Impressions of … Liberal Arts [Josh Radnor]

this reminded me of ‘Garden State’, both comic dramas written and directed by young TV stars, both concerned with young men going home and reflecting on the state of their lives – I didn’t know Radnor had attended the Kenyon College (or indeed grown up in its environs) but it was obvious – hard not to conflate Josh and ‘Jesse’, creator and character, and on this evidence he is a sweet guy, earnest, caring, pleasing to the eye (while Braff would seem overly-concerned with the issues related to his success)

almost fifteen years after graduation, Jesse (unlike Josh, you imagine) has not found fulfilment, professionally or personally, this leads him to accept an invitation to speak at his (second) favourite professor’s retirement celebration, which in turn leads to a romance with a current student, their age difference provokes a crisis – a sweet, earnest sort of crisis – and of course the resolution of the crisis leads to personal growth, maturity, Josh/Jesse are preoccupied by the principle of maturity, the emotional life cycle, the conclusion (assumption) is that age-appropriate behaviour is a pre-condition of happiness, childhood extends to age 21, or 22 if you took a year out, and being a good guy requires the substitution of anxiety for (inappropriate) sexual excitement – because, as Jesse explains, rather paternally, “sex is complicated” …

yes, Josh/Jesse, you are now ready to grow old and raise children: you have achieved the appropriate attitude – but you really didn’t get to grips with Romantic poets, did you? (literature isn’t wallpaper)

the script tends towards the earnest, but features some crisp dialogue – “I have a car.” “Okay?” “I would like for you to get in it with me. And I would like to drive us somewhere.” “Where?” – and some convincingly cringeworthy moments, and the affection for his alma mater, and for other people, is charming

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Impressions of … The Act of Killing [Joshua Oppenheimer]

extraordinary, where did he get the idea? Inviting former members of Indonesian death squads to make a film re-enacting their killings. This is a documentary I’d like to know more about: I guess the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, was already acquainted with his protagonist – … he seems to have his trust even friendship (and he’s fluent in Indonesian)

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this film within a film is an enormity, not least because the tone is nostalgic: an excuse for reminiscences and reunions: those were the days, eh, when street gangsters (“free men”) became paramilitaries and could round up suspected communists, torture and kill them (a kind of garotte was our protagonist’s personal favourite) – this was a good thing, he explains, because the communists wanted to take away his freedom to tout cinema tickets for Hollywood movies; most of the documentary follows … as he develops his idea for the film, the enterprise lulls him into a false sense of security (of importance?), he opens up to ‘Joshua’, and we get far more insight and access than we might have done

but the revelation, the genius of the documentary is the effect the re-enactments have on the protagonist, this is something I should leave as a surprise

I would like to note how reassuring this conclusion is, an affirmation of a moral universe, killing is bad for the soul, yet one man’s redemption does not bring back the hundreds, the thousands massacred in Indonesia during that period, nor does it prevent similar atrocities from occurring in the future

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Impressions of … Anchoress [Chris Newby]

disappointing, the style didn’t match the writing, and the writing wasn’t great, this is an example of how a project needs to be conceived, or re-conceived, according to the director’s style, you can just bring in a director to do something visual with the script, a very British problem with our ingrained anti-auteurist attitudes

the intriguing true story of a teenage girl who chose to be walled up in a church – as an ‘anchoress’ – then changed her mind three years later becomes an anachronistic investigation of sexual hypocrisy and chauvinism in medieval England, the film’s portrayal of the distant past is undermined by a point of view so obviously rooted in the present, also the girl’s story gets sidelined, frustratingly, by a conflict between the parson and her mother, and other domestic issues

what we get are some lovely compositions, images, tableaux, alongside clunky dialogue and blatantly staged dramatic scenes, it evokes Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’ but has none of the power, none

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Impressions of … To The Wonder [Terrence Malick]

Well, well, well, what are we looking at here? Figures in a landscape, lovers wandering beneath a vast sky, lost in a world suffused with God’s benign, generalised love. With ‘Tree of Life’ synthesised a kind of autobiographical cosmic nostalgia, a man’s life, specifically his childhood, and the life of the universe, its birth, specifically, interwoven; some sequences were rapturous, unique, but not here, in this narrative of romantic indecision and infidelity Malick crosses the line from spiritual to religious, it’s too doctrinal, what we’re looking at is Terrence Malick coming out of the Catholic closet, and all the swooning steady-cam and the bucolic spiritual imagery aestheticises a very conservative sense of morality – (Marxist’s would call this ‘bourgeois mysticism’, I guess, “to the wonder”, indeed.)

