Thursday, 10 February 2011

Now on DVD: The Joneses

David Duchovny proves what a gifted light comedian he is in The Joneses. It's a shame Demi Moore is her same wooden self and the film barely hangs together.

It's a cute central conceit, though. The Joneses are the new family on the block; Daddy drives a sports car, Mummy holds fabulous parties and the brother has arms, and a smile, to kill for. Behind the facade, they're actually at the vanguard of selling; they're clothes horses for hire, they sport the newest watches, eat the most fashionable of fad foods and do it all ostentatiously – but with such confidence and good humour, it's completely forgivable. None of them are related, and all of them are actors.

All kinds of crazy is going down behind the scenes, however. The son is coming out as gay, and the daughter is trying to sleep with the father. Meanwhile the parents are falling in love with one another – and potentially this'll all ruin the business relationship they have with one another. A relationship which involves competing for sales, naturally.

The problem is that it's just too tentative and placid an experience. It's helped by Moore's blank-eyed performance, but it's mostly because it's just not cutting enough to be a satire, not warm enough to be a character study and not tragic or moving enough to be a drama. The film hangs in a genre no-man's land, flirting with a direction before subscribing to none.

A wasted opportunity, then. But watch it for Duchovny.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

For Your Consideration? Exit Through the Gift Shop

Firstly, sorry for the lack of postage this last week! Life has got in the way, however I'm back in business now, with some Banksy.

Frankly, Exit Through the Gift Shop is the film world's biggest advert since FedEx turned up in every other shot in Robert Zemeckis' Castaway. It's not a documentary about one man trying to unlock the myth of street artist Banksy, it's an advert for at the very least, the countercultural attitude Banksy claims to represent, or, more likely, an advert for Banksy himself.

And subsequently the main thrust of the film is somewhat lost, not to mention dull. It claims to be about Thierry Guetta, a filmmaker turned street artist, who has an obsessive compulsive relationship with the camera, filming every aspect of his life (from making breakfast to having a wee).

He accidentally stumbles upon street artists in his adopted home town of LA and follows them around, claiming he's making a documentary. He's not making a documentary, he just stores the footage in shoeboxes in his spare room. It's only when he hears of Banksy that he decides to put his footage together into a feature.

For me, there are too many celebrity cameos (even if they are in context), too much of a knowing wink and too many moments which don't ring true enough for this to be diverting. Perhaps it's all for real, and I'm just a cynical curmudgeon. And perhaps I was disappointed that there wasn't very much Banksy in it (there really is only a smattering, buried in the middle of the film). But it's not well rounded enough as a documentary to leave me satisfied on any level.

If it gets the Oscar, I'll leave a brown smear on the streets of Oxford.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Obligatory Oscar Noms Post

Sorry guys, but I had to squeeze it out. But that's for another kind of blog – I also had to write something quick on the Oscar noms.

Few surprises – this was year was a safe list. All the expected movies got shouts – The King's Speech, in particular, was draped with nominations. Aside from this biggie, Brits didn't do badly at all this time around - Another Year got a look in, and sort-of-Brit-born Inception did well. Where most people would look at Best Film (it's got to be The King's Speech) or possibly Best Director (either Darren Aronofsky'll get the gong for his Brian de Palma and Roman Polanksi impressions in the otherwise quite divisive Black Swan or Boyle will get it for the technical wizadry of 127 Hours), the most interesting category is definitely Best Actress. Some of the others are too easy – Firth and Rush are bound to win for The King's Speech, for instance. And Sorkin will get the adapted screenplay for The Social Network.

But let's break it down Best Actress:

Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right. That little-seen Hollywood figure, the ageing, but successful, woman is seen here. I did honestly prefer co-star Julianne Moore's performance in the movie, but Bening 's showier role is still more than worthy.

Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole. John Cameron Mitchell's, ahem, straightest film to date has got comparatively little buzz, but has been achieving some warm reviews. Kidman won before, but I think she's the dark horse here.

Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone – Long predicted nom for this great performance. An otherwise very indie film, newcomer Lawrence brings Jodie Foster levels of precocity to the screen. She'll be a favourite to win this.

Natalie Portman - Black Swan. She was bound to get nominated, but her performance has divided people. Some say she lacks the depth for the role, others say her fragility is brilliance in itself. I think she has a good chance, but she's no dead cert.

Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine. The deserved winner – a stunning performance in a brilliant film. But will the controversy of the film's oral sex scene spoil her chances, or will it keep it in the academy's, erm, head?

Who wins? Well, find out in a month and a bit!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Laughter in the dark: Five films where you shouldn't really be laughing ...

1. Orphans. 1996, UK, Peter Mullan
Sweary Scottish folk smash statues of the Virgin Mary, manhandle disabled people and get semen in their faces. And it's bookended by a death and a funeral. OK, so it's not all played for laughs but Peter Mullan's directorial debut is melting with dark, wry humour almost winning out amongst the inevitable dour Celticiana.

2. Harold and Maude. 1971, USA, Hal Ashby
The seventies saw suicide becoming painless in MASH so it was almost inevitable that the ultimate form of self abuse would become funny. Bud Cort constructs fake suicides with theatrical abandon in between falling in love with an eighty year old. Oh, that Hal Ashby and his counter-cultural ways.

3. The Idiots. 1998, Denmark, Lars Von Trier
Lars Von Trier's foray into dogme sees a bunch of 20-something pretend to be mentally ill. Just for something to do. As if offending the audience's sensibilities wasn't enough, Trier throws in some penetrative sex for good measure in this ugly, rather patchy, movie.

