Tag Archives: 1980s

Hesher (2010)

3 Oct

As Hollywood is generally chary of admitting the genuinely ugly into its ranks, the ability of its stars to ‘ugly up’ is a much cherished one. The paradox of fame is that the adulation brings with it a nagging urge to be viewed as a ‘serious artist’, a quest for authenticity and legitimacy that inevitably leads to a brief holiday from the glamorous trappings. And it often reaps dividends: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman all picked up Oscars for their ‘bravery’, resorting to unflattering prosthesis in Kidman’s case. Action alpha males Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel tried this tactic with less success in ‘Copland’ (1997) and ‘Find Me Guilty’ (2006); Sly developing an impressive gut and Diesel donning a conspicuous toupee for nought. Ironically, Natalie Portman goes the other way in ‘Hesher’, forsaking the high-camp paranoia that earned her the plaudits in ‘Black Swan’ (2010).

T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their mother and wife (Monica Staggs). Paul is crippled by his grief, living in a pharmaceutical fog, meaning that T.J. is being raised by his ailing Grandmother (Piper Laurie). On one of his many lonely bike rides through the neighbourhood, T.J. encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a pyromaniac misanthrope squatting in a derelict house. T.J. encounters Hesher on multiple occasions over the next few days as he tries to evade the attentions of the school bully, Dustin (Brandon Hill), and obsesses over Nicole (Natalie Portman), a decorous grocery store clerk who saves him from a beating at the hands of Dustin. Hesher slowly insinuates himself into T.J’s family life, providing some salutary life lessons in his brutally candid manner.

Spencer Susser’s debut feature channels the spirit of ‘Gummo’ (1997) and ‘Slacker’ (1991) in its blunt evocation of fringe culture, veering away from the whimsical explorations of suburban malaise that have deluged indie cinema – it hardly bears repeating that suburbia is not what it seems, and the awkward formality of the family meal is as trite now as it was in ‘American Beauty’ (1999). There is not a single moment when Susser’s wish to illustrate his abilities with a particular technique or stylistic flourish detracts from the naturalism; a trap so many young directors fall into. The screenplay – written by Susser and ‘Animal Kingdom’ creator David Michod – abandons the easy course in favour of a more nuanced, rewarding tack: Hesher could so easily have been a stoner caricature, but the character is imbued with such venom and menace as to negate any suggestion of that. Metallica’s music punctures the silence that holds sway over the violently banal backdrop; offering a portal into Hesher’s nihilistic mindset, the sudden bursts of ‘The Shortest Straw’ acting as his signature.

Levitt has developed from a fresh-faced sitcom star to one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, breaking away from his anodyne past and making difficult choices to amass a formidable body of work – we should relish him before he is lost to the franchise film for good. Levitt succeeds in delineating the character’s complexities, the rage and dislocation that fuels him, embodying the complexities of adolescence: the boorishness and hypersensitivity, the aggression and vulnerability. Brochu delivers the best breakthrough performance since Paul Dano in ‘L.I.E’ (2001), carrying the film with a poise that hints at a very bright future; while screen veteran Laurie is quietly devastating as the befuddled mater of her damaged clan. Wilson is mercifully lacking in affectation; while he can’t match Philip Seymour Hoffman when playing a wounded, ineffectual lump of a man, he exhibits laudable restraint. Portman proves to be the sole disappointment; she dons oversized glasses and frumpy clothes, but is never able to overcome her fame. She is never anything other than Natalie Portman, and as such her character’s battle between self-perception and reality carries little weight: a common problem for those striving to balance their public profile with creative contentment.

‘Hesher’ offers us a Generation X fable: Hesher is a harbinger of T.J’s impending adulthood; a spectre of chaos; a spirit of mischief. There is a strange sort of heroism to Hesher’s stance; he knows all the shortcuts within his circumscribed realm, exuding a Zen-like calm as he unleashes carnage upon a world he despises; grasping its harsh logic and taking it as his credo. But Hesher doesn’t heal the family’s wounds and enrich their lives, which would no doubt have been the case if this were a mainstream take on guardian angel lore. Refreshingly devoid of sentiment or irony, ‘Hesher’ plays it straight; which is not to say there isn’t humour, it just isn’t allowed to consume the film’s serious core and undermine its intent. ‘Hesher’ offers a vibrant, visceral alternative to the slew of identikit indie films being churned out by the Sundance factory system.

 

Portman: shy, retiring wallflower

 

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Submarine (2010)

19 Jul

Anyone familiar with cult British comedy will be aware of Richard Ayoade; he has made his name as a player in such shows as ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘Man to Man with Dean Learner’ and ‘The I.T. Crowd’, bringing his gawky charm and E.L. Wisty-esque otherworldliness to a succession of oddballs and outsiders. But TV comedy stars must always enter into the film world with great trepidation, as what makes them so effective in the thirty-minute format often doesn’t translate to the big screen – as Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Magicians’ (2007) is a disappointing testament to. Ayoade wisely opted to stay behind the camera for ‘Submarine’, amassing an impressive cast for this adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a bright but gauche teen living in Swansea in the 1980s. Struggling to fit in at school, he bullies his fellow students in an attempt to impress Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a callous, manipulative classmate who takes pleasure in toying with his emotions, but with whom he is determined to lose his virginity. Oliver’s home life is disrupted when Glen (Paddy Considine), the first love of his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), moves in next door, throwing the failings of her marriage into sharp relief. Oliver does his best to rouse his depressive intellectual father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and sabotage Glen’s attempts to woo Jill, becoming a go-between for his emotionally stunted parents.

