Tag: 2013

Film Inquiry: Our Favourite Film Couples

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The Film Inquiry team have been considering cinema’s greatest couples. I was planning on choosing a non-romantic couple for my contribution until I remembered the very special Enough Said. Directed by Nicole Holofcener, the film charts the romance between Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini), two divorcees who are introduced to each other at a party. Their remarkably naturalistic performances are key to the film’s success.

To read more about Enough Said and see the other contributions, please visit: filminquiry.com/favorite-film-couples/

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Joe (2013)

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Nicolas Cage disappears into his role as the titular Joe in a film that’s thematically rather familiar but also a surprisingly realist piece of cinema.

The film follows the principal characters Joe (Nicolas Cage) and Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary is the only member of his degenerate family who is able to work and earn a living; he has been forced to become a responsible person by his vile, repulsive father Wade (Gary Poulter), a man who has abused his body so much and for so long that he can only speak in slurred, incoherent ramblings. I recently compiled a list of the 10 most hateful characters of cinema; I think Wade could quite easily be placed in it.

Joe is a recidivist who is haunted by his criminal history and continues to struggle with controlling his anger, it seems the only way he can stay out of trouble is by absorbing himself in his small landscaping company.

Joe leads a group of black workers, they clear wooded areas with these rather strange axes that waywardly squirt poison everywhere. Joe and Gary are brought together when the boy implores him to employ both himself and his father. Joe obliges and Gary proves to be a good worker, although the agreement is soon thwarted by his obnoxious father who is too polluted, weak and lazy to contribute to the team.

The cast of Joe’s workers and indeed the whole film is populated with actors who were seemingly taken from the street, their performances are completely natural and their language raw, colloquial and as a result sometimes completely incomprehensible! A few times I felt like an American watching Trainspotting, particularly during a row between the moronic Wade and a black worker, whose ebonics is the strongest I’ve ever heard.

Joe is a tough watch, there are characters that represent the very lowest form of human life, there’s seldom a room in the film that isn’t a filthy, cluttered mess. I didn’t expect it to be such a realist piece of cinema, its depiction of blue collar work and young Gary’s first foray into it is sure to resonate with anyone who’s had similar experiences, myself included.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t stick out at all, he effortlessly blends in with the surrounding cast of largely unknown actors. Like Leaving Las Vegas, Joe is an example of Cage moderating his idiosyncratic acting, which I like incidentally, and showcasing just how good he is.

Clear correlations can be made with Mud, a similarly themed film about a benevolent renegade forming a bond with Tye Sheridan’s conflicted teenage boy. Joe is the superior of the pair, although Mud boasted good performances from its leads, it was melodramatic and overrated. Tye Sheridan’s character Ellis in Mud, who is given far too much screen time, thought about love and human relationships in ways that 14-year-old boys just don’t – I didn’t believe in him. He also had a habit of vehemently punching people in the face that belied his prepubescent little frame. Joe’s Gary is a much better character, a measured boy who simply wants to make a living and prove to the men in his life that he’s no kid.

Mud lacked Joe’s gritty nastiness, it had treacly melodrama instead of stark reality. What they do share is the running theme of redemption, and in the case of Joe, I found its conclusion rather familiar and subsequently bathetic. Despite this, Joe succeeds in absorbing you in its masculine world and Nicolas Cage defies any naysayers by completely disappearing into his role as the titular rogue.

76%

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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This film is not a glorification, it’s an observer rather than a judge.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a rather straight forward rise and fall story, it’s Scarface with even more excess but without the M16 with an underslung M303 grenade launcher.

Some have said that this film is a glorification rather than a satire, a three hour parade celebrating Jordan Belfort’s excess instead of a stern condemnation. Despite all the drugs, decadence and vulvas in the film, I don’t think the film glorifies him, and I don’t think it’s a biting satire either.

The film is an observer rather than a judge; it displays Belfort and his minions’ debauchery in a grand three-hour narrative with the energy and gusto of GoodFellas, letting the audience decide what they think of it all. If one leaves the theatre impressed or inspired by Belfort, that’s very much a reflection of them rather than the film.

