Tag Archives: oscar

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

5 Jan

Film directing remains a steadfastly male domain, retaining the taint of macho adventurism long since passed. In the past, talented female helmers like Ida Lupino and Elaine May were judged by a higher standard than their male counterparts; expected to be twice as good to be considered equal. But this gender imbalance is slowly being rectified by a new generation. Inspired by trailblazers like Mary Harron, Jane Campion and Jodie Foster, the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay have made compelling award-winning work that hasn’t become trapped in a gender ghetto.

Glasgow native Ramsay made a string of stellar shorts before her debut feature, ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999), a searing portrait of life in her hometown during the turbulent early Seventies, garnered critical acclaim. Next was ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002), a vivid adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel which served to cement her reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting emerging talents behind the camera. Then things took a turn for the worse.

In 2001, Ramsay was slated to direct the adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller ‘The Lovely Bones’, but walked away from the project in 2004 after ‘creative differences’ with the film’s producer – and eventual director – Peter Jackson. There were whispers that the passionate, plain-speaking Scot may have burned her bridges with Hollywood’s power elite, that she was destined to be yet another flash in the pan; a notion happily dispelled by this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling, Orange Prize-winning novel.

Ramsay’s most ambitious offering yet, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ exhibits Ramsay’s gift for taking a familiar, popular literary property and putting on it her own artistic imprint. The film centres on Eva Khatchadorain (Tilda Swinton) in the aftermath of a school massacre committed by her son, Kevin. Ostracised by the community, Eva struggles to rebuild her life; though in the eyes of those around her she is complicit in the crime, the anger and grief transferred onto her, as imprisoned by the act as her son. The narrative flits back and forth, recounting the endless battle of wills between Eva and Kevin; a war of attrition that intensifies as Eva comes to understand that her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), doesn’t share her sense of foreboding about their offspring.

After eight years in the wilderness, ‘We Need to Talk…’ reaffirms Ramsay’s standing as a singular cinematic voice. Ramsay handles the emotionally dense source material with poise and self-assurance; placing herself at the service of the story, her compositions designed to articulate the fraught nature of the characters’ relationships, never succumbing to vulgar displays of technique. The sound design ably conveys Eva’s inner tumult, isolating lawnmowers, clocks et al. to create a cacophony of the everyday that mirrors Eva’s fuzzy mental state. The livid red and orange that figures throughout the production design, combined with recontextualized saccharine pop songs and Jonny Greenwood’s original score, create a palpable unease that can best be described as ‘Lynchian’.

Swinton has matured from Derek Jarman’s primary muse into one of the elite character actors; as her worth is not predicated on her physical allure, Swinton has been afforded the opportunity to evolve beyond the onerous constraints of conspicuous glamour. Her performance in ‘We Need to Talk…’ is so astounding because so little of its strength is verbal; there are no showy soliloquies, but the role is a gruelling physical challenge to which she rises with aplomb. So much of the drama rests on gesture, inflection, brief flickers of what lies behind the eyes, multiple layers of frustration, exasperation, resentment and desperation, and the rest of the cast proves equal to the challenge.

Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller both succeed in tracing Kevin’s growth from burgeoning sociopath to fully-fledged psychopath; Miller is chilling in his evocation of perspicacious teenage nihilism, while Newell portrays the vindictive relish of the solipsistic child with a conviction that is amazing for one so young. Reilly occupies a tertiary role, a position traditionally taken by female characters; separate from the unfolding drama, there to provide moral support and play devil’s advocate, a thankless but crucial contribution to the overall effort.

‘We Need to Talk…’ has more to say about the relationship between violence, environment, adolescence and the mass media than Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino’s grandstanding take on the subject in ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994), any of Michael Haneke’s numerous discourses – ‘Benny’s Video’ (1992), ‘Funny Games’ (1997) et al. – or Gus Van Sant’s voguish examination of the issue in ‘Elephant’ (2003). The film weighs in on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate with commendable subtlety, and explores the role of our increasingly passive society – a paradigm where we are reduced to the status of consumers and observers, experiencing life through a variety of filters – in fostering feelings of powerlessness and its concomitant rage. Executed to perfection by all involved, hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years for Ramsay’s next effort.

Swinton and Reilly: the happy couple.

  

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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

 

Jack Goes Boating (2010)

25 Apr

Philip Seymour Hoffman has largely been able to resist the lure of the money that is thrown at Oscar winners in the wake of attaining the industry’s highest accolade. While most other recipients pick up lucrative endorsements and take substandard roles that trade on their status, Hoffman has continued to make interesting theatrical and cinematic work since ‘Capote’ (2005) turned him into the most unlikely, and one suspects reluctant, of A-listers. Sure, he appeared in ‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006) and ‘The Boat That Rocked’ (2009), but thankfully those have been anomalies in a post-Oscar run that has earned him two further nods from the Academy.

Based on Robert Glaudini’s play, Hoffman stars and directs in this tale of Jack (Hoffman), a solitary reggae enthusiast who works as a limo driver for his uncle, Frank (Richard Petrocelli). Feeling sorry for his plight, Jack’s friend and work colleague, Clyde (John Ortiz), sets him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), an equally ill-at-ease work colleague of Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). While Jack and Connie struggle to overcome their social awkwardness, Clyde and Lucy’s marriage is beginning to crumble, with Jack caught in the middle. In an attempt to impress Connie, Jack takes cookery lessons and learns to swim in order to take Connie boating in the summer.

