please read on if you’re interested in a brief summary of my thoughts concerning the new films that i’ve seen and heard in the last two months or so. spoilers will be minimal yet possible. said films are:
o Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
o Friends With Benefits
i ended up being quite late to Tinker, Tailor… eventually catching it nearly a fortnight after release. by that time, my expectations were perhaps too high. i am a huge fan of Tomas Alfredson’s previous film, Let The Right One In, and although i have never read the source novel, i knew and admired the story from the 1979 TV adaptation. furthermore, the cast was difficult to look beyond: the words Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Mark Strong on the same poster send a powerful message.
perhaps almost inevitably, however, i came away slightly disappointed. there was plenty of good stuff – Oldman, Hurt and Strong were stand-out excellent against a backdrop of really solid performances. the intelligent use of colour and unusual camera angles that added so much to Let The Right One In found its way in to TTSS, but i very much got the sense that Alfredson felt he was working with a revered text, and as a result chose to be (perhaps too) restrained.
my main gripe, aside from Kathy Burke’s seeming inability to do more than one voice, was with the pacing. while i enjoyed the slow, smoke-drenched scenes of John Hurt’s ‘Control’ musing at his desk early on, and later Oldman nudging around chess pieces in the same office, i felt that things were generally just a little too ponderous for the first three quarters, making the unfolding of events in the last quarter too rapid.
there are plenty of nice moments – not least Toby Jones’ ongoing impression of Brain from Pinky and the Brain – but for me something just wasn’t quite ‘clicked in’. to use a fabric-based analogy to express my initial feelings, if Let The Right One In is a clean square of thick, matt mid-grey, Highland-woven worsted wool (beautiful, but simple and utterly unfussy) and something like The Adjustment Bureau is a crisp strip of navy and white striped satin silk (thin, but bright and sleek), then TTSS is a long rectangle of high quality, well cut, dark brown Gabardine (smart, functional, but a bit dull).
it’s always difficult to judge the effect of prior expectations on how you read a film, but, reflecting a few weeks on, i’m not yet convinced that my first impression was a significant distortion.
the day after i saw TTSS, i watched Friends With Benefits, which despite playing out in the context of an equal but opposite set of expectations confounded them to the same degree.
although FWB is in some ways a standard, mainstream RomCom which is unable not to give in to several clichés, i also found it to be witty, warm and genuine in a way that so few such films are.
although clearly floated as an inverse, contemporised When Harry Met Sally, FWB manages to tip its hat in that direction without falling prey to “I’ll have what he’s having” wink & gun ploys. in fact it generally avoids all the usual pitfalls. the characters are well drawn and at ease with each other, the sex comedy is well observed and believable and the heart-felt moments are not choked by schmaltz.
in his acting career so far, Justin Timberlake has made a habit of being the best thing in mostly terrible movies – Alpha Dog and The Love Guru being my key witnesses here, but i would be willing to put The Social Network on the stand if you forced me. here, in the best film i’ve seen him in yet, his performance is genuinely strong – likeable and well-rounded yet understated; graceful even.
as one of three JT releases in the second half of this year – along with Bad Teacher and (the intriguing looking if Logan’s Run-esque) In Time – i’d say things look very good for his acting career right now.
likewise, Mila Kunis (who was the best, least hysterical, thing in Black Swan by some distance) chips in an equally strong and enjoyable performance in the context of that rarest of RomCom offerings, a charming, strong-minded, non-neurotic lead female character who is more understated than underwired.
furthermore, Woody Harrelson and Richard Jenkins round off a cast that is far more talented than it would need to be to sit comfortably alongside its peers. while, admittedly, this film isn’t going to change the world, it’s definitely a recent high-water mark on the harbour wall of a genre that often seems to satisfy itself with grounded ships.
basically, it’s like Friends, but with benefits: 1. it won’t be on TV every hour of every day for 15 years. 2. it’s pretty good.
perhaps more so than anyone else in contemporary cinema, Lars von Trier sharply divides opinion. although i am a fan of his films, i am in no doubt that he is a man who delights in appalling his friends let alone his enemies. perhaps he is a misogynist, perhaps a Catholic, perhaps a Nazi-sympathiser, or perhaps just a self-created, curdled mix of those two French phrases so beloved of film critics and writers, agent provocateur and enfant terrible.
