Thursday, February 27, 2014

Art Decades

Anyone who has read Jeremy Richey’s blog Moon in the Gutter will know that he is passionate about cinema, music, art and literature. Not to mention an astute writer on many subjects. The ideal qualities, in short, to helm a print magazine with a broad and eclectic purview.

Art Decades promises to be essential reading for everyone who cares about the arts in whatever form. Cineaste? They’ll be plenty there for you. Music lover? Ditto. Photography your bag? They’ll be some great stuff. Poetry? Jeremy’s been kind enough to ask me for some new work specially for the first issue.

All that’s needed is some capital for publishing software, an associated website, promotional costs and sundries for photoshoots etc. Jeremy’s asking for very little in the grand scheme of things and the Art Decades Indiegogo funding page (click here) offers some very tantalizing incentives. Please consider contributing something – you’ll be a part of a project that’s worthy of success.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s canon of dependable, solidly crafted films as director gets another entry with ‘The Monuments Men’. It’s been greeted by an almost consensus critical opinion: plodding pace, under-developed characters, turgid voiceover.

I’d love to post a contrary review and herald the film as a misunderstood classic – indeed, this review proceeds from my opinion that it’s decidedly better than most people are giving it credit for – but it has to be admitted from the outset: ‘The Monuments Men’ is flawed. The main problem is the script, which veers between smartarse caper movie and big dramatic statement on the value of art over life.

Or to put it another way, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov can’t decide if they want to remake ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ or ‘The Train’.

That much-levelled criticism re: the characters holds. Less than halfway through, I’d given up trying to remember their names or whatever tiny daub of backstory they’d been given. They were simply The Snobbish One (Bob Balaban), The Gregarious One (John Goodman), The Wry But Melancholy One (Bill Murray), The One Speaks Bad French (Matt Damon), The Two One Who’s Actually French (Jean Dujardin), The One Who’s Awfully British What Ho! (Hugh Bonneville) and The One Who’s George (Clooney).

There’s also Cate Blanchett, whose French accent vacillates from borderline acceptable to ‘Allo! Allo!’

At the heart of the film is one hell of an inspiring true story, and when the script focuses on the logistics of tracking down and recovering stolen artworks, often from behind enemy lines and with little or no support, Clooney responds well as actor and director. There’s a particularly effective upswing in terms of urgency and tension in the second half when, following the German surrender, what should have been a more relaxed endeavour is suddenly complicated by the Russian Army’s rigorously mobilised Trophy Brigade, out to forcibly claim as much art as possible and ship it off to the motherland. The race to recover Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child is both a genuine edge-of-the-seat sequence and the script’s finest explication of the importance of art.

Elsewhere, cringe-worthy moments abound: not least a Christmas message received by one of the team which is intercut with a young soldier dying in a hospital tent (imagine if Spielberg had made ‘M*A*S*H’ instead of Altman: yes, that schmaltzy).

At its best, though, ‘The Monuments Men’ is a well-crafted mainstream production. There’s enough genuine commitment to the subject matter to mark it out as more than just a vanity project or a chance for Clooney to gift half a dozen roles to his buddies. The production design is excellent. Clooney suggests an epic, battle-scarred backdrop and sets up an effective counterpoint between the aftermath of wartime conflict and the timeless cultural importance of the works his heroes recovered.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bright Star

By any definition, life dealt John Keats a pretty bad hand: his father died when he was eight, his mother when he was fourteen; a legacy that could have made his life easier and given him more time to write was not brought to his attention (either by oversight or design); torn between his exorbitantly expensive medical studies and the pull of literature, he suffered crippling depression; despite being championed by Leigh Hunt, his first collection – published at the tender age of 21 – was berated by the critics and barely sold; his beloved brother died of tuberculosis, a disease which later claimed Keats himself; his mature work ‘Endymion’ reached no wider readership; he borrowed heavily from his friends to keep himself in a reasonable standard of living; his adjournment to Rome for recuperation in better weather following two lung haemorrhages was made possible only by the generosity of supporters; and it was there he died, aged just 25, considering himself a failure.

All told, the basic chronology for anyone considering ‘Keats: The Movie’ as a film project makes for a depressing narrative. In fact, the only high points are his romantic relationships with Isabella Jones and – more notably – Fanny Brawne.

