Saturday, July 30, 2011

In the Wild West of Ireland

The Guard                                                                                                   

     Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle are unlikely buddy cops in the  Irish action comedy, The Guard
     This is the first feature film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who also wrote the screenplay for the critically-acclaimed Ned Kelly in 2004, and it is an impressive debut by all counts. 
     Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, an independent and unconventional rural town cop in County Galway.  Boyle's politically incorrect mannerisms, devoid of the niceties of polite society, have a way of getting under everyone's skin.  He also has a penchant for booze and call girls. It suits him and everybody else just fine to keep him out of the spotlight in his quaint little town. 

Brendan Gleeson

     Boyle becomes the unwanted center of attention, however, when a criminal syndicate decides that his quiet little coastal burg is the ideal site to land a major drug shipment.  The tip-off comes from visitng FBI agent, Wendell Everett, played in wonderful humorless style by Cheadle.  Everett is a typical fish out of water, and his experience working with big, well-equipped task forces back in the USA, leaves him frustrated as corrupt Galway cops lead him on wild goose chases, and none of his prior experience prepares him for interaction with the Irish locals. 
     Despite his best efforts to avoid Boyle, Everett finds himself working more and more in league with the man he first believes is a racist moron.  The pairing of this unlikely duo is a terrific recipe for dark humor, action and mystery, and this film delivers each in spades. 
     In the service of full disclosure, I have to say that I am a huge fan of Gleeson, and I haven't missed anything he plays in since I first saw him liven the screen as the hapless Mickie Abraxas in The Tailor of Panama.  He is in great demand as a character actor and can often be seen in supporting roles in some of the world's most critically acclaimed films.  It's all too rare that he is the lead in a feature film, although he did make a terrific Winston Churchill in the television mini-series biopic, Into the Storm.  I certainly got my Gleeson fix in this very entertaining film, and to have him paired with the wonderful Don Cheadle is a tasty treat indeed. 
     The story in The Guard is well-constructed and evocative of American westerns and buddy cop movies, but it's the terrific casting that really makes this film.  In any story that builds to final confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, the best feature bad guys that are in their own way just as powerful as the good guys.  Boyle and Everest are up against great antagonists, whose leader is played by Liam Cunningham, currently starring in the television series Game of Thrones (HBO) and Outcasts (BBC/ BBC America).  Mark Strong and David Wilmot deliver memorable performances to round out the evil trio. 

David Wilmot, Liam Cunningham & Mark Strong

     Fionnula Flanagan is priceless as Boyle's mother, and the chemistry between her and Gleeson is a wonder to behold.  You can easily see much of his mother in Boyle's unconventional character. 
     The dialogue in this film is very Quentin Tarantino-esque, and the wonderfully entertaining character banter sounds a lot like Pulp Fiction with an Irish brogue.  The dark humor is funny and the conversations will make you feel like you're eavesdropping on colorful patrons at an Irish bar after a few pints of Guiness have already been consumed. 
     The Guard is currently in release in the USA. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Aliens Invade the Hood

