Wednesday, October 22, 2008

LFF: some capsules

Two Lovers

It is my absolute joy and privilege to be accompanied by Nick Davis over the remaining days of this festival, and my lasting shame that he will continue to produce brilliant reviews out of thin air, seemingly while I’m fixing breakfast. I beg to differ with that piece on two specific points: Nick isn’t the only one who thought James Gray’s We Own the Night was one of the most satisfying and technically distinctive American films of last year, and at least two of us (if you check the comments on his blog) raced to it, and loved it, precisely on his say-so.

My disappointment with Gray’s follow-up, an uncertain though nagging sensation throughout its initial stretches, is quite a lot milder than Nick's – for me the movie has something clear to say on that very feeling, and my early resistance fell away as it seemed to push itself ever further into the arena of desperate and deluded pseudo-romantic impulses that so few movies about contemporary relationships ever risk exploring. Lo and behold, this is an insane downer, even for Gray – only he could begin with a suicide attempt on Brighton Beach and proceed to allow Joaquin Phoenix’s life to deteriorate yet further, as he dithers between the sure, steady girlfriend his parents want to foist on him (Vinessa Shaw) and the neurotic, homewrecking flirt in the apartment opposite (Gwyneth Paltrow).

It’s true that neither actress fully succeeds in complicating these rather primitive stereotypes, but Gray and Phoenix have a bold bead on the traits of male squirming and borderline-stalker behaviour, particularly in a splendidly composed, edited and acted sequence when Phoenix finds every possible means to prolong a chance encounter with Paltrow on her commuter route, while trying to maintain a moment-by-moment façade of rumpled obliviousness. Letdown lurks around every corner in this too-neat diagram of Selfish Love, but I think Gray remains a heroic poet of disappointment even on an off day – a poet trying out a new metrical scheme (look – no guns!) and stumbling his way towards a bitter, broken destination that’s just about worth the climb. B


Michael Winterbottom talks nineteen to the dozen and turns out movies at roughly the same per-annum ratio, which is great when the urgency and passion click (In This World, A Mighty Heart) and less good, as we find here, when you feel he’s barrelled his way into a scenario that neither springs from nor reaches any especial point. Little about Genova, including the screenplay from Winterbottom’s normally excellent collaborator Laurence Coriat (Wonderland), suggests an awareness of what that point might be, save the technical achievement of filming down the constricted and sloping alleyways of its chosen city, and the balancing act of depending like crazy for plot tension on Don’t Look Now while coyly eschewing any overt homage. I’ll grant that there’s some simple, direct force to the film’s visceral moments of grief, when Colin Firth’s bawling daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) continues to blame herself for the car accident that kills her mum (Hope Davis) in the opening sequence. But Winterbottom and Coriat can’t decide how to map that grief into the abstract (let alone specific) menace of a foreign urban geography, and just go through the motions, reprising Wonderland’s core motif of an untended child exposed to danger, without even plunging us particularly into her damaged and parent-haunted headspace (in the bolder, freakier manner of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, for instance). As drama, and as filmmaking, too much of Genova comes off as flustered and arbitrary, an exercise in “fixing” broken family dynamics with a strange premium on emotional development, and a dismayingly thin role for Catherine Keener as one of Firth’s academic colleagues, a virtual tour guide popping up with choice little nuggets of Genoese history. If you’re interested, these tell us quite a lot about Genova as a 16th century Spanish trading post, but not much about why this movie needed to be set there – or indeed, anywhere. C

Thursday, October 16, 2008


We’re only two days into the London Film Festival, which kicked off last night with the world première of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. I highly doubt I’ll manage more than occasional posts on the fest’s goodies, what with juggling my weekly reviewing responsibilities at the same time and being, in general, a lazy bugger. But before the maelstrom really gets going, I’ll grab this chance to alert you to some early festival grades (in the sidebar) and express a fair degree of pleasant surprise on the opening night choice. Though I suspect this view will be a minority one, Frost/Nixon is to my mind a better film than The Queen (from the same writer/star team, Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen) and probably Howard’s best since Ransom, with a galvanic performance from Frank Langella that deserves serious awards consideration. Langella’s work and certain aspects of Howard’s direction overcame some, if not all, of my doubts about the material, adapted from Morgan’s play about the 1977 set of TV interviews between the ex-president and former/future BBC talk-show host David Frost. I have to say this whole growing Morgan oeuvre – he’s tackling David Peace’s terrific football novel The Damned United next, again with Sheen – is beset for me by a pretty basic cramping of imagination. I want everyone involved to take more creative leaps, to gamble on richer portraits and bolder psychology than this pedantic adherence to the record, give or take Morgan’s tweaking of timeframes, usually gets them. (Casting Natalie Portman as a Tudor hottie does not, for the record, count as a creative leap.) For its first half Frost/Nixon has all the same problems as The Queen, viz. the pantomime quality of the supporting cast, the antsy staging, the wishy-washy, televisual look. (What with this, Edtv, and the pivotal sequence in Ransom, it’s not hard to see that Howard’s more comfortable around cathode ray tubes than he ever has been behind a movie camera.) But the closer it gets to the crux of the matter – specifically the interrogation on Watergate – the more I found myself pulled in to this blustery prize-fight, and the more it seemed to make sense in its new medium.

Sheen spins a shrewd, funny Frost impression that’s no more nor less than his Tony Blair – if there’s significant overlap between the performances, you could argue for a fair bit of common ground between those two slippery men in the first place. Better, Langella’s lurching, crafty Nixon, ready to drone his way expansively out of any tough line of questioning, becomes a genuinely hypnotic site of facial drama when Frost and Howard start to probe in earnest. I actually became grateful for Howard’s doggedly straightforward pacing, the long-withheld close-up, slowly closing in, and preserving the minute vacillations of a half-mythic figure (barely a man) deciding how far he will allow himself to go, or to atone. Through a curious paradox it is pure theatre but better than theatre, for the reasons Morgan himself explores – the supposedly “reductive” power of that close-up, achieving a more natural climax on film than it can ever have done blown up on screens at the rear of the stage, is in fact the very opposite of reductive here. At this juncture and elsewhere, the script still falls short on cogent analysis – Morgan resorts to a fairly hokey late-night phone call to force his protagonists into a wary complicity, as if they were auditioning for a Michael Mann face-off, like Pacino and Crowe in The Insider, or Ali and George Foreman. (Or perhaps Liz and that stag.) Langella is utterly spellbinding in the last interview session. Almost fittingly, the second it ends the movie grinds to a resounding halt, and the coda is pure padding, ratcheting proceedings right back down to their earlier mediocrity. Nonetheless, I’ll give Morgan and Howard credit here for zeroing in on a historic moment, patiently establishing its importance, and confidently gearing up to show it, where Morgan and Frears never even seemed to decide what their equivalent moment was. B–