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Notes on a Scandal (2006) (W)

IMDb / Cale / French
Written by Patrick Marber
Based on the novel by Zoe Heller
Directed by Richard Eyre

Notes on a Scandal is an oddity, a bizarre mix of melodrama, twisted comedy and thriller. Instead of writing ‘mix of’ like I did in the last sentence, I would often have written ‘caught between’, implying that it doesn’t know which kind of film it wants to be, and that it is muddled as a result. Fortunately, that isn’t true; Marber, Eyre, Dench and everyone else involved knew exactly what they were doing as they spun giddily through tonal shifts, inducing head-shaking one minute and laughter the next. It’s a strange feeling to walk out of a movie that, on the surface, seemed like such a mess, but feel satisfied because you know that’s what they meant to do. Just how well did it work, though?

I saw the trailer for this about four times before actually going to see it. Once was enough to put me off completely. It was a typical ‘give away the whole plot, and most of the best bits’ trailer – afterwards, I always think ‘Okay, I don’t need to see that now’. However, thanks to Cale’s positive review I sought it out, and was glad I did. The story is pure middle-class pulp: (underage) sex, bored married life, hints of lesbianism, ulterior motives… tick all the boxes, it’s all there. I imagine the book is an entertaining but completely forgettable romp, and it seems like the filmmakers were aware of that and, in an effort to make it a more interesting movie, decided to do a few things that couldn’t be done on the page.

One such thing is to employ Judi Dench in the main role as Barbara Covett, a history-teaching spinster who, with her stone-faced demeanour and acerbic wit, acts as a deliciously enjoyable (and completely untrustworthy) narrator. From the film’s opening, with her schoolyard deconstruction and casually bitter remarks, I was hooked. Her performance remains a treat throughout. Every line is delivered with appropriate timing, and every beat rests exactly as long as it should. For the most part, her face remains weathered yet defiant, the corners of her mouth pointed permanently at the ground; however, as revealed in her diary scribblings, this outward indifference conceals a storm of confused emotions, and as the film goes on they spill out more and more. I don’t want this review to turn into a love letter, but Dench’s command of the character is of the highest order: we know she’s a barking lunatic, and the character developments are expected, yet we rejoice in her presence. Perhaps it’s precisely because Barbara is the kind of person we would studiously avoid in real life that we’re enthralled by her. And somehow, Dench makes us feel sorry for her, and never resorts to car-crash ‘can’t look away’ cheap tactics to get our attention.

Needless to say, the film suffers when she isn’t on screen. Blanchett is good as always, but her “bourgeois bohemia” art teacher just isn’t as fascinating a character. Still, her third act meltdown is a jarring and highly amusing sight from this always refined performer. Then there’s her twenty-years-older husband, a well-written supporting character that, in scenes of high drama, Nighy brazenly overplays until drool flies from his mouth. Everyone in the audience laughed as he screamed at his wife, and I’m convinced that’s exactly what he was going for. Same goes for the stroppy daughter whose previously detached language turns Shakespearean after she learns of her mother’s infidelities; the obese colleague who is the butt of several cruel jokes (in one of the film’s best moments, watch Dench’s and Blanchett’s reactions to her announcement of her pregnancy); and the headmaster who delivers his accusations with considerable relish. Everyone’s in on the joke, and we laugh along with them.

What’s really odd is that this film contains moments of genuine insight, mostly surrounding the meaning of Barbara’s less-than-charmed life. Another writer-director team might have made more of that, seeking to make a film that would leave a lasting impression rather than something uniquely enjoyable but ultimately incomplete. I’m not complaining – I lapped up every minute – but I can’t throw all my weight behind Notes on a Scandal because it is only the sum of its parts. Dench is remarkable, and everyone else does their job competently, but that’s it. There’s not really anything to pore over afterwards; it was all up there on the screen. Plus the film’s origins seem to have held it back. Still, see it for Dench and Dench alone – she’s pretty much as good as we’ll get.