Attack the Block                                                                    

     The boys in the hood take on monsters from outer space in Attack the Block, the most entertaining movie I've seen all year.   
     Attack the Block is an unusual hybrid of science fiction, horror, comedy, action/adventure and social commentary that delivers equally on every level.  It has you jumping out of your seat in fright one minute and rolling out of it in laughter the next.  The film's sensitive and insightful treatment of its young subjects will move you, and it proves once again that compelling stories don't require mega-budget Hollywood effects to deliver a great action movie. 
     It all begins when alien creatures land near a South London tenement, and this time first contact is made with local teen gang members, unluckily for the aliens.  Gang leader Moses (John Boyega) ends up in a fateful confrontation with the first creature to land and kills it, inviting the wrath of the bigger and badder alien monsters that follow.  As the streets of the neighborhood descend into chaos, the boys fall back into their high-rise home tenement, the last defensible space against the deadly horde close on their heels.  What happens next is a terrific orgy of fright, laughs and thrills as young men evolve from street toughs into unlikely heroes. 
     Attack the Block has won the hearts of audiences in early screenings across the country, and has even inspired a cult following among fans who have taken to calling themselves "Blockheads."  The film took the Best Midnight Feature award at its US premiere at South by Southwest and followed with the Audience Favorite award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.  I confess that I've already gone out of my way to see this film twice and will have to sacrifice my personal dignity to the Blockhead label - all the more remarkable because this film does not release in the USA until July 29 and will be up against the Hollywood blockbuster, Cowboys & Aliens, on the same opening day in the same genre. 
     It's easy to see why the film has inspired such a following.  Everything about it is an astounding accomplishment.  It is the first feature film written and directed by Joe Cornish, a British television comedy writer and contemporary of Adam Buxton (The Adam & Joe Show) and Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead).  Wright is also executive producer of Attack the Block.  Cornish's talents have already caught the eye of one of his early idols, director Steven Spielberg, for whom he recently co-wrote the screenplay of The Adventures of Tintin with Wright and Steven Moffat (releasing December 23).  The script for Attack the Block is full of great dialogue, and I'm sure many of its wonderful lines are destined to be permanently enshrined in the pop culture lexicon of our times. 
     Cornish told an audience at a recent pre-release screening in Los Angeles that he based the concept of Attack the Block on favorite films and genres from his childhood, including Spielberg's E.T. and creature flicks such as Tremors, gang films (The Warriors, Rumble Fish), and siege films (Die Hard and John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13).  These influences are both positive and readily apparent throughout the film.  The catchy hip hop-inspired soundtrack is reminiscent of Carpenter's scores for his own films and features the remarkable work of first-timers, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe.  Visit the Attack the Block web site for a sample. 
    Cornish grew up in South London and wanted to make a film that would celebrate the good in the much-maligned youth of the neighborhood and inspire greater empathy.  As he told the Los Angeles audience, the trouble with the American genre films is that the aliens always land in the pristine suburban neighborhoods of American kids, whereas he wanted to level the playing field by having "Bad E.T." land in "one of our neighborhoods." 

John Boyega as Moses

     The film's cast includes the first-time appearance of 10 young actors from the age of 10 through the teen years.  All do a wonderful job and worked with Cornish to make the kids' slang as real as possible.  Most notable among them is lead actor Boyega, a 19-year-old prodigy (17 at the time the film was shot) who may be the British answer to America's Jennifer Lawrence in terms of sheer raw talent. 
     Boyega's Moses is a genuine and worthy protagonist, but like Lawrence, he actually hails from a far better hood than the character he plays, making his performance all the more remarkable.   He confessed during a Q&A at Comic-Con that he learned to play Moses by closely studying the actors in the fourth season of The Wire.  Cornish discovered Boyega in a small theatrical part and knew that he would be right for the role.  Attack the Block is Boyega's first film, and you can be certain that you will be seeing a lot more of this talented young man in the future.
     In the midst of all the film's various elements is a wonderful coming-of-age story.  At the beginning Moses thinks becoming a man is about being a badass tough and asserting himself against all comers.  During the course of the story, he comes to realize that "actions have consequences," and it was his actions that put all of his friends at risk.  The only way to make things right is to own up to his responsibility and face the monsters himself in a final showdown at the conclusion of the film.  To do that he first has to make things right with Sam, the student nurse he and his gang mugged at the beginning of the film.  His plan for salvation will depend upon her.  He returns the ring her fiance had given her, the only thing of any value she had on her at the time, and then readies himself for the greatest test of courage he has ever faced. 

John Boyega and Jodie Whitakker

     There are a number of performances of note among the adult veterans as well.  Nick Frost does such a great job of providing comic relief as Ron, the aging hippie slacker and operator of Ron's Weed Room, that I fear he may be forever type-cast into that role.  His spoiled suburban sidekick, Brewis, is played with equally great comic timing by Luke Treadaway, and Jumayn Hunter manages to infuse bad guy, Hi-Hatz, with such unusual depth for a one-note character that I could actually identify with him. 
     Sam is played by Jodie Whittaker, who does an outstanding job of providing the audience with a point of entry into the kids' world.  At the beginning, when she is confronted and mugged by the gang, she sees them as the image they want to project of themselves - bulked up by hoodies and masked, looking larger, older and more menacing than they actually are.  She fears them.  The circumstances of the alien siege forces her back together with them again, and with that closer association comes new insight. 
     In one of my favorite sequences, there is a collage of quick scenes that follow each of the boys as they race back into their apartments to "tool up."  Each of the kids' rooms and choice of weapons provides a window into their unique individual personalities and lifestyles.  We see a hodge-podge of impoverished homes headed by single parents, grandparents or other relatives, some of whom are never around to provide any real support to the kids.
     During the intensity of the battle hoodies come off and all pretensions are stripped away.  Sam is surprised by the boys' youth and vulnerability.  As the layers of armor are gradually cast aside, she sees them as they really are--children, alone and scared, huddled together in mutual protection against the monsters that wait for them in the dark.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Joy in Small Things