There is a lot of bad behaviour going on in The Wolf of Wall Street, understandably too much for some people, but over the course of three hours I didn’t find it exasperating like some have. In fact, I think one would possess a certain amount of sanctimony to deny that there isn’t a degree of allure to Belfort’s lifestyle; an element of excess should be everyone’s life, whether it’s occasionally ordering the most expensive thing on the menu or at some point in your life owning a car that does 20 miles to the gallon, just because it makes you feel good.

Of course, that wouldn’t begin to be enough for Jordan Belfort. His ideas on money, relationships and life in general were quite awful during his years at the helm of Stratton Oakmont, his company that employed the ‘pump and dump’ scheme to rob scores of investors of their money. It is Belfort’s obsession with wealth, material goods and just winning that makes him quite a one-dimensionally unpleasant character. The nature of the character made me question the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This is not to say DiCaprio is in bad form here, his performance is teeming with conviction. Leo is in his element during Belfort’s rousing, maniacal speeches to his employees; his frenetic energy reminded me of Evangelical preachers found in the southern states. Of course, there’s nothing remotely Christian to be found in Belfort’s fervent rhetoric, only sentences of remarkable crassness, immaturity and myopia – ‘Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser, good! Pick up the phone and start dialling! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!’ – ‘If anyone here thinks I’m superficial or materialistic, go get a job in fucking McDonald’s because that’s where you fucking belong.’

Despite DiCaprio’s committed performance, I’m not part of the indignant crowd who demand that he finally win the Oscar for best leading man, particularly with this year’s nominations. He’s had a great career so far, he’s worked with Hollywood’s most revered artists and has had a consistent stream good roles.  Although his performances regularly display his great dramatic range, the problem is his huge Hollywood profile means that I feel like I’m watching Leonardo DiCaprio rather than the character he is portraying. It’s the same with The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo is just too cute and popular to play someone like Jordan Belfort – the casting gives a certain amount of sheen to him. Also, DiCaprio didn’t adopt Belfort’s New York accent, which is a pity because Leo’s South African accent in Blood Diamond was impressive.

While there are flashes of gross vulgarity in DiCaprio’s performance, the real Jordan Belfort is worse. To his credit, he is a naturally adroit salesman, he ran a successful meat business in his early twenties, he could’ve probably made a substantial legitimate living with his innate entrepreneurialism. However he didn’t, and now he remarks in interviews and speeches that ‘making money is easy’, what he forgot to add is ‘…when you broke the law like I did’. I’m not preaching here, I’m just reminding the crowds he draws to his motivational speeches that this man’s immense wealth hinged completely and utterly on criminality.

The other reason why Scorsese’s Belfort isn’t hateful enough is because the repercussions and victims of Stratton Oakmont are never shown, and to give a properly three-dimensional depiction of Belfort’s story, they should have been. Scorsese and writer Terence Winter have followed Belfort’s memoir so closely that it’s quite a one-track narrative, perhaps they could have stepped back from the book and explored the extent of Stratton Oakmont’s damage.

So, it is clear that there isn’t a particularly complex figure at the centre of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a misfire. This is more ‘Casino’/’The Departed’ Scorsese rather than ‘Taxi Driver’/’Goodfellas’/’Raging Bull’ Scorsese.

For me, the film’s terrific energy and vibrant aesthetics manage to carry its three-hour running time. Among this spirited, flashy spectacle are also some very amusing moments, particularly Matthew McConaughey’s great performance as Mark Hanna, a veteran stock broker who teaches an up-and-coming Belfort about his new profession, from ethics to the necessity of masturbation. What’s become one of the larger talking points of the film is the sequence where Belfort, overdosing on Quaaludes and in a state he calls the ‘cerebral palsy phase’, tries desperately to drive his Lamborghini Countach back to his enormous house.

Although the one-dimensional central character and its limited perspective means it is not Scorsese’s best film, The Wolf of Wall Street is an engrossing, sweeping rise and fall tale that is vibrant, funny and very striking.

80%

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

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Too much siege, not enough Alan.

