Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.
Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.
Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.
Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.
In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.
I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture(2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.
Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
Loosely based on their 2007 short Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, comedy-writing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have reimagined the End of Days from the perspective of a group of friends trapped in James Franco’s Hollywood home. As the Apocalypse rages outside, the group (Rogen, Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride) must come to terms with themselves, their friendships and the total, unequivocal destruction of everything ever. Cue the dick jokes.
The cast is essentially a reunion of stars from earlier Rogen/Goldberg films, all friends in real life, and fully prepared to take the piss out of themselves by playing up to the common (negative) public opinion of A-list celebrities. They clearly had a lot of fun making this, which translates best in extended scenes of dialogue rather than the later CGI horror/action sequences. The film’s strengths naturally lie in the sharpness with which the character relationships are portrayed. Male friendship and bonding rituals have always been a big focus in the pair’s writing, and they’re particularly astute at revealing the nuances in male egos that make their characters feel solidly human. In the wrong hands This Is The End might have slipped into lowest common denominator gross-out territory, but Rogen and Goldberg provide customary vital touches of warmth and sadness. Like their other efforts it’s also genuinely funny, their expert way with a cutting put-down shining especially brightly here.
Where the film falls down slightly is in the concept, which is initially interesting, but ultimately tiring. There’s the gnawing impression that Rogen and Goldberg weren’t wholly clear where to take the idea, and that the clearly sizeable budget allowed for too much. The first disaster sequences are actually pretty tense, the shocks real. But herein lies the problem; if you’re going to start a film with tension it becomes obvious when the tension is lost. Much of the plot outside of the house in the later stages is half-baked – as though everything around the original scenario has been more or less tacked on. Rogen and Goldberg don’t seem interested in developing the setup in unexpected ways and thus come to rely heavily on star cameos to carry through the lulls. Besides that, the film slips into self-indulgence fairly easily. What you end up with is a movie that looks at first like a blockbuster, feels for a good while like a joke between friends, and then sputters around in the final third like a balloon that’s not been tied at the end, finishing (probably like the earth itself will) with a whimper, not a bang.
At the end of the days though (honk!) this is an enjoyable and very funny addition to the Superbad/Pineapple Express collection of US comedies with a bit more bite; perfect fodder, in our globally warmed times, for the excruciating and pathetic death-whimper of the British summer.
This Is The End is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall
The marquee for fictional film-within-a-film Chubby Rain, from Frank Oz’ Bowfinger
No particular reason for posting this picture other than it made me chuckle. Plus I was discussing the other day with a friend that I think Bowfinger(Frank Oz, 1999) – though seemingly regarded as minor Martin and Murphy (who excels in a tricky double role) – is actually a really underrated piece of work. Affectionate, gently satirical of the industry, and with more than its fair share of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, it’s a comedy whose reputation I think should be stronger than it is. I can think of few moments in 90s comedies funnier than this:
You can actually catch it at the BFI Southbank as part of the ongoing Terence Stamp season on May 19 or 23. He does a great job in Bowfinger as a glacial, pompous leader of a Scientology-esque cult.
There seems to have been a developing trend in year-end film lists for the listmaker to casually drop a self-deprecating reference to the sheer arbitrariness of the task they’re engaging with. Well, I just enjoy making lists, and to paraphrase 90’s pop favourites The Cranberries, everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I? My ambitions for the list are fairly modest: that a) it might provoke a bit of discussion, and b) it might inspire people to go out and catch some good films they may have missed.
For consistency’s sake (and to couch the list in some kind of context), I’ve only selected films that were released in the UK in the calendar year 2012. This means there’s no place for some fare I greatly enjoyed at festivals, including Pablo Larraín’s astonishing docudrama No, Adam Leon’s sprightly New York fable Gimme The Loot, Ken Burns’ riveting documentary The Central Park Five, or Ashim Ahluwalia’s gloriously seedy Miss Lovely, all of which should (or definitely will, in No and Gimme The Loot’s cases) hit UK screens in 2013.