The First Beautiful Thing                                                                         
(la Prima cosa bella)

     In the Italian comedy-drama, The First Beautiful Thing, the estranged son of a beautiful, unconventional single mother relives his rocky childhood when he is reunited with her in her final hours. 
     Paolo Virzi wrote and directed this fun, heart-warming story about a man who blames his mother for his troubled, tumultuous childhood, but finally comes to understand her at the end of her life. 
     The First Beautiful Thing was Italy's Oscar submission this past year and received 18 David di Donatello (Italian Oscar) nominations, including wins for Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Valerio Mastandrea) and Best Actress (Micaela Ramazotti). 
     After Anna (played in her younger incarnation by the stunning Micaela Ramazotti) wins an impromptu beauty pageant and draws a lot of attention from male admirers, her husband Mario (Sergio Albelli) becomes insanely jealous, driving Anna out of the house with their two young children, Bruno and Valeria.  What follows is a chaotic childhood for the two siblings, as their lives are repeatedly buffeted by the unwelcome attention Anna's beauty, frivolity and naivete attracts from those around them, particularly men. 

Micaela Ramazotti and Sergio Albelli

     When he becomes an adult, Bruno (Mastandrea), comes to resent his mother for all of the emotional turmoil and embarassment he had to endure and moves to Milan to get away from her.  He is tricked by his sister Valeria, played by Claudia Pandolfi, into visiting his mother (played in her final years by Stefania Sandrelli), who is now dying in a hospice.  The story moves back and forth between Bruno and Valeria's years growing up in Livorno and the present day. 

Valerio Mastandrea and Stefania Sandrelli

     Anna's beauty is more than skin deep.  She tries to teach her kids to appreciate the small joys in life and never loses her optimistic nature, despite all of the setbacks and deprivations they are forced to endure.  As they reunite one last time, Bruno and Valerio finally get the answers about their mother that eluded them for 40 years, and they come to see her in a more forgiving and appreciative light. 
     The First Beautiful Thing is not a ground-breaking film in terms of story, adhering closely to the comedy Italian-style conventions of its predecessors in the genre, but it is nonetheless a sentimental and entertaining crowd-pleaser with a wonderful cast that pays tribute to the film's characters. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Know Where You Came From, Know Who You Are

A Better Life                                                                        

     The quest to recover a stolen truck becomes a journey to adulthood for a young boy who begins to understand his immigrant father for the first time. 
     In A Better Life, Carlos (Demian Bichir) is an illegal Mexican immigrant and single father who works long hours as a gardener to the wealthy.  He is willing to endure any sacrifice to ensure a better life for his son, Luis (Jose Julian).  Carlos is determined that Luis stay in school and avoid being recruited into the local gang, but Luis fears being trapped into the hard life of his father and is tempted to take risky shortcuts. 
     When his employer offers to sell him his truck and the chance to operate his own business, Carlos sees an opportunity to earn a better living and spend more time with his son.  He borrows his sister's life savings of $12,000 to make the purchase, expecting to pay her back within the year.  Things go terribly wrong when the truck is stolen, along with all of Carlos' hopes and dreams. 
     Bichir delivers an impressive performance as Carlos, a man whose love for his son keeps him going against overwhelming odds.  Carlos takes Luis on a desperate journey through the streets of Los Angeles to recover the missing truck.  Along the way he teaches his son the values of hard work, self-respect, keeping one's word and an appreciation of those whose sacrifices have paved the way to a better future for their children. 