When I first discovered the premise of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which is a siege of the North Norfolk Digital building by a disgruntled former employee, I was concerned that, like many big screen adaptations, Alan Partridge was departing from its humble, unspectacular roots.

By half way into the film, my concerns had unfortunately been confirmed. There are gun shots, fire-extinguishers to the face, explosions, armed policeman – it is by no means an action film, but since when was there such commotion in Alan’s life?

It was the desperate loneliness, alienation and banality of Alan’s life in the original TV series that made audiences laugh and cringe while pitying and sometimes despising the pathetic central character. When I got home completely deflated after watching Alpha Papa, I reminded myself of just how good Alan could be by watching YouTube clips of the 1997 series.

A single five minute scene of Alan attending a funeral captured the essence of the character. The dialogue is so rich, almost every line provided a laugh and I was cringing at Alan’s complete and utter social ineptitude. Throughout the series you learn Alan’s behaviour, it doesn’t take one long to know when Alan has an agenda; he is so self-centred, immature and incredibly tactless that the viewer can read him like a book. It’s both amusing and toe-curlingly embarrassing to see Alan converse with people and deal with his many problems.

All of the subtlety and character study is missing in the film. Alan is no longer a sad-man, a complete liability. He’s still cringe-worthy, particularly in scenes where he attempts to court a colleague, but none of the gags even scrape the surface of the programme’s brilliance.

The gags are really quite tired. They’re predictable and rehashed, particularly scenes that initially appear melodramatic but are then abruptly interrupted by an action or one-liner like a needle scratching across vinyl. There’s also a genre-aware armed stand-off scene towards the end where the characters have ‘humourous’, flippant exchanges despite the immediate danger in the style of In Bruges, only not funny. More than once I found myself sighing with disappointment and embarrassment at just how off-the-mark and rehashed the comedy was.

Much like the film’s premise, Coogan’s performance is overblown – he needed to reel himself in. There would be flashes of classic Partridge, but generally both the dialogue and slapstick comedy just died. I commend Coogan’s skill for miming perfectly to Roachford’s Cuddly Toy, but it just wasn’t as funny as his air bass performance of Gary Numan’s Music for Chameleons in the second series. Also, Alan doesn’t look right in the film. His appearance is still demonstrably uncool, but he isn’t as awfully square and repellent as he was in the series. If anything, Alan’s ageing process seems to be in reverse.

The two principal characters of the programme, Lynn, Alan’s devoted and criminally underpaid secretary, and Michael, Alan’s good natured friend, seldom appear in the film. These characters were crucial in the series as they revealed many facets of Alan’s personality, exposing just how self-absorbed and manipulative he is whilst also showing how utterly dependent he is on their attention.

We have the original team of Coogan and Iannucci, but it lacks almost every element that made the series so funny, eminently quotable and re-watchable. It shares very little in common with its televisual sibling, all Alpha Papa has is a caricature of a caricature and a thin, boring siege plot.

50%

The Iceman (2013)

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Read the book – ‘The Iceman’ is a woefully underdeveloped disappointment, even for those who know nothing about the man.

Having read Philip Carlo’s biography of Richard Kuklinski ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’, I can say that Ariel Vromen’s big screen adaptation ‘The Iceman’ is a big disappointment. While the author had a habit of repeating himself and some of Richard’s recollections seemed rather dubious in places, Carlo’s lengthy book was an engrossing read, I enjoyed it very much.

The problem with the film is that it’s awfully constructed; it’s all so terribly rushed. It fails to develop both the narrative and subsequently the character of Richard Kuklinski, glossing over almost everything that made the book such an interesting read. I appreciate that cramming in one’s life story into a screenplay can be a difficult task, however there are major flaws in the script that could have easily been avoided – it should’ve been scrapped and completely rewritten.

His unspeakably awful childhood, for instance, is covered with an utterly perfunctory flashback scene that lasts for all of about 15 seconds. This is a fatal mistake, because it was his harrowing formative years that shaped Richard.

