Trainwreck (2015)

I understand that Trainwreck has done pretty well, both commercially and critically, and I feel good about that for the most part. A lot of the blogs I follow are pretty down on Amy Schumer a lot of the time (possibly in the same way that they’re down on Lena Dunham, for not being, I don’t know, inspiring enough, feminist enough, or being too white, whatever), but she’s a pretty sharp comic writer and there are a lot of laughs in this film. Much of the time they come from that comedy of slight awkwardness, of people not quite knowing how to act around one another, but the casting of the right actors is pretty key in achieving that as well. As the male lead (sports surgeon Aaron Conners), Bill Hader is not your usual love interest, and though his great comic skills (honed over his years on Saturday Night Live) aren’t always showcased, he is pretty good at finding the right tone to play his scenes in order to set up the comedy elsewhere, and that’s a valuable skill. There are a number of other SNL alums in smaller roles (some barely there, although Leslie Jones’ cameo on the subway is worth it), but the real surprises are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s orange-skinned boss Dianna and a supporting turn from basketball player LeBron James as one of Aaron’s clients. For James, it’s unexpected because he’s known as an athlete, though he shows a good sense of comedy timing, whereas for Swinton — as ever for Tilda — it’s sheer WTF value, as once again she pops up and whirls offscreen leaving you wondering if that really is her.

Of course, the key is Schumer herself, who has a good sense of her strengths and weaknesses, no doubt honed over many years of running her own show. She allows herself to take a fair number of hits, but (at least initially) isn’t willing to fit into the female romantic lead stereotypes. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) is played with pathos, but is a philandering wreck, and there’s a subtle sense of how that has played out generationally. Where the wheels fall off is in moving towards a conventional resolution wherein she turns her back on her vices and makes up for some of the emotional turmoil she’s left in her wake — and I don’t really think she has much to apologise for. I daresay she doesn’t either; who knows, maybe this is down to test audiences or something? But it feels like Schumer is following the screenwriting rulebook, and it’s somehow sad that things take a Bridget Jones’s Diary turn in the man-chasing denouement. Following up on one of the assumed criticisms I opened my review with, it does sadly also feel like some of the racial jokes are a little misjudged, however much self-awareness the writing introduces them with.

But these ultimately are caveats which don’t change the affection I have towards much of the film — let’s say the first two-thirds (it’s somewhat overlong as well). Schumer puts together a character who is believable and likeable and unapologetic about herself, and if that’s what Aaron has fallen for, then it’s a quality that I think stands her in good stead. I certainly look forward to her future comedy moves.

Trainwreck film posterCREDITS
Director Judd Apatow; Writers Amy Schumer; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 18 August 2015.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I’ve left it a little too long since I saw this film to write an effective review, but if there’s anything I want to get across it’s how I really liked the way the atmosphere is handled by first-time director Sean Durkin. In fact, both the director and his lead actor, Elizabeth Olsen, are new to me and they certainly make their presence welcome. The film deals with rather fragile themes: a woman struggles away from a wilderness encampment to call her sister, and it slowly unfolds that she’d been inducted into a cult and must deal with years of conditioning that have removed certain inhibitions just as they’ve implanted paranoid suspicion. The title reinforces this in so far as Olsen is playing a young woman named Martha, who has been given the name Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and who further subsumes her identity — as do all the female members of the cult — into that of ‘Marlene’ so far as the outside world is concerned.

Olsen brilliantly handles the fraught range of emotions her character Martha must go through, both in the framing story of her relations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and in flashback scenes set at the cult. John Hawkes, too, is a wonderfully underrated actor who makes a real mark here as a very subtly creepy and controlling presence, and Hawkes is one of those rare actors whom I’ve seen do both extremes of good-guy and bad-guy characters and pull them off with equal conviction, which is possibly the best kind of background to have to really convince as someone whose shadiness must be tempered with some believable charisma.

The filmmaking heightens a slow-building tension through making good use of long shots in the scenes at Lucy’s secluded home, which open up the landscape around Martha and place her as often a small figure against the wilderness where the threat from the cult still lurks for her (and still casts an odd attraction). The flashback scenes also hint at some of the controlling methods used by Patrick and the group over the women, and combine with Martha’s actions when back in the care of her sister, to suggest a much darker and more disturbing life that she has escaped. Whether she really gets free of these influences is never quite resolved by the film, leaving the question of her rehabilitation hanging.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very confidently crafted film that introduces a number of excellent new filmmakers. It fits in the same kind of darkly ambiguous psychological territory as Night Moves (indeed, as many of Kelly Reichardt’s films), so I can only look forward to further films from Durkin (as director) and Olsen (as actor).

Martha Marcy May Marlene film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sean Durkin; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 28 November 2013.