Monday, 29 June 2009

Leatherheads (2008)

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George Clooney’s third film as director, and his first disappointment, is rather less than the sum of its parts. It never bores, and offers some fine comic banter and smart sequences, and yet it never decides what it wants to be. Clooney seemingly envisioned a motor-mouthed, hyper-stylised retro-comedy, such as his sometime-collaborators the Coen Brothers specialise in. Such a film is promised in the opening football sequences that contrast the gilded glories of college football with the rugged exigencies of the professional variety of the mid-‘20s, with cows watching in bewilderment as players wrestle in glorified pastures..




And yet Clooney pursues more ambitious targets, offering a deadpan mixture of the gritty blue-collar wit of Slap-Shot (1977) with a classical screwball comedy, and even a dash of Eight Men Out (1987), quoting John Sayles' bittersweet take on the subordination of cheeky chutzpah to unforgiving authority. Clooney’s own character, the aging, old-school player Dodge Connelly, contends with changing forces in his beloved game and tries to extricate himself with the maximum of grace and a minimum of respect to the new powers-that-be.


With his team, the Duluth Lions, beset by financial difficulties in a game nobody takes seriously, he decides to court champion college player and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play with them, with the incentive of a colossal pay cheque, which intrigues his agent C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) more than it does Rutherford. Dodge’s ploy works too well; he and his kind are immediately faced with being antiquated in an age of militarised, rulebook-enforced on-field tactics. And then there’s flapper journalist Lexy Littleton (Renae Zellwegger), who’s been assigned to flirt her way into Carter’s confidence, to dig up the facts behind his wartime exploits..



One trouble is that Coen-esque smart-ass swagger doesn’t mesh well with Clooney’s rather more humane, personal sensibility, which finds its space when Dodge and Lexy’s romance takes them to a speak-easy, slow-dancing to a crooning black chanteuse in a moment that evokes the wistful jazz poetry that punctuated and leavened Good Night, and Good Luck’s (2005) procedural intensity.


But the film seems weighted down by conflicting impulses, much like the concluding football game where the mud-caked players can’t score a point, an attempt at a comedic anti-climax that only fulfils the second part of that phrase: Clooney doesn’t stage the antic game-play with a tenth of the detail and zest of, say, the immortal football match of MASH (1970).


Not helping is that the central trio’s relationships are never really endowed with much urgency (although all three actors work with the comic timing of an atomic clock), meaning that the crucial romantic tension and stake in the final conflict never resolve into anything more than theory. For instance, the sequence in which Dodge and Carter fistfight their way to a draw, a classic scene in the American macho tradition from films like The Big Country (1958), neither cements the men’s friendship nor achieves sufficient irony in failing to resolve anything.



Clooney pulls off some fine comedic sequences, such as the bar fights where he cuts straight from confrontation to battle, rendering such explosions of violence more absurd by unmooring them from cause-and-effect rules; most hilariously when he cuts from the midst of one such brawl to the participants singing “Over There”, a moment that would make John Ford proud in its evocation of drinkin’, fightin’, but essentially big-hearted Americana.




But Clooney for the most part shows little of the structural concision and visual creativity that distinguished his first two films from the usual product of actors-turned-directors, and this, in addition to the shapelessness of the screenplay, adds up to a miss.


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Gran Torino (2008)

