Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Richard Jenkins”

Liberal Arts

Meet Jesse. He’s a 35-year old college admissions officer living in New York, New York – shown as a beautiful town in the opening scenes until Jesse gets his (dirty) laundry stolen from under his nose at the laundromat. Clearly, no matter how magical life’s moments, reality is never far away.

Packing a bag with romantic memories of his own time at college in Ohio, Jesse returns one weekend to attend the retirement dinner of a favourite professor (the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins). There he meets the much younger Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, still luminous from her break-out role in Martha Marcy May Marlene), a drama student who teaches him “The first rule of improv is to say ‘Yes’”. She’s forward, he’s conflicted, but they spark up a long-distance friendship, writing old-fashioned letters and sharing their favourite works of art.

Writer-director-star Josh Radnor plays Jesse so real that the film feels practically autobiographical, but perhaps that’s just because the central university-bound relationship bears so many familiar hallmarks of young love, burgeoning intellectualism, pretentious conversation and the bestowing of mix-tapes (now, of course, made on CD). Radnor’s story captures other universal truths too, including a delightfully resonant depiction of the impact of classical music as a soundtrack to one’s daily life.

The very likable Radnor (best known as Ted from TV’s How I Met Your Mother) and the beguiling Olsen have a tangible chemistry that gives enormous legitimacy to the possibly-inappropriate infatuation and all its consequent dilemmas. Jesse’s relationship with Professor Hoberg is similarly charming. With support from the ever-sardonic Allison Janney and a trippy turn by Zac Efron, Liberal Arts is not ashamed to be good-natured and warm-hearted.

For those viewers who can embrace this trip back down memory lane, there is great pleasure to be had in recognising youthful feelings and situations – and perhaps, ultimately, in the relief that those days have passed.


Jack Reacher

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 30th December 2012

Let’s get one thing out of the way – Tom Cruise is great. Playing the eponymous hero of Lee Child’s best-selling novels, admittedly he is “supposed” to be taller, more rugged, “a drifter with nothing to lose” (which Cruise clearly is not) – but Cruise plays it like he did in A Few Good Men and keeps us engaged, even amused, throughout the two-hour running time.

Child is evidently a success because he knows how to spin a yarn, and since his book is adapted by director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) this tale delivers in spades. Evoking 90s whodunit movies like Kiss the Girls, it sets up a shocking crime, throws us some curve balls, introduces a renegade protagonist who immediately intuits that all is not as it seems, and then partners us on a merry dance.

Crucial to our engagement is the support of ex-Bond girl Rosamund Pike and fellow Brit David Oyelowo (still best known to me as Danny from Spooks). The ever-excellent Richard Jenkins plays the district attorney against whom Reacher and his lawyer must fight to uncover the truth. Even Robert Duvall gets in on the action. The only slight miscasting is legendary director Werner Herzog as the German-intoned Russian baddie.

Once all the surprises are revealed, however, the goody and baddies lay down their guns and engage in a pretty standard rain-drenched bit of mano a mano. But, despite this Jack Reacher is a force to be reckoned with, and Cruise owns him.

Killing Them Softly

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 14th October 2012

First thing to note: there’s a killer line-up.

Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini are comfortably cast as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations. Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of the brilliant Animal Kingdom) gets to keep his antipodean accent as a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; little-known Scoot McNairy is the kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who has more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.

And of course, there’s Brad. But while some may be tempted to brand this “the new Brad Pitt movie”, on those grounds I caution: Viewer Beware. As in his previous collaboration with director Andrew Dominik, here Pitt is understated and captivating. When he explains how he doesn’t like all the emotion wrapped up in killing someone at close range, you know he’s still ready to put a bullet wherever he’s paid to. The film’s R16 certificate is well earned for its visceral, blood-drenched violence, the brutal language and its bleak view of the criminal underworld.

It’s a story we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, getting the job done and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing.