Here, then, is the Top 10, in alphabetical (not numerical: that taxonomic task was too tough) order.
Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
Austrian director Haneke (who “took to Twitter” this year with hilarious results), produced two truly outstanding performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant for this stately study of the devastating effects of dementia on an elderly, close-knit couple. It didn’t necessarily say anything overtly profound, but it was profoundly moving, not least because the two actors so fearlessly confronted issues that, owing to their advanced age, they would surely be dealing with when the cameras stopped rolling. Regardless of how Haneke’s exactitude made one feel on a moral level (Riva has a truly upsetting nude scene), it made for searing drama.
* * *
Barbara (dir., Christian Petzold)
Petzold’s slow-burning drama about a nurse plotting her escape from banal early 80s East Germany was a fascinating, beautifully composed character study which had me hooked from minute one. In the title role, Nina Hoss was extraordinary. Her surface coldness was a vivid semi-subversion of the passion, fear and political courage that bubbled underneath. When her character eventually thawed, the monumental rush of relief and excitement I felt was testament to the poise and the sublime technical control of her performance. All that said, I also really enjoyed Andrew Tracy’s perceptive, skeptical review in the ever excellent Reverse Shot magazine.
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Bill Cunningham New York (dir., Richard Press) | full review
My favourite doc of the year profiled the octogenarian, workaholic New York Times photographer in breezy, joyous style. Likeable, eccentric, talented and ultimately unknowable, Cunningham was the perfect subject. As I gushed at the time, “[BCNY is] not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.” I also said, “It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.” So there we go.
Like Barbara, Markovics’ initially austere (and very well-acted) directorial debut crept up on me, possessing an unexpected power. Focusing on the rehabilitation and subsequent growth into manhood of a 19-year-old offender, it was a real slow-burner about a tough subject that somehow managed to end up genuinely uplifting rather than depressing. Though such a comparison may seem a tad arbitrary, I much preferred it to the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike, which struck me as far more overdetermined, protracted and fantastical than many of its more effusive cheerleaders had suggested.
Moment for moment, Carax’s Holy Motors was the most fun I had in the cinema this year. Following a day in the life of mysterious everyman (and he really is every man) Mr. Oscar, played by chameleonic superstar Denis Lavant, it was an episodic, unpredictable and dazzling tragicomedy packed with bizarre jokes, berserk stylistic diversions, and myriad loving cinematic references. Above and beyond the craziness, the film hit me on a gut level. I saw a brave self-portrait of a filmmaker self-reflexively admitting the absolute folly of striving to present “reality” onscreen. And, most heartbreakingly of all, I saw, in Mr. Oscar, a deeply moving portrayal of the exhausting, crippling effect of the various roles which we (the human race – I’m aiming high here, folks) force ourselves to play, over and over again, on a daily basis. Oh man, and those chimps at the end: was there a more bittersweet moment at the movies this year?
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Keep The Lights On (dir., Ira Sachs)
No film swam around my head this year like Ira Sachs’ elliptical, New York-set drama. Focusing on a long, doomed relationship between a sensitive documentary filmmaker and a drug addicted lawyer, the semi-autobiographical KTLO was marked by fiercely unguarded performances, gorgeous cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, and extensive use of the woozy music of late musician Arthur Russell. Not only that, with its plot thread about late queer artist Avery Willard (not to mention its championing of Russell), it actively looked to celebrate and excavate a particular section of American subcultural history. A deep, warm, discomfiting nightmare dream of a film.
Evil has a voice, and it sounds a lot like veteran director William Friedkin collaborating with playwright Tracy Letts for a second time. And guess what, evil’s a whole lot of fun too. This rollicking redneck neo-noir pushed the boundaries of taste (just ask Colonel Sanders), and provided Matthew McConaughey (an actor for whom I’ve never – Dazed and Confused aside – had much time for) with his greatest role to date. Rough, sexy and surprising, Killer Joe was the best thriller of the year. In the interests of full disclosure, I also got off on quite how much it seemed to piss people off, too.
