this development was even greater in The Sopranos, in a sense, because with each new season we were suddenly presented an A.J. who was at least several months older than he was when we last saw him, after waiting an entire year or more (and, boy, were we ever ready for it!).

There are other reasons why Boyhood loses steam. Once Mason Jr. is old enough to hang out with friends, and try to pick up girls, the film becomes like so many other teen-age  stories. Linklater tries to keep the writing fresh, but it seems tired. The boys’ overnight party, in particular, adds nothing to the story. We never see most of those kids again, and we don’t miss them. A certain weariness attaches to Coltrane’s performance too, and you can’t help thinking he’s a little bored with the whole project.  After all, each year he gets to play a few scenes, and then has to wait another whole year to find out what’s happened since the last one. At some point it had to become routine, and just another job.

But perhaps this sag was inevitable, too, because we knew how the story would end from the very beginning. We knew that something called Boyhood was going to be a celebration of a universal experience. Like with all celebrations, you know you’re going to feel good afterwards, that life is good and all problems can be solved. This boy – the guest of honor – will be bright, good-looking and have a good heart. He will be, in other words, a nice “average” kid. We sense that even with the repeated disruptions in his family life, the strain of having to keep changing schools, having to make new friends, that somehow he’ll stay the same nice kid we’ve gotten to know. Those problems, after all, are “average” ones, and seem made to order for this kind of story. Nothing really weird or disturbing will happen to make us uncomfortable. We know he will not get a life-threatening disease or be kidnapped by terrorists. And least not until after we finish celebrating him, and say goodnight.

 

 

“Boyhood”: Part III

September 10, 2014

boyhood3 It’s a little mystifying why the cumulative impact of the film is so much less than what we thought it would be at the beginning. There is pleasure in observing a young person growing up in America in the millenium’s first decade. Alongside that, we have the fresh experience of seeing the effects of time, physically, intellectually and emotionally, on a diverse group of multi-faceted, colorful characters. It’s interesting, too, to watch this particular grouping of actors. While we recognize Patricia Arquette, most of us haven’t seen much of her over the last decade, except for her featured role in Boardwalk Empire. That in itself is rewarding. Just to remember her past performances, such as in True Romance and Flirting With Disaster, and to see the physical changes. I think the general view is that – even a little older and slightly more plump – she’s still sexy and eminently watchable.

Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, has never left the public eye, and seems to turn up everywhere. His long-standing collaboration with Richard Linklater is well-known to independent film audiences, and has been beneficial for both their careers. But has that association been good for the film? In one sense yes; in another no.

The positive is that it has probably been essential to getting the film made at all. Hawke’s creds in independent film are very respected, and I think that a number of the crew may have adjusted their schedules because he believed in the project. But his character, Mason Sr., does present problems in that Hawke, so familiar and likeable, lets his natural charm take over the performance. Charm has become so associated with Hawke that viewers automatically settle into a comfortable, familiar groove when he’s onscreen. It’s like he sells it by the yard. Making matters worse is that Mason Sr. is not sufficiently interesting a character to pull us back into the story. As a result, I found myself watching him “perform” this selfish loser as just another vanity turn by a popular actor. The difference here is I was also watching him get years older during a single performance.parquette1

If Hawke’s performance tilted the film towards what is essentially a weak dramatic character, the sporadic glimpses of Olivia made me want to see more of her. Hers was a story with built-in interest, especially as Patricia Arquette portrays her. Ostensibly the abused rather than the abuser with her men, she nevertheless catches whomever she sets her cap for, and then discards them when it suits her. Each of them comes off badly – especially the wife-beating professor – but you can’t help thinking that we only see them at their worst after they’ve spent a long, long time in her company.

Still, the urge to speculate about her arises from a fascination with the character we actually see. Olivia’s ambition, determination and persistence are always as a mother first, even when her often unwise choices also serve her strong, womanly needs. Perhaps our interest is also whetted by the infrequency of her scenes. The two sharpest, most penetrating scenes in the film both concern her. The first one occurs right after Olivia and Welbrock get married. We follow Mason Jr. and his step-brother, Randy, riding home on their bikes. In a brilliant shot, the boys ride past the open garage and find the beaten Olivia lying on the floor, with a drunken, defiant Welbrock standing over her. The image is swift, nasty, shocking.