Demian Bichir

     A Better Life is being compared to The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio de Sica's classic Italian neo-realist film about a father and son's quest to recover the stolen bicycle that was to be their economic salvation.  Like that film, A Better Life explores themes of poverty and desperation amid the human yearning for a more hopeful future. 
     The film was directed by Chris Weitz, who is best known for the Oscar-nominated About a Boy, The Golden Compass and the Twiight series' New MoonA Better Life had its world premiere last month at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is currently in release. 
     The screenplay, written by Eric Eason, provides an understated but powerful window into the world of a people whose terrible circumstances drive them relentlessly forward amid great risk in the desperate hope that they will arrive in a better place.  There can be no going back.  The final line of the film sums it up beautifully. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Prime Number is a Lonely Thing

The Solitude of Prime Numbers                                
(La solitudine dei numeri primi

     Saverio Costanzo's ambitious feature adaptation of The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a visual masterpiece that nonetheless fails to deliver the emotional power of Paolo Giordano's bestselling novel.   
     Giordano, a professional physicist, exploded onto the bestseller lists in his native Italy and much of Europe with his debut novel in 2008.  The Solitude of Prime Numbers won Italy's prestigious Primio Strega literary award and went on to sell over 1.2 million copies in the first year of publication.  I read it for the first time just a few months ago, and like many before me, fell completely under its spell. 
     It is the story of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) and Mattia (Luca Marinelli), two lonely souls who meet for the first time as teenagers following separate childhood traumas that left them both scarred for life.  Although they are capable of understanding each other as no one else can, they are unable to achieve true intimacy as the years unfold. 
     In taking on this project, Costanzo was faced with the daunting challenge of achieving the visual interpretation of a novel in which the narrative takes place largely within the inner thoughts of its characters.  Screenwriters and directors have struggled with that problem for decades and most fail.  It is not an impossible task, but it does require a tremendous amount of creative thinking outside the box. Beginners, currently out in theaters, is an example of a film in which the writer-director achieves success using unconventional means to bring the audience into the heart and mind of an introverted protagonist. 
     The use of external conflict to elicit action from the characters is the method most commonly used by filmmakers, and this is the crutch Costanzo falls back upon.  Unfortunately this resulted in taking scenes of interpersonal conflict from the novel and blowing them up into something disproportionately larger on the screen.  For example, Alice's teenage  troubles with the bully, Viola, occupy much more time in the film version than they did in the novel.  The dialogue I quote below takes place entirely in Mattia's mind in the novel, but strangely, in the film it is the adult Viola who speaks those words at her wedding.  That one left me scratching my head. 

     I felt that many of Costanzo's choices were misleading, especially the somewhat ambiguous ending, the interpretation of which may be very different among audience members who have not read the novel. 
     Despite the failings of the script, Costanzo's talents as a director are very much in evidence.  His visual style, with its emphasis on intimate close-ups and attention to the small, nuanced details of individual characters, is uniquely suited to the visual telling of a character-driven story.  Even with a relatively weak script, he still manages to elicit empathy for the characters.  We feel their pain, even if we don't entirely understand it. 
     In terms of story, not all of Costanzo's choices were wrong.  The conflict between Mattia and his mother, played with tremendous power by veteran actress, Isabella Rossellini, is much stronger in the movie than in the novel, but it plays well.  Against the character of the  mother, Costanzo is able to interpret Mattia much more effectively on the screen. 

Luca Marinelli, Alba Rohrwacher & Isabella Rossellini

     Prior to the Solitude of Prime Numbers, Costanzo was primarily a documentarian.  His incredible visual style makes me wonder what he will be able to achieve if he is given a truly great script to work from.  
     I was fortunate to meet Giordano during a visit to Los Angeles to promote his novel.  Although he pointedly refused to criticize Costanzo's film, he did indicate that he felt it was "the filmmaker's own interpretation."  He went on to say that he had visualized something more along the lines of Lost in Translation, another story about two complementary characters that can never really come together--one that was considerably less heavy than Costanzo's film, but very humanistic and entertaining in its depiction of flawed but empathetic characters forced into a world that is not their own. 
     Normally I lament when Hollywood remakes a foreign film that was a masterpiece coming from its native land.  However, in this case I find myself longing for an American remake that will more effectively capture the power and spirit of the source novel.  After all, what is more timely for an American audience than a story about two people who will be forever scarred by parental expectation pushed too far? 
     Mike Mills, Tom McCarthy, are you listening? 

     Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and themselves.  They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest.  They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful.  Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they'd been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace.  Other times he suspected  that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason couldn't do it.  This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies. 
                                               Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers