Daily Film Thoughts: Closing Out 2010

I haven’t made a “Daily Film Thoughts” post in awhile, but I’ll be doing them more often from now on. Three reviews.

For a long time, John Wells (writer/director of The Company Men) has been associated with great writing. In 1999, he was appointed the president of the WGAW (Writers’ Guild Of America, West) and has since gone on to contribute to artistic treasures such as The West Wing and ER. The Company Men documents his transition from the small screen to the big in a story about the currently feared work climate in America. Much like the climate itself, Wells’ feature is fruitless.

Recently a friend of mine summarized to me the point one of his film school teacher’s told his class. His point – a generally venerated, if personally rejected one – was that we must have a vested interested in our main character. He said Jeanne Dielman works without this factor and I concurred. With Chantel Akerman’s three-and-a-half-hour feminism doctrine, a common criticism falls on the protagonist’s lack of vitality that borders a non-personality. With The Company Men, you’ll only wish its protagonist would duplicate her exuberance if exchanged for his dishonesty.

As insinuated in the title, the film is about men from a company – three in fact: Bobby (Ben Affleck), Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), and Phil (Chris Cooper), ranked by prevalence and not preference – who each lose their jobs one after the other in an almost slow-motion domino effect. Bobby’s plight is the most amplified, but is far and away the least engaging. He’s a man-man – headstrong, conceited and feels beyond reproach. He won’t give up his luxuries because he feels knows he must look important in order to be important. None of this is troubling, but when he frequently displays negligence toward his family and makes it clear that he puts himself before them, it’s impossible to get behind this man. This in a film whose purpose is to earn our sympathy. Mess.

Bobby is a man who has just been let-go from his practice where he earned a handsome six-figure salary that added levels to his house and bloated his ego. He finds it hard to resurrect his career, what with the times being tough and all that, and loses opportunities at gainful employment to other, more qualified people. His plight is palpable, if not relatable, but there are too many incongruities in his behavior that keep our sympathy at bay. The most conceited being his valuing his happiness about that of his family’s. There is a particular scene where he reveals this in an innocuous way that, because of its subtle, yet unflinching immediacy, conveys a deeply rooted truth.

The scene goes as followed: After a month or so of unemployment, he lands an interview for a job. At first the woman tells him its not a manager position, of which he was previously, so he gets a little peevish but withholds spite. The second thing she tells him is that the job is in Little Rock, Arkansas – his family lives in Boston, so this means relocation – and despite being thrown back a moment, he says it isn’t a problem. This alone is enough to prove that he puts himself above his family – the absence of thinking about their lives (his wife’s job, his children’s routine) – but it is further expanded on when he is told that he’ll be making only 65,000 a year (just over half of what he was making before), thereafter insulting the interviewer and storming out. The insult, by the way, is a jab at a fat woman who has done nothing but tell him what the job he’s applying for entails so the humor is nowhere to be found, but rather more reasons to find Bobby contemptible. There is no virtue found in the scripting of Bobby Walker and certainly none in the fictitious man himself; no reason care or have a vested interest in him. He is simply a hedonist and a childish one at that.

Needless to say, the lack of concern for the existence of this character makes scenes such as the one where he tearfully surrenders his Porsche back to the company unintentionally hilarious as opposed to sweeping the audiences into a shared sadness with Bobby.

The two other main characters are less egregious – at least for the most part. Gene McClary is an inoffensive older man who is easy to care for because he’s inevitably betrayed by his longtime colleague before losing his job. Unfortunately his storyline consist primarily of his (albeit justified) affair with a rapacious downsizer named Sarah Wilcox, a character who haphazardly quits her position because of guilt in a doubly humorous moment in that it is anticlimactically dropped in at the end to give her character some kindness and because for a film all about the difficulties of finding work, isn’t it ironic that a character with a steady job would concede gainful employment for a reason (guilt) that said person deemed trivial because “someone has to do it”? The storyline involving Gene McClary is, in essence, as tiresome as the oldtymer himself.

The other main character is portrayed by the dependable Chris Cooper. His name is Phil Woodward and his trouble draws a lot of similarities to Bobby’s. It is, however, in the withered gaze and dejected disposition of Cooper that earns his character the audience’s well-wishes whereas Bobby earned only my death ones. Like Bobby, Phil is stubborn and won’t admit to himself that he no longer holds a lucrative career. His dilemma is made more sad by his shame – the inability to admit to his daughter that he cannot afford her schooling, to his wife that her forest-fire wild spending habits will end soon, and to anyone else in the world that he is now — by his regard — a failure.