* * *
Magic Mike (dir., Steven Soderbergh)
Despite a marketing campaign which did its level best to make it as difficult as possible for the heterosexual male to walk up and buy a ticket, Magic Mike emerged as one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. Expertly helmed by the redoubtable Steven Soderbergh,it was a hazily (and gloriously) shot Floridian tale which balanced a keen view of contemporary economics with a host of cutely quoted influences, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to John Cassavetes’ fondly sleazy The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Channing Tatum was great in the lead role, and McConaughey (again; who’d a thunk it?) shone in a flashy supporting role as Dallas, the oiled-up, stripping patriarch.
* * *
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (dir., Nuri Bilge Ceylan) | feature
Boringly thrilling? Or thrillingly boring? Either way, Ceylan delivered a cinematic oxymoron of rare depth and panache with this rich, long and deeply atmospheric procedural. When it finished, I genuinely felt like I’d been locked in the cinema all night with the film’s cast of exhausted, devastated characters. Existential malaise never tasted so good.
The surprise of the year, for me. After the crushing disappointment of the second half of Wheatley’s sophomore feature Kill List, my expectations for this black comedy were low. But what began as a cute riff on Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ swiftly turned into something much richer and darker. Sightseers was a merciless excavation of the murkily unpalatable underbelly of the British national character, filtered through a host of key tropes from the history of classic passive-aggressive British TV comedy. What’s more, all of this venom was set against Laurie Rose’s exceptional cinematography, which highlighted England’s natural beauty like few films have deigned to do. It stayed in my head for days afterward.
* * *
There were a few films painfully close to squeezing into my top 10. One was Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s “non-narrative, non-verbal 65mm journey” Samsara, which made me feel like I was flying at the time, but wore off fairly quickly afterward. Another film whose lasting effects didn’t quite match up to the visceral experience of watching it was Gareth Evans’ gripping (and absurdly violent) martial arts cracker The Raid (full review). The seediest film I saw this year was Beauty, Oliver Hermanus’ exquisitely composed and extremely disturbing tale of illicit obsession in contemporary South Africa.
I also really enjoyed a couple of big blockbusters (I’m only a preening arthouse dilettante for some of the time); Sam Mendes’ Skyfall had the lot: a good story, some great stunts, truly beautiful cinematography (kudos Roger Deakins) and, in Javier Bardem, a genuinely brilliant villain. Seeing it at a full-to-bursting public screening on its seventh (!) week of release underlined the extent to which this Bond bonanza was ‘event’ cinema at its best. I was also taken with Avengers Assemble; chaotic, overlong and in-jokey for sure, but also a hell of a lot of fun which possessed a keen sense of its own ridiculousness. It made me laugh like a drain on more than one occasion.
On the other side of the ‘fun spectrum’, Steve McQueen’s Shame, which sent me into paroxysms of praise at last year’s London Film Festival, cooled on me like few films in recent memory, not least in response to a discussion with my wife about the film’s questionable sexual politics. Her excellent piece on that theme, ‘Shame and Gender’, can be read here. Oh, and despite Mark Cousins’ pretty bizarre rant (I like him normally), I enjoyed Argo lotstoo.
2012 was also an excellent year for documentaries; I greatly enjoyed Malik Bendjelloul’s revelatory musical excavation piece Searching for Sugarman, and was very moved by Call Me Kuchu, a sensitive and shocking study of the day-to-day lives of brave LGBT campaigners in Uganda. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis was a powerfully made and propulsive dissection of a grim failure of US justice, but let itself down by indulging in some of the formal shock tactics it decried its villains (the West Memphis Three prosecutors) for using. Finally, though it was no doubt an acquired taste (you had to buy into the myth of LCD Soundsystem as one of the modern titans of popular music to swallow its precious combination of hushed reverence and relentless solipsism), I was ultimately seduced by Shut Up And Play The Hits.
