Thursday, 23 October 2014

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection, though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental.


Appreciation for Jeunet’s milieu is not entirely dependent on one’s inclinations. His last picture, Micmacs, left me cold, evidencing what happens when he relies purely on mannered technique, performances and gags, with nothing in support. It’s his most indulgent film, the one where it’s easy to say, “This is where the co-director of Delicatessen would eventually finish up, his worst excesses allowed to burgeon unchecked”. In between we had his macabre, sumptuous fantasy City of the Lost Children, Alien Resurrection (one I’ve warmed to over the years, although I quite understand why the majority haven’t) and his masterpiece Amélie (I have seen A Very Long Engagement, but it warrants the least likely criticism I’d expect to level at a Jeunet film; it’s rather forgettable).


Amélie remains the perfect marriage of Jeunet’s captivating visual style, peculiar characterisation (housed within the transcendent Audrey Tautou), strangely complementary facility for whimsy and the sardonic, and rhythmic, musical approach to editing (the score by Yann Tiersen is an all-time great). Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried too much about Spivet since Amélie, although it is a wilfully upbeat confection with a positive destination that is never in doubt, is also resistant to schmaltz and tear-jerking. Jeunet is quite capable of moving the viewer, but he’s too sprightly and quick-witted to become treacly or cloying.


So it is with Spivet, which may not share Amélie’s cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel has recently worked with the Coens and Tim Burton) but Thomas Hardmeier lends the proceedings a similarly rainbow worldview.  In particular, the landscapes are striking and luminous, be it the Spivet family farm or the views from the train aboard which T.S. hitches. Even Chicago’s industrial wasteland takes on a transformative, magical atmosphere. Jeunet is a director who, like Gilliam, Dante, Burton and Verbinski, is often only so many paces away from creating live action cartoons (and for some of those, the overlap has at times been overt). While most of these filmmakers are quite upfront about their skewed worldviews, Jeunet is particularly partial to presenting his awry vision in the apparel of idiosyncratic frivolity concealing darker more disturbing forces within. Not usually enough to overwhelm (although Lost Children gets close at times) but enough to catch the darkness unmistakably.


It’s true that there is an air of familiarity about the general circumstance of Spivet. The child on a quest in an exaggerated environment recalls the likes of North, while the narration brings to mind the likes of Babe, Amélie and Pushing Daisies (and even Raising Arizona, in the way the Jeunet leads us to visual punchlines). Reif Larsen’s list of potential adaptors included Wes Anderson, and it would be easy to picture. Anderson too likes his visual asides and punctuation points, and Spivet is replete with them. I’m doubtful that he would have embraced the workings of the young inventor’s mind as wholly, however.  And when we see T.S. debate the different routes to answer the telephone it summons the heightened planning sequences beloved by Edgar Wright. Jeunet approach seems like a sure fit; the visual representations that reflect the book’s layout (about two-thirds of it include some form of drawing, T.S.’s depiction, ordering and mapping of his environment) are seamless and complementary.


10 year-old T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a precocious prodigy with particular abilities in the scientific field. Even his teacher takes issue with his towering intelligence (“You think you’re smarter than everyone else, don’t you?” he remonstrates as T.S. proffers a copy of Discover magazine in which his essay has been printed). He lives on the Montana Copper Top ranch with his taciturn cowboy dad (the ever-excellent Callum Keith Rennie), beetle-studying mum (Helena Bonham Carter, taking a break from Burton wackiness and diving into Jeunet wackiness) and beauty pageant-obsessed sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson). His monozygotic twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies) the apple of his rugged outdoor-loving father’s eye, died in a shooting accident for which T.S. blames himself. T.S. set himself the task of finding the key to perpetual motion (“Such a machine defies the laws of the universe”) and when he learns that the Smithsonian museum has awarded him the Spencer Baird Award for his perpetual motion machine he decides to travel cross-country to receive it, leaving his self-involved parents and sister behind.


It’s fair to say the first two-thirds of Spivet are the superior sequences; the introduction to T.S.’s farm and family, and then the journey itself. He travels first by train, ingeniously encouraging it to stop for him by painting the signal light red with a marker. Then he then hitchhikes the final leg (Jeunet’s world is one where a boy may travel without fear, certainly of the predatory variety). On the way, T.S. meets Jeunet’s actor talisman Dominique Pinon (as rail yard teller of tall tales Two Cloud) and veteran Ricky (Julian Richings), who offers offhand caustic moment comments (“Join the army, see the world, meet interesting people and kill them”); Jeunet delights in these kinds of moments.