And it is sad – disconcerting, even – to watch this prideful man softly disintigrate. That is until he drunkenly professes his “The World Didn’t Stop” harangue. He’s drunken, he bellows, he tosses rocks at the building of his former employment – it’s stupid.

The monologue goes a little something like this: “Do you know what’s the worst part of losing my job? The world didn’t stop. Everything just kept on spinning. Nobody noticed that I lost my job. Not my wife, not the newspaper man, not the man next door – nobody”. First, he never told anyone he lost his job – the only people that know are those who worked with him. Secondly, he says this right before he booms his blight. Thirdly, he blatantly conceals the fact that he’s lost his job to his wife, to his neighbour, to the newspaper man by dressing up as if attending work each and every day. How can you seriously shriek the greatest sadness in your life being that no one acknowledges your decadence when you hide it from them so intentionally?

This scene alone qualifies his finale with no concern or righteousness in his act. It’s just pathetic.

Other things you’ll learn in watching this movie: Bobby is ungrateful and whines when doing manual labor for money as opposed to having his bitterness toward life supplemented with appreciation for it; that it takes an man (Bobby again) several months of being unemployed and a new career opportunity before bothering to play with one of his kids in who knows how long (years, I speculate); a wife will remain with her husband (again, Bobby) even if he is void of personality, kindness or any altruism if he complains a lot and compliments her looks on occasion; that earning 70,000 a year is passable, but only if your close friend is the one offering it to you.

The Company Men would’ve worked wonderfully as a satire on the machismo of the modern man amidst this financial crisis. Instead, like Ben Affleck in the main role, John Wells plays it straight, but unlike Ben Affleck’s efforts, this film isn’t just unremarkable, it’s flat-out disastrous.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, Somewhere elicits a feeling that this is a strictly personal film about her growing up with a celebrity for a father. Just as it sounds, her latest feature immediately faces the constant uphill battle of diversifying who this film is targeted toward or else it will fail on a great level. And while, yes, this film does have its touching moments between father and daughter — not the Rock Band one, of course — Coppola’s focus is primarily on the father figure, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the film conveys her attempt at understanding and sympathizing with her father from all those years ago through an artistic medium. Unlike the common expression the end result is half-bad.

Cleo (Elle Fanning) brings an indelible charm is brought to the feature. She’s cute, pure, innocent, undemanding, compassionate, a great cook and needless to say, easy to sympathize with. This, too, plays into my typical gripe with Coppola’s filmmaking: her inability to write one of her primary female characters as at all a bad person. She either creates them as flawless (Lost In Translation) or as poor souls who have been maligned by men (The Virgin Suicides & Marie Antoinette). Here it’s less offensive because Cleo is a child and children, especially the ones that are written to give their father’s a change of heart, are wholesome and never a nuisance. And while the film isn’t offensive in its structure, it does all feel a little too easy with a responsible and mature child playing antagonist to a careless and pedomorphic adult. In essence, the film could be boiled down to a fragmented sentence — Good girl, bad dad — and the whole of the feature’s importance could be conveyed.

Their interactions are mostly tacit — watching Seinfeld dubbed in Italian while visiting Italy, eating a whole bunch of ice cream together, playing Rock Band — which is substantiates their dynamic easily and enjoyably, but nothing important ever really formulates until words are spoken. The best the film gets is when Cleo feels bereft of love and nourishment from both her parents and tells her father such with tears streaming down her cheeks. That scene emanates more heart and sincerity than the rest of the film put together with Fanning’s true emotion defining her character and her character’s plight in not but a few seconds.

Unfortunately Cleo doesn’t frequent the film enough to keep it afloat. She appears in the film for about thirty minutes, leaving Johnny on his own for sixty minutes, and in a way leaving the film without a heart for nearly as many. In much of Johnny’s solo scenes his abjuration toward his career is made clear; often through simpleminded symbolism like him having his face lathered in plaster by makeup artists to get an accurate prosthetic for his upcoming feature. He sits for a few minutes. As does the viewer. Each of us wondering why this is a scene. Same with the masseuse who strips down to his socks so he can “be on the same level with his client”. A lot of stupidity permeates Somewhere but the end product still isn’t condemnable, if for its innocuous and almost naive take on everything.

