Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flick of The Day: Little Miss Sunshine

It is a rare enough thing to come across a film that you see without any preconceptions or expectations. It is rarer still for such a film to be joyously fantastic with every frame from beginning to end. Little Miss Sunshine is such a film and remains a personal favourite some 7 years after I first encountered it. It combines a quirky tale of modern family life with a diverse and vibrant cast of characters. It's funny, sad, and wickedly life affirming throughout.
Sheryl, the divine Toni Collette, is an overburdened mother in Albuquerque, where she lives with her precocious daughter Olive played by the excellent Abigail Breslin, her delightfully huffy and unhappy in the way only teenagers can be son Dwayne, played by Paul Dano and her husband Richard, a self help guru with a clue played by the always watch-able Greg Kinnear. The family is rounded out by Grandpa Edwin, a foul mouthed Alan Arkin who enjoys snorting heroin and speaking his mind. Into this family unit steps Sheryl's brother Frank played by Steve Carell, the nations foremost Proust scholar who has recently attempted suicide and needs a place to stay. Olive has been prepping for her upcoming début as a beauty queen in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Due to a series of complications, the family are forced to set out across the country in a yellow VW bus to reach the pageant in Redondo beach, California.  Despite each having their own problems and goals, they band together to get Olive to her goal. Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot, Richard is trying to sell his self-help programme and Frank is struggling with depression.
 The real strength of the movie is Michael Arndt's script which is just packed with humour and carries and emotional punch not often seen in an ostensibly comic film. He creates a world and a cast of character that are a pleasure to spend time with. The dialogue ebbs and flows with a ring of authenticity, and the stellar cast reflects this quality. As an ensemble, the cast are very well chosen. There are no weak performances but a special mention must go to Alan Arkin who is superb as Edwin. 
From the opening sequence where the various characters are introduced at a family dinner, there is a sense that everyone has a real purpose and motivation in the story and that their actions which may seem random will eventually pay off at the story's denouement. Making this effort to ensure that the audience knows and likes the characters is time well spent before we set off on our road trip across the south-west United States. The various foibles of the cast are ripe for comedy and this is a very  funny film. The humour is carefully balanced with the emotional depth of real human drama. These are real people not comic caricatures.
A superb film, from beginning to end the script is packed with humour and pathos. The ensemble cast are perfectly chosen and play their parts with an obvious love for the role. Even the soundtrack with cuts from Devotchka and Sufjan Stevens is apt. If you haven't seen this film yet, you really should.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Flick of The Day: For Ellen

Paul Dano is one of the best young actors working in Hollywood at the moment. I first saw him in the excellent Little Miss Sunshine as the misanthropic angst ridden teen Dwayne. Since then he starred opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood in the duel roles of Paul and Eli Sunday. He was last seen on Irish screen's in last year's Looper with Joseph Gordon Levitt. Today's flick sees him playing the aimless Joby Taylor, an indie rocker with a young daughter he has never met in So Yong Kim's subdued drama.
Joby is the misanthropic lead singer of a band that appears to be struggling for survival though this is only hinted at. We meet him as he drives through the night after a gig to meet his lawyer to finalise his divorce. His lawyer Fred, played by Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame, is equally unsure of himself in the world but in a much different way. He lives at home with his mother and some of the funniest scenes involve the interplay between the mismatched pair. Joby is on the point of signing the divorce papers when he realises that he is signing away his right to see his daughter Ellen. Though he has never met Ellen, played by a precocious Shaylena Mandigo, he tries to make contact and create a bond. The scenes shared between the two are touching and filled with hope of a better relationship. Yet time and again Joby is unable to deal with his own problems. Ultimately he wants to do what is best for his daughter regardless of what that might mean for him. Will he continue to run away or will he face up to his responsibilities?
There is a sparse quality to the snow filled scenery of the small town in which Joby finds himself and its empty loneliness reflects his mood. It is obvious he is not a bad guy just immature and unable to function outside of his own little world as a touring musician. It is obvious that Joby felt that the years he put in as an aspiring rock star in LA would pay off and that as he drifts toward his late 20's it may not happen. At one point he justifies his absence to Ellen by saying that he couldn't give up his record deal. He now has a second chance whether he will take it or not is thrust of the film.
While it is an interesting story to tell at first, the film is ultimately not fully satisfying because by the end Joby has made no real progress as a human being. The world is filled with bad parents why should Joby's tale be any more compelling?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Flick of The Day: Moonrise Kingdom