Keats and Brawne’s love story spanned the last three years of the poet’s life. Eighteen when they met, Brawne was atypical of the “proper” young lady of the times: she was feisty, enquiring, opinionated and intensely passionate. Keats was a wholehearted exponent of the Romantic school. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, their grand passion could have pre-ordained. Their years together (and apart, depending on circumstances) resulted in some of his finest work: ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and the much-revised sonnet ‘Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art’, which gives its name to Jane Campion’s elegant, thoughtful and sensitive biopic.

Drawing on Andrew Motion’s acclaimed biography – Campion engaged him as script advisor – ‘Bright Star’ nonetheless proceeds from Fanny (Abbie Cornish)’s point of view. Her attraction to Keats (Ben Wishaw) is immediate but as in every love story with any enduring resonance, there are obstacles. Keats’s mentor and occasional co-author Charles Brown (Paul Schnieder) sees Fanny as something of a flibbertigibbet and a distraction from the real business of Keats’s writing.

Brown comes across as louche and arrogant to begin with, but the depths of his (entirely aesthetic) affection for the poet is revealed by degrees, culminating in a tirade of self-loathing after his friend’s death as he admits “I failed John Keats.” Another naysayer is Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) who quickly intuits the strength of her daughter’s feelings and tries to reason with her as diplomatically as possible. “Mr Keats knows he cannot like you,” she avers: “he has no living and no income.” It’s a quiet but devastating line.

Fanny, headstrong and in the most impressionable flush of youthful emotion, is undeterred. Keats responds almost indifferently at first, despondent over his brother’s debilitating illness, his financial situation and the general lack of interest in his book ‘Endymion’. But Fanny’s empathy and the comfort she offers him after his brother’s death draw them closer together. Keats spends Christmas with her family. The following year, however, Brown insists on a “summer rental” – i.e. their joint accommodation let out while they relocate to cheaper lodgings – and the separation is devastating to Fanny. There are moments of relief – transcendence, even – when she receives a letter from Keats (the film’s most celebrated image has Fanny sink to her knees in a field of bluebells as she reads his words, every element of the world around her suddenly and abundantly regenerated), but the toll of being apart is a destructive burden.

All this could too easily have become a study in anguished yearning, he a fey and consumptive presence, she a hypersensitive adolescent. Or for the script to have swung too far in the opposite direction and the whole enterprise emerge as a handsomely shot but stultifyingly polite costume piece, a kind of super-produced BBC drama. But Campion is too intelligent a writer and too disciplined a director. The production design doesn’t mire itself in the Regency prettification that is the bane of many costume dramas. The cinematography offers no sheen. Clothes look rumpled and lived-in, a sense of make-do-and-mend lurking beneath the ruffles and petticoats. Houses maintain a fa├žade of social standing but rooms are sparsely furnished, paint is faded, possessions are few. This is a world away from your Bennetts and Darcys, a world where even families who maintain a staff seem to be keeping up appearances on rapidly thinning incomes. 

Campion is well-served, too, by her cast. Wishaw – one of the few actors of his generation who genuinely exhibits the hallmarks of a great performer – is savvy enough not to try to “be” Keats but to suggest the life and the haunted sense of failure and the part-wearying part-exultant emotionalism that defined the man who created the great poems. Cornish, who gave an emotionally honest performance in ‘Somersault’ and should have been better served by Hollywood than has been the case, is nothing short of revelatory here. Fanny’s vacillations between precocious self-confidence and painful vulnerability are the stuff of showboating and breast-beating; a lesser talent would have made Fanny Brawne shrewish and hysterical. Cornish nimbly dodges all the potential pitfalls and establishes every emotional beat of Fanny’s three years with Keats, a performance that culminates in two particularly difficult scenes – the outpouring of grief at the news of his death; the solemn acceptance as she recites the titular sonnet.

‘Bright Star’ is a virtually flawless film* that is understated in all the right places while injecting a heady rush of words and emotion into its audience’s sensibilities at exactly the right moments. Conventional wisdom has it that ‘The Piano’ is Campion’s masterpiece. For me, ‘Bright Star’ is her most sublime achievement as a filmmaker.

*Schiedner is slightly – slightly – heavy-handed in a few of his scenes. The script assumes an existing knowledge of some aspects of Keats’s life. These aren’t even complaints.

