Archive for August, 2015

Film: “Tom at the Farm”

August 24, 2015
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Xavier Dolan in “Tom at the Farm”

I find it interesting to compare this film, by 26-year old French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who co-wrote, directed and starred in it, with The Gift, which I reviewed last week. The Gift is a clever connect-the-dots psychological thriller about a revenge scheme for a past crime. The characters react to events in simple, unambiguous terms. They have secrets, but there are no hidden conflicts that slow the action, or that pile murk onto the characters’ motivation. It’s just good shallow melodrama, and satisfying on those terms.

I preface this review with that observation because Tom at the Farm, for all of its skill, nuanced performances and intriguing relationships, fails to satisfy because it lacks clarity and simplicity, or just the things the other film excelled in. But I think Dolan is still an adventurous and original filmmaker, as I noted in my review of Mommy (2/3/2015), which was made the year before this film.

The story concerns Tom (Dolan), a young man from Montreal whose male lover, Guillaume, had died in an accident. He has come to the farm where Guillaume grew up for the funeral. There he meets Guillaume’s mother, Agathe, (Lise Roy) who did not know of her son’s homosexuality, and his older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Francis, a hulking and violent man of 30, threatens Tom if he reveals his true relationship with Guillaume. He has lied to his mother about his brother’s sexuality for years, to the point of inventing a girlfriend for him named Sara. In fact, Agathe is furious that Sara did not come for the funeral.

The rest of the film concerns the relationship of these three people. A fourth character (played by Evelyne Brochu), a girl summoned by Tom to pretend to be Sara, also enters the film, but briefly.Twisty and sexually charged, the story maintains interest, but at a sloggy pace, until its melodramatic conclusion. I just never bought into it. Francis is clearly a repressed homosexual, in violent denial. Tom’s own ambivalence –  he is frightened of Francis, but is also powerfully attracted to him – is another dominant theme. But we’re way ahead of Dolan in “catching on” to this, and several “surprise” revelations, late in the story, are just literary touches that lack organic integrity.

As with Mommy, the film reveals Dolan’s fascination with people thrown together into makeshift families. There’s certainly rich dramatic material there. But Tom at the Farm never engages his strengths. Although shorter than Mommy, it plays longer. However, I certainly expect this fascinating young talent to catch fire again.

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Film: “The Gift”

August 19, 2015
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Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”

When I read about the plot of this film, I was intrigued because it sounded like a remake of one of my favorite films of recent years, Chuck and Buck, written by and starring Mike White. It turns out there is a resemblance in the setup: a young married couple is visited by a creepy guy who went to school with the husband years before, and complications ensue. Actually, there’s not much resemblance, although, like White, writer-director Joel Edgerton cast himself in the role of the creepy guy. But the earlier film is a charming comic fable, while The Gift is a goose-bump shocker that slowly uncovers a crime from the past. And, despite flaws, the premise works. I was creeped out for sure, but also entertained and satisfied.

It begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) arriving in Los Angeles, where they have bought a home near Simon’s new job. Simon had grown up there, and has scored a top position because of his expertise in cyber security. The move is also a fresh start for the couple, who hope to start a family after Robyn’s miscarriage the year before. The positive mood is sustained, or so it seems, when Simon is recognized by Gordo, a schoolmate from high school, who seems delighted to see him again. He heartily welcomes Simon’s return, and is soon stopping by with gifts for the couple in their new home.

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Rebecca Hall as Robyn

Gordo’s overly friendly actions soon become suspicious, however, especially his “stopping by” just when Robyn is alone and Simon is away at work. Although Simon is mildly annoyed, Robyn seems sympathetic because Gordo is clearly a sad misfit with miserable social skills.

This setup is a little slow since we’re expecting Gordo to reveal sinister motives, and likely psychotic tendencies, as we’ve seen in so many other films. But then there is a sudden shift in tone, and the film bends into a different, and unexpected, psychological thriller. This shift occurs in one scene – the most crucial in the film – when the couple accept Gordo’s invitation to dinner. Gordo gets a phone call and, without further explanation, says he has to leave briefly because of an “emergency” at his job. But once the couple is alone, Simon reveals just how much he distrusts Gordo, and that he is convinced he has designs on Robyn. Simon’s sudden hostility is fierce and defensive, and it has the effect of preparing the audience for the revelations to come: just what did happen between these two “friends” that Simon is trying to hide.

There are at least two surprise twists that get the blood racing before the powerful conclusion. But, as my readers should expect, some glaring plot gaps should not be ignored: a major character is drugged, and falls unconscious, but there’s not a clue as to when or how the drugging occurred; a lie is spread that ruins a person’s life, but no legal recourse is ever mentioned; and, most glaringly, how is it that a professional security expert takes absolutely no measures to protect his own home? Finally – and I’m no spoiler here – the deserved retribution is simply not as devastating as it used to be because of recent medical advances.

Another quibble: although Bateman is superb in the crucial scene mentioned earlier, the fact is that he is basically miscast. The second half of the film calls for reserves of rage and menace that are simply outside of his range. If he was looking for the kind of career altering triumph, like what Steve Carell did in Foxcatcher, it doesn’t work.

Edgerton is fine, however, even though the role is underwritten and sketchy. But Rebecca Hall is in the most three-dimensional role, and she is the reason the film works so well. Her transformation from passive yuppie-type innocent to disillusioned and resentful wife is totally convincing, and gives the story emotional heft.


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