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Little Miss Sunshine (2005) (W)

IMDb / Cale
Written by Michael Arndt
Directed Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Little Miss Sunshine is proudly and unabashedly a feel-good film, daring you to remain cynical through its outrageous, transparently sentimental conclusion. Usually I would gag and spit as things turned sappy, but in this case I smiled and clapped along, content to be caught up in one family’s great reconciliation. The difference is that in most of these films, the characters never really behave like real people, and there comes a point where you realise you’ve been hoodwinked into watching stereotypes for an hour and a half. Here, the family dynamic resembles something like reality: the ‘fuck’ count is through the roof, Mom and Dad bicker and row then laugh about it, and they’re always having to rush to get places on time.

The title refers to a beauty pageant for 6 and 7 year-olds. The youngest of the Hoover clan, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has reached the finals. To me, this is a uniquely American concept: dress little girls up in cute costumes, slather them with makeup and fake tan, push them to cultivate a ‘talent’ that has virtually no use in later life, and most importantly, have them smile all the time. These parents create a somewhat lifelike robot then parade it in a horrible freakshow to see which one will be declared most frightening.

Olive isn’t all white teeth and peroxide hair, though; she’s an original, and not just because of her oversized spectacles and straggly hair. She’s a living, breathing entity, unlike all those other girls because she has cultivated original thought processes. She’s there because she enjoys it, not because her parents (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) have pushed her into it. Kinnear’s Richard is a pathetic creation, an aspiring self-help guru who will never know true positivity; Collette’s Sheryl is, well, it’s Toni Collette, so you know she’s somehow different from all the other characters she plays, despite being identical on paper. This actress needs to be rewarded with more great roles like what she was given in Japanese Story – she’s always compelling, always believable, always consistent.

Rounding out the family are Paul Dano, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin as the moody teenager, suicidal brother and crazy grandfather respectively. Again, in two words I can only describe them as though they are pure stereotypes, but each one is unique and well-acted. Especially Dano, whose sense of comedic timing is perfect. He’s taken a vow of silence, and when he eventually breaks it, it’s a great mixture of comedy and pathos. Carell is known as a talented comedian, and he’s funny here, but there’s a depth to his work that suggests a fine capacity for drama. Arkin’s completely carefree performance is good, too.

I spend so much time describing the actors’ work because it is so important in a film such as this. So many family comedies fail due to the lack of chemistry between the players; if even one character doesn’t work, a true family dynamic cannot be felt. I applaud these guys for getting it right. If there is a weak link here, it’s Kinnear, but only because he is just okay where everyone else is very good or excellent.

A point I would like to make is that by presenting such an awful, grotesque spectacle as the Little Miss Sunshine pageant we are shown, Dayton and Faris are contributing to the whole horrific concept. The girls that play these brief singing, dancing and smiling roles were probably cast by requesting cute little girls from talent agencies – some of whom, I’m sure, have been press-ganged into such an early career by their parents. I guess you have to undermine such things from within – there’s no other way they could have done it, really. Still, it’s the sort of thing I notice.

We’re all fucked up, and that’s okay. Not a particularly profound or new message, but while Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t break any new ground, it manages to be entertaining and absorbing for its duration. It has flaws and missteps – scenes that we would’ve been better off without, obvious plot devices – but I’m willing to forgive those of a film that practically has me up out of my seat cheering at a group of people performing cathartic dance steps. Many critics have called it ‘quirky‘, but I say it is those other ridiculous, unbelievable family comedies that are quirky; this one has a beating heart, an awareness of how we actually treat each other.

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Mission: Impossible III (2005) (W)

AKA ‘Action Movie’
IMDb / Ebert
Written by Screenwriters
Directed by a Director

Action Movie is the latest vehicle for Movie Star, and it’s definitive multiplex entertainment. You go down the cinema these days, and they’re not even trying to draw you in anymore. The screens are eight times bigger than before, and the sound is up past 11, and they just beat you into submission. And in the case of Action Movie, I didn’t even try to put up a fight. I sat back passively for a couple of hours and lapped it all right up.

I haven’t seen the two earlier installments in the Action Movie franchise, but that didn’t cause any confusion in terms of understanding the plot. My confusion stemmed solely from the gaping plot holes and jumps in logic. Hang on, that isn’t true – I wasn’t confused by them, I was totally passive. So, I must’ve just accepted them and moved on. This is a movie that has no truck with explaining the central object of everyone’s desire. You come out wondering ‘So was the rabbit’s foot actually the anti-God?’ without a shred of irony. I also wasn’t confused by where the action was set because of the titles that would appear on screen whenever the location changed. ‘Berlin, Germany’, for example, or ‘Shanghai, China’. Not America, then.