Monday, February 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Richard Burton Diaries

A shorter review of this book originally appeared on the Five Leaves Bookshop website

During his career, Richard Burton published the occasional bit of journalism – including the controversial New York Times article in which, apropos of playing him in ‘The Gathering Storm’, Burton was openly critical of Winston Churchill – and two very slim nostalgic volumes, ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’, which hint at autobiography. It’s taken the publication of his diaries, however – nearly thirty years after his death – to reveal the true extent of Burton’s literary capabilities and the overall effect is to make one weep for the memoirs he never wrote, or the century-spanning picaresque novel he gave some considerable thought to but which, again, never materialised.

The diaries – edited by Chris Williams, whose love of footnotes is as all-consuming as Burton’s torrid passion for Elizabeth Taylor – are ordered into six main sections: 1939-1940, in which a series of regular but short entries give a snapshot of his childhood and a burgeoning love of literature; 1960, which is little more than an appointments diary; 1965-1972, which spans almost 500 of the 654 pages; 1975, documenting his brief remarriage to Taylor and an unhealthy amount of drinking; 1980, centring mostly on his theatrical tour with ‘Camelot’; and 1983, which ends as he’s about to take to the stage again in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’, an ill-fated production that co-starred Taylor.

What of the gaps? Ah, thereby hangs the frustrating aspect of what is otherwise a compelling and immersive volume. Three things emerge as constant enemies of Burton’s diarism: boredom (although he sometimes writes to fill otherwise empty hours), drink (it’s no coincidence that his most prolific and detailed entries come on days when he’s trying to stay off the booze), and engagement with a role that genuinely interests him. The latter might seem obvious, but such roles were few and far between. Burton admits to actively disliking his profession – “I loathe, loathe, loathe acting” – and much of what he did during the Taylor years seems to have been motivated strictly by financial realities. The diaries during this period record almost casually his acquisition of extravagantly priced jewellery, a yacht, a private jet (“I did something beyond outrage” he says of dropping $960,000 for the latter – this in 1967!*) and the kind of house-hopping that would have the ‘Location Location Location’ production team weeping into their portfolios.

The downside is that barely a word is expended on ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, ‘Becket’, ‘Night of the Iguana’ or ‘Villain’ and there’s nothing whatsoever on ‘Wagner’ or ‘1984’. There are, however, entire screeds on ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’, ‘Raid on Rommel’, ‘Staircase’ and ‘The Battle of Sutjeska’. The only exception to this inverse good film/no entries ratio is the underrated ‘Assassination of Trotsky’. Also, it would have been fun to read Burton at his bitchiest give behind-the-scenes accounts of ‘Exorcist II’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ – but, again, this was sadly not to be.

What we do get, in plenitude, is an account of Burton’s life – the travel, the glamour, the fabulous restaurants, the glitzy hotels, the premieres and hobnobbing. In the wrong hands, this could have been the stuff of gloating. But everything Burton writes is tempered with his background, the poverty of his childhood, the admission – made repeatedly – that he’s been lucky. Moreover, fame and materialism didn’t lull him into intellectual moribundity. Throughout the span of the diaries, Burton demonstrates an inquiring mind, a thirst for knowledge, a keen engagement with the written word and a fascination with linguism. Put it this away: imagine you’re on a yacht, you’re worth millions, there’s an entourage on hand to give it the “yes sir no sir three bags full sir” at the merest inclination of your eyebrow, and you’ve got Liz Taylor lying on a sun lounger next to you. Would you just kick back and let a big wave of egomania wash of you, or would you spend the day reading a three-volume academic history of ancient Rome then work on bringing your Italian to fluency? 

Burton’s reading is voracious and eclectic. His love of poetry is writ large. For all that he socialises with royalty and fellow film stars, his most treasured acquaintanceships are with Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Lines of verse, often subtly paraphrased to mesh with the business of that day’s entry, are threaded through the journals. Editor Williams tediously annotates every one – well, almost; he misses a couple of bits by Henley – and insists on rendering the actual line. He also fussily records that ‘The Phil Donaghue Show’ was presented by Phil Donaghue, PT means physical training, and bangers and mash is a dish of sausage and mashed potato – things I’m guessing that most people know – yet doesn’t bother to translate entire sentences that Burton renders in French. There are footnotes to every page, up to six or seven per page most of the time, and they’re generally facile. After a while, I trained my eye to simply disregard them and got on with the infinitely measurable business of wallowing in Burton’s prose.

While ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’ are polished and bear the evidence of careful revision, the diaries are exuberant and unmediated, entire entries fast-flowing in a rush of words. You hear Burton speak as you read them – that commanding voice with its dramatic emphasis. Just as Burton the orator had an intuitive understanding of cadence and rhythm, Burton the writer unleashes torrents of words to just the same effect. He directs those words at those around him, often sympathetically and sometimes satirically (his description of Andy Warhol as looking “like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved” is priceless), but mostly at himself and with almost brutal honesty.

I haven’t enjoyed an actor in his own words this much since ‘Ever, Dirk’, John Coldstream’s volume of Dirk Bogarde’s waspish and fascinating correspondence. Bogarde, of course, enjoyed a second career as a memoirist, novelist and reviewer in the last two decades or so of his life. It’s a damn shame Burton didn’t get to tread a similar path.

*The equivalent of about $6.5million today.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In the Electric Mist

I haven’t read many of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set crime novels featuring recovering alcoholic Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux – something I intend to rectify – but the unifying aesthetic seems to be threefold: (i) slow-burn narratives; (ii) convoluted and multi-stranded ploting, often spanning different timeframes; and (iii) a juxtaposition of deep-rooted morality with protocol-defying acts of (necessary?) violence. Burke’s prose is precisely crafted and carries weight. He writes thinking man’s genre fiction.

So it’s regrettable – if depressingly understandable given mainstream American cinema’s tendency to dumb-down – that Burke and Robicheaux have been poorly treated in terms of adaptation. First out of the trap, in 1996, was Phil Joanou’s ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’, a heart-in-the-right-place attempt to capture the atmosphere and complexity of Burke’s second novel. At two and a quarter hours, it took its time negotiating the source material, but the last act still seemed rushed and awkward. Nor did Alec Baldwin’s performance ever quite suggest the Robicheaux of the novels. A good supporting cast – Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary Stuart Masterson – kind of got lost in the background.

Total silence on the silver screen Robicheaux front for thirteen years, then Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘In the Electric Mist’ starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald and Mary Steenburgen went, inexplicably, straight to DVD. Stop and ponder that concept a moment. Bertrand motherfucking Tavernier, one of Europe’s most respected filmmakers – a man whose CV includes the definitive jazz opus ‘Round Midnight’, Dirk Bogarde’s poignant swansong ‘These Foolish Things’, and the drumtight policier ‘L.627’ – directs Tommy Lee motherfucking Jones – two years after his encomium-laden performance in ‘No Country for Old Men’ in a James Lee motherfucking Burke adaptation and for some weird-ass reason the world didn’t sit up and take notice.

It’s fair to say, then, that something went wrong. Maybe more than one something. Let’s break it down. The biggest something was that old how-to-ineffably-ruin-a-movie standby, producer interference. This in itself is peculiar, since most of the credited producers and executive producers had previously worked either with Tavernier on his French-language films or with Jones on his fantastic directorial debut ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. Whatever the reason, some twenty minutes got chopped out of the film, leaving various subplots unresolved, questions unanswered, characters unaccounted for and no clear correlation between the narrative’s fifty-years-apart timelines. Apparently Tavernier’s approved cut won an award in France, which tells you all you need to know.

Other possible contributory factors (mere opinionism on my part): Jones, while a better fit for Robicheaux than Baldwin, is too old for the character; Tavernier lacks the engagement with regional culture that an American director might have brought to the project; and the big quasi-surreal set-pieces are blandly conjured. Here’s a good place to consider the title. ‘In the Electric Mist’ is a neither-here-nor-there contraction of the novel’s moniker, ‘In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’. In its full iteration, it’s a gnarly piece of dimestore poetry. Robicheaux’s pursuit of a multiple murdered who targets hookers plays out against the filming of a Civil War epic in his jurisdiction. A plot twist sees him drugged, after which he experiences hallucinations of Confederate leader General John Bell Hood (woodenly played by Levon Helm). Electric mist = the falsity of cinema. Confederate dead = Robicheaux’s ghostly confidante/advisor. To be fair, it would take someone like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or Alejandro Jodorowsky to visualise this kind of thing and make it work and headfuck the audience so that they never forgot it.

