Just watched the newly released trailer for ‘Cloud Atlas’:
The book’s great, if a little overwrought, but the film looks desperately ambitious.
At least it’ll be an interesting mess, though. Isn’t that right, Tom?
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.
As one of the very few Lynch films I had yet to indulge in, I was surprisingly disappointed when I finally got round to viewing the off-kilter redemption plot of ‘Wild at Heart’ last night. A road movie concerning a goofily sensual pair of criminal lovers, it follows Lula and Sailor’s journey from North Carolina to Texas and all that occurs in between. It’s a hyper-kinetic experience, but none the better for it.
And, despite Lula’s contention within the film (“this whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top”), the former is all surface-level: the images are like tattoos, arresting yet meaningless; and Lynch goes into over-kill, dousing the film with an unending flood of Wizard of Oz motifs, rather than allowing room for abstraction. The erotic villainy and malevolence also seem a little too diversionary, a florid disguise for a lifeless and languorous story, rather than a crucial meander in the narrative flow as found in ‘Blue Velvet’ (although it is difficult to resist Jack Nance’s cameo, it fails to live up to Dean Stockwell’s impromptu ‘In Dreams’).
I did stumble upon an interesting discovery, however. Approaching the tail-end of the film, Sailor is twice asked whether he’s “had enough,” first by Bobby Peru (through which Sailor gathers his resolve – an entrenched Hollywood convention – but finds himself submitting to a criminal plan) and then by the leader of the urban gang (through which Sailor surrenders himself to them and the world – having been knocked unconscious – thus becoming receptive to the vision of Glinda the Good). In each circumstance our – that is, the viewer’s – will is implicated directly, especially in the latter when the gangleader asks, “Had enough, asshole?” to the camera, a space supposedly occupied by the invisible Sailor. We suddenly realise the tension between our manufactured desire for the transparent reality of a cosy, happy ending and the unreality of the Good Witch’s advice and Sailor’s artificially swollen nose. The spectator’s identification with Sailor, a moment of seeming unity, is asserted through the subconscious, making us confront our ready consumption of cinematic tropes. Looks like Haneke was late to the party.
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.
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.
Nick Nolte and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are starting to look dangerously alike.
No? Well, I’m sorry I even brought it up.
Seems like Eddie Murphy’s new movie is about someone with only 1000 words left to speak.
It’s a shame none of them were “I’ll pass on this.”