4. Abigail's Party. 1977, UK, Mike Leigh
Put some of the most awful characters you'd ever not hope to meet into a room, and it'll be something like Mike Leigh's slice of gauche, middle class horror. Alison Steadman rides on a tidal wave of estuary English over the other actors to steal the show in this modern classic.

5. Fargo. 1996, USA, Joel/Ethan Coen
Black as kohl, this is an obvious choice for the list. The key here is Frances McDormand, whose sturdy, but humane, police officer offers a sweetness and warmth which makes the black comedy writhing around her even more delicious.

And on a related note:

Saturday, 22 January 2011

You may have missed ... The Infidel

The Infidel attempts something few British films have yet done – portray an everyday British- Muslim family just trying to get by.

It's a shame then that the trowled on contrivances of the comedy and of the plot get in the way. The most irksome is how the central conceit is revealed – the very middle aged Omid Djalili's Mahmud discovers he was born to Jews and adopted by Muslim parents after finding his birth certificate in a box of miscellaneous possessions. It's pretty thin – and you would have thought he'd have seen his birth certificate by his age. This happens to coincide with his son's wedding, to the daughter of a Muslim fundamentalist. And also, of course, becoming aware of a more than Jewish than Jewish neighbour in Richard Schiff's Lenny.

The comedy is equally as ham-fistedly constructed in this feature screenplay debut by David Baddiel. Baddiel's understanding of what works in a cinema is not much different to what works in a TV sitcom and the result is a lot of people speaking and gesticulating in rooms. You feel it should be punctuated by a laughter track. Director Josh Appignanesi tries to add a more cinematic feel with depth in frame, longer takes, panning shots and the like, but his style just doesn't seem to fit the material. The result is a very awkward tone with jokes all but disappearing into the background.

That all said, Omid Djalili is good value as Mahmoud. Djalili is a gifted physical comedian and he's particularly good with mannerisms, inventive comedy dancing and accents. He does get some laughs and it's probably due to him that the material works as well as it does.

Throughout, glimmers of insight and the genuinely funny peep through. However, there's a lot more cons than the pros in this disappointing feature.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Now on DVD: Dog Tooth

Dogtooth is, superficially at least, the oddest film of the last few years. The closest point of comparison is probably to Ian Banks' cult eighties novel The Wasp Factory. In that, a father and his two sons lead, somewhere in rural Scotland, an extraordinarily unconventional life which involves everything from compulsive table leg measuring to bouts of extreme animal cruelty. One of Dogtooth's most memorable scenes also involves a sudden, shocking scene of animal cruelty, but the real similarity lies in both piece’s depictions of families creating their own private codes of conduct and, in Dogtooth, even language.

Again, the location here is remote. We don't know where exactly, but we can presume it's somewhere in rural Greece. The family is dominated by a crazed patriarch who releases fish in the swimming pool and awards his children stickers for behaviour he deems good – behaviour that is, for the most part, nondescript random acts of living. Behind closed doors the kids have all kinds of sex with each other and, in the evenings, the family gather to watch home movies in which nothing particularly happens.

All of this is told in a disquieting still, detached style. The camera rarely moves and sometimes the edit also lingers. The lighting is usually rather bright. However rarely do we feel like voyeurs. The action is so alien and although we see physical, sexual intimacy, rarely do we see any emotional rawness. The camera is rarely at anything other than a mid-shot; this is a close-up-free zone.

Giorgos Lanththimos must be commended for his consistency and endeavour to see his concept play out. But despite the cold humour and the commitment to the increasingly bizarre, there's neither very much soul or very much insight on display here. A family that creates its own language and rich inner world, albeit a violent and incestuous one, is a concept begging for endless excavation, but this film is too interested in confining itself to the grotesque. It's provocative grotesque, sure, which does ask questions. But you've got to have some meat, or chewy sinew, on those bloody bones to take it a little further.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

In Cinemas: Blue Valentine

Although Blue Valentine's scenes alternate between the start and the end of a relationship, we rarely, respectively, feel particularly hopeful or particularly dismal. The jarring nature of this alternation instead produces a muddy, complicated effect which makes this indie drama a lot more interesting than it first appears.

We begin with the dismal. The school run is the choice of opening gambit for director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance. We notice that between the clearing away of dishes and ushering out of the front door, that the central couple barely speak to each other. It's an unusually extended scene for the film – probably the longest focus on the one extreme we're treated to. And emotions don't seem too bruised – Michelle William's Cindy could just be upset at the disappearance – and subsequent demise – of the family pet, for which she's printing out dozens of 'missing' posters at work.

It's only when we move into the opposite end of the relationship, where the two first meet – she hesitatingly flirts, he pours on the charm – that we realize what a difference this marriage made. And the extent of the couple's problems and coping strategies are slowly revealed until the incredibly sad pivotal episode in which Ryan Gosling's Dean makes a last ditch attempt at romance by booking them into the unknowingly ironic choice of the 'future room' at an out of town hotel.

The film then, is a constant process of cross-referencing and character illumination by deduction and scene adjacency. BV is the hip, and inevitably less subtle, American cousin of Francois Ozon's 5x2. But with its slightly abrasive and very occasionally overwrought edges, it possesses a frank, sometimes uncomfortably intimate nature. The film's sex is never unnecessary, but surprisingly confrontational. The emotions bleed out out the screen thanks to the heavy use of close up.

And throughout this emotional warzone, we get two very fine performances. Ryan Gosling shouts, sweats and cries as Dean, the soulful handyman. Michelle Williams sulks, internalises then explodes as the unhappy nurse Cindy. Without them, the movie would be an unusual and admirably honest experience. With these actors, it's essential.