22 December 2010

At the Cinema: Monsters

Monsters (Gareth Edwards/2010) UK/94mins. *****

Some key plot points are revealed below

Several years ago a film like Monsters – a contemplative alien invasion movie from first-time director Gareth Edwards – would’ve likely received a low-key release and gradually blossomed into that currently increasingly rare thing: the sleeper hit. Now, it’s a cause for widespread fascination even before the digital pixels have had time to settle into their live-footage backdrops. Such is the way of the current Faster More Now movie cycle. But then the film’s dexterously advanced technology, harnessed through Edwards’ seamlessly savvy way with a minuscule budget and a laptop, has made the film resound with loud appeal. And, hey, why ever not. Kudos to Edwards for getting it made. I’d never bemoan him the high praise he’s been getting for achieving such a nifty feat of movie-making proficiency. (Indeed some sequences in Monsters are wonderfully vivid and point to seasoned expertise, not first-time experimentation, behind the camera.) But I can’t quite see why it’s been touted as the revelatory world-beater that it has. Isn't Edwards just reconfiguring known components into something that merely looks slightly different?

The narrative isn’t up to much. In a relatively recently brokedown world, newly overrun by gigantic amphibious alien life forms, perplexed photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is asked by his boss to shepherd his daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), through an “infected zone” between Mexico and North America to safety. The focus is on the two bound-for-each-other protagonists; the aliens are merely the remarkably-realised backdrop, a once otherworldly and unfamiliar element unleashed upon the world, now an irksome given. There are a few flickers of, if not quite terror, then curiously palpable unease within the thrifty narrative, but a few more pit-stop pauses evidently wedged in to further acquaint us with the couple and the gulf of burgeoning feeling between them.

An element of frustration for destruction-hungry viewers is inevitable. But the production gumpf tells us not to expect too many actual monsters in Monsters: thrill-seekers will have to look elsewhere; this is the calm after the storm. Any and all notable landmarks and famous monuments have long ago been smashed to pieces, their remnants already carted off to the scrapyard, leaving in their places well-photographed emptiness. We see the sunken aeroplanes, stranded boats and fractured roads left in the wake of an unforeseeable interstellar attack. But just because the characters within the world of Monsters are now passé about the environment being taken over by massive squid-like beings, it doesn’t mean that an audience will be. (Edwards' camerawork backs up the less-is-more approach in its almost staunch refusal to look for any extraneous adventure; he positions himself as baffled by-stander – I'm guessing the budgetary constraints may have something to do with this.) But it wouldn’t matter so much if spectacle and nonnatural flourish were sidelined for arousing dialogue and intrepid characters, but the dull-as-ditchwater duo present rankle. (Dare I suggest that – however refreshing it can be to see relative unknowns get a shot – my not-actually-joking preferred casting option of Paul Rudd and Anna Faris, playing it as straight as it required, might have imbued the film with much-needed personality.)

McNairy's and Able’s characters’ scant lack of personable charm doesn’t invite much sympathy for their plight. A rich-girl dreamer and a photographer-poseur are probably two types I’d like to see die off first in an alien invasion movie – however pared back the invasion is. Would a pair of wayward, forced explorers, desperate beyond words to reach their destinations, be as limp and ineffectual as they are? Whichever way you glaze it, there’s something a bit pat about a bland, good-looking couple falling in love with one another whilst an indifferent world continues on its path to hell around them. Is there anything truly captivating within the film's closing moments that suggest the pair won’t just carry on regardless after their exit? Will Andrew now not sell his photos to earn his living because he didn’t snap a dead child? Will Samantha not eschew all luxury now she’s seen a truck get crushed by tentacles? It's open to interpretation, surely. But nothing in their body language suggests sea change; nothing in their exchanges suggests revelation. Also, what if the two glowing squidy invaders in the penultimate shot aren’t sharing an intimate moment (as many people have proposed) but are actually having a chat to hatch an evil plan for world domination? It could go either way. Because we're ushered in the direction of dreamy realisation it doesn't mean to say that's what's happening.

Some stand-alone shots are quite moving. I very much liked the travelogue imagery of those abandoned wares and vehicles left forever distressed on the riverbanks and roads – the bits which get all too hastily glossed over in more familiar disaster movies such as 2012 or Independence Day. This depreciated everyday detritus, ignored and left to rot, often carries emotional significance, especially when no available human presence manages to shoulder it. There’s some intriguingly ominous business with a trolley-pushing bag lady, a massive walled enclosure - that either secures America from alien infection, or vice versa, depending on your personal interpretation of the film's title - and a mysterious, late-night river cruise. These moments arouse pathos splendidly and linger in the memory long after the images of the nearly-lovers’ bored faces evaporate. But Monsters’ journeying, though technically alluring, is rarely as immersive or as interesting as, say, Clive Owen’s befuddled, subjective path in Children of Men, or even as diverting as Cloverfield’s in-crowd’s directionless blundering. Edwards' film is a middling diversion, not the spectacular discovery you may have been lead to expect. As someone who wanted very much to include it on my year-end tally, it pains me to say that.

16 December 2010

Three Takes Only (Pt 4)

The first series of my Take Three columns over at The Film Experience has ended for a Christmas and Oscars/awards season break. So here are links to all the actors and actresses featured in the series from where I left off last time in the previous Three Takes Only round-up post. (Click on names for links to articles)

David Warner
From Beyond the Grave, The Omen, The Man with Two Brains

Kim Basinger
Batman, L.A. Confidential, The Burning Plain

Harry Dean Stanton
collective work for David Lynch, Alien/Wise Blood, Paris, Texas

Melissa George
Mulholland Dr., George horror/thriller round-up, Triangle

Terence Stamp
Teorema, Superman II, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Emily Watson
Gosford Park, Red Dragon, The Proposition

Paddy Considine
Last Resort/My Summer of Love, Cinderella Man/In America, Dead Man's Shoes

Take Three will return in February 2011. It will abseil down a mountain to reach you, just like James Bond.

7 December 2010

At the Cinema: Somewhere

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola/2010) USA/97mins. *****

Sofia Coppola’s new film Somewhere starts in first gear but ends on autopilot. She’s bold enough to allow an experimentally languorous preamble at the outset, even letting some intriguing dead air permeate her cinematic confectionery early on (a pre-title scene of a car circling a racetrack from a fixed camera position takes its own sweet time), but due to an increasing familiarity of tone it becomes Sof-Copp-by-numbers by the halfway mark. I’m always keen on what she’ll come out with next, but – as with Christopher Nolan's work – I find myself wondering if I’ll ever truly love one of her films. Can I only snatch brief glimpses of the overall greatness many others see in her work? Or are her movies simply time-passing fancies for me, and little more? Either way, we’ve been here before: a transitionary protagonist wallowing in hotel life has life-changing meeting; things likely get immeasurably altered whilst we bathe in the hazy luxury of hip delight. Sofia Coppola is very much dealing with home-away-from-home comforts.

Her film is entirely lovely to look at (as photographed by the great Harris Savides), and it has some well selected and aptly placed pop songs on the soundtrack (keep ears pricked for Phoenix's opening titles score, inventively made up of car engine revs), but it feels too much like happy stasis. Its first twenty-or-so-minutes largely constitute a series of instances woven together in the life of fading, strung-out Hollywood movie star Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) – he fritters time away in between routine appointments, lounging with pole dancers, navigating tiresome parties with film world flakes, and indulging in some vacant, soul-searching stares from the Chateau Marmont hotel balcony, and so on – but, despite being some of the film's best moments, they do feel slightly inconsequential overall. (Is this Coppola's key point?) This is all well and good, however, until he has to take charge of his estranged daughter (Elle Fanning) and attempt to emotionally re-engage with his real self in the process.

Cool and listlessly somnambulant drifters are common currency for Coppola. She doesn’t entirely take her characters anywhere fresh in her L.A. jaunt, and after a while it’s fairly easy to predict where Somewhere will end up. The film meanders nicely enough – Sofia does love those lazy days away – but it loses some of its early finesse on later scenes which don’t really go anywhere, or say anything, particularly interesting. Coppola is obviously criticising the Hollywood machine here, but she’s also clearly enamoured with it too: she’s well-placed to take aim, but maybe too close to really have something coruscating to say. She’s a direct product of it, too, which makes several of her soft attacks come off as slightly too precious, a bit like artistic therapy for its own sake. She wants to eat the hand that feeds her, but merely ends up nibbling its fingernails. Although it does effectively pinpoint some of the less glamorous actorly tasks with some wit and effective clarity. (A make-up test sitting, where Dorff is caked in old man prosthetics, is both deliberately ponderous and strangely creepy – it incrementally speaks volumes about the cyclical nature of stardom in one acute slow zoom.)

Somewhere has the most relaxed, laid back atmosphere of any film I’ve seen this year, save for perhaps Greenberg, which it feels somewhat akin to at times. And it's an effective, refreshing and pastel-soft escapist diversion for a globe still in economic crisis. But, then again, is an indulgent tale about a privileged, self-examining A-lister quite what the world needs right now? Dorff and Fanning are good enough at playing relaxed and carefree, and Savides’ superb photography (more L.A. kinship with Greenberg) is, without question, some of the year’s best. But despite some choice scenes of upended introspection, and amusing examinations of the tedious side of fame, there is leftover merely a lot of dependably shot elegant slumming. I got the feeling Coppola is coasting here, however blissfully  fuzzy the ride. I went in disarmed and curious, but left with a shrug. Somewhere could equally have been called Here, There or Anywhere.

This review has been altered and expanded from a piece from the LFF I wrote for The Film Experience

3 December 2010

50 Words for Julianne Moore

Today is Julianne Moore's 50th birthday. Moore is an actress I've enjoyed seeing on screen for many years, so I wanted to mark this occasion and post up fifty - rather daft, all too hastily assembled - words that concisely sum up my appreciation of the actress and her work.

17 years. Been thrilled since Benny & Joon in a Dublin fleapit. Short Cuts stunned; Safe was the clincher. Magnolia cemented the deal. Versatility since has been glorious. Blindness, Savage Grace; tears on cheekbones. I always look forward to seeing that face. Happy Birthday Ms. Moore, you’re fifty years young.


Julianne Moore photographed by Serge Leblon and styled by Christopher Campbell for Blackbook march 2010
(These were my favourite photographs taken of Julianne during her 49th year.)