Stories about characters with mental health issues crop up every so often, and I need to make it clear from the outset that I’m not one to judge how competent these films are with respect to the issues they raise. If for example Silver Linings Playbook seemed a bit cavalier with its characters — it seemed to me to have a propensity to treat them as adorably and irretrievably kooky — there are other voices who nevertheless adored it. I wouldn’t say quite the same about Welcome to Me (it seems less willing to laugh at its protagonist), but it does advance Kristen Wiig’s unlikely claim to be one of the most versatile actors currently working, or certainly one who’ll happily attach herself to outwardly uncommercial prospects (Kristens seem to make bold and unconventional choices, as her namesake Stewart is another I’d pick out in this category). Wiig plays Alice, a woman with a personality disorder who wins big on the lottery and uses it to realise her dream of a reality show on a local cable access network run by brothers Rich and Gabe (respectively James Marsden and Wes Bentley). Her flights of fancy become increasingly trying on the producers — one of whom is played by Joan Cusack, and indeed this is a film with many pleasing small roles for excellent actors — and on the brothers, but she garners a bit of cult success. Welcome to Me itself seems destined for cult status, and if it’s not always perfect, it does find a very interesting, blackly comedic tone in its awkward and stilted exchanges. Kristen Wiig is of course the glue that holds the whole thing together, and she shows great adeptness at the comedy, though this is perhaps unsurprising, given the overall sense that this film is like an extended final skit on Saturday Night Live (always the slot where the greatest weirdness is allowed to flourish).
Director Shira Piven; Writer Elliot Laurence; Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards; Starring Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Joan Cusack; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.
By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.
There’s a sense in which this new movie about a DJ and his three friends living in Los Angeles’ Valley and trying to carve out a place for themselves is like a sub-Entourage story about flagrant wealth and dudebros being alpha 4ssholes (not that I’ve seen Entourage, but that seems to be the gist of it). Except that criticism seems unfair to me. Yes the film deals with some unpleasant male pathologies of entitlement — focused around Wes Bentley’s veteran DJ James, who has the apartment and the lifestyle — but our central character Cole (Zac Efron) and his buddies are very far from the wealth and the glitz, and the film is never less than clear that their lifestyle and aspirations are rather pathetic. That’s not enough to redeem the film — just because it knows these guys are d1cks, doesn’t make it any more fun to watch them — but for me, Zac Efron’s charismatic leading role just about is. Efron is one of the finest actors of the modern era, a smouldering pin-up Disney poster boy originally, but with the ability to infuse even the most wan and underwritten characters with genuine pathos. His inscrutable air seems to lend moral depth where there probably is none, making his Cole here a compulsively watchable protagonist. Still, it’s not quite enough to redeem a film that, even for one such as myself who is not nor ever has been a dance music DJ, seem facile: there’s an over-reliance on on-screen graphics to get us into the mindset of a DJ, all x-ray vision of hearts beating, and text hymning the power of 128 beats-per-minute (even as we learn there are other dance music styles which are slower and faster than this), and when it gets to its core message about finding one’s own voice, emphasising the musical authenticity of sampling real-world sounds and actual musical instruments, it kinda loses me. It also ropes in its female lead and Cole’s love interest, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), for one particularly flat scene where she just has to dance seductively at him while he plies his magical art and mansplains a bunch of stuff that she at least has the acting talent to pretend isn’t really obvious, but the audience surely aren’t so fooled. So yeah, these guys, they’re not my friends, and I remain unclear as to why some of them are anyone’s friends, but the film makes Los Angeles look pretty special, and it proves once again that a poor script and a dudebro mentality is no impediment to the pure expression of Efron’s acting art (not that I’m about to watch That Awkward Moment to bolster my argument).
Director Max Joseph; Writers Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer; Cinematographer Brett Pawlak; Starring Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 27 August 2015.