When T.S. arrives to take his prize, the picture embarks on a less interesting detour as Judy Davis’ flinty G.H. Jibsen sees T.S. as her ticket to fame and glory; he is subject to inconclusive tests (“Thank you for evaluating my brain, Judy”) and put on television. If this is sometimes bumpy going, fortunately it does not lessen the impact of T.S.’s speech in which he gives an account of the death of his brother (the first such we have heard). He discards discussion of his invention during the preamble; we learn that it will last 400 years, so it isn’t really a perpetual motion device. When he appears on a TV chat show he even offers a sop to the capitalists, claiming that, even though a much bigger machine could indeed power the studio, the outlay on light bulbs would still represent a significant cost.  Catlett has the slightly the nerdy confidence of a young(er) Jesse Eisenberg and he isn’t always nuanced in his delivery, but he’s genuine and restrained in the scene where he explains his brother’s demise to the rapt audience and then again later when his mother informs him it wasn’t his fault, “What happened just happened” (Carter is also strong here, dropping the peculiarities that have inhabited her post-Burton career).


The speech encapsulates the film’s twin themes of immortality and loss, expressing with appreciable subtlety that T.S.’s invention is a means to repair his world after the loss of his brother, through the only means he knows how (scientific application). In other hands (those of Chris Columbus, say) lines like “Thank you for taking care of me, you’re one of the best families in the world” could infest the film like sugary syrup, but T.S. gives off the air of the even-handed, slightly reserved boffin; offputtingly obsessive and aloof to many, T.S. balances this with unlikely empathy and insight. Jeunet ensures that less is more where emotions are concerned; his reconciliation with his mother is disarmingly brief, before it’s time to move on, and his father (“Can’t get horse shit from a cricket”) needs only give him a piggyback (well, that and punch TV presenter Roy’s – Rick Mercer – lights out) to show how much he cares but can’t normaly express.


While it’s the case that one is frequently reminded of a junior Amélie, with the flights of fantasy (Inside Gracie’s Cortex is particularly wonderful, as is the moment where faithful hound Tapioca says farewell while not taking his eyes off the TV), analyses of the ways of the world from its protagonist’s point of view (fake and genuine smiles, his observance of how his “Day and night” parents touched hands in the hallway “as if secretly exchanging a few seeds”), and bittersweet flamboyance, Jeunet’s film about “the Leonardo of Montana” offers much to enjoy on its own merits. Jeunet should probably trying stretching himself a bit, though, even within his own boundaries, if he is to avoid the much maligned fate of Tim Burton (playing in a well dug sandpit and unearthing nothing new).


***1/2

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

I really love Piers Morgan!

Need for Speed
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The elusive potential goldmine that is the video game adaptation. How many have been a success? Critically, next to none. Commercially, the Resident Evil series is about it. There are the precious few first instalments that instilled apathy (Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat), but the odds are seriously against any lucky feeling studio making any serious dough. That may change (there are several interesting names attached to several interesting projects) but it wont be this year. Need for Speed will probably make a profit when all’s told, but as an attempt to cash in on the success of the Fast & Furious franchise it fizzles, and as a prospective dumb-but-fun auto-racing movie it’s a dud.


I think it’s probably fair to suggest that the only way to approach a big cross-country pursuit movie is not to treat it entirely seriously, particularly since the scenario where taking off as an act of rebellion against society and the squares while dogged by the fuzz has long since lacked resonance (like, since the ‘70s). Director Scott Waugh seems oblivious to this, treating the whole affair with a crippling lack of levity (and what there is, is painfully forced). 


A stunt co-ordinator turned director (his first was Act of Valor), Waugh knows where to put the camera (he’s especially fond of in-car shots –so you know the actors were really there!) but on this evidence he has problems editing his action together coherently. The results remind me of the choppy work that litters Simon West’s early career. Speaking of which, there are also attempts at Bruckheimer-esque rousing airborne panorama shots with that old favourite of the constantly moving camera; they’re passé though, aping older and better movies. The picture as a whole feels like everyone involved has been second-guessing, but that shouldn’t be a surprise given the abundance of missteps DreamWorks has made lately. Any given choice is likely to be a bad one, unless the ‘berg himself is involved.