Dominik has adapted the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and transposed it several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as president.

The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis in America with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay cut in these difficult fiscal times.

To prove his point that the economy parallels the mercenary approach of criminal organisations, Dominik underscores several scenes with TVs and radios blaring footage from the presidential debates of the period. It’s not subtle, but the argument is valid.

The film is beautifully framed and shot, consistent with Dominik’s second film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in which Pitt played the legendary outlaw). The complex characters are well portrayed by their weighty actors – Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get touchy-feely about the operation of his job – and there are delightful moments in the albeit longwinded script in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of usual bad-ass concerns.

This said, it’s easy to beat up on Dominik’s crime drama, packed as it is with criminal stereotypes. It’s more derivative than it is original, evoking Scorsese and Tarantino, using slo-mo photography of bullets shattering a man’s body and the drug-addled haze of a hapless wannabe.

Yet, purely because it acquits itself so well, this one deserves to be untied from the chair and let free.

Mr Dominik, You’re Killing Me

So the day finally arrived, and I was up early to see Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.  First impression: it has a killer cast.  Literally and figuratively.  Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini appear as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations.  Brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of my Best Film of 2010, Animal Kingdom) plays a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; Scoot McNairy (hero of the low-budget indie hit Monsters, and here making his I’ve-hit-the-big-time feature film debut and doing a bloody good job of looking confident among the coolios) takes on the Casey Affleck role of a kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who proves he has plenty more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.

And of course, there’s Brad. And say what you like about his celebrity and his many children and his equally famous fiancee and his parties with George and his dashing goatee – Brad is a terrific actor who takes on terrific roles and delivers every time. And he is terrific here, as Jackie Cogan.

The story is basically a slightly-tweaked rendition of one we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, doing what Needs To Be Done, and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing. Director and “writer for the screen” Dominik (I’ve previously made bones about his being born in NZ, but the press conference proved not only that he sounds like an Aussie and self-identifies as an Aussie, but I wouldn’t want to claim his arrogant ass as a Kiwi any more) has adapted the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” and moved it forward several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as President.  The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis (with understandable focus on America) with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay-cut in these difficult fiscal times.  Parts of it are beautifully framed and shot (consistent with Dominik’s second, gorgeous film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he cast Pitt as the legendary outlaw); there are interesting characters, all of whom are well portrayed by their weighty actors (Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get emotional about the operation of his job); and there are some fantastic moments in the script, reminiscent of early Tarantino in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of bad-ass concerns.

The script, ironically, is also one of the film’s potential problems.  Like Tarantino, Dominik obviously loves the sound of his own dialogue, and clearly failed to take a scalpel into the editing room.  While what they’re saying is amusing, diverting, and (even if not always plot-advancing), certainly insightful, the long talky scenes mess with the pacing of a film that really needs to stop talking about people, and just get on with disposing of their problems.  There is some shameless short-cutting of key narrative moments (people dealt with off camera, including one key character who never materialises for the whole film).  And, glaringly, not a single female character of any note.  Indeed, for most of the film there isn’t a single female character, period, but rest assured – later on there is a hooker.  All the other imagined women are discussed in purely misogynistic terms, so perhaps we have been done a service by there not being a thankless love-interest to be bashed around or to provide the redemptive moments.

So all in all, it was disappointing – my “film du Cannes!” was not all that. It’s a good film, enjoyable, excessively violent (again, think Ryan Gosling in a lift and play that over and over for sense…) and there are some great performances. But it’s also totally derivative, unevenly paced and a bit long-winded. I will be very interested to see how it is received globally, by film festival audiences and Joe Public, but I don’t believe it justifies an “In Competition” moment, and there’s no way it will win.  Sadly, I don’t even think Ben’s crazed druggie will take a Best Supporting Actor gong.