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There were a handful of films – very highly rated by people whose opinions I generally trust – that I never got round to seeing. These included: Bela Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse, James Marsh’s Troubles-based thriller Shadow Dancer, Jafar Panahi’s “not a film” This Is Not A Film, performance art doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, David Cronenberg’s limo-fest Cosmopolis, and child soldier drama War Witch (which I’m not sure ever actually got/will get a proper theatrical release). I hope to get around to all of these sooner rather than later.
* * *
Thank you for reading. Do pop your head around the door for the second part of our end-of-year round-up, which will be with you shortly.
“You can put a cat in the oven, but that don’t make it a biscuit” –Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes)
* * * * *
I’ve never really understood what that means, but tonight, at the Clapham Picturehouse, I’m going to get another chance to find out. And you’re invited too.
In the third edition of Permanent Plastic Helmet presents (following Do The Right Thingand Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest), we’re delighted to be putting on a 20th anniversary screening of Ron Shelton’s classic comedy White Men Can’t Jump.
Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is billed as an offbeat romantic-comedy – but its vision is much richer than that, giving us a humane glimpse into struggles with mental health.
The story centres around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who spent eight months in a mental institution after catching his wife with a lover and nearly beating him to death. He’s bipolar, undiagnosed until the incident, and we meet him while he’s struggling to rebuild his life. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in a suburb of Philadelphia, fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki (this is the ‘silver lining’ of the title); but that’s made difficult by her restraining order against him. Pat strikes up an unconventional friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his friend’s sister-in-law, who is struggling with the untimely death of her husband.
Pat and Tiffany are both outcasts whose brains process their pain in antisocial ways; Pat’s manifests in intense aggression, while Tiffany’s comes out in angry promiscuity. They are unable to mask their suffering while under scrutiny, their past errors are still raw in everyone’s memories. We’re drawn into the narrative, curious about how these two might regain their dignity, earn back the trust of their families, and adjust to their lives after their personal traumas; the romance angle, in truth, is totally secondary to that.
The film is genuinely absorbing because it crafts a credible world for these characters to inhabit. The local details are just right, from the Eagles fandom (the Philly NFL team, not the band) to the neighbourhood diner. Pat’s parents’ house looks lived-in and unglamourous, and you get a real sense of the community Pat belongs to as he jogs through it. The film captures how Pat and Tiffany don’t struggle in isolation; their pain affects their families, friends and neighbours. This is supported by the unintrusive camerawork, stylised just enough to expressionistically reflect the mental states of Pat and Tiffany when required.
But don’t worry – watching Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel heavy going. It focuses on the humanity of the characters, not the issues they inevitably represent. It’s enjoyable because it has a keen sense of humour and moves at a fast pace, propelled by the candour of its central duo. While Pat doesn’t have a filter and Tiffany has a penchant for provoking people, luckily, both Cooper and Lawrence manage to keep their outbursts rooted in their characters’ pain, exuding pathos. Many may know Cooper best as the morally corrupt friend in The Hangover or the intense suitor of Rachel McAdams in TheWedding Crashers – he’s fortunate that his manic energy and fratboy appeal finally find a sympathetic home in the character of Pat. It probably doesn’t hurt that Cooper himself grew up in a suburb of Philly. And Lawrence certainly matches his intensity, acting with impressive maturity and gravitas well beyond her 22 years.
The human frailty of Pat and Tiffany is bolstered by Russell’s ensemble cast, who ensure that we put the meanings of ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ into context. John Ortiz is endearingly amusing as Pat’s friend Ronnie who’s struggling under the pressures of family life. And Chris Tucker, who I last saw in Rush Hour, is surprisingly sweet and quirky as Pat’s friend Danny from the institution. De Niro – in his first role in ages that requires him to be more than a caricature – is a welcome scene-stealer as Pat’s dad who is obsessed with the Eagles and their ‘juju’.