All of which probably sounds like I’m writing ‘In the Electric Mist’ off. But that’s not what we’re about here at The Agitation of the Mind. And while ‘In the Electric Mist’ remains a flawed piece of work by any set of critical perameters, it still has several things going for it. First and foremost, Mr Tommy Lee Jones. Too old for Robicheaux: yes. Not badass enough for Robicheaux: hell, fuckin’ no. Tommy Lee Jones represents an old-school tradition of film stars who vibe tough-guy authenticity offset by an internalized suggestion of psychological unpredictability. Jones, in other words, is heir to the tradition of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. And there are enough scenes in ‘In the Electric Mist’ where he channels their traditions and iconography while never losing sight of his (again internalized and suggestive) personification of Robicheaux.

Moreover, Jones is an incredibly generous and adaptive actor. Watch how he plays off a seasoned performer like Pruitt Taylor Vince, each of them interweaving into the other’s dialogue. Then look at his scenes with Justina Machado, easing back to allow her character the moment, then re-insinuating himself at the crucial point. Of his scenes with Goodman, I’ll say nothing more than settle back with a big and prepare to grin like a lunatic. These guys mix it up and kick it around and create cinematic alchemy.

While it might not add up, critically or narratively, to much more than a bunch of unanswered questions and redacted subplots, ‘In the Electric Mist’ galvanises most often than not when it takes up the mantle of a character-driven piece that’s interested in the dynamic between married man/adoptive father and hair-trigger-tempered authority figure one step away from vigilantism. Maybe one day it’ll be reappraised. Maybe a producer with a certain vision will greenlight another Robicheaux movie. I have no idea who would play him – could Michael Fassbender pull off a convincing Bayou accent? – but the fact remains that the definitive James Lee Burke adaptation is still out there, waiting for the right creative team.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Agitation elsewhere

Small confession, folks. I’ve been playing away from home.

Now, before anyone calls Mrs F and gets me in world of trouble, let me clarify that statement. The very amenable team at Moviepilot invited me to share some of my work over on their site. So the review of Brit-drama ‘Made in Dagenham’ that I had primed for Agitation found itself a different home.

Depending on how much content I produce in the coming months, I might alternate between posting things on Moviepilot and Agitation. What I don’t want to do, however, is starve Agitation for content.

The ‘Made in Dagenham’ review is just a click away; meanwhile, keep checking back to this site. We’re going down to the bayou with Tommy Lee Jones in a couple of days to determine whether ‘In the Electric Mist’ gives the work of James Lee Burke a better showing than ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Dawn of the Unread

When the dead go unread because libraries are closing down, there’s gonna be some trouble.

Dawn of the Unread is a print and digital arts project designed to promote reading and libraries, and such it launches today to coincide with National Libraries’ Day. Helmed by James Walker, the project brings together a melange of East Midlands based writers and artists.

So what’s it all about? Allow me to quote from the Dawn of the Unread website:

"12 literary figures from Nottingham’s past are coming back from the grave in search of the one thing that will keep them alive… boooooks. 

Now before you start mithering that libraries in Nottingham haven’t closed down yet, calm down. It’s only an apocalypse. Unread authors are a right sensitive lot and think prevention is better than cure. So consider this a Roadmap to Peace (that’s Charlie to you). Not to mention Bendigo, Sillitoe, Reville, Howitt, Lawrence, Byron Clough, Trease, the 5th Duke of Portland, the Gotham Fool, Ms Hood and Rawicz." 

So where do I come into it? Well, zombies might be getting the literary treatment starting today, but they’re still best known as cinematic icons. Hence the Dawn of the Unread crew decided to lock me in a disused asylum with a supply of organic pasties, a typewriter and every zombie film ever made. My mission: a trip around the globe in 12 zombie movies.

The downside? I kind of got zombified.

Seriously, folks, that is some major necrosis on my beard!

I’ll be posting links on Agitation as and when my reviews (and other interesting content) appear, but in the meantime here’s some places to visit for more details:

Dawn of the Unread website 

Dawn of the Unread blog 

Project overview on the LeftLion website

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Robot and Frank

‘Robot and Frank’ had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release last year and – guess what? – I missed it. The film – the brainchild of director Jake Shreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, both making their debut – was trailered as a buddy movie/comedy thriller: grumpy old timer hooks up with omniscient android and they pull heists together; Dortmunder on a pension meets Twiki.

In fact, ‘Robot and Frank’ is much more than that. Much more. Its scant 85-minute running time includes ruminations on mortality, memory, regret, and the intrusions of technology. I’d even go as far as saying there’s a touch of Peckinpah in the depiction of a decidedly old-school anti-hero squaring off against the changing times … except where, say, Cable Hogue gets run down by the chief instrument of change (the automobile), Frank would have immediately spotted its potential as a getaway vehicle.

