I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.
I feel like I’ve been using terms like “watchful” a lot about films I’ve seen recently, as if there’s a lot more filmmakers making observant little stories about people which are suffused with a sort of quiet observancy as they go about their lives, and Kelly Reichardt’s films more than most have this quality. Her earlier features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are filled with this kind of tense tranquillity, and I particularly loved Meek’s Cutoff (2010) for its story of a group of women in 19th century Oregon picking their way slowly across country. This new film too is set in Oregon and has all of the same qualities, a slow-burn story of a group of friends splitting apart.
It’s very much a film of two parts. The first half has all the tense forward momentum of a heist film, as a group of environmental activists (or eco-terrorists, if you will) plot to blow up a dam. Even though their actions are destructive, the film puts you right there amongst them, and you find yourself almost willing them to get away with it and achieve their optimistic goals, for each wants to spur the world towards being more environmentally-conscious. At the heart of the film is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who has a good job working for a collective organic farm, and who seems to be close to Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman working at a health spa, whose wealthier background allows the plan to move forward. They are aiding the shadowy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whose plan this appears to be, and who lives ‘off the grid’ out in the wooded wilds of upstate Oregon.
However, this is only half the film, and there’s an abrupt change of pace once the plan has been put into effect, as the three deal with their consciences with regards to its outcome. This is where the relationship between Josh and Dena becomes particularly fractured, and in which Josh reveals all his nervy paranoia. It’s also where the payoff to the minutely detailed ‘heist’ of the first half follows through, as Night Moves reveals itself to be a film that’s about the psychology of terrorist action, bringing home with these three middle-class white characters how a well-meaning intention can become warped and distorted. The film tracks Josh as he becomes progressively disenchanted with his ideals and is ironically pushed by his destructive actions towards the very capitalist society to which he had initially seemed so opposed.
The acting is all excellent, of course, and if Eisenberg seems to be doing a version of his familiar sullen loner, substituting quiet tenseness for his usual nervy chatter, it’s a character very nicely detailed. Fanning too extends a run of strong performances with her conflicted Dena, who has in some ways the most difficult part, revealing all the vulnerabilities that lie behind Dena’s very strong and motivated facade (never clearer than in the sequence where she must purchase a large quantity of fertiliser for the bomb without having any ID on her).
The very strong and brilliantly orchestrated first half is the highlight while the film is running, but the second half opens up questions which linger for some time afterwards, extending and deepening the mystery of the film’s surface. As the title suggests (ostensibly taken from the name of the speedboat they buy, which forms part of the group’s plan), there is a tense, dark atmosphere suffusing the film, and there’s certainly a quality to the cinematography and the settings, all earthy and overcast, which harks back to tense psychological thrillers of decades earlier. In all, Reichardt has crafted a film that takes an aspect of modern society and gives it the timeless resonance of a morality play.
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt; Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 17 October 2013.
Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.
The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?
The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.
What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.
It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.
Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.