There’s a theory that the bigger and more outlandish the stunts, the better the quality of the production. If that theory is valid, then this is a very high quality production. They take a standard issue helicopter chase – normally no big deal – and put it through a wind farm! A bloody wind farm! Imagine: two helicopters, one with terse, fearful good guys, the other with nameless faceless evil ones (in this case, Germans), ducking and weaving through one wind turbine after another. I don’t need to tell you how the baddies get done in, nor do I need to point out further how audaciously ingenious this scene is. It was topped by the causeway chase/battle, though, a True Lies-inspired sequence of dangling, shooting, and shit blowing up. My absolute favourite sequence would have to have been Mask Sequence 1, though (there’s more than one). It was practically stunt-free, but it had two different versions of Character Actor, so I giggled joyously throughout.

Product placement gets a highly commendable pass as well. They had the Budweiser “wassup” exchange, a shiny new Nokia was practically glued to the hands of Movie Star, a Lamborghini had a featured blowing up, and whatever other new shit I subconsciously buy over the next couple of weeks. There are even elements of 80s Action – “Remember how I said I would kill you last? I lied” sort of stuff. No messing, the Screenwriters knew what they were doing. I’ll bet they really hit their stride around the 15th draft.

Movie Star is very well supported. Stunning Asian Woman, Wisecracking Black Man, Surly Black Man, Impossibly Cute Wife (who happens to be handy with a gun, too), Wacky British Nerd, Amusing (and in this case, Androgynously Attractive) Irish Man… all the stock players pulled out to say some words and generally look beautiful. When a movie has not one but two Agent Bilkins figures, you know you’ve got a hit. Not to mention Character Actor – why the hell shouldn’t you take that big payday? There’s no reason not to. Don’t listen to the naysayers. You deserve it, and your lack of scenery-chewing is to be commended.

It’s all about Movie Star, though. Right from the start of the opening credits, where they boldly display: ‘A Movie Star/Bigshot Producer Production’. It’s his show, and his massive, religiously misguided ego is nearly always front and centre. Do I mind? Hell no! This guy kicks eight kinds of ass. He does calculations on windows with available chalk, then swings from one building to another. He dies, or should die, maybe ten times in the film but always gets away clean. In fact, the best part of the whole movie is the end – him and everyone else have died around 3o collective deaths, but they’re all there in a Return of the King style slow-mo love-fest. It’s divine cinema.

Well done, Director, you’ve made the transition from Action TV Serials to Action Movies. Action Movie is the real deal, an edge-of-your-seat ride that offers infinite thrills and spills. It’s the consummate moviegoing experience. Even the pre-show program was louder and went for longer than usual. Get ye to the cinema and soak up the adrenaline pouring off the screen, then go forth and commit wondrous deeds, like getting up in the morning for runs, or learning how to shoot a weapon. It’s a life-changing experience.

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Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) (W)

IMDb / Ebert
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

So much of Coffee and Cigarettes is dull, uninspired and near worthless, with only some beautiful black and white cinematography propping it up. Certain segments, however, are quite brilliant – patches of genuine greatness amongst a whole lot of nothing. (When I think about it, you could probably say the same thing about Jarmusch’s recent Broken Flowers). The segments in question are entitled ‘Cousins’ and ‘Cousins?’, and rather than relying on the beauty of their images to make them remotely worthwhile, they would have been just as intriguing had they been shot on low-definition digital video or Super 8 film.

‘Cousins’ stars Cate Blanchett as herself and as her fictional cousin Shelly. The character Cate is a famous movie star, back home in Australia on the press junket, and she’s taking a few minutes off to see her cousin, Shelly. Shelly is stereotypical Aussie white trash with a broad accent and a straight-ahead way of thinking, which is not without insight. The way they interact is such a treat to watch, because they behave exactly like real people, even though they are caricatures.