There’s a dash of ‘The Straight Story’ here, too … except where Alvin Straight is a basically honest man who saw too much during his war service, Frank is a former jewel thief who keeps his hand in with the odd bit of shoplifting. There’s no need for him to pursue this activity, and his clumsiness in doing so immediately alerts the proprietor’s suspicions, but Frank’s memory is beginning to fade and Shreier and Ford imply that this is his only way of keeping taut his lifeline to the past.

Until, that is, his well-meaning technophile son Hunter (James Marsden) gifts him with a robot. Voiced by Peter Sarsgaard – whose creation of its personality out of nothing more than a softly spoken, oh-so-reasonable monotone beautifully evokes HAL9000 – the robot is a butler/nurse/companion. And Frank takes against it vehemently from the start, a position echoed by his New Age-y technophobe daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). When, however, Frank realises that the robot has no concept of morality except as a dictionary definition, he’s quick to exploit the opportunity. Soon, man and robot are bonding over lock-picking, architect’s plans and the finer points of bypassing alarm systems.

Prior to his reinvigoration courtesy of the robot, Frank’s days have been spent at a marked-for-closure library, kindling a tentative romance with soon-to-be-downsized librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). Learning that the entire stock of books is going to be scanned then pulped – the near future setting of the film takes on a sort of ‘Fahrenheit 451’-lite vibe at this point – Frank decides to stage a break in and liberate an antique copy of ‘Don Quixote’, intending it as a gift for Jennifer.

(I don’t need to labour the choice of book, do I?)

Heist or no heist, Frank finds himself invited to a fundraiser for the new digital “library experience” designed to replace the facility – a project spear-headed by unctuous entrepreneur Jake (Jeremy Strong). Recognising a con-man when he sees one, and wondering how much Jake’s skimming off the top to keep trophy wife Ava (Bonnie Bentley) in the jewellery to which she’s become accustomed – Frank lines up Jake and Ava’s out-of-the-way designer home for his next mark. Then Madison descends on robot and Frank’s cozy crime-tastic idyll armed with a million hippie-drippy life lessons and the override code for the robot, and the window of opportunity for the heist grows dangerously narrower.

The crime caper aspects of ‘Robot and Frank’ occupy about a third of the movie, and Shreier gets the tone spot on. Langella’s masterfully understated performance mines a rich seam of wry humour. Marsden and Tyler, in small roles, play off him well, while Sarandon sparkles. Indeed, it’s thanks to her that the resolution of the Frank/Jennifer subplot – the only moment of jarring contrivance in Ford’s script – scrapes by on a modicum of warmth and charm.

This, however, is the only almost-flub in the whole film. That Shreier manages to enfold his oddball crime caper in a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking character study makes ‘Robot and Frank’ a real gem ripe for discovery. It’s the best film on ageing this side of ‘The Straight Story’ and even if the final scenes find Frank in a cocoon of conformity, in terms of both acceptable social behaviour and the enforced dependencies of senior citizen, then the wily ol’ devil still manages to get one over of the changing times before the end credits roll. It’s tempting to say Peckinpah would have approved, but he’d probably have had L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin turn in the robot for the bounty!

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

With the average Agitation of the Mind review clocking in at 800 – 1,000 words, it would be easy enough to expend that much verbiage discussing what’s wrong with ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Let’s be honest: it’s a far from perfect film. The three-hour running time is in no way justified, Jonah Hill’s performance is borderline terrible, and the editing veers from merely functional to appalling amateurish. Scorsese’s editor is, of course, Thelma Schoonmaker, a woman whose contribution to the great man’s canon is immeasurable. To watch some scenes in ‘Wolf’ and pondered that they were put together by the same person who gave ‘Goodfellas’ is rat-a-tat-tat narrative energy is a very depressing thing indeed.

While we’re talking about the editing, there’s probably a trade paper article to be written on how badly the park bench scene between Leonardo di Caprio and Joanna Lumley is put together, and how it does great disservice to the bizarre pleasure of seeing those two actors in the same scene. Not, however, that it’s a particularly good scene. Like many scenes in the film, it simply goes on too long. And don’t even get me started on the scene on the yacht with the FBI guys …

But to write that review of ‘Wolf’ would be to (a) deviate from the mission statement of this blog, and (b) miss the point. Because ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is exactly the kind of film you didn’t think Scorsese made anymore: a full-throttle, frequently exhilarating rollercoaster through the lives of thoroughly amoral characters that doesn’t care if you like them, loathe them, want to be like them or are so thoroughly outraged you exit the cinema and write a strongly worded letter to the Sunday papers.