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One of Clint Eastwood’s more satisfying late-career films, Gran Torino wholeheartedly embraces its own clichés, and ransacks them with a deceptively playful edge. It’s a film about multiculturalism with an almost unique honesty, picturing the modern blue-collar suburb as infected by false divides, described with a certain caricatured accuracy. Picturing taciturn American manliness as both endangered and eternal, Gran Torino avoids the ponderous pretentiousness that has afflicted much of Eastwood’s recent work, constantly undercut by unsubtlety and melodrama; Torino knows it’s transparent, and plays it up from when it first introduces Eastwood growling in Dickensian obviousness at his Laotian neighbours and being pestered by his goth-ish but materialist granddaughter for his car once he dies, which ought to be soon. She might as well wear a sign that say “ungrateful modern brat”. Like his most notable hero, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Eastwood’s Kowalski trades in an insulting argot that conceals a strange mixture of all-purpose misanthropy and conscientiousness, free to face down a gang of African-American bullies but also dismissing one of their near-victims as an ofay dipshit he doesn’t blame them for wanting to slap up.
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The film is built around the distance between modes of communication and the actuality of relationships, most comically and absurdly illustrated when Eastwood teaches his young Asian charge to talk like a man, that is, in offhand insults and epithets, as the gateway to how men relate, testing each-other’s mettle even whilst establishing common worries. It’s a legitimate, and accurate, observation that multiculturalism in the working-class world tends to develop in ways that would inevitably horrify the sophomore student and the bourgeois liberal.
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The story wades into interesting territory in explicitly contrasting the decay of the manufacturing working class with military intervention in foreign countries and blowback of those wars. Finally, the film doesn’t really interrogate that relationship, or the nature of patriarchal masculinity as a failed bulwark against social decline, or recognise the quiet but crucial contradiction in the tale's essential notion that civility is necessary but too often absent, whilst nakedly enjoying the rants of someone who can’t be bothered with it anymore; but it does suggest how affectations of civility can be used as a weapon to enforce situations on the weaker party. There’s a weak stab at sacrificial transcendence in the finale. It’s still an engaging work. Likable supporting performances from Bee Vang and Ahney Her help enormously.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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Though it drags the weighty baggage of a prestige production somewhat at odds with its life-on-the-edge subject matter, Diary is exceptionally well-made by director George Stevens, a fine reversal on the elephantine soap-opera of Giant (1955).
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Strong in the concerted paranoia of its suspense sequences, and in its feel for tensions between a group of terrified, barely tolerant but civilized people in a desperate situation, Stevens’ roving camera cleverly divides his widescreen frame into cramping nooks and private universes, discovering in a broken window and the ratty flowers at its sill a world nearly as vast as that in Stevens’ Shane (1952).
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The film is finally, and almost irredeemably, hampered by a glossy sentimentality - which contrives to suggest transcendence at the moment of being caught and dragged off to starve to death in a concentration camp – and some opportunistic story licence, as a kind of painted-on smiley face for ‘50s inspirational purposes.
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Though it pays some tribute to Frank’s unshakable humanism, the film nonetheless can’t quite come to terms with the schism her story represents – looking for the best of mankind in the nadir of human history – in terms that aren’t pure Reader’s Digest. Undoubtedly, the editing the film underwent - lopping off an Auschwitz postcript in particular - because of bad test screening results may have helped sell the film at the time, and eternally hurt it for posterity.
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The style is too literal, the material stagy (it’s not taken from Frank’s book, but from a theatrical intermediary by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who also wrote the screenplay), to discover a real poeticism: the hard, procedural intensity in the rigorous and complex group framings and long-take acting, and the observation of everyday detail that drives most of the film, are far more satisfying.
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Millie Perkins’ lack of capacity to project either keen intelligence or adolescent emotional acuity, vital for the role, doesn’t help either: it’s surely deliberate that she comes across like a bratty prodigy from the Upper West Side to make her all the more relatable for American audiences, but it hasn’t aged well as a choice (couldn’t she and Diane Baker have swapped parts?). The cast is otherwise excellent, with Joseph Schildkraut’s performance as Otto Frank perfection.
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The Science of Sleep (La Science de Reves, 2006)

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Lapped up by hipster critics, Michel Gondry’s second film strikes me as a shapeless, occasionally dazzling, often tiresome piece of work, which applies to the lead character too. Gael Garcia Bernal is the coolest mofo in the business these days, and he imbues his character, Stephane, with rather more charm than he ought to actually possess. Matching Bernal with Charlotte Gainsbourg (as his alienated soul-mate Stephanie) is almost the last word in contemporary romantic pairings, but Gondry’s not chasing traditional romance, and his film bends over backwards to avoid an obvious cute-chick-falls-for-zany-guy narrative.
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Stephane and Stephanie are clearly meant to be together, but they’re also bundles of insecurity and retrograde personality flaws, that see them lock into a frustrating pas-de-deux of missed opportunities and misunderstandings. A lot of twee alt-culture retro-fetishism follows, but what kind of narrative Science wants to be never quite gels: even if it’s in part deliberate, the repetitive structure sees scenes, in essence, repeat over and over, and the flourishes of magic-realist whimsy (like a one-second time machine) never attach to anything of concrete importance.
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Gondry is too insistently delighted by his own inventions to establish a firm clash between the real and fantasy worlds – it’s too gutless to make a harsh commitment to showing up the dreamer, and Gondry can’t make you ache, like, say, Petulia, or Brazil, where fantasists are eaten alive by reality, make you ache. And he’s too worried about keeping his indie cool to chart a course for wondrous insanity. His low-tech special effects are amusing, but finally define the film more as an exhibition of installation art.
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Fiddler on the Roof (1972)

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It’s broad, hammy, a cliché of cultural representation, and bloats a simple story into a three-hour wannabe epic. It’s also hugely entertaining. Jerry Bock’s and Sheldon Harnick’s score is still one Broadway’s sprightliest, beefed up here with superb orchestrations from John Williams.

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Norman Jewison’s rough-hewn, realistic mise-en-scene, closer to Doctor Zhivago than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, effectively conjures isolating distances, shabby shtetls, familial warmth, and a general melancholia over the nature of things that tempers the schmaltz. Despite the length and simplicity of story, it doesn't drag because it’s genuinely alive.
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God knows, Zero Mostel must have been something if Topol’s Tevye was considered more naturalistic, but he tackles his part with a bodily force and outsized humanity that defines the biggest mensch around. Paul Michael Glaser is a bit hard to take as the young radical – he’s about as radical as a cream bun – but the rest of the cast handle themselves well. The dream sequence is a vigorous piece of comic fantasia that seems like prototypical Tim Burton, and the conclusion packs a punch all the more effective for being quiet.
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