“Killing Them Softy”: Amoral exhaustion

A second portrait of down-and-out America, Andrew Dominik’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a frostbite satire about men and decision-making in darker times. He burns the gloss and glamour off of Scorsese-inflected gangster myths with an economic allegory of the 2008 financial crisis and its political gamesmanship. We follow two street hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) after they ‘turn over’ an organised card game and their pursuit by Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hitman sent to exact justice and restore “confidence”.

The recurring grey-black-brown colour scheme and vintage 70s style (check: cars, clothing, lingo) connect the present United States with a past moment in their history equally maligned with economic and political duress. The slow-motion shots only heighten this spatial overlap. But though it is refreshingly free from the Warner Bros. romanticism that plagues crime thrillers (favouring to portray the banal monotony, rampant misogyny, and alcoholism of the underworld business instead), ‘Killing Them Softly’ and its substantial subtext still lacks the discernible edge to make the skin crawl or even invoke a stronger reaction one way or the other.


“Tabu” and “Keyhole”: Disyllabic silence…

The iconic drumbeat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” has elevated a number of films to an almost classic status: ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Dirty Dancing,’ and now Miguel Gomes’ ‘Tabu’. A movie with the rhythm of doomed love deep in its bones, Gomes effectively (read: sparingly) deploys his soundtrack to mirror the emotional swells in both the characters and audience alike.

The first half (dubbed “Paradise Lost”), where the companionship among a triumvirate of women (an ageing woman, her black maid and her neighbour) in a modern-day Lisbon apartment complex, is given all the detail of a domestic chamber-piece. Then, the sudden death of one of them prompts an extended flashback (dubbed “Paradise”), only slightly connected (at least prima facie) to the master narrative and set decades earlier in colonial Africa, a ravishingly visualized locale where an illicit love affair is silently witnessed by a spectral, melancholic crocodile.

Much has been made of how ‘Tabu’ frolics with cinematic tropes at will (references to ‘Bande à part,’ ‘Out of Africa’ and even ‘Crocodile Dundee’ are littered here and there, though never overbearingly), but you needn’t be a pedant; its loose themes of sin, regret and history are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film that they never really detract from the prevailing mood of playful romance. Indeed, fluidity is at the very core of Gomes’ aesthetic; ‘Tabu’ has the breathless, non-sequitur momentum of a dream. The second half of this inverted diptych has no diegetic sound, for instance, save for the occasional trace of footsteps, water or clapping hands. It is an especially beguiling example of muted melodrama: time passes, people change, events occur, but the singular moments of transgression linger. It’s a film of real depth, despite its light touch.

Guy Maddin, one the other hand, is certainly not renowned for a genteel approach to his monochrome subject matter. The new film from this Canadian extraordinaire is called ‘Keyhole,’ which succinctly conveys the voyeuristic pleasures that lie therein. Inspired by 1930s gangster flicks, the film re-imagines The Odyssey as a deadbeat dad returning to his home (with his criminal bedfellows in tow) and simultaneously dealing with all his childhood memories. Adopting only a couple of film noir aspects, however, Maddin mines his pet tropes of domestic unease and psychosexuality, featuring vaudevillian skits that include a bicycle-powered torture instrument, a ghost that screams in between drinking a glass of milk, and a funny-if-juvenile recasting of the ‘cyclops’ as a dusty penis that Ullyses’ father-in-law chooses to fellate.

I’m not denying that it’s a rather perverse (what Maddin film isn’t?) and sometimes barely coherent exploration of Freudian chaos, but it certainly doesn’t warrant such negative reviews it has been receiving from the press who consistently fail to appreciate the richly extra-textual nature of all Guy Maddin’s cinema. (If they were bemused by ‘Keyhole,’ his reported next project, involving filming live seances in public places, looks to be stranger still.) Building an implacable series of bold provocations, these 93 minutes felt like an even darker emulation of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s ‘L’Age d’Or’ with its string of surrealist signs and gags. But touching only upon its shimmering idiosyncrasies and fetishistic paraphernalia, though, it is all too easy to miss the surprising amount of poignancy and warmth underlying Ullyses’ madcap quest to undo the damage that time’s arrow inflicts on all of our lives. It’s about the searching sorrow of a wanderer who wishes to “return what was lost” and finally recover from the inchoate anxieties of the past.


“Take This Waltz”: Romance and meloncholy…

I’m a little late to watching this polarizing film, having only caught it whilst on holiday at ‘Zeffirellis’, the self-proclaimed “one of the best” (and, incidentally, one of the very few) cinemas in the Lake District. As yet another film which takes a stance on the inevitable pendulum of love, ‘Take This Waltz’ coldly opens with a scene which fails to impress: a solitary Margot (Michelle Williams) is coerced by a group of Nova Scotian tourists into historically re-enacting the flogging of an adulterer. For a film that’s about the confronting of marital issues and the emotional anguish of wavering between two lovers, her tender husband Lou and local boy Daniel, the scene is the dramaturgical equivalent of a flogging of audience. ‘Take This Waltz’, with its contrast between the prosaic and the popular, becomes a rom-com that flaunts all the familiar tropes but with a focus on metaphors to emphasise meaning. It’s an uphill battle, but director Sarah Polley does redeem herself, if just.

Some critics have dismissed the ritualised baby-coo exchanges (“I wuv you so much I want to mash your head with a potato masher”) of Lou and Margot as insufferably precious, but I interpreted them as rather slick signifiers of the cosy void of long-term relationships. Such exchanges are the result of desexualised intimacy, of having very little left to say after so many years together. Polley then sadly scuppers these well-conceived skits with clunky emphases (in this case, an anniversary dinner extends into awkward silence which Margot, of course, just has to vocally acknowledge). This a film where every conceit is contrived: a seemingly earnest inversion of ‘When Harry Met Sally’’s signature scene, which finds Margot silently suppressing an orgasm in a martini bar; the juxtaposed bodies of the elderly and young in a communal shower so as to demonstrate how the ageing waltz is unkind to both dreams and flesh alike; and Margot’s fear of airports – “I don’t like making connections” – as a bright neon sign of subtext, of her fear of being between two relationships. These elements are confirmed by the candy-coated cinematography (an overkill of summery red that makes ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ look like the epitome of restraint) and a self-consciously overthought sense of how hipsters live (indeed, Daniel supports his painting by dragging a rickshaw around Toronto each day).

Elevating the ironic sanguine of Video Killed The Radio Star (a pop anthem that’s concerned with how the arrival of something new-fangled makes something else seem obsolete) to almost a form of transcendence, however, Polley does succeed in replicating the richly melancholic end-of-adolescence, joy-versus-fear of transition that Greg Mottola perfected in ‘Adventureland’. With Michelle Williams customarily doing a fine job at being impish and immature, her naturalness is encapsulated in the fleeting moments of Margot’s complete abandon which expose the real crux of her stark decision. In fact, once you overcome the few frustrations of the screenplay, the central performances enable this tale of midlife malaise to seem quite genuine (that is, if you can also ignore Sarah Silverman’s stunt-cameo as the Holy Fool Who Speaks the Truth which recalls Michael Shannon in ‘Revolutionary Road’). With her lack of stimulation finally collapsing the relationship’s foundations, Margot leaves Lou for Daniel and their opposing libertine lifestyle is singularly conveyed in a circling 360-degree ménage a trois sequence scored to the titular song by Leonard Cohen. After this risqué, near-Ophülsian scene, we see Margot and Daniel not knowing what else to say or do to/with each other. (Taking into account ‘Away from Her’ and now ‘Take this Waltz,’ Sarah Polley seems to believe that the depressing coming of age offers only two prospects: Alzheimer’s or ennui.)

Perhaps with a director that’s so daring, the crashing waves of new attraction have destroyed the shoals of my expectations (I was certainly not expecting to hear the film’s moralistic thesis actually voiced: ““Life has a gap in it, it just does. Don’t go crazy trying to fill it.”) Whilst the aesthetic doodling came across as too twee, I still enjoyed this patchwork film, owing mostly to Michelle William’s counterbalancing nuance (such emotionally reticent acting proving that she truly is the heir to the one Meryl Streep) and Polley’s unapologetic exploration of the interplay, or lack thereof, between the pillars of short romance and long domesticity.


‘Ted’: Overflowing with animated inanity…

A lot like Seth MacFarlane’s envelope-pushing ‘Family Guy’, the hit-to-miss ratio of this debut film feature skews heavily toward the latter. The various improper elements – homophobia, profanity, racism, misogyny, etc. – are all on display, but the’re put together with no regard for coherence, intelligence or lasting appeal.

Of course it would be foolish to expect subtlety or sensitivity from such a purveyor of bad taste, but the average cinema-goer deserves more than just a rigidly by-the-books tale of a thirtysomething man (John) struggling to reconcile the pillars of juvenile partying (Ted) and mature responsibility (his girlfriend Lori). The mawkish morals the film tries to impart about sustainable relationships are hard to swallow when they inevitably come after a scene, say, in which the humour is derived from a hooker defecating on an apartment floor. Such premises are ripe with humour, but they are not even exploited or built upon; rather, they are just left there to fester, as the characters attempt to transition back to an insistent stream of heartfelt drama (it is worth noting that the success of ‘Family Guy’ can be attributed to its trademark cutaways). Such off-the-hinges comedy is noticeably absent here, leaving a conventional plot of bromance versus romance in its wake. With cheap jokes about Taylor Lautner, it all feels cowardly from a creative team that pride themselves on being ‘equal opportunity offenders’ who tackle cultural touchstones. I bet the scene in which Ted tells a fat kid to “fuck off, Susan Boyle” took much effort, imagination and time for all three writers to insert into the screenplay.

Featuring pointless cameos and celebrity insults, the comedic premium of ‘Ted’ is thus placed on eliciting laughs by targeting viewers’ pop savviness (‘Diff’rent Strokes’ and ‘Flash Gordon’, anyone?). Now I was never expecting the film to inform and educate (or indeed have anything lucid to say about friendship) but I would’ve liked to have gained more than just two chuckles from such a painfully dull film complete with an ending of retrograde sincerity.


“Killer Joe”: How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip oil?

Sordid and sweaty, this new Southern Gothic hothouse film flaunts its 18 certificate at almost every opportunity, beginning with Chris (Emile Hirsh) paying a late-night visit to his father’s trailer only to be faced by the naked, hirsute genitalia of his avaricious stepmother (Gina Gershon, who clearly has not a single reservation on her acting contract). We soon discover that Chris is in debt and plans on hiring a moonlighting detective (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his alcoholic mother in order to reap the rewards of her will.

The film holds no pretensions for exploring psycho-sexuality or familial bonds, favouring gross stereotypes of deservingly poor rednecks (Thomas Haden Church’s dimwit might as well have been called Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel) and employing conspicuously black-and-white dichotomies (e.g. the virginal innocent of Juno Temple versus the unabashed whore of Gina Gershon) instead. Although Letts and Friedkin may be accused of single-minded cartography in this sense – Chris, the film’s protagonist, is certainly no Richard Chance or Popeye Doyle – there’s still plenty to enjoy when the film embraces its sleazy wit and pulp fiction origins.

As is usually the case with Friedkin’s filmography, vice is an all-consuming force, a Pandora’s box that enraptures the flawed family unit, culminating in a stagebound Jacobean setpiece of gonzo gore that makes you question whether KFC ever read the screenplay before buying its lurid product placement. ‘Killer Joe’ is a welcome change from the mellowing that too often accompanies a mainstream director’s slide into senescence (I’m looking at you, Ford Coppola) and the choice of Clarence Carter’s filthy but fantastic single “Strokin'” for the end credits hammers this point home nicely.


“Damsels in Distress”: Whit Stillman is back in business, rarely pausing for breath…

University is a place of boundless idealism where mediocrities like Ayn Rand briefly acquire more relevance than they really deserve. Since ‘Metropolitan’, in which two characters argue over the relative merits of Fourierism before the film even reaches its 10 minute mark, Whit Stillman has been mining these academic impulses for comedy drama. His new film, ‘Damsels in Distress’, finds itself in similar waters, deflating and subverting the philosophical vagaries of a sweet-natured group of female students until all that’s left to smirk at is the very folly of youth.

“Come on, it’s not that bad!” This banner, hanging within the college suicide prevention centre, offers a perfect glimpse into the whimsical absurdity of ‘Damsels in Distress,’ Stillman’s first movie since 1998. The results are, if not the long-gestated masterpiece one might expect after such a long hiatus, certainly a welcome revival of his distinct brand of playful satire for the twenty first century. His work has always divided audiences between fierce loyalty and violent antipathy – there’s rarely room for neutrality – and this film is no different: Stillman’s authorial logic is still organised around the concept of youth, assessing the growing pains of adolescence and the fateful prospect of entering ‘the real world’. With irony and pastiche, we follow a quartet of females (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton and Carrie MacLemore) as they hopelessly attempt to ‘civilise’ the acrid emanations of the boorish fraternity lads who surround them. (Indeed, who would ever expect one of them to fall for a French student who derives his curious sexual appetite from his strict devotion to Cathar heresy?) Of course the risk of narcisstic abandon, probably inevitably, lurks in the background of a film concerning the self-styled UHB (‘urban haute bougeoisie’), but Stillman is careful to see his singular visionaries corralled or anchored to the community they serve. While their indiviual hypocrisies are duly exposed, Stillman more closesly examines their capacity for warmth and sincerity, revealing a bunch of hapless guardians of the hope that surrounds the notion of higher education. Seemingly redolent with static tablueaus and deadpan presentation, it is this outmoded quality – the four girls express more concern over the morality of existence than about their next date – which imbues the film with bittersweet melancholia and wistful tragedy.

There’s something unavoidably fresh about hearing Stillman’s mannered, meticulous dialogue performed by a new generation of young actors, all of whom have just a tinge of penumbral darkness around their gleaming edges. The male characters (Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf and Hugo Becker) do well to attribute some humanity to their uncoloured and cartoonish roles, a rather strong indication of Stillman’s attitude toward a patriarchal society ruled by “playboy operator types” (to use Megalyn Echikunwoke’s hard-bitten catchphrase). But despite the pluralised title, the film hinges on Greta Gerwig’s full-bodied performance, especially when she attempts to start a new dance craze and attributes The Twist to a one Chubbert Checker. Known mostly for her involvement in ‘mumblecore’ cinema, Gerwig shines under both Stillman’s direction and through his way with words – her off-kilter charisma is the key to making us believe in the fanciful creation that is Violet, redeeming what could easily appear as self-indulgent and making a scene in which she rhapsodises on the precise scent of hotel soap seem of the most critical importance.

Where his plots in the past were defined by the ending of eras (‘Last Days of Disco’) or the passing of social calendars (‘Metropolitan’), there are no clues as to the year or even decade this film exists within. Whilst P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson have both used the directors’ aesthetics to capitalise on the visibility of anachronism as a means of highlighting the pathos of historical difference (whether the delusionally cheery mileu of late 1970s Californian pornography in ‘Boogie Nights’ or the literaralised storybook world of a discordant New York clan found in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’), Stillman has chosen to suspend his latest series of characters in a timeless, near-mythical universe of a fictional Seven Oaks campus with is Greek architecure and grandeur. Although the self-destructive naturalism of his previous work is noticeably absent here, there’s still a familiar sense of nostalgia in the evocation of the generational fear of not living up to a past forever in the process of being romanticized.

The perplexity that animates each of Stillman’s films is how to find our way when the rule book has lost its authority – the notion of women being responsible citizens who can restrain unruly men by their sound morality is often hinted at, but never really built upon. But perhaps in an age such as ours, when people are all too willing to affix an ironic tag of “first world problem” to every act unable to mask its privilege, it is not tragedy but comedy which, once again, becomes the mature response to those penetrating questions of Tolstoy: “How shall we act? What shall we do?” And while there might not be any grand statements to be found in its episodic structure, ‘Damsels in Distress’ is the type of movie that should be treasured and not tarnished for its minor problems. Although Stillman may well require a few more films to get his voice back to its full muscularity, it is clear that his ability to capture a certain strain of the student vernacular hasn’t deserted him in his hiatus. And it’s delightful to behold it anew.


“Moonrise Kingdom”: Anderson’s arrived

Although Wes Anderson’s shabby-chic dioramas are easy to identify thanks to his dollhouse staging, cartoon costuming and frontal compositions, there has yet to be a single image or thought – other than his evocative broad-strokes of childhood – that I have stumbled upon which can define his entire oeuvre (Stanley Kubrick has his monolith, David Lynch has his voyeur peering through the closet door and Steven Spielberg has his shots of faces wide-eyed and slack-jawed astonished by whatever’s before them, all of which singularly apprehend their broad auter sensibilities). Perhaps with ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, I’m one step closer.

With this tough and tender love story, we follow two adolescent paramours in their idyllic mid-60s New England island community who flee from their homes. Sam (Jared Gilman) absconds from the tent of his Khaki Scouts camp while Suzy (Kara Hayward) deserts her family estate, Summer’s End (a lighthouse decorated internally and externally with the fabrics and textures that have come to define Anderson’s aesthetic – the self-consciously retro fashions, the brightly coded, exactingly manicured mise-en scène). After their wilderness sojourn, behaving like the sweetly sociopathic Sheen and Spacek from ‘Badlands’the pair are soon caught by a tired search party consisting of Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, thus eschewing the deus ex machina which too often marred Anderson’s work this century.

Anderson, throughout its short 94 minute running time, shows a greater degree of spontaneity than ever before, almost mirroring the resourcefulness of the young couple on the run. Shaking off his famous fastidiousness, Anderson’s new legion of actors introduce interesting behavioural flourishes which fully realise their characters (including a neat cameo by Tilda Swinton as a lavender-caped but unnamed Social Services worker) rather than making them just silhouetted cut-outs. Indeed, rather than producing another lavishly rendered ordeal like the utterly forgettable ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ in which adults do very little other than moan and brood, Anderson has finally got around to making a film about real children, thus enabling him to deploy his precocious discernment and pop-art fetishism in order to demonstrate where these two kids exist in the long shadow of approaching, both literal and figurative, adulthood – their tale is a fleeting moment of brief sanctuary from stifling parental authority. Most of his films have been about these strongholds of postponed adolescence and arrested development, where decadent world-weariness is synonymous with a just-as-smart midlife malaise. ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ works – and works, in places, as wondrously and hilariously as ‘Rushmore’ and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ – because it ruptures all these particular themes without laying waste to that much-debated trademark veneer. I’m so pleased that his style hasn’t descended into shtick.