The second is even better. Late in the film, Olivia is with the children in a restaurant when the manager, who is about thirty, comes over. He recognizes Olivia as the woman who, some years before, had advised him to go back to school. He tells Mason Jr. and Samantha that Olivia changed his life, and that she is a smart woman. From this, we recall similar scenes from other films. We are led to expect certain familiar things to happen. A minor character from the past will show up and tell the main character something. It is always a good thing, complimentary to the main character, who will beam warmly on hearing it. But that doesn’t happen this time. At first, Olivia registers nothing at all. Her face is a blank. But then, slowly, there is a darkening of her expression, as if unpleasant feelings are surfacing. There is a resentment that is unmistakable. It is as if she thinks, “Sure, a stranger meets me once and it turns his life around. But I struggle my whole life to get this family everything they have, and they think they did it all themselves.”

I’ll conclude this four-part review next time. It will discuss another story where we watched a boy character, and the actor who played him, grow up before our eyes.

“Boyhood”: Part II

August 21, 2014

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There are a number of questions concerning how we are supposed to enjoy this film. It seems to be a straightforward story about a small boy, his parents and a slightly older sister. But from the title alone, we sense that it will take place over a number of years, culminating in that moment when “boyhood” is completed. And that is exactly what happens. Mason Jr., whom we have seen from the age of six, is now eighteen and is starting college. He has left his mother, who has raised him as a single parent since the beginning of the film, and is starting the exciting adventure of being responsible for himself.

When the film ended, I was gratified in that I felt I knew Mason Jr., and that the story had reached a natural conclusion. Certainly the film had been true to its title; nothing remained of “boyhood” as a stage of life, and the person who had been the boy had passed on to another stage, while remaining the same person. Whatever would happen to Mason Jr. after the film was over would be the story of him as a young man. If the actor playing him, Ellar Coltrane, was able to continue the role in a sequel, the film would have a different title.

But in actually seeing the film as Mason Jr.’s story, it’s impossible to appreciate it on that level alone. That’s because the way the film was made is so unusual that it must inevitably serve as a story in itself, one that is parallel to the story about the fictional characters the actors portray. They can do their best – and for Patricia Arquette, it’s a career summit – but the way they age in those twelve years is a separate, and often intrusive, experience. It’s almost as if we’re watching two films simultaneously on a split screen.

So, what about that story, the one about the fictional Mason, Jr? What kind of story is it?

Actually, it’s pretty straightforward, even if it kind of rabbit-hops in a broken line.

We meet Mason Jr., age six, and his sister Samantha, eight, and their mother, Olivia, at a time when their father, Mason Sr., returns to Texas from working in Alaska. Mason Sr. and Olivia were divorced during that time, but he wants to do some week-end parenting while continuing the search for his “inner self”. If nothing else, the kids have fun when they’re with him; dour Olivia doesn’t have time for that. She takes the family to live in Houston, near the children’s grandmother, where she finds better paying work while attending college. Meanwhile Mason, Sr. continues his fun visits, but Mason, Jr’s hopes that the family will re-unite are crushed; Olivia has set her sights on a future without her children’s father, permanently.

She starts a relationship with her psychology professor, Welbrock, also divorced, and they marry. He has a young son and a daughter too, and they all live in a large, comfortable home for a while, while Mason Jr. adjusts  to his disappointment. But things go downhill fast. The professor is a bully and a drunk, and Olivia runs with the children to live with a friend. Her second divorce soon follows.

By now, Mason Jr. is in high school, getting acquainted with new friends and, of course, girls. He goes to parties, does the usual stuff, but stays out of trouble. Olivia, a teacher now, is an attentive parent, wary but not smothering. She sets limits, which both her children resent, but balance is maintained. Soon she takes up with another man, Jim, an Iraq War veteran, and a new household is formed. But financial and other strains kill that relationship too.