his films, which are what interest and exercise me, are usually combinations of brutality and beauty, although this pattern is perhaps less obviously true of Melancholia than any other (excluding perhaps The Boss of It All).
here, von Trier tackles depression – a subject close to his head and mine. the film revolves around possibly the least subtle metaphor ever, an eponymous planet, on a collision-course with the earth, but in true von Trier style, the norms of suspense sci-fi are frustrated from the outset, when we see the impact occur and know that what we have witnessed will not turn out to be a false memory or an avoidable, possible outcome, but a simple flash-forward.
the film is not about whether the world will be destroyed, but about how various characters respond to the reality of its impending destruction. Jack Bauer, as you can imagine, is not up for dying, but this time he loses.
depression – which the film implicitly interprets as a palpable sense of the pointlessness and fragility of existence – is therefore not affliction, but liberation from a shared delusion, which, whether or not von Trier knows it, is actually a version of rather well-worn trope (if we substitute ‘depression’ for ‘madness’).
the performances and the visual style are strong and i found the film poignant, even if the message is predictably bleak. now that her stint as Mrs. Spiderman has passed, Kirsten Dunst is finally making good on the sophisticated potential of her performances in Interview with the Vampire and The Virgin Suicides. like Emily Watson (Breaking The Waves), but unlike Nicole Kidman (Dogville), Bryce Dallas Howard (Manderlay) or Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist), Dunst has a natural air of fragility which, in the hands of someone like von Trier, evoked (probably deliberately) a paternalistic dread in me. as it is, she receives far less rough treatment than Watson.
as a fellow MDD sufferer, i disagree with von Trier on the nature of depression, but i admired this film and would recommend it – however, if you haven’t and can, see Antichrist first.
Contagion, as you will probably have already figured, is part limp, closet-racist disaster movie, part menacing public information film. yes, germs are coming to get us all, and a bit like the collapse of the global economy (ah, i get it), they will highlight and make fools of impotent politics and hamstrung bureaucracy in the process.
if you’re imagining a whirlwind of microscopes, hazmat suits and large-screen maps in command centres gradually going red as the spread of a virus is modelled over time, then prepare to be utterly unsurprised. if you also assumed that, with the so called Arab Spring muddying the waters of American popular discourse on the Middle East, the threat would likely originate from carelessnesses in China (the new economic superpower), then you, madamsir, are flying high. what’s more, if you’d also wager that Jude Law would probably be able to do a passable Australian accent, then, damn, you fell at the final hurdle.
why Steven Soderburgh (who i still think of as a solid director) got involved in this mess, i have no idea. although, if he’s trying to steer his career in a more Tony Scott direction, then perhaps that covers it.
if it’s true that some films, however pedestrian the concept or ropey the screenplay, are lifted to a higher plane simply by virtue of the quality of cast, then this film would seem a decent candidate for that phenomenon. however, despite the valiant efforts of Damon, Winslet, Cotillard, Fishburne, Paltrow and Bryan ‘in-everything-right-now’ Cranston (Jude Law failed to meet the requirement in the previous sentence), Contagion remains barely passable.
setting Jude Law’s abomination of a performance to one side, the biggest problem for Contagion is not that it’s clichéd, or that it’s heavy-handed (big, lead-lined hazmat gloves heavy-handed), but that it’s boring. what’s more, there are repeated attempts to raise ethical issues concerning entitlement to information/treatment/immunisation, but the characters concerned are so thin and the emotional bonds between them so weak that i couldn’t have cared less who lived or died.
although as a Soderbergh fan this film disappointed me, its many failings are largely unimportant. there are two things however, that struck me as genuinely problematic: 1. the way in which it will, regardless of Soderbergh’s intention, play into (as much as confront) the widespread culture of fear-mongering that plagues the US (and increasingly UK) media. and 2. the fact that at one point Lawrence Fishburne’s character, when challenged, during a TV news item, about the effectiveness of a widely available but unrecommended, natural medicine (Forsythia), reluctantly admits the potential benefits of homeopathy.
this might sound insignificant, but the role of Forsythia – whose effectiveness is downplayed by the government in order to encourage a larger up-take of a vaccine that in the opinion of the hero, sceptical journalist, played by Jude Law, is the result of a lucrative deal with a big pharmaceutical company – is rhetorically significant.
there is no really clear-cut message in the film, but a general theme about political incompetence is reinforced by the way the potential remedy is used. in a sense, Forsythia is the closest thing the film has to a hero. and that is why it’s so annoying that Lawrence Fishburne, the script writer, editor and Soderbergh himself clearly don’t know the difference between natural medicine (which is very likely a powerful and important skill that Western cultures have lost) and homeopathy (which is a load of old bollocks).
talking of people with a lot of films out at the moment – which we were. in relation to Justin Timberlake. earlier – smoulderingly uncertain, Canadian boy-man and recently crowned king of the feminists, Ryan Gosling has been busy, with three films out this year (equalling last) and more projects slated for next.
given that i ‘missed’ (and have no plans to catch up with) Crazy, Stupid, Love, and i’ve missed both the preview screening of The Ides of March last week and each screening since it opened, Drive is currently the only of this year’s ‘Gosling triple’ to hit my eyes.
Drive is a sleek, slow, stylish and brilliant pulp drama about a man whose mad drivin’ skillz, experience using them for getaways and simple desire to (quietly and respectfully) please pretty women are destined to carry him into a messy world of crime and violence. the “icecool guy who’s involved with the criminal underworld but somehow floats above its vagaries because of an autistic-like obsession with efficiency” conceit (as i like to call it) is pretty old hat, but it’s revived in the first three quarters of Drive to great effect *loudly clenches leather-glove-clad fist*.
in part, it reminded me of early Tarantino (True Romance, Reservoir Dogs), Mexico-trilogy-era Rodrigues, Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Lynch’s Wild At Heart – but in truth it’s less messy or darkly humorous than those films and is both more ponderous and more shiny. perhaps things like Rian Johnson’s Brick, or early Michael Mann (Thief?) offer up better comparisons?
certainly those hoping for fast-paced action sequences are in for a disappointment. despite flirting with certain classic male fantasies like the ‘regular’ looking car with hidden, super-charged abilities, Drive ends up quite far from an overtly machismo-fuelled joy-ride. while it has been superbly edited with expert restraint, the pace is generally slow – and while there are some chase sequences, the camera is relatively uninterested when it comes to all-out-thrill-seeking.
feminista favourite Gosling does a masterful job of silently staring out of windows while a neo-romantic synth score plays and caring about children. however, i was particularly struck by Carey Mulligan’s performance.
while it’s perfectly cromulent to read Mulligan’s character as a standard, passive female character, trapped in wake of the destructive actions of the men around her and stripped of all agency (she literally does next to nothing in the whole film), perhaps against the grain of the film (or perhaps not) i read her differently.
i’m not exactly what it was – small details in the character and performance; a look here, an expression there, the absence of a line – but something convinced me that Mulligan’s ‘Irene’ was (as her name suggests) meant not to be passive but actively peaceful (peace-like) in a counter-testimonial way.
in this sense, for me, Irene subverted not only the standard, background hum of violence surrounding her ex-con husband and various other nefarious types, but also the clinical, faux-impassivity of The Driver, which eventually gives way to his true ‘nature’ in the face of his desire to save her. *hint: the fable of the scorpion and the frog is not-so-subtley referenced throughout.
read one way, Driver is an aesthetically beautiful but morally dubious pulp fluff. taken another, it is something far more interesting, stimulating and impressive. either way, with the two leads joined by Bryan ‘Breaking Malcolm in the Bad Middle’ Cranston, Ron ‘Ever-Ugly’ Pearlman and Christina ‘Joany’ Hendricks, it’s definitely one to watch and ponder on.
given the way it struck me, it will be tricky for Driver not to top my list of favourite films of the year, and to be honest, the ‘decade’s best’ list is in its sights too.