Shelly’s behaviour is cold and somewhat cynical, but it is totally genuine. With her, we never get the feeling she’s concealing anything, or putting on a mask to satisfy the company she’s with. She lies, but she does it out of boredom, not malice. Cate, on the other hand, is more or less just going through the motions, smiling widely and emptily while she searches for words to fill the silences. She wants to engage in equal conversation with this person, her cousin, but she quickly loses the required effort to make it happen. She betrays her lack of interest by getting names wrong. They’re so different, what would they have to talk about?

Their stilted conversation is so divine and rare in cinema, and extremely unusual in a film in which most characters seem like just that – characters, there to speak cool or contrived dialogue, not to come across like real people. I don’t know how improvised it is, but going by the rest of the film, I’ll give a little credit to Jarmusch and a lot to Blanchett. She is so good here – not only did I forget she was playing two parts, but I forgot she was playing a version of herself. And she is exceptionally beautiful, but that goes without saying.

‘Cousins?’ stars Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, two fine British actors. Molina has broken into the US market and put down roots in L. A.; Coogan only visits the States when he has to, despite a growing profile there and a desire to become more famous. They have obviously never met before, and like the cousins of the earlier segment, they engage in awkward conversation that never really has a chance to get going. Molina is too friendly and genuine, and Coogan too guarded and cynical.

The difference here is that this is a meeting that was set up (by Molina) for a reason, and when that information is revealed, Coogan becomes even more guarded and disinterested, and we wait for the painful episode to end, knowing that they’ll probably never see each other again. But then the dynamic changes again, and suddenly the tables are turned. Being such good actors, Molina and Coogan totally nail it. I’ve admired the work of both of them in anything they’ve done, as comic and dramatic actors, and never for a moment does this episode feel forced or artificial. It doesn’t quite have the great layers of subtext that ‘Cousins’ has – this is more of a directly told story – but it is still great.

The others… well, the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits one was pretty good, and the one with GZA, RZA and Bill Murray was entertaining, as was the one with the White Stripes, but each of these suffered from trying too hard to be cool. The rest were all bores, and only those two discussed earlier transcended the screen to really leave an impression. They are so excellent that you should see Coffee and Cigarettes just for them, a pair of diamonds amongst a collection of dullards. I’m not motivated to see any more Jarmusch in a hurry, even though many say he is great; most of what I’ve seen seems to have focused on feeling and looking really hip, forgetting to actually mean anything of consequence. I’ll hopefully be proved wrong.

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Capote (2005) (W)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by Dan Futterman
Based on a book by Gerald Clarke
Directed by Bennett Miller

I’ll make it immediately clear that Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves to win the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in Capote. His work here is the most impressive in an already distinguished career despite his comparative youth; usually offered supporting roles, here he grasps the opportunity to carry a film with both hands and really does walk off with it. His long overdue success comes in a film that, while impressive enough, lacks a certain something – it isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just less than it might have been.

I get the feeling most of the problems lie at the script level. Futterman is a first-time writer, and it shows; while the dialogue is economical and sparkling, the pacing is uneven – while years pass in the lives of the characters, it seems like very little to us watching. Also, a film which unfolds at a languid pace should offer considerable detail (of anything) to the viewer, but come the end I felt like I’d missed something.

That’s all the bad stuff, though. Hoffman is so good that it must be seen to be believed – note particularly how he uses props (cigarettes, glasses of alcohol) and gestures to convey the inner workings of the character, not to mention the mastery of Capote’s unusual voice. It’s a masterclass. The supporting parts are filled out by actors that are always worth watching – Clifton Collins Jr., Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Cooper – but apart from Collins, we don’t see as much of them as we would like as they get written out of the action.

Miller, a first-time director (very much a freshman effort, this film), hints at a potentially glorious career. His compositions frequently reminded me of Brokeback Mountain, a comparison which he himself is not surprised by, because he has studied Ang Lee’s films. There are plenty of worse directors to imitate, that’s for sure. I’ll watch keenly to see what he does next.

I did quite enjoy Capote, but as the brevity of this review shows, it hasn’t really stayed with me. While a more focused and less forgettable portrait of a famous person than Walk the Line, it drifts at times, seeming a bit padded despite its relatively short running time. Many critics have lavished great praise on it, so on their opinion and the strength of the acting it is worth seeing, but for this particular viewer I don’t expect it to linger in the mind. I did, however, get to see the trailer for Caché, which threatens to be the greatest film of the year – I really cannot wait.

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