The film doesn’t demonise mental illness or lionise those who endure it – it’s made clear that everyone, on medication or not, has issues and their own preferred form of therapy to deal with them, be it running, dancing, working out, or watching football. The most gratifying thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it thoughtfully engages with the grey areas of life’s difficulties and trusts the audience to make its own judgements. It’s actually a very appropriate film to see this holiday season, because it ought to pique your empathy levels… provided you’re not a Scrooge.
Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
When it was announced that director Ben Wheatley would follow his chilling sophomore feature Kill List with a comedy, it would have been entirely reasonable to breathe a sigh of relief. The savage, explicitly violent Kill List was as disturbing as they come; an unsettlingly realistic film with an interest in the occult that recalled the great British horrors of the 1970s (think Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man).
Yet anyone familiar with Wheatley’s blackly comic debut Down Terracewould be unsurprised to discover that Sightseers is hardly Love Actually. Instead, it shares misanthropic DNA with Kill List, a dark human story this time filtered through Wheatley’s unique comic sensibility. His Britain is one where a quaint caravanning holiday can become a Badlands–style massacre. In Sightseersit does just that and it is a glorious cause for laughter.
At the beginning of Sightseers we meet Tina (Alice Lowe), in her thirties and still living at home with her mother. Tina is invited on a caravanning holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), a Brummie in possession of a luxuriant ginger beard. Tina’s mother is unimpressed by Chris, but the offer of a trip to Crich Tram Museum cements Tina’s defiant decision to fly the nest.
Initially Chris comes across only as odd as you’d expect for a caravanning enthusiast, that is until he displays an unhealthy loathing for litterbugs. After a hostile encounter with a serial litterer at the Tram Museum, things take a turn for the worse, and Tina’s holiday becomes something more than a jolly jaunt around the north of England.
Lowe and Oram’s script is as witty as it is cruel; rude jokes, sight gags, and moments of sheer maliciousness all demand laughs. As the writers and lead performers of Sightseers it is hard to separate the actors from their creations, so rarely does the humour fall flat. As director, Wheatley handles jokes with great effect, proving his dexterousness in the shift from horror to comedy.
As well as laughs, there is a subversive streak to be found in the construction of Sightseers. During one key murder scene Wheatley includes the words to ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, by William Blake, in voice over. Today these words are prominently known as the Lyrics to the hymn Jerusalem, an anthem associated with a sense of British patriotism.
The satire to be found in Sightseers also brings to mind a bygone generation of British directors like Lindsay Anderson, helmer of the extraordinary If…. and O Lucky Man!. In the darker moments Wheatley’s work also brings to mind the films of Nicholas Roeg and Robin Hardy. While Wheatley treats patriotism with irony, he is certainly concerned with the Britishness of his film.
Wheatley contrasts mundane interior locations with extraordinary landscapes to expose much more of England than we are used to in British cinema. The landscape shots in Sightseers, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose, are utterly stunning. Wheatley’s choice of locations evokes the mystery of Britain’s prehistoric and pre-Christian past with a Herzogian curiosity; this is particularly evident when, as with the boat in Fitzcarraldo, the pair drag the caravan up a mountain.
At times the overall construction of Sightseers feels a little jumpy, with undesirable cuts to black to break up the scenes. The large amount of improvisation involved in creating Sightseers is probably to blame for the occasional clunks, but this is of little consequence as the overall story arc comes together in a maliciously funny fashion.
Finally, Wheatley’s choice of music deserves praise. The anthems for the odd couple are 80’s staples ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Psychedelic 60’s rock like ‘Season of the Witch’ by Vanilla Fudge pronounces Wheatley’s love of the weird, while German masters Popul Vuh help to further transport us to that elusive Herzogian place.
Ultimately the film, like the soundtrack, is as emotionally rousing as it is amusing. Sightseers is the anorak-clad version of True Romance that you’ve always wished for. It is Bonnie and Clyde for the British Isles. It is Badlands with more rain. Cinema just doesn’t get much better than that.