His involvement here extended to picking Aaron Paul for the plum role of Tobey Marshall, a former racer out for revenge after old rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, knowing that the only thing to do with a role like his is relish the irredeemable villainy) not only gets his pal killed in an impromptu road race but lies about it to boot. Two years later, out of jail and on parole, Marshall assembles his old crew of garage buddies with a revenge plan that entails getting picked for the De Leon, a race organised by racing buff Monarch (Michael Keaton); the winner takes the other competitors’ cars (not much point if they’ve all crashed en route, I’d have thought). This requires attracting the requisite attention (and thus an invite from Monarch) and reaching the venue in a madcap 48-hour drive from New York to California.


Waugh’s decision to eschew CGI is admirable but, when a script is as wholly ludicrous as this one, attempts at realism are entirely misplaced. If you don’t play this knowingly, you look very silly and, with a grim-faced payback plot at the core, that’s exactly what Need for Speed quickly becomes. Instead of thriving on the clichés it exhumes, the movie is buried by them. There’s none of the infectious fun of the (best of the) Fast & Furious series, and the ensemble of Marshall’s helpers strain for absent chemistry and empty laughs (Harrison Gilbertson, Scott Mescudi, Ramon Rodriguez and an especially irritating Rami Malek; he wants to be exuberant and cheeky but is just loud and annoying).


There are attempts to circumnavigate the gross irresponsibility of these young hoodlums and then their petrol head antics – Mescudi provides an air spotting service to ensure members of the public don’t get run over – but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that pretty much everything that happens is a result of Tobey’s brashness and rashness. Yeah, Dino is a massive wanker, but Tobey continually rises to the bait. He gets involved in a business deal to rebuild a Ford Shelby Mustang when his chums warn him against it.  And then, when he has his profit in the bag (assuming Dino doesn’t stiff him), he childishly risks everything to massage his ego and jumps into a race that results in one of his friends getting killed. 



Later he unveils his plan to get even, but it’s unfathomable quite how he expects this to play out since everything that happens is either the result of Julia (Imogen Poots) rallying to his side or the result of enormously lucky coincidences (one of the cast even has to ask “Why wouldn’t he destroy it?” of the car Dino used to ram Tobey’s pal off the road; it’s the old “trick” of, if you’ve got a really, really, stupid plot development in store, draw attention to it in the hope audiences will just accept what’s in full view). Then, instead of having a sensibly recuperative night-in pre-race, and having antagonised Dino whom he knows is a psycho, Tobey goes out for a drive and acts surprised when someone puts him in a car wreck.


This might be less of a problem if Paul exuded anything but dead-eyed intensity. Spielberg liked him, as does everyone, for Breaking Bad, but on the evidence of this he doesn’t have what it takes as a leading man (which is fine, a good supporting actor often gets better parts). The danger is, Paul might end up being seen as one-trick pony. Can he play other types? Stony severity isn’t the boost this movie needed, and it’s left to both the Brits to take the acting honours.


There’s something a bit weasely about Cooper that makes him perfect for bad guys but unconvincing as heroes. He’s sensible enough to betray not an ounce of humanity as Dino (Dakota Johnson, who I understand is supposed to be a next big thing, barely registers as his girlfriend; also Tobey’s ex and the sister of the poor wee lamb who gone done and got blew up). The real star of the show is Poots, however, who has a habit of shining in less-than-sterling roles. She turns the posh “tart” (as Monarch calls her) role to her advantage, and ekes a fair degree of amusement playing off Paul’s impassive petulance. She also inspires a line no one would countenance on this side of the Atlantic (one would hope for better across the Pond too, and I’m going to charitably assume it was meant ironically); “I really love Piers Morgan!


It’s the only memorable line here, with one caveat. The chases don’t linger in the mind either. There needed to be a Roscoe P Coltrane type in hot pur-suit of Tobey, rather than Waugh wasting time (this film is drastically over-long) on him driving the wrong way up streets or – almost, only almost, likeably stupid, since the amount of effort involved would have made it much quicker to stop for a couple of minutes – refuelling in transit. Nothing here is cool, and nor are any of the sequences suitably adrenalising.  To misquote the estimable Point Break, Need is young, dumb, and... really dumb. Even with all the havoc and mayhem caused, all the lives endangered, and the ruination of homeless folks’ shopping trolleys, Tobey is such a wonderful chap that he saves Dino at a crucial moment. The problem isn’t that; it’s that there’s no spirit here, no joie de vivre. Tobey isn’t about a need for freedom and expressing his individuality; he’s all unrefined rictus rancor.


The races themselves – topping and tailing the movie - have little sense of route, geography or opponents (aside from Dino); the kind of fundamentals required to make such automotive antics engaging. Waugh must take the co-blame as co-editor. The cinematography is bold and bright, but wasted amid the general incoherence. The soundtrack is just a loud mess, which matches the general tone. The screenplay, credited to George Gatins, is telling his first (brother John gets a story credit; his past efforts include the poxy Real Steel and half decent Flight).


The caveat I mentioned earlier relates to Keaton, who is an incongruous kind of car enthusiast, but whose improv (“Racers should race, cops should eat donuts”) gives the picture a turbo charge whenever he appears – even if it’s just by way of voiceover. Keaton’s profile has lifted recently, which is long overdue. On this evidence (he’s also one of the better things in the Robocop remake) he’s in fine shape and of suitably quick mind should Beetlejuice 2 ever get off the ground.


**


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The truth is, we’re joined at the hip.

The Two Faces of January
(2014)

(SPOILERS) From its solemn, haughty title down to its sun-drenched period trappings, The Two Faces of January has the veneer of a classy, classical, immaculately poised thriller. Patricia Highsmith’s novels have held lustre ever since Hitchcock made Strangers on a Train, but such a flawless and rewarding interpretation of her work has since been consistently elusive. Certainly, it wasn’t to be found in the vastly overrated – and probably best known of her novels – The Talented Mr Ripley. January feels like a picture arriving pre-prepared to be lauded – the word “elegant” will likely preface any given review – and there are many things about it that do deserve praise. Unfortunately, the one thing that doesn’t is the story itself; the expectation of a tense, twisty journey gradually way to the realisation that this slightest of tales has few surprises on the way to a rather inevitable destination.


A recurring feature of Highsmith’s work is the presence of non-traditional protagonists; often these are flawed, amoral anti-heroes and her particular skill is to encourage the reader to identify with their unbecoming behaviour. January is no exception, revolving around the uneasy tensions between three Americans in Greece. One, tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), has become a part of the landscape. Fluent in the language, he uses his edge to skim profits from those he intercedes for in deals (or even those who simply take him to dinner). We know he’s dodgy, if in a decidedly petty sense, from the first.


Less clearly motivated are well-presented couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette McFarland (Kirsten Dunst). The trio catches each other’s attention and before long Rydal is showing them around and skimming off them. When it becomes clear that Chester’s dubious activities put Rydal’s nickel-and-dime antics in the shade, events conspire and the latter becomes the couple’s only-partially witting aide and accomplice. They head for Crete, where Chester and Colette are due to take delivery of fake passports. This time together fosters the development of a highly fraught love triangle as Rydal and Colette become attracted to each other. Meanwhile the outwardly composed Chester reveals himself to be increasingly uncontrolled and excessive as he responds to the perceived threat of Rydal and the danger of losing his much younger wife.


The first half of Hussein Amini’s directorial debut is slippery and elusive. The simmering tensions and glowering looks keep the viewer guessing just where this will go. Unfortunately, Amini has no aces up his sleeve and there is insufficient plot to sustain the unsympathetic characters on their unravelling way. Part of the problem is that Mortensen has – as he frequently does – chosen well, but his is the only one of the three with sufficient substance. Chester is cool and calculated, with an innate knack for self-preservation, except when his “better” instincts fail him. He has Rydal made from their first meeting (“I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”), and is quite aware of Rydal taking his cut and having designs on his wife.


But Chester is no mastermind; his prior business affairs don’t sound as if he was engaging in an intentional scam (until he made off with the loot, that is) any more than killing the investigator was (he is clearly shocked by what he has done; taking life isn’t something he does everyday). Chester continually performs blunders, unable to keep a calm head and turning to the bottle when his world is threatened, yet he demands attention as he still manages to outwit others in desperate situations. He becomes a rounded character through the sum total of his flaws. We’re even unsure if he’s acting the tourist until we see him getting lost and increasingly ruffled by his inability to master his surroundings. Mortensen makes Chester’s shading consistently dangerous and intriguing; when we hear him casually invite Rydal to “come and have a drink and we’ll talk about it” we’re instantly struck by how he used the same words with the investigator. We can see and hear his cunning at work, yet all that befalls him could have been prevented if he was more cautious and considered.