Following suit with her filmography, Sofia Coppola brings the same soothingly minimalist approach to her latest. Photographed by Harris Savides, it’s clear she spared no expense in carrying her visual undulation over into this film. Zooms that career rather than jerk and similar dexterous skills that Savides puts on display make this film easy to watch even when it shouldn’t be.

The style also adds a visceral quality to Johnny’s existential crisis. However, it is Coppola’s minimal take on her own material that dissuades his crises from being particularly biting or invigorating.

We learn a good deal about Johnny the celebrity/actor in the present, but nothing about his past and certainly nothing about how he regards his profession apart from overwhelming sexual handouts he’s given by lusty females. And yes, sex is a part of his profession because he moonlights as a male gigolo.

Rather than witnessing the pleasure or displeasure of Johnny’s sexual escapades, I would’ve greatly preferred more insight on the profession Johnny has clearly taken for granted. Does he love acting? If so, did he ever? How did he get into the business if he didn’t? Why would he? Did he ever have any ambitions as an actor? If so, why have they disappeared like the women do from his bed every morning? He obviously enjoys the benefits of his celebrity and has had a daughter for nine years so why is it only now that he’s grown weary of that scene? A lot of questions aren’t answered, and in turn keep Johnny from being a fully realized character, not to mention the pernicious effect it has on the film’s conclusion*.

At the end, Johnny drives his car through Los Angeles to a vacant highway before parking it on the side of the road. He proceeds to leave the vehicle and walks away from it toward the camera, smiling. So he’s done…  what? He’s done with what? With being a celebrity? With being an actor? Don’t you like the liberties that both afford? Can you even manage a life on your own? Can you even cook? No, what the ending tries to get across is that he’s going to give up his hedonism to be a good father, but when hedonism is so tightly knitted to your profession and all you know, can you really drop it all? And hey, I’m all for symbolism in film, but when has anyone ever driven their car to nowhere, gotten out and walked away from it? Come on, Sofia… just come on.

* I want to note that I’m taking a great liberty in using the word conclusion to describe the final scene of Somewhere.

One of the good things about the Academy Awards is that sometimes a small film that few people in the world know of will get an acting nomination or a writing nomination and will be propelled into a broader audience – whereas only a small group would have seen it if not for the nomination. This year that feature is Animal Kingdom, and unlike most of the other films of which I am speaking (Junebug, Kinsey, etc.), this one is actually quite good.

A sort of retrograde story about a crime family, Animal Kingdom borrows ideas from very successful and timeless films like The Godfather and Goodfellas by blending the heart of the first (that family is God) with perversion and the using structure of the second to show how an innocent soul can be contaminated by savage surroundings. While it isn’t quite as successful as either films in illustrating its point, it can be said that it is the more perturbing and perhaps even thought-provoking than any film it borrows from.

The story is about a seventeen year old who goes to the care of his criminal family after the passing of his mother. They’ve never made much contact as his mother pulled him away from their toxicity at an early age, but with no one to turn to but his distant family he goes against his mother’s unspoken wishes and asks them for help.

They consist of a sociopathic and incestuous mother who goes by Smurf (Jacki Weaver), her three sons Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford) – ordered by age and how quick they are to violence – and their close family friend and criminal associate Barry Brown (Joel Edgarton). When we first meet these criminals, they’re immediately peculiar to us, but when more of Smurf’s parenting is unveiled, more is understood. It is also interesting to point out how this film follows the handbook for child dynamics: Pope being the elder is more “spoiled” (spoiled to a deranged extent), Craig is the middle child so he’s more attention seeking and has the greatest emotional void (his resorting to hard drugs all the time proves both), and Darren being the youngest child capitulates very easily, is the most sensitive and is far and away the one who responds most to his mother’s beck and call. While these characters do only bad things, it is easy to interpret their psychology and emotionally invest in their unspoken misfortune.