Stanley Kuklinski, his deeply cruel father, conditioned his son with the daily violence he inflicted upon his whole family. After Stanley dealt Richard’s brother Florian a particularly malicious beating, he died from his injuries; the police were told that he fell down a flight of stairs. Richard’s mother was also a callous, unpleasant person; despite her zealous religious values she had no qualms about battering her children with a broom handle. Even when Richard sought solitude in the placidity of his local church as an altar boy, nuns would punish him by splitting the skin on his knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. All of this relentless anguish was compounded by his family’s total destitution.

When 13-year-old Richard also became the victims of local bullies, it all became too much for him – he beat one of them to death with a pole and discarded his body with brutal efficiency. Kuklinski recalled that it was at this moment that he discovered ‘it was better to give than receive’. The passages of Carlo’s book that cover his youth make for appalling reading; unfortunately none of this power is to be found in Ariel Vromen’s rather boring adaptation.

Lacking also are the details of Kuklinski’s career. The book recalls Kuklinski’s methods of murder, the way he stalked his prey and his utter indifference towards his victims’ suffering. Very little of this was explored in the film, we get little more than a brief montage of random people being blown away – it’s all so damn rushed and disorganised. Considering what a desperately violent individual Kuklinski was, ‘The Iceman’ is a rather neutered production. It has none of the visceral qualities that shock you like in ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas’, mob films that draw you into their brutal world where death is merely ‘business’.

Not only is the narrative woefully underdeveloped but it’s also sheer fiction in many instances. Despite having great dramatic material to work with, Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land decided that their own version of events were better. Even the more faithful scenes have been tweaked and messed about with for no discernible reason. For example, Roy DeMeo didn’t introduce Kuklinski to contract killing, he had already had a career with the New Jersey DeCavalcante crime family and had killed scores of people both professionally and privately. It also forgets to depict the savage beatings Richard used to give his wife Barbara and the pernicious effect it had on the family dynamic.

As you have probably heard, Michael Shannon is the highlight of the film. Much like the real man, he has a steely reserve and an explosive temper; he also resembles him in both appearance and speech. However, despite his best efforts, Shannon is completely let down by the script. While Shannon is indeed cold and calculated, the film fails to truly capture Kuklinski’s aura of menace and particularly his notoriety in Mafiadom.

While the performances are fine, ‘The Iceman’ is quite frankly ruined by total underdevelopment. If I had entered the film with no knowledge of the man, I would have found it a boring, mediocre mob film. But knowing the depth and drama of this tragic figure means that ‘The Iceman’ is a complete misfire that deserves much more. The only thing that it successfully achieved was the credibility of its period styling.

50%

Gangster Squad (2013)

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A dull, rehashed disappointment

I had read many damning reviews of ‘Gangster Squad’, however I was ready to accept it as mere pulp fiction, and during the opening 40 minutes or so, it seemed like I would be able to, but by the closing credits, I discovered it wasn’t even good enough for that.

The film tells the story, which is ‘inspired by real events’, of a covert group of tough police officers who endeavour to stop Mickey Cohen’s criminal activity encroaching on Los Angeles. Strangely, the film boasts a popular cast with the likes of Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte.

It establishes its characters and premise pleasingly enough, but ultimately it fails to deliver through a lack of humour, narrative baggage, clichés and a slew of boring stock characters. The film draws parallels with the infinitely superior ‘LA Confidential’, however there are more similarities with ‘The Expendables’, only without the laughs and nostalgia.

When it attempts to create even a slight portion of pathos, it’s baggy and dull; the film is bereft of any emotional weight whatsoever. The film operated more like a video game than a film, with its silly elaborate action scenes and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) feeling like the ‘boss’ villain rather than a human character. Actually, that comparison isn’t fair on the gaming industry; I have played and completed ‘Mafia II’, which has far more in the way of developed characters and narrative.

The film’s sole interest is period style; substance and veracity aren’t its top priorities. What occurs on screen is pure fantasy; the extent of its historical accuracy doesn’t go far beyond the fact that there was once indeed a man named ‘Mickey Cohen’ who wasn’t particularly nice.

The allure of 1940s Hollywood and its strong cast will bring ‘Gangster Squad’ to the attention of many people, however it is a formulaic, mediocre and superficial rehashing of films such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.

50%