There’s a dynamic that Scorsese has keyed into which distinguishes the high points of his career, and it’s worth bearing in mind that he almost went into the seminary as a young man. Martin Scorsese is a profoundly moral filmmaker who inherently and empathetically understands the lure of amorality. It’s no coincidence that ‘Wolf’ plays out like ‘Goodfellas: The Stockbroker Years’. The same rise and fall narrative applies to both: protagonist at formative age is dazzled by a certain lifestyle; protagonist hungrily embraces said lifestyle; protagonist spirals out of control, destroying the lives of those around him; protagonist falls afoul of criminal investigation; protagonist rats out his so-called partners in crime to save own skin.

Essentially, the only difference between ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is that stakes are lower and the running time is longer. Oh, and stokebrokers use phones where gangsters use guns. Otherwise, it’s the same retinue of drugs, booze, hookers and a commitment to foul language that would make a Russian sailor blush. That Scorsese plunders his own playbook so determinedly is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that ‘Wolf’ is Scorsese’s most energised and propulsive outing since ‘The Aviator’, and a weakness in that we’re seeing absolutely nothing new.

But still, it’s a blast. For every scene that drags (an attempted bribe of an FBI officer is so laboriously established that it squanders all of its dramatic possibility after five minutes and then stumbles on interminably for as long again), there’s a sequence that’s joyous to watch and utterly hilarious in its irreverence and inappropriateness. Witness Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) driving out to his country club to use a payphone after he finds his home and office have been wiretapped. A batch of out-of-date ludes he’d ingested earlier and written off as duds kick in plus VAT and, as a voiceover that’s beautifully at odds with what we’re seeing on screen muses, he goes from “that tingly feeling to cerebral palsy in one step”. What follows is several minutes of absurd physical comedy (ever wondered what di Caprio doing a Jim Carrey impersonation would look like? wonder no more), a hyperkinetic argument between two people who have lost the power of coherent speech, an example of the Heimlich manoeuvre/CPR that’s unlikely to gain St John’s Ambulance endorsement, and a DUI version of ‘Rashomon’. Like an 18-rated Morecambe & Wise sketch, the longer it goes on the funnier it gets.

‘Wolf’ works best when Scorsese serves up the material as black comedy. His characters are such an affront to, well, everything that an entirely serious take on the story would be so steeped in moral outrage as to be unwatchable. Ergo, a marital argument between Belfort and second wife Naomi (a stunning, in both senses of the word, Margot Robbie) during which Naomi repeatedly storms out of their bedroom, not for dramatic emphasis but to refill a glass of water in the en suite bathroom for purposes of chucking in Belfort’s face. Think of any of the bust-ups between Henry and Karen in ‘Goodfellas’ filtered through the Three Stooges.

Equally good value for money are Rob Reiner as Belfort’s short-fuse father, and Matthew McConaughey (in a truly disturbing fright-wig) as Belfort’s erstwhile mentor. The casting of Jonah Hill, as I may have insinuated earlier, is less successful. It’s as if audience familiarity with his douchey persona in puerile comedies is being relied upon to create a character rather than, y’know, acting and characterisation.

But then ‘Wolf’ isn’t interested in subtleties. In fact, with its lovingly detailed minutiae of naked hookers and dwarf-tossing, it’s about as unsubtle a film as you’re likely to encounter. Belfort rhapsodizes about month-end debauchery at his offices when the profits are announced and Scorsese brings it to life in fetishistic details. I’ll say this for the guy, though: he stages a sexier and more exuberant orgy than Tinto Brass. The exuberance of ‘Wolf’, the sheer delight in its most non-PC moments, is its greatest strength. At the end of ‘Goodfellas’, Henry Hill complains that his has to live like a regular guy, a shmuck, and paradoxically such a minor quibble compared to jail or a retributive hit almost seems the greater punishment. At the end of ‘Wolf’, Belfort has learned nothing. As a condemnation of a certain mindset that’s all too frequently conflated with the American dream, it almost justifies three hours in his company. Almost.