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there is an ambivalence, a mistrust of sex: the love affairs are bizarrely innocent, the women girlish, flirting and dancing in front of the man/camera, more like a daughter with her father – Olga Kurylenko’s character girlish to the point of being clinically immature; when the man (Ben Affleck) returns to his foreign lover and marries her, his ex (Rachel McAdam) argues he has turned what they had into mere ‘lust’ – but we didn’t see much evidence of that lust; the infidelity timorous and fraught with guilt – this is romantic love as a substitute for divine love

And what is the troubled priest (Javier Bardem) doing in this story, except to guide the viewer toward a proper understanding of the characters’ predicament, by making him troubled he attempts to avoid didacticism, but the tactic is too obvious, it makes the priest’s words more compelling because they appear hard won. On the other hand, his doubt means he can wander in front of the camera with the same pensive yearning as Ben Affleck’s conflicted lover, this equivalence at least removes the distance between laity and clergy, that’s something

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I confess I have a little  sympathy for the film’s conclusion, the beauty of forgiveness, without reward (of a happy ending), and all that, but when it’s all over the experience was pleasant but inconsequential, which I don’t think is the response for which Malick would have been hoping

Impressions of … Sound of my Voice [Zal Batmanlij]

unconvincing, that’s really all I have to say about this, but …

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… I suppose it’s worth pausing to consider why that might be:

the scenario is quite simple, a twenty-something couple are planning an exposé of a mysterious cult, the documentary will launch their careers, but deeper personal motives drive their interest in the subject, will the mysterious leader be exposed as a charlatan? or will their (hidden) scepticism be overcome by the enigmatic leader, Maggie?

yet it’s not entirely clear what is at stake?

for us to want Maggie to be exposed, we’d need to be shown examples of the damage she has done, but the script (by director Batmanliji and star, Brit Marling) doesn’t go there, not until the final act and then it only hints previous activities, in fact, after treading a precarious line between faith and reason, the script falls on the side of the believer, the two would-be journos are naive and presumptuous – they haven’t done their research – and one of them, Peter, is clearly in need of long-overdue therapy, this is where it gets interesting, could it be that Peter’s vulnerability will lead him to destruction? almost, the script goes there, but it leaps into the final act too soon, before they’ve had time to dig the hole deep enough

I suspect it was for the viewer the screenwriters were digging the hole, the revelation at the end may surprise Peter, but it is designed to confound our sense of certainty – “so you thought you knew the score”, it seems to say, and I’d reply “yes, and so what?” … nothing is at stake and the film ends just getting as it was getting interesting

(sometimes screenwriters mistake twists for endings – but “peripeteia ain’t no catharsis,” as Aristotle Onassis used to say)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, it wasn’t the end that was the film’s undoing, it was the beginning, the poorly-handled exposition:

we join the two journos as they are guided through the elaborate procedure which precedes the meeting of the cult members, it’s their first time, but we’re told they’ve also been through a long preparation, you have to wonder what was the substance of that preparation because the script has Maggie deliver an introductory speech, telling us how she came to be in this world and kindly dramatized for us in flashback, after the meeting the two journos discuss why they’re making this exposé, as if they hadn’t already been through it, in other words, it is written as it were day one, when for those involved day one has long gone, more egregious exposition is yet to come, we’re served the back stories of our two journos as flashback montages with a voice-over, without any justification

this is poor writing, but there’s also a lack of substance:

the softly-spoken sylph-like Maggie is not your usual charismatic prophet, it’s an interesting choice, seduction over sulphur, but because she’s a bit of a tease and favours hints over hard sell, neither we nor the cult members get much of an idea of what she promises, they must have some idea, but we never find that out, you’d have thought the journalists would’ve been curious …

you wonder what the story would have looked like if told from the point of view of a genuine believer, the arc from conversion to disillusionment would have been far more precipitous, in learning the truth they might have lost something, and there would be opportunities for more drama, passing through betrayal, then the twist could work

it might also be a pretty good set up for a TV drama series

 