‘Submarine’ makes for frustrating viewing, with Ayoade falling prey to First-Time Director’s Syndrome. The film is burdened by its influences – chiefly Wes Anderson – and struggles to strike the delicate balance of laughs and narrative progression that is crucial to any film comedy’s success. There is a sense that Ayoade is trying way too hard to prove his directorial chops, throwing into the mix every technique at his disposal – slow motion, multiple angles, numerous cuts, freeze frames, split screens, Scorsese-esque ‘Super 8’ segments and a constantly moving camera. It all becomes wearing and has the effect of detracting from the story. Alex Turner throws out a few subpar Arctic Monkeys offcuts, his star cache no doubt helping to market the film in the US.

On the plus side, ‘Submarine’s’ humour is more bittersweet then laugh-out-loud, its sophisticated tone a welcome departure from the crass ‘sex wager’ formula that proliferates the teen comedy genre. The script succeeds in depicting the causal cruelty and mob mentality of the playground; one of its most striking themes is how intellectual curiosity can bring with it a profound sense of insignificance, detailing the travails of the smart. There is a grim authenticity to the depiction of Oliver’s home life: a passive-aggressive minefield where his ultra-vigilant mother and over-analytical father quietly rue their failures and pile their neuroses onto his shoulders. All of which is helped in no small part by Erik Wilson’s downbeat photography, its washed-out palette conveying a wintery chill, and Roberts’ wry narration, which perfectly replicates the inner monologue of a teenage aesthete struggling to come to terms with sexual awakening and domestic upheaval.

A great ensemble cast strives manfully to overcome the glib, comic cadence of the dialogue: Taylor and Hawkins play the saturnine marine biologist and frustrated actress with typical élan, Roberts and Paige have genuine chemistry, Considine provides an injection of broad humour as a leather-clad ‘mystic’ sporting a luxurious mullet, and executive producer Ben Stiller makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. But, alas, their efforts are undermined by Ayoade’s desire to ape the hyper-stylized, self-aware idioms of US indie cinema. One cannot escape the feeling that, in striving to deliver the desired look, the film loses some of its heart, the end result feeling like a hipster reimagining of ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1981). All of which is a tremendous shame, as Ayoade clearly has talent as a director; if he can calm down and rein in some of his stylistic excesses, his next project could be something special.

That luxurious mullet.

The Arbor (2010)

25 May

Described by Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius straight from the slums’, Andrea Dunbar is best known for Alan Clarke’s adaptation of her play, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1987) – which has been dismissed in many quarters as a bawdy romp, but is actually a daring piece of social realism with shades of Nouvelle Vague playfulness. Like Delaney, Dunbar was a teenager when she began documenting the social deprivation she saw around her, detailing lives blighted by poverty and despair with unprecedented frankness. But Clio Barnard’s film is not simply a biopic; it also sheds some light on those affected by Dunbar’s life, and in doing so tells a story as dark and compelling as one of her plays.

Barnard opted for a distinctive technique to tell the body of the story, having actors lip-synch the voices of significant figures from Dunbar’s life. This is interspersed with open-air performances of scenes from Dunbar’s plays, with the denizens of the Bradford housing estate where she grew up watching on, and recreations of the events recounted. Dunbar is shown in clips from TV documentaries, a spectre hovering over events, but the film centres on her youngest daughter, Lorraine.

The most startling thing about ‘The Arbor’ is its depiction of Dunbar. This is not a hagiography which sets out to mythologize her life, sanitize her actions and cement her position in the pantheon of literary greats – with a family estate overseeing its passage. Dunbar’s relationship with her children is depicted exactly as it was: distant, neglectful and violent. Her alcoholism is not used as an excuse to mitigate her behaviour; the film explores the worst and best facets of her personality with equal candour, depicting her as both victim and villain. By learning how she impacted those closest to her, we get a picture of who she was and what inspired her work that a sober appraisal of her oeuvre could never achieve.

‘The Arbor’ is a stylistic triumph; its technical elements combining to create an all-pervading mood of sadness, remorse, anger and hopelessness. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s photography is integral to the establishment of the despondent tone which looms over the housing estates where Dunbar’s creative energies were sparked, capturing the brutal utilitarianism of the backdrop; with Harry Escott and Molly Nyman’s ambient score striking a downcast note throughout.

Casting the actors to mouth the words was essential to the film’s success, and those chosen excel in doing so, replicating the cadences of their subjects to the point of total immersion. Majinder Virk is excellent as Lorraine, Dunbar’s mixed race child. In a heartbreaking synthesis of craft and content, Virk articulates the pain of Lorraine’s abandonment and descent into drugs and prostitution with control and conviction. Elsewhere, Natalie Gavin and Jimi Mistry shine in the performance segments, while Christine Bottomley, George Costigan and Neil Dudgeon bring their gift for depicting the everyday to bear on their roles.

‘The Arbor’ has a scope which belies its relatively slender premise, addressing social issues as well as analysing the place of theatre in society. The film posits that the work of writers like Dunbar takes on the status of a dispatch for an upscale audience, providing an insight into places and lives from which they have insulated themselves; the creator indulged like a noble savage by the cognoscenti.

Barnard, a contemporary of Dunbar’s, cleverly merges Dunbar’s thematic concerns into her own, exploring the inarticulate rage that fuels racism and the plight of communities buffeted by the effects of Thatcherism. ‘The Arbor’ not only provides an overview of Dunbar’s life and work but puts it into historical context; the urge to dramatise her life presaging the public confessional that is a central component of the blogosphere.

You might want to look behind you.