Hoffman clearly paid close attention and learned some valuable lessons while working with some of modern cinema’s visionaries, as his directorial debuts exhibits the same keen eye for pace and framing as the Coens, Sidney Lumet and Paul Thomas Anderson. The camerawork is dynamic without sliding into ostentation, while music both diegetic and non-diegetic is used to heighten the emotional impact of several key scenes. The film’s gentle, reflective progression mirrors the tentative development of Jack and Connie’s relationship; Mott Hupfel’s cinematography adding warmth and texture to the wintery setting in much the same way it did in ‘The Savages’ (2007).

Like ‘The Savages’, ‘Jack Goes Boating’ is steered by two captivating lead performances. Hoffman portrays a monosyllabic character that would have blended into the scenery in lesser hands, using an array of physical pointers – from his persistent nervous cough to his half-hearted adoption of a ‘Rasta’ look – to elucidate Jack’s nature. Jack is the latest in a long line of psychologically complex roles that have earned Hoffman the title of ‘Greatest Actor of his Generation’. Connie is an inherently eccentric character that Ryan’s charm prevents from being ‘kooky’: a designation which demands that actresses who fail to conform to accepted standards of beauty revert to ditzy theatrics. Ortiz and Vega reprise their roles in the play, portraying Jack and Connie’s support system with an aplomb borne of an exhaustive familiarity with and deep fondness for the characters. Ortiz and Hoffman’s interplay provides a refreshing change from the dynamic of most onscreen male friendships, openly expressing their feelings and providing emotional support for each other through their hardships.

‘Jacks Goes Boating’ is a romantic comedy with a grip on reality; a touching study of people struggling to find a place where they fit; a beautiful paean to shyness, and a moving essay on maladjustment. It features moments of Solondz-esque humour that elicit uneasy laughs, as well as showing the heart-warming landmarks of Jack and Connie’s budding love. The film dispenses with moralizing and pseudo-inspirational schmaltz to deliver its message: in a cutthroat world where sensitivity is an impediment, we must overcome the tiny obstacles that seem insurmountable in our heads and prevent us all from achieving so much, as these everyday triumphs are what define us in the end.

The much-vaunted nudity proved to be a letdown.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

23 Oct

This adaptation of J.P. Miller’s teleplay is an intriguing anomaly in the career of Blake Edwards, a director renowned for helming lightweight fare like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘10’. Likewise, this marked something of a departure for its star, Jack Lemmon, who had carved out a niche playing lovable, befuddled everyman in the likes of ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Some Like It Hot’. ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is an interesting film historically, marking something of a bridge between the production-line output of the old studio system and the daring, taboo-breaking new spirit that would emerge towards the end of the decade and reach its apotheosis with ‘Easy Rider’.

The film charts the courtship and marriage of Joe Clay (Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). Joe is a high-flying Public Relations man, which in reality involves little more than kowtowing to the egos of his upscale clients, whether it be procuring women or finagling flattering press coverage. Kirsten is the assistant to one of Joe’s top clients; a bookish young woman who prefers chocolate to Joe’s chosen vice. Joe eventually introduces Kirsten to the anaesthetizing joys of alcohol. Now with a child to care for, Kirsten and Joe descend into the hell of full-scale alcoholism, their hard-living lifestyles coming into conflict with their cosy domesticity.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is shot in downcast monochrome, Phil Lathrop’s photography noticeably darkens with the characters’ worsening circumstances, the expressionistic lighting patterns and slabs of shadow increasing as addiction’s grip tightens. Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning score does much to articulate this slide into the depths of despair, with its doleful, jazzy tones. Edwards sticks to delicate pans and noncommittal medium shots for the most part, a decision that lends genuine significance to the few close-ups he uses – as when Kirsten’s father offers Joe a drink; his dilemma is etched all over Lemmon’s famously expressive face.

Lemmon is captivating as a world-weary cog in the machine; his impeccable comic and dramatic timing are equally in evidence here. He imbues an essentially unlovable character with much needed empathy and humanity, underscoring Joe’s misgivings about the ethical vacuum in which he operates. Kirsten’s decline is particularly heartrending, and Remick rises to the task of conveying this. She undergoes a startling physical transformation, beginning the film as a statuesque, insouciant beauty and ending it a haggard, crestfallen husk of a person. It comes as little surprise that both leads were nominated for Oscars. Though Lemmon and Remick provide the film’s core, ample support is provided by Charles Bickford as Kirsten’s redoubtable father, a man struggling to keep his daughter from following Joe down the path to self-destruction.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ takes place at a time when America’s moral consensus was beginning to erode; when people began to question the values they’d been taught to believe in, when job security and the promise of advancement up the career ladder was no longer enough to pacify nagging doubts and frustrations. The film underlines this dysphoria. Kirsten is plagued by alarming reveries, using drink to blot out the grime she sees all around her – the world is dirty when she is sober. Jack despises the dark art of perception management, a world where integrity is an impediment to success, consumed by guilt for dragging Kirsten down with him. They are trapped in a mutually destructive union, bound by their need to seek solace in the bottle. The film’s final third occasionally falls prey to preachy moralizing in the form of Jack Klugman’s Alcoholics Anonymous leader, but any lapse into melodrama is offset by the strength of the performances.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is not a comic account of affable drunks or a mawkish cautionary tale – the most common approaches to the depiction of alcoholism – but an important progression in screen realism, comparing favourably to the yardstick, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’. Jack Clay is up there with Harry Stoner in ‘Save the Tiger’ and Shelley Levine in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ as a seminal role in Lemmon’s legendary career.

Why aren't movie posters this good anymore?