Sightseers is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Tom Cottey can be followed on Twitter @tcottey.
Twee – excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.
At its best ‘the twee angle’ (for wont of a better phrase) can present a charmingly naïve view of the world that in turn leads us to look at our surroundings with refreshed, childlike eyes (see Wes Anderson). At its worst twee is simply a denial – a refusal to look at things head on, a frustrating, dishonest and manipulative trait employed for and by ruthlessly egotistical or emotionally weak individuals who’d rather take life as a prescribed dose of cutesy vignettes than face a proper engagement with the world and all of its wonderful difficulties.
Ruby Sparks, for better or worse, has a little of both aspects. It’s like an obviously clever child who’s a bit too good at giving the doe eyes, and for all it’s apparent warmth you can’t help but feel there’s something really very cold, very clinical, happening underneath. It’s an incredibly twee film that sometimes charms, more often manipulates, and never quite escapes the plot bind it fixes itself in. It’s populist schmaltz cleverly disguised as subverted schmaltz, with a plot that could have been a novel route to exploring some interesting themes – such as the role of fantasy in our lives – finally content to roam the colourless wastelands of the middle ground.
Ruby Sparks should be seen as a missed opportunity. The film flirts with the idea of really challenging the audience, but instead sucker punches them in the strangest way – by giving them exactly what they want – and leaves with their wallets. It’s part set on the West coast, but that cackling you can hear isn’t the gulls, and that swishing isn’t the waves – it’s studio accountants crowing with delight as they read the numbers off the ticker tape. It might just be the most cynical film of this year (and this year included We Bought A Zoo!).
Contrary to the aftermath, the experience of watching Ruby Sparks is on the whole a placidly pleasant affair – if a little close to watching the slew of ukulele-backed mobile phone adverts from the last five years rolled into one. Like you’ve dropped a few anti-depressants – sit back and watch what were formerly your brain cells pop like mellow fireworks in the distance.
The currently ubiquitous Paul Dano plays Calvin, a self-absorbed writer in a perma-sunny LA (where else?) whose first novel has rendered him a literary phenomenon at a tender age, but who currently finds himself rather lacking in the ideas department. As publishers’ demands to see some new work increase, Calvin can’t seem to get past his block. He’s lonely, but has no friends apart from his dog and his brother, and certainly no chance of finding a girlfriend, which is what he really wants. One night, he has a dream about his perfect girl. Waking up with the fire of inspiration burning hot in his belly he stays up for days on end tippy-tapping away on his beautiful vintage typewriter. Then things go weird. The girl he’s written about suddenly appears. Those vintage typewriters, man.
The film potters along in what is essentially a romcom vein, probably exactly as you’re imagining, and though there are some genuinely funny moments in amongst the achingly cute set-ups you’re always waiting for some kind of conflict.
And then Ruby Sparks dares to do what a romcom would never do – it gives you a taste of real conflict. This is where this film could have become really interesting, and ultimately, where it truly fails, backing away from the difficult questions it starts asking and giving in to a happy ending which isn’t just stupid but actually insulting – to everyone who’s gone to see the film, but especially to women. Without giving too much away, there’s a puzzling plot dilemma Ruby Sparks doesn’t even really try to address, breezing on past like a politician happily answering a totally unrelated question.
The film’s unremitting support of Calvin and his egocentricity is grating, and there’s a faintly misogynistic subtext in the action which makes me surprised this film was written by a woman. It’s called Ruby Sparks but really it’s about Calvin. Ruby herself (Zoe Kazan) has been written as an ironic comment on the two-dimensionality of female characters in film, literature and the male psyche but is ultimately a plainly two-dimensional character. What kind of a message is that for girls?