There are few mainstream film-makers that are as “ Marmite” as Wes Anderson. For those who love his work, I included, his films are a blend of fine storytelling, quirky wry humour and a distinctive visual style. For those who don’t, the visual style and humour are undone by their off kilter sensibility. This view is often summed up by an exasperated “Oh that film is so annoying”.  His best and probably best loved film is The Royal Tenenbaums while Rushmore, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou have all found a willing audience. This latter film remains my personal favourite, a beautiful and deeply funny look at the life of renowned oceanographer Zissou played by the incomparable Bill Murray.   It would be fair then to say that I was looking forward to Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom
Opening with a typically melancholic credit sequence, we are introduced to the inhabitants of the island of New Penzance, an idyllic New England community in 1965. These include the Bishop family led by Walt and Laura, a pair of duelling attorneys played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand and their “troubled” teenage daughter Suzy, an excellent Kara Hayward. There is also the Island’s policeman Captain Sharp, played by Bruce Willis in fine form and a troop of scouts at Camp Ivanhoe led by Scout Master Ward, a hilariously earnest Edward Norton.
One fine morning, the Scout Master awakes to find that one of his charges has flown the coup in the night, in a funny scene reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption. We soon learn that the missing boy is a 12 year old orphan named Sam Shakusky who has disappeared off into the hinterland of the island. He has however not gone alone and is joined as a runaway by his lady love Kara Bishop, much to the chagrin of her father Walt. The pair have been pen pals since meeting the previous Summer at a church performance of Noye’s Fludde and have resolved to run away together to escape their uneasy family life. Sam has absconded with enough camping equipment to enable a nomadic existence while Kara has brought a stack of her favourite books and borrowed her brother’s record player. Together they set off for a secluded cove which they name Moonrise Kingdom.
Of course, they are soon captured by the good hearted Captain Sharp and the deputised scouts. Walt vows that the two shall never see each other again and social services in the form of Tilda Swinton are soon on their way to take young Sam into care. However fate in the form of an epic storm intervenes. Will the island survive its onslaught? Will Scout Master Ward lead his troop to safety? Will Sam and Kara be reunited or will he be dragged off to be a ward of the state? Time will tell.
Anderson has assembled another fine ensemble cast for this film. Each actor brings an undoubted love for the script and their character to the table. Bruce Willis gives his most nuanced performance in years and that’s a sentence I did not expect to write. Bill Murray plays what now seems to be a recurring performance as a cuckolded husband in Wes Anderson films, that together with Frances McDormand forms a loving if emotionally distant parent group. The real stars are the two young protagonists Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman who bring a self-assured maturity to their roles.
The real joy of the film is how Anderson, together with co-writer Roman Coppola has managed to capture the feel of a childhood summer which feels endless at the time and yet so quickly is overcome by a return to normalcy at Summer’s end.  The attention to detail and the quirky eccentric nature of his work are spellbinding in my opinion.
It is Anderson’s most complete film and I think possibly his best live-action film to date. It, like so many of his previous films, manages to transport the viewer to a time and place that they really would like to visit in real life. This is the magic of cinema.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Flick of The Day: Flight

Denzel Washington has been bringing his square jawed presence to Hollywood blockbusters for the better part of two decades. He has been one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation and yet over the last few years his films have been hit and miss. While his performances have been up to his usual high standard, the films have often not been. Sure Unstoppable was an entertaining and thankfully brief vehicle for his co-star Chris Pine and American Gangster was a fine film however the less said about the remarkably ill-advised remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 the better. I won’t even go in to the likes of The Book of Eli or Déjà Vu. What you can say is that he is a buy man with today’s flick of the day Flight being his 2nd film of 2012 after the enjoyable if formulaic Safe House.
The film has received somewhat mixed reviews since its release on the other side of the Atlantic late last year however what has not been in doubt is the quality of Washington’s performance. It earned him a well-deserved nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars though one which he is unlikely to win given the unstoppable freight train that is Daniel Day-Lewis in award season. Washington plays the alliteratively named Whit Whitaker, a full time commercial airline pilot with an equally full time alcohol and drug addiction. We first meet Whitaker on the morning after the night before, slumbering in a messy hotel room strewn with empties with a naked woman beside him.
He is soon up and about and after a quick line of blow he is out the door where we are shocked to learn, or would be if we hadn't chosen to see the film, that Whip is an airline captain and the aforementioned woman a stewardess. Bleary eyed and under the influence he takes control of his plane for the short hop flight from Orlando to Atlanta. There we meet his young co-pilot who frowns and tut-tuts but otherwise does nothing. After guiding the plane through some early turbulence, a scene which establishes that half-cut or not Whitaker can fly a plane better than most, Whip settles down to a triple vodka and orange juice before a light nap which allows the young co-pilot to take over. However the plane suffers a mechanical failure and Whip is woken to the sight of his plane in a rapidly descending nose dive with the earth rushing up to meet him. It is perhaps one of the most spectacular air crash scenes since Tom Hanks was Cast Away, which is incidentally also a Robert Zemeckis film. Of course, Whip manages to avert disaster by flipping the plane upside down and flying inverted thus avoiding the nose dive. The plane glides to a landing in a field with only 6 casualties. Whip is a hero, at least until the toxicology reports show that he was drunk and high while driving the plane. However events and people begin to conspire to keep Whip out of trouble for their own ends. We meet his dealer, an entertaining turn from John Goodman. There is his well-meaning union rep played by Bruce Greenwood and their appointed attorney Hugh Lang played by the always excellent Don Cheadle. Together they want to keep Whip out of prison regardless of how much they enable his alcoholism and drug addiction. Indeed perhaps the only person with his interests in mind is the recovering junkie Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, who Whip picks up along the way.
Ultimately the film is tale of a man coming to terms with his own demons even if he has to go to great lengths before he realises the extent of his troubles. This may not be the kind of movie many people expected to see given the advertising campaign which preceded it. That’s not to say it is a bad film, it’s not, and is entirely worthy in its cause but might explain some of the negative reactions. The problem is that it is just not terribly compelling. Sure Denzel Washington is excellent but so what. There is little real drama here and a pat ending which you will see coming a mile away.

Another irritant and this is something which must be incredibly obvious if I managed to pick up on it while watching the film rather than reflecting on it afterwards, is the sheer obviousness of some of the musical cues in the film. In almost every scene the music will be a direct reference to the events on screen. Nicole is shooting up heroin; well here comes Red Hot Chilli Peppers with "Under the Bridge", a song about shooting up heroin. When John Goodman’s coke dealer arrives, guess what his signature tune is? Yes, it’s "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Stones. When Whip tries to quit drinking and pours away his remaining liquor bottles, we are treated to Bill Withers singing "Ain’t No Sunshine". When Whip does coke, we get Joe Cocker singing "Feelin’ Alright" because he does you know.
It is breath-taking how overtly obvious some of these song choices are. It could only be made worse by the addition of a commentary track telling you how to emotionally react to each scene. So there you have it, a couple of spectacular actions scenes, a broken man seeking redemption and some hackneyed musical choices, Flight.

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