The main character, Joshua, is the one telling the tale. He narrates for most of the first act, but that stops soon after the family gets more involved in a feud with the police after they murder Barry Brown to steam up the criminals. While most films would use this death to merely setup the real plot, Barry’s death is insolubly tragic. From the first moment we meet him to his anticlimactic end, Barry seems nothing if not utterly genuine and loving. His teaching Joshua to “wash his hands clean” early on shows his compassion and his not wanting any more innocence to fall victim to corruption. Joel Edgarton plays this part with charm and decided vulnerability to emphasize his character’s predicament. When he smiles, we smile – when he dies, we feel like Craig: empty, inconsolable, and frustrated.

Although fashioned brilliantly to suit its thematic core, Animal Kingdom has two inherent problems.

The first is the dormancy of its protagonist. While he is a canvas on which his pungent surroundings are to be painted on, he lacks the enthusiasm of any functional human being. There’s no personality to be found, so when his character is meant to take charge of the feature and choose between joining his family in their fight against the police or join the police in the fight against his family, there is little if any feeling of veneration. His excitement is new to us and conveys only the most principle of ideas. Often times it feels as if he’s been stripped of characterization and made numb simply because it’s easier to buy his character’s accepting his surroundings from the get-go rather than crusading against them. He isn’t a bad character and the final act does still execute the gutshot it tries to achieve, but he is missing a sympathetic quality that is needed in any masterpiece.

The second problem is condemnation of Pope. Indeed, Pope is a vicious and remorseless bastard who thrives off of chaos and misanthropy, but it lays too much blame on him and not the benefactor of his benevolence – his mother, Smurf. Confusingly while the child psychology is one of the finer aspects of the film, the final act appears to step away from this point of great fascination to project a more interpretable evil. The ready interpretations and theories of their childhoods go from taking a subtle backseat in telling the story to joining the concept of fairness in the trunk. At the same time, however, the final act does mix the unfair treatment of Pope with a morose final frame that makes Pope’s condemnation feel manipulated by the filmmakers to match Smurf’s manipulative mind; dispelling the aforementioned annoyance just before the closing credits and leaving its audience with a sickly feeling rather than a frustrated one.

There are, of course, other pieces of the film that needed more personality from Joshua in order to ring true. Like his relationship with Nicole and the end that that subplot meets. When she leaves the feature, a pesky question is left lingering: Why did she bother to go back to the Cody house in the first place? What love or even respect did Joshua show her to make her feel like resurrecting their relationship would replenish her life? What happens to Nicole sparks the flame that engulfs the final act with complication and calamity, but how it all managed to fall into place like that lacks serious commonsense and arouses too many questions to be at all satisfying.

However these are just the few spots the script possesses. In fact, considering how easily all of the plotting could have felt contrived given all of the twists and turns it is almost remarkable that there are as few questionable moments as there are. His hand in writing this was that of a beginner’s to be sure, but the deftness in accurately communicating a poignant sense of reality is at the level of some of the best today.

This is especially true in the final act because even though most of my reservations exist in said act, the construction of the finale is essentially a twenty minute montage of our protagonist’s respite made complicated by dwelling obligations and assassination plots. Especially intriguing are the scenes that make those plots understood – all due to Jacki Weaver’s disquieting meek temperament as Smurf. This is where the villainy is truly exasperated; the perspective shift from Joshua to Smurf restores the dwindling momentum to back to a complete rush. The dynamic change is plenty of things (refreshing, inspired, a smooth use of contrast) but none more than exhilarating.

A macabre tale undercut with melancholic psychology, Animal Kingdom is as fascinating as it is arresting. Acutely directed with a lyrical score and a visual scope that doesn’t just encapsulate the Australian underbelly but fiercely immerses you in it, David Michod’s debut feature is nothing short of a technical achievement. Although the script needed a few tweeks in order to possess the honesty it strove for other aspects more than make up for the handful of flaws. Those flaws, by the way, are made less erroneous by the sincerity of which they are communicated – be it by the director’s staunchness in revealing the layers of depravity in those scenes or by the performers who give it their all and genuinely disturb us.

His immaturity is recursive. It’s a lot like the ending of Taxi Driver, only instead of feeling that cool chill of a possible repeated vigilantism, you’ll gulp harshly at the idea that this man will never be able to lose his pedomorphic identity and will continue to inflict everyone around him with his irresponsibility while internalizing that same thought and growing only more and more depressed at his inability to change. It’s a very tragic story and not for those who are weak of heart or without great compassion. While I may see the protagonist is a monster without the capacity to change, a person with lesser sympathies will probably regard him as an ass. It’s just that kind of movie.

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