Zoe Kazan is very watchable, by far the best actor in this film, which is convenient as she wrote it. Paul Dano, so reliable when playing twitchy borderline psychopaths, looks a little lost having to rein it in. The material doesn’t suit him, and he lends Calvin an utter charmlessness that undermines the film’s desire to see something good happen to him. Antonio Banderas and Anette Benning pop up as Calvin’s mother and stepfather in a sickeningly lovely (more fantastic than Ruby herself) pseudo-bohemian life together – which brings me to my other gripe: if you lump this into the same broad category as Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright (or as my mother had it The Children Are Going to Be OK) and The Descendants – decent, respectable, well made Hollywood films that confront ‘problems’ in a realistic even-handed way – you notice that these problems seem to solely be the domain of middle-class white people with large disposable incomes in a sun-drenched Californian (or Hawaiian) paradisiac alter-world.
This sun-drowned existence is, in the wake of so many films with such a similar aesthetic, so unappealing that it unconsciously starts to look like a kind of weird aspirational purgatory where these annoyingly well-rounded-but-still-lost people enact their problems without ever learning anything, imprisoned forever by a particular kind of dreamy living (what we might call the faux pastoral fantasy of the non-materialist middle classes) – their Organic Farmers markets, their Apple products (how it pains me to be at the point of saturation I feel more or less comfortable writing that line) and their non-committalfucking principles oh god shoot me now for any colour other than beige.
The irony about Ruby Sparks is that, whilst the character of Ruby is supposed to be an avenue to a realistic exploration of the falsehood of an unrealistic idealisation, the ‘realistic’ world the film is set in is itself a massively unrealistic idealisation. As the quirk drips out of every frame you can’t help but start to wonder if this has really been written, not by a person, but some kind of advanced marketing machine that’s spent the last three or four years amalgamating the popular life-desires among artistic, sensitive types. Let’s sell some vintage typewriters boys!
You could be forgiven for thinking that a film about how two people spend their last three weeks before an asteroid collides with Earth would be a sci-fi drama. But despite the high-concept, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is nothing more or less than a delightful romcom. Rammed with wit and warmth, it delivers heartily on the rom (the apocalypse acting as a metaphysical Cilla Black) and com (the apocalypse is a rich source of fatalistic humour) fronts.
This is not a sober Melancholia-style cataclysm, it’s more like ‘Naked Gun doesn’t do apocalypses but if it did….’ All is good-natured chaos, from the end-of-days countdown on the nightly news to the public posters offering the opportunity to fuck a virgin. Plodding round this circus is Dodge (Steve Carell) who’s in no mood to seize the moment as his wife has just literally run off. While his middle-aged friends throw Eyes Wide Shut-for-embarrassing-dad-style parties where they take acid and tear up the rulebook on fidelity, he stoically continues to go into work. The only revelation that takes root as his certain death grows closer is that he should seek out his high-school sweetheart, the lost love of his life.
So far, so downbeat, but then Keira Knightley appears in full Clementine from Eternal Sunshine…, Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode. Her character Penny is a record-loving, impulsive, hypersomniac and the pair end up involved in a buddy-movie road trip as they try to get to the people that matter the most before it’s too late. It’s no surprise that Carell, whose eyes are brown pools of kindness mingled with weariness, holds his own as a downtrodden wit with a big heart (See Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s Crazy Stupid Love for previous form). The revelation is Knightley who, although not quite lost in her character, has an infectious energy that sets the pace. Both she and the film possess the good-natured gait of a puppy that’s never been kicked and they race towards the finishing line with giddy abandon.
While the film is about the blossoming relationship between this oddball duo, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World gives generous time to the supporting cast and their subplots. Whether it’s the emotional truck driver for whom three weeks is still an eternity to wait to bid goodbye to the cruel world or Patton Oswalt’s opportunistic sleaze-ball bowled over with excitement at abounding sexual openness, these colourful characters provide regular blasts of entertainment. A climate of hysteria rises and falls and our leads’ ability to empathise with each other in these extreme circumstances makes us root for them.
