Nov 15, 2009

Review Post 54: The Men Who Stare at Goats / Cold Souls / An Education

DIR: Grant Heslov
CAST: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor,
Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey

I stared at Grant Heslov’s directorial debut for nearly two hours. It didn’t - quite - keel over and die, but the memory of it began to fade fast as soon as I stopped staring.

It’s really two films, and to what extent either is based on the book of the same name by British journalist Jon Ronson, I’m not certain. The more engaging of the films tells the story of the New Earth Army, allegedly an American military project that, in the early 1980’s, attempted to train ‘psychic spies’. This laid back, often very funny, satirical comedy boasts fine performances from the likes of Stephen Lang, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey, who, with this and Moon under his belt of late, seems to be reinvigorated as a film actor. However this part of the film, and indeed the film as a whole, is stolen by a perfectly cast Jeff Bridges as the new ager commanding the New Earth Army. Bridges’ Bill Django may be little more than a military garbed variation on The Dude, but it is endless comedy gold. There are a lot of strong, out of left field, jokes in this part of the film, none funnier than a totally unexpected namecheck for, of all people, Angela Lansbury.

The second film is a bit of a grab bag of genres. Part comedy, part drama, part war movie, part road movie, part buddy movie. It connects with the other story via George Clooney, whose ex New Earth Army operative take journalist ‘Bob Wilton’ (Ronson re-imagined as, of course, an American and played by a dodgily accented McGregor) on a mission in Iraq, while telling him all about the New Earth Army, whose story is related in flashback. The problem with this section of the film is that it doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be - one moment it’s a zany comedy, the next it wants to make a serious political point, and then we shoot back to the buddy movie, already in progress - the flashbacks come as a relief, but they also add to the whiplash inducing shifts in tone. The big problem with this framing story is that we’re given little reason to care about either Wilton, who comes off as impulsive to the point of idiocy, or Clooney’s Lyn Casaday, and as a result the buddy movie idea never really takes off. The plot of this part of the film also seems very much imposed on the film, wrapping up in a manner so implausible and yet so neat that you suspect it must be an invention for the film.

The performances, largely, aren’t bad. Ewan McGregor, who had the potential to be one of his generation’s finest actors, has been disappointing of late and this is no exception. His performance feels phoned in, and he generates no chemistry with Clooney. Clooney, the Cary Grant of our age, reins in the smugness that can afflict his performances and is very funny as Lyn, always walking a line between deciding to play him as nuts or as having genuine powers. Over and over though, I keep returning to Jeff Bridges, who is so good that he’s not just the best thing about the film, he’s something the film really misses when it isn’t there.

There are about 45 minutes of a very funny film here, I just wish it hadn’t been mixed in with an hour of a very confused and unengaging one during editing.

DIR: Sophie Barthes
CAST: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun,
David Strathairn

Cold Souls sees actor Paul Giamatti (playing ’himself’) struggling to play Uncle Vanya and, as an aid to his performance having his soul removed and stored. It’s an oddly apt metaphor for what Cold Souls itself is like.

There is a great deal to like about writer/director Sophie Barthes’ feature debut, but it never quite comes together, never quite connects, never quite scales the heights you feel it ought to be reaching. It is, at the end of the day, rather inconsequential - a curiously soulless experience. Despite this, I enjoyed the experience of watching Cold Souls for the most part. Sophie Barthes’ screenplay certainly has some very distinct echoes of films like Being Jonh Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and, largely through the casting of Emily Watson, Synecdoche, New York), but it is smart enough and funny enough to stand on its own. There are some very funny sequences in the film. Giamatti’s first scene after having his soul removed is a real treat, especially hen he discovers what his soul looks like and once his soul is lost, sold on the black market in Russia, there is a wonderful extended gag about how the person who now has his soul actually wanted Al Pacino’s. What the screenplay lacks really three-dimensional characters. ‘Paul Giamatti’ is quite well rounded, but everyone else has a tougher time, with Dina Korzun suffering from a thin role (though she brings a lot to it) and Emily Watson (as Giamatti’s wife) so inconsequential and characterless that she almost melts away. However, the film is kept alive by both its laughs and two wonderful leading performances.

Paul Giamatti, even since Sideways and his extraordinary performance in American Splendor, has been working at the margins. He’s constantly employed, but he’s still ‘that guy from that thing’ in the conciousnesss of most filmgoers. Cold Souls won’t do much to change that, but it should, because it really lets Giamatti show the extraordinary depths of his talent. There are several different versions of his take on Uncle Vanya, but my favourite was the one during a rehearsal in which he is soulless, it’s a hilarious little vignette in which Giamatti plays Vanya with all the subtlety of a sitcom character. Just a few scenes later, now with the rented soul of a Russian poet, Giamatti performs the same extract with such depth and richness of emotion that it’s hard to believe it is the same actor. While he manages to bring a different quality to each of the states of his character (‘normal’, soulless, using a rented soul) never lets them become different characters, nor does he overplay, it’s an award worthy performance in a movie that struggles to deserve it.

Apparently Dina Korzun is known as the Russian Julia Roberts, a comparison that does her a huge disservice by tying her to one of the world’s most overrated actresses. I imagine that most people who have, like me, only seen her in her three English language films will have trouble crediting that comparison, because you couldn’t see Julia Roberts in any of the roles that Korzun has taken. I’ve been a fan since I saw Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (for which she won an acting award at almost every festival the film played) and Cold Souls only reinforces my opinion that she’s one of world cinema’s best and most malleable talents. Korzun’s character Nina is a soul mule, carrying smuggled souls between Russia and the US, a process that has left her with fragments of other people’s souls where hers used to be. This is only addressed a couple of times in the dialogue, and then never by Nina, but you can feel it in Korzun’s performance, which, paradoxically, is genuinely soulful. The supporting cast, as I said, is largely wasted, but David Strathairn, who does little comedy, shows a real flair for it in a fun performance as the doctor who removes Giamatti’s soul.

Cold Souls visuals are often as chilly as its title, but Barthes delivers a nicely designed and impressive looking film. The Soul Storage company is especially good looking - all white and metallic; sleek lines and curves - and the extraction machine is both aesthetically pleasing and somewhat realistic looking (it reminded me of an especially claustrophobic CT scanner. Cold Souls is slightly frustrating, something summed up perfectly by its abrupt and entirely resolution free ending, but there’s much to recommend it and plenty to suggest that Sophie Barthes will go on to do better work in the future. It’s an intriguing debut that’s well worth seeing for Giamatti and Korzun.

DIR: Lone Scherfig
CAST: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina,
Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams

Expectation is dogging An Education. It’s a hot tip for both Best Picture and Best Actress (for 24 year old British newcomer Carey Mulligan) at next year’s Oscars. It probably wouldn’t get my vote in either category, but that’s not to say that this isn’t high quality filmmaking.

Set in 1961, in a Britain yet to be taken by storm by the 60’s of popular memory, An Education is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. Here Barber’s character is called Jenny (Mulligan), she’s a 16 year old girl set (with her parents often strict encouragement) on going to Oxford University, until she meets David (Sarsgaard