Rydal, through no fault of Isaac, is more obscure. Initially it appears as if he will be the focus, and that we will see the McFarlands through his eyes (one of the most appealing aspects of the screenplay is the realisation that we’re being introduced to the couple in the middle of something; this tale doesn’t start with their meeting with Rydal), but Amini switches allegiance to Chester. Much is made of how the two are similar, but the ambiguity encouraged by the writer-director distances any insight into Rydal (he resists showing Rydal and Colette in flagrante or even in a clinch, so their rapport relies heavily on Chester’s point of view and his imaginings of what they are getting up to; even when Rydal tells him they had sex it could as easily be designed to extract an angry confession, more likely even).  Such diffidence can work to an extent, but we need to be engaged by why he is doing what he is doing, intrigued by his motivations. We’re unsure how deeply he cares about Colette, uncertain if he has limits to his potential for criminal behaviour (“I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a little larceny in your veins” says Chester), unclear if his entrapment of Chester is purely a result of being forced to co-operate with the police or a genuine desire to bring Chester to book. And we end up not much caring.


Chester’s dying confession seems to come out of the blue; a man making amends why? It seems intended to connect the running themes of the doubling between the two conmen announced by the title. The Roman god Janus (a rather peculiar choice given there is no Greek equivalent), hence January, is the god of transitions and change, able to see into both the past and the future, but the bearing on Highsmith’s tale is really in the loosest sense. The two faced god, two men with two faces each, one for everyone else and one for what is really lurking beneath. Rydal initially tells rich heiress Lauren (Daisy Bevan, daughter of the film’s producer Tim and Joely Richardson – so she has an acting dynasty’s blood in her veins) that Chester reminds him of his father, the father whose funeral he didn’t attend and whom he resents. We don’t know (like so much with Rydal) if this is merely a deflection because he really was eyeing up Colette, but it ties into Chester informing him how much alike they are and how one day he will realise how much like the elder swindler he is; Chester is the Janus who encounters his own past seeing into Rydal’s future.


The object of both their desires is also a little too remote. Dunst is strong, but her character has little to do other aside from reacting to the men around her; her role is too undercooked to sense that she has any real control or power over her men. It would be interesting to see the young trophy wife actually made something of in a film, but filmmakers often fall into the trap of making the part exactly what it appears to be. I’d like to say I was surprised by Colette’s exit, but the picture was already tending in that interior direction; with no clear external trajectory, its characters had to implode or suffocate each other.


This is one of those films where it’s difficult to put a finger on quite where, finally, it disappoints; January’s a slow burn character-driven affair that never quite clicks. There are several well-executed sequences during the second half (the confrontation in the ruins, the customs queue at the airport and subsequent fooling of Rydal, the street café meeting place, the final chase) but I was insufficiently engaged by these characters’ fates and, rather than spiralling ever more out of control, Amini settles on a more restrained touchdown.


Hussein Amini read January at university, and had wanted to make a film of it ever since. The intrinsic appeal eludes me, although I admit I’ve found Highsmith material very hit and miss as far as adaptations go (the Malkovich Ripley’s Game was a hit). It has the tone and range of a minor piece, which may be why it isn’t so well known. Some of Amini’s more fanciful allusions don’t bear much interrogation either, Theseus and the Minotaur in particular. Okay, there are a number of representations of labyrinths, and Rydal, like Theseus has lost his father, but the broader references to Ariadne (Colette) and the Minotaur (Chester) are vague enough to resist a coherent reading.


Amini’s screenwriting career has been mixed; Drive received much acclaim, but a substantial part of that arguably relates to what the director did with it. He was Oscar nominated for The Wings of the Dove, and his first few screenplays were adaptations. Next up is a Le Carré, but on January’s evidence I’m more impressed with the sure-footed classical style he brings as a director than his scripting talents. There’s an assuredness at work, a willingness to let the picture unfold in its own good time, and a keen awareness of the tensions and space between the characters.


The Two Faces of January is gorgeous to behold (courtesy of cinematographer Marcel Zyskind), and just for the travelogue value it’s worth experiencing. Unfortunately the need to fall back on such a comment illustrates that it is also somehow lacking; the inner tensions between its trio are unable sustain the film for its entire length, and it’s left to peter out rather than end boldly or confidently. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing Amini’s sophomore effort and I’m certain it will be every bit as elegant as this is.


***