Some developments feel unlikely but the logic of ‘this is the apocalypse’ sucks up and owns all bizarre swivels. Warmth pulses from every frame. Penny’s record love manifests in classic after classic. Wardrobe and colour palette are all gentle pastels and solid primaries. Liberally sprinkled are cameos so delightful and unexpected that your face will break out in smiles.
It’s amusing and a little odd that such a tragic concept is given such wholesome treatment (there’s a white picket fence knocking about) but once you see through the disguise of the subject to a solid and heartfelt romcom, all is well. This is a well-written, warm treat of a film about a pair whose unlikeliness is aspirational to anyone who wants to believe that love can grow against all odds.
Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @Sopharsogood.
Had Falling Down been made by the goofs behind National Lampoon it might have turned out something like this black comedy, which posits itself on the side of intelligence, but is arguably just as inane as the pop-cultural figures it mercilessly assassinates, argues contributor Ed Wall.
“America has become a cruel and vicious place.”
So speaks Frank (Joel Murray), the protagonist in Bobcat Goldthwait’s gory, silly and occasionally hilarious is-it-or-is-it-not-a-B-movie God Bless America. Frank, a middle-aged divorcee, finds himself at odds with a contemporary America whose vapid culture leaves him cold. Yearning for something more than his anodyne life, he has no outlet. He’s surrounded by morons. His pubescent daughter is a bitch. He’s a passive victim of our modern mediaocracy: unable to stomach the quality of the programming, yet still compulsively watching the television at night. When Frank is forcefully retired from his beige office job and told he has terminal cancer on the same day (ouch), our grey suburban ‘hero’ decides enough is enough and tools up. Soon he finds himself joined by disaffected teenager Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), an intelligent outcast with an unhealthy taste for bloodshed.
Painted in the broadest strokes, Frank and Roxy’s rampage through a culturally deficient USA is on the one hand far less shocking than it imagines it is, but also more covertly sinister than it appears. Besides spending the duration wondering quite which America it is Frank might be sentimentalising about, there’s an uncomfortable sense that, despite the schlocky feel, the film is actually taking itself reasonably seriously while ultimately upholding the values of the culture it rails against. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Over the course of two hours we’re ‘treated’ to the slayings of various token hate figures including, but not limited to, a far-right religious group with God Hates Fags signs, some Tea Party members and a fat man who may or may not be excusing paedophilia. These set pieces are executed (excuse the pun) with all the snappy dialogue you’d expect from a veteran of the stand-up scene, and decent acting from the two leads (particularly Barr, who endows Roxy with a needs-to-be-loved emotional vulnerability as the flipside to her downtrodden arrogance).
However, in keeping with the trashy pulp aesthetic, there doesn’t seem to be any point to all the violence. The film, ultimately, is trying to say something without wanting to be seen to be trying to say something. In advocating exactly the same response to a problem that a prevalent strain of American ideology demands, the film had the potential to be highly satirical. However, the nagging suspicion that for all the protagonists’ ‘journeying’ this isn’t really going anywhere is confirmed by a weak final third, replete with all-too predictable twist.
Making a film about the decline of culture that is itself artless, pointless and throwaway is either an unflinchingly brave act of postmodern artistry or a beautifully ironic faux pas, on a level with Alanis Morissette’s infamous, blundering misuse of the word ‘ironic’. It’s child’s play simply to list all the things you’re against in order to create a groundswell of sympathy amongst like-minded others (ask Vice magazine). Too much in God Bless America is rooted in the same divisive rabble-rousing actually employed by right-wing organisations like the Tea Party.
God Bless America, then, is not the wholly satirical deployment of the phrase that it might appear. I found myself wondering, in view of all of the recent unforgivable loss of human life, not least the truly abhorrent acts committed by the Assad regime in Syria, and those by Anders Breivik in Norway: is there not some kind of solution we can come to that doesn’t involve killing everyone?
God Bless America is in cinemas now. It is also available on DVD from July 9.