Mason Sr., however, finally finds his groove. It’s not music, which he always loved but couldn’t make work for him, but insurance, which is dull but steady. He gets married to a girl with religious parents, has a child with her, and takes Mason Jr. and Samantha to meet her family. But another event has a deeper impact on their relationship. Mason Jr. learns that his father has sold his car, the one that was promised to Mason Jr. once he turned sixteen. He protests, and nothing Mason Sr. says to soothe him relieves his resentment. It is clear that he will never feel the same way about his father again.

While still in high school, he continues his growing interest in photography, and gets a girlfriend. Since both of these pursuits require money, he gets a part-time job in a restaurant. His boss is impressed, and hints at a promotion during a minor chew-out. His teacher is even more impressed, and is compelled to give him a rough verbal shakedown about his work ethic. But Mason Jr. is not receptive to this; he thinks he works pretty hard.

He visits Samantha, who is away in college, and takes his girl along. Samantha’s roommate walks in unexpectedly and discovers Mason Jr. and his girlfriend having sex, but they all laugh as if it’s just a goof. The relationship gets serious, at least for Mason Jr., until he finds out the girl has cheated on him with a lacrosse player. He tells his dad about the breakup, and the pain he feels, but Mason Sr. puts it in perspective for him. Women will just do things like that, and the pain will be less each time.

Mason Jr. wins second prize in photography and gets a college scholarship. Olivia sees that, with his departure, she faces the rest of her life alone. She has completed her life’s only real accomplishment, and sees only emptiness ahead of her. Overcoming her bitterness, she has a lavish party in her home for her son. Mason Sr. and his family come, along with many other people who have passed through the boy’s life in those twelve years. Afterwards, he drives to college, meets his roommate and, it is implied, his next girlfriend.

This a bare bones synopsis. I’ve omitted a number of things but only one that, I think, is significant, which I’ll talk about next time. Despite my reservations, I must recommend the film because of its originality. But, even for those who are more enthusiastic than I am, you’ve got to admit that the last hour is pretty tedious. That will be addressed in part three of this review.

 R.I.P., Marilyn Burns

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I think that Marilyn Burns would appreciate, or at least understand, why that picture represents her place in film history. In my opinion, her  performance in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was vitally important to the film’s success, especially at the insanely terrifying climax, when she barely escapes with her life from the crazed family that had abducted her and murdered her friends. I knew as soon as I saw her that she was an artist in her own right; a “scream artist”. I had never heard screaming like that in any horror film, and few have matched it since. Her pursuer, Leatherface, is a ridiculous figure who’d seem a curious joke if we saw him at a masquerade party. We’d point and laugh. Instead, I laughed out of terror and disbelief at what I was seeing. Her panic and breathless shrieking – for what seemed beyond human endurance – helped make for one of the most unforgettable endings for any horror film.  Marilyn died last week, at age 64, and few knew her name. Her very special performance will endure.

Film Review “Boyhood”: Part 1 of 4

July 28, 2014

boyhood1 This film has received the best reviews of the year. There is much speculation about its Oscar chances, and many consider it the “popular” breakthrough that its writer-director, Richard Linklater, has been waiting for after over twenty years as an obscure independent, albeit with an international reputation. As most indie followers know by now, it was filmed  over a twelve-year period using the same actors, so we got to see all of the characters – as well as the actors playing them – enter new stages of their physical lives in real time. Of course the “real time” is for them, not us.  We only age two-and-three-quarter hours during the film.

It may seem that I am writing a simple review of the film, but I am also trying to do something else. Boyhood presents something of a challenge to the viewer, as well as the critic, although not a unique one (as I will discuss in Part IV). We are being asked to appreciate what is a single story about a group of fictional characters. The focus is on how the main character, Mason Jr., grows from childhood (age 6) into young adulthood (18), and how the lives of the other people in his life are also changed. But we are seeing a parallel story at the same time. That second story is an attempt to observe the changes that occur in  life – all human life – over the passage of time. This is a tall order, and it can result in pretentiousness and banality, like those “anti-war” films that are meant to show the futility of all war. Boyhood takes that risk and, whatever else you may think about it, succeeds in giving us a unique, thought-provoking experience.

So what kind of experience is that? I’m not going to tell you now. I’ve decided to issue this piece in four stages, each of which will present a different approach to understanding the film. The next part will appear in a week or two, when you, the reader, and I are both in a later stage of life.

 

Film: “The Way, Way Back”

June 25, 2014
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(left to right) Zoe Levin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Liam James

This summertime comedy from last year tries to plug-in to the “coming of age” meme that sends adults back to the time, when they were young, that will be remembered, fondly, for the feelings and experiences they think actually happened, and wish they could experience all over again, even though, at the time, they destroyed countless pillow cases with their teeth while they hurled muffled screams into the darkness.

Oops, sorry! Seems I got carried away a little. Actually, TWWB deserves a review less distorted by this critic’s painful past because there’s some genuine skill and solid entertainment to be had, even if all of the parts don’t quite fit together.

The kid coming of age here is Duncan (Liam James), 14, who goes on vacation near Cape Cod with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Their neighbors are hard-partying types, especially Betty (Allison Janney), who has a daughter about Duncan’s age. We see early on that Duncan hates Trent, who is a surly and malicious type, although Pam tries to smooth things between the two, with no success.

Duncan relieves the tension by hanging out at Water Wizz, a theme park whose main attraction is a large water slide. The manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), has sympathy for the troubled, quiet Duncan, and is able to get him out of his protective shell with his easy-going, slacker attitude. Duncan takes a job there, and develops confidence in himself, which, ironically, makes him defy Trent even more.

The conflict leads to an explosive public confrontation at a party one night when Duncan accuses Trent, correctly, of having an affair with a beautiful neighbor (Amanda Peet). Pam is humiliated and torn, but she decides to stay with Trent. In an effort to save their relationship, Pam and Trent decide to cut the vacation short. Duncan is devastated because he will have to part with Owen, who has become a father-surrogate for him.

The film concludes, uneasily, with not one but two discordant endings. In the first, just as the family is leaving, Duncan breaks free and runs to Water Wizz, with Pam and Trent running after. He embraces Owen and, in a symbolic rite of his independence, teams with him in a dangerous, and unprecedented stunt on the water slide, to rapturous applause from the crowd. Then, in the second ending, as Trent drives the family away, Pam moves away from him to sit next to her son in the back seat, as if silently announcing that the relationship is over.

That second ending leaves a sour taste that pervades the whole film. I don’t think first-time director-writer team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ever resolved this right through the final script. Steve Carell’s performance is wildly off-base, and it darkens the tone of the film whenever he’s onscreen. If he wanted to show he has the chops for Ibsen and O’Neill, he succeeded. He makes Trent a very unpleasant but still fascinating man, and the dynamics of his relationship with Duncan could make for a sturdy, dark drama, like This Boy’s Life. Unfortunately, that second ending seems more of a lead-in to the real and unseen climax of the film, one which is likely to be violent and end up in Juvenile Court.

Film: “Neighbors”

June 10, 2014

STORY: A thirtyish couple with their first baby like sex and weed and, of course, baby. They don’t think much about money, the future or any of those boring “grownup” things. Just sex, weed and baby. But one day, a fraternity buys the house next to theirs and starts having loud, crazy sex, booze and weed parties every night, which makes baby scream and drives Mommy and Daddy batshit. The Prez and VP of the frat have a mission to create wild party history, and will not “keep it down”. After warily trying to be nice, the couple declare war on the frats, intending to drive them out. Will they succeed?

GOOD STUFF:  There are some laughs here. Director Nicholas Stoller knows something about comic pacing, and the good gags sort of sneak up on you. The best involves stolen car air bags, but even the gross toilet humor can be sharp and, for want of a better word, pungent. For genuine wit, however, the closest it gets is the homo-erotic subtext between the frat Prez and his VP, played by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, respectively. They have four choice face-offs that hilariously show the extent of male self-delusion about their own sexuality.