To add insult to injury, the press conference was terribly disappointing.  I had to watch on a TV outside the room (blue badges don’t often make it into the hallowed halls of the PC) and could be seen shaking my head in disgust as question after question was directed at “Mr Pitt”, about the violence in the film (“You have children; is it hard for you to kill people in a film?”), his character’s deeper motivation (It’s there on the page! and on the screen! it isn’t more complicated than what we see!) and whether he and Angelina have set a date for their wedding (No, but they definitely plan to marry, as soon as America makes it legal for everyone to marry).  Dominik stepped in to help answer most of the questions, particularly the ones requiring a justification for the violence (citing Grimms Fairytales while scarcely managing to contain his hair-flicking disdain for the journalists).  Had I been inside the actual press conference, I would have congratulated Scoot and Ben on their previous excellent films and their great work in this one, then spoken up about the lack-of-women thing and asked whether the Writer for the Screen couldn’t have transposed one of the male characters into a Felicia Pearson-type scary broad?  But I wasn’t, so there were instead more questions about Brad-this and Brad-that.  Actually, I have enormous respect for the man – he was endlessly patient and gracious, and I saw a similar grace and energy from him outside on the red carpet at last night’s premiere, where he made time to sign autographs and work the crowd, no doubt making a lot of days. But I honestly wanted to run up and apologise for the journalists’ dumb questions in the conference.

So that was Killing Them Softly.  Ironically, the picture I saw later in the day dealt with killing in a whole other fashion, and provided a much more heartfelt and devastating experience. I’ll look out for Dominik’s next film, of course, and if he casts it as excitingly as this one, it will be one to anticipate (I give people endless chances). But this one didn’t kill me, just left me a bit cold.

Blue Valentine / Hall Pass

These reviews first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 6th March 2011

Blue Valentine

While both can be affecting, there is a big difference in quality between a clichéd interpretation of true love and one that is authentic.  In his film career, Ryan Gosling has given us both.  The undisputedly successful but arguably trite The Notebook is an example of the former and, with considerable kudos to the Academy Award nominee, Blue Valentine is a supreme illustration of the latter.

Playing a young married father opposite the equally talented (and Oscar-nominated) Michelle Williams, Gosling inhabits his character, all rambling, intense and chain-smoking, to the extent you find yourself completely riveted by this story of a couple whose six-year marriage has reached a turning point.  Williams plays harried mother and reluctant wife with honesty and a complete lack of vanity, never striving to come out “the good guy”, and thus giving us a painfully believable rendition of how real relationships can blossom – and then wilt.

This is clearly a passion project for director Derek Cianfrance who spent 11 years getting the film made, and his commitment to the story he wanted to tell since his parents’ divorce during childhood is evident in the film’s quality.  With a narrative that trips back and forth between the halcyon days of early blooming romance and the couple’s contemporary world of loss and disillusionment, the photography perfectly mirrors the tone – shooting the good old days in free, hand-held, super 16mm film, and the present on fixed-shot digital, full of suffocating close-ups.  While the feeling of dread is often palpable, this is not an out-and-out depressing film (compared perhaps with the similarly well-acted Revolutionary Road).  There are plenty of uplifting moments between father and daughter and Dean and Cindy’s courtship is as charming as any one could wish for, with his shop-front performance of “You Always Hurt the One you Love” one of the highlights.

The actors deserve their award nominations, and the respect garnered by films such as Half Nelson and Brokeback Mountain.  Oozing charisma in the very best, non-manipulative way, they have an on-screen chemistry that leaves you wondering if, regardless of the outcome of their fictional relationship, Gosling and Williams should be a couple in real life.

Hall Pass

And so, from the sublime to the frankly ridiculous.  If you prefer your roms with more com, laced with the obligatory scatological humour of all Farrelly Brothers movies, a smattering of B-grade stars and a pointless police chase, then Hall Pass may be more the date-night movie you’re looking for.

The wives in this film clearly haven’t seen Blue Valentine – because they think their marriages are in crisis, they issue their dopey, girl-ogling husbands (Owen Wilson and Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis) with a “week off marriage”.  The men’s initial reluctance rapidly turns into the enthusiasm which drives every “grass is always greener” fantasy and they embark on a 7-day excursion to make the most of their freedom.

In support, Extras’ Stephen Merchant (really just playing Extras’ Darren) provides some of the big laughs and there is a surprising turn from Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins as a rather odious, advice-giving bachelor.

For a fleeting moment it even seems as though the most of the female characters are being treated with respect, until an unfortunate incident in a hotel bathroom.  Despite coming from the same school as The Hangover, this is the dunce of the class.

I can hear the dolphins clapping

Eat Pray Love

A best-selling memoir about an [actually pretty awesome-sounding] midlife crisis, it was inevitable this book would be snapped up and turned into a star-powered movie for the post-Bridget Jones era.  Julia Roberts, who I would watch opening mail I think she’s so intoxicatingly watchable, plays an everywoman New Yorker who decides after eight years of marriage to leave her husband (played against stereotype by Billy Crudup), and, following a doomed rebound relationship with a younger man (a charismatic James Franco), takes off for a year to find herself.  Well, actually – to feel something, to marvel and to experience life.  As Liz plans her gap year – 4 months eating in Rome, 4 months praying in an ashram in India, and 4 months living (and loving) in Bali – it’s hard not to start conjuring up your own fantasies about an alternate reality.

I haven’t read the book, eschewing it just as I did the Bridget Jones saga (though I enjoyed the first of those films, again largely due to the luminous central performance by Renee Zellweger).  So I can’t compare the book with this movie, but I don’t think that’s necessary.  Eat Pray Love was clearly going to be a film for like-minded women of a certain age, and to that end I have to admit I enjoyed it, and was happy to go along for the ride. Who hasn’t ended a relationship and dreamed of chucking in one’s dreary life and moving to somewhere exotic?  Fortunately for Liz, she has the means to follow her whim.

It goes without saying the scenes in Italy make one want to move there immediately – provided, of course, one has a seemingly bottomless purse, and can make new friends who are local enough to show you the inside story, but international enough to enjoy your foreign (ie. American) ways to want to hang out with you (this is where Liz fails as our everywoman and comes off more as our film-star Roberts).  Liz certainly falls on her feet, renting a suitably dilapidated apartment for her time in the Eternal City, and spending her days eating, drinking and learning the language sufficiently to give her own back when dissed by an Italian matriarch for being a divorcee travelling alone.

And then we’re off to India, where Liz meets others on a Life Journey, imparts and receives wisdom, and leaves with a greater appreciation for her marriage and the ability to forgive herself for ending it.  There she meets kooky characters worthy of any road-trip movie, notably Richard Jenkins (understated and excellent in fare such as The Visitor) who gives her a nickname and unsolicited advice before sharing his own piece of personal tragedy on a rooftop.  Without coming across as creepy.  A great actor indeed.

By which time Liz is due in Bali, and we understand she’s travelled quite long enough on her path to emotional recovery to now warrant a bit of loving.  I’m not sure whether the meet-cute of being run off the road by Javier Bardem’s Felipe is true to the book, or indeed the author’s real story, but it’s certainly convenient.  The couple spend a long time enjoying one another’s company and (actually refreshingly) don’t fall into one another’s arms straight away.  And then all that remains is for Liz to battle the “love again” phase of her adventure and sail off into the sunset, and we can all go home.

The film is far too long (as now is this review), as presumably the director strove to include as much as possible from the book.  Because of this it does lose energy halfway through India (no doubt because we know we still have 4 months in Indonesia to get through), but to her credit, Julia Roberts manages to keep us engaged nonetheless.  Eat Pray Love will affect those who feel its unsubtle message deep in their soul, and that was undoubtedly the strength of the book – not its artistic merit or original and profound sentiments.  Everyone else can just enjoy the scenery.

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