Impressions of … Safety Not Guaranteed [Colin Trevorrow]

this is a charming if slight indie rom-com stroke whimsical sci-fi caper inspired by a classified ad which appeared (I’m told) in Backwoods Home magazine in the Nineties:

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Trevorrow’s film concentrates on the first part of the ad – the need for a partner on the mission – but neglects other aspects of the ad: the matter of payment is passed over, weapons and self-defence are played for laughs, and most glaring of all, we hear little of the startling assertion that he’d already been back: the first question you’d ask is ‘what was it like?’ or ‘where did you go?’, but the journalists – implausibly bank-rolled by their provincial print magazine – see the story as a (mocking) character piece and the guy himself doesn’t really mention it (in fact, it appears he’s still putting the finishing touches to his machine, so why did he claim to have done it before?)

you wonder what kind of person would place this ad? a certifiable comedy genius would be my answer, although with ‘certifiable’ I do intend the mental health connotations of the word, Trevorrow hypothesizes a kind of charismatic loser, intense and vulnerable, but then decides he’d prefer him to be a winner …

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there’s a curious, refreshingly tentative, almost-romance at the centre as one journo (a very watchable Aubrey Plaza) poses as a would-be time-traveller, with the issue of trust doubling nicely in both romantic and adventure plots, while Mark Duplass is suitably intense as the paranoid inventor, perhaps too intense, this guy was too close to madness for the relationship to have a future, meanwhile Jake M Johnson steals the pic as the hack more interested in reviving an idealized adolescent romance, the script serves him well, a lazy arrogant asshole, a familiar type, whose vulnerability retains our sympathy, especially in a lovely impassioned speech delivered to the virginal (male) intern: “why are you sitting here? why would you be sitting at your computer, you’re a young man, you’ve got the whole world ahead of you, I’m asking you to be a man and try, are you ready to have a crazy night with me, ’cause I’m ready, say you’re ready, say you’re ready”. Great comic writing, nicely delivered

this is the kind of indie which could have been made by the studios, a film that will lead to bigger things to all (though Duplass has already made that journey)

the ending is a serious, though sincere miscalculation

Impressions of … The Comedian (Tom Shkolnik)

I wanted to like this, I really did, I have a lot of sympathy with their attitude to filmmaking, their pursuit of a kind of raw, emotional realism, an antidote, perhaps, if not an opposition to the growing dominance of the over-determined, script-centred model …

but it failed, and worse, its failure empowers the enemy (if you’ll forgive the hyperbole)

this was half a film, or two-thirds, to be more precise: the narrative ran out of energy, no, it didn’t run out, it just stopped, and in place of a final act, or whatever you want to call it, was a long, banal conversation with a taxi driver, culminating in a platitude where there should have been an answer, one leading to dramatic action and ideally further ambivalence, you wonder if the production ran out of time and papered over the gap with this excuse for an ending? or did they actually think it was adequate? – they can’t possibly have intended this ending … can they?

we were presented with an intriguing character, a soft-spoken thirtysomething comedian whose on-stage persona is aggressive and confrontational, but the ‘script’ failed to explore this tension, yes, he was a homosexual (and this was parsed as if it were some kind of revelation or shock), yes, he was confused by his attraction to his beautiful female flatmate and his sweet new male lover, unable to commit to both, so we needed to be watching him attempt to resolve this, that’s to say, trying to resolve it, or alternatively actively making it worse, through which, ideally, we would get a better of sense of who he was … but the writer declined to venture an answer, or even a hypothesis, the character’s aggressive on-stage was thus merely incidental

guys, it’s not enough to merely present a character, expressing an attitude to filmmaking is not enough, nor is it enough – though it’s an achievement – to go out and get some good performances in the can, and when your goal is authenticity one really live scene – the homophobic abuse on the bus – is not enough, not when you’ve got a whole bunch of hackneyed ones around it, the most egregious being every moment in the call-centre offices – how many times have we seen this scenario? (an example of something being both true to life and a cliché)

if this is a fresh voice, then Shkolnik has only managed to clear his throat

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