NOT SO GOOD:  Even cartoon characters need clear motivation or else the comedy suffers. This is not a problem with the frat kids and their babes. They reminded me of the vampires in “True Blood”; totally controlled by animal appetites. But the starring roles are the parents, and they were neither likable nor believable. As played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, both skilled actors, they didn’t seem like adults at all, just overaged children who find themselves playing grownups as a goof. They seemed less human than the party vampires. By coincidence, “Ruby Sparks” was on cable that night. It’s no classic, but watch any five minutes of that film and you’ll find a quality totally missing from “Neighbors”: charm. I don’t think Stoller and company think that’s important, especially when you compare the grosses of the two films. But the laughs, even big ones, can feel empty without it.

Review: “Locke”

May 31, 2014
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Tom Hardy in “Locke”

 

This film has been getting a lot of attention as a daring, innovative experiment, but it’s really just a variation on a genre that goes back decades. I call it “techno-stunt” because it tells a story involving many people by having the camera stay on a single character for almost the entire running time.  Here director-writer Steven Knight (writer, “Eastern Promises”) makes clever use of modern technology to get us involved in the lives of a number of characters who are heard, but never seen. The only character we do see, Locke, played by Tom Hardy in a virtuoso performance, is only shown behind the wheel of his car as he talks via speaker phone to the other characters.

This makes it a kind of radio play. Its film precursors include a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, which intersperses her telephone monologue with flashbacks.  Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice”, both as play and film, is a monologue of a woman talking on the phone to her lover, who is leaving her to marry a younger woman.  Another telephone monologue  is a TV film, “Eddie”, for which Mickey Rooney won an Emmy for playing a playing a gambler desperately making calls to raise money before thugs come to collect a gambling debt.

Knight modernizes the format by having his hero talk on speaker phone while driving his car, which allows us to hear the person on the other end. The story is perfectly suited to this treatment. The film starts with Locke, a building contractor in Birmingham, England, driving home to his family. He is nervous because he is expecting a delivery of concrete that is crucial to his building’s completion. But he gets an unexpected call that turns his life around. Locke finds himself confronted with a moral challenge that threatens to destroy his marriage and career. The film shows how he meets that challenge.

Essentially, this is a soap opera, but very well done. What places it at a somewhat higher level is that the real conflict is within Locke himself.  He thinks of himself as a man of integrity, and the fact that his single “lapse” could ruin his life is especially painful. I’m sure that some men watching the film would think Locke is foolish to do what he does, and that his “sacrifice” is really just a guilt trip triggered by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They would have a point. Does he really need to protect the woman giving birth to his child, or is he simply too vain to admit that things may work out anyway? Is it worth the break-up of his marriage, or the separation from his two young sons? And, with regard to the business deal, is it worth the risk of destroying the most important project of his career?

Knight is able to hold us in a tight grip until his satisfying conclusion, but he can’t hide the contrivances of the story. While Locke is convincingly driven by the need to live responsibly – which is explained by his own father’s abandoning him as a child – the other characters, who, after all, are only disembodied voices, seem to be figures in a morality play, not real people. This reduces the film’s impact considerably. Locke is presented as such a controlling person, one who is used to getting his own way, that all obstacles, whether his wife’s rage over his adultery, or locating employees who are not too drunk to follow his instructions, are overcome too easily. The film’s final image, and sound, is craftily calculated to choke us up (it does), but it really hasn’t been earned.

Having said that, I must note the exception, the one genuinely touching moment in the film. It occurs near the end, when Locke is approaching his destination and stops answering his  calls. He hears a voice mail left by his younger son, who describes in detail the winning goal in the football championship that Locke had promised to watch with his sons. It is a long, excited description, and you can sense the boy’s disappointment over his father’s absence. With only the look in his eyes as he hears this, Hardy is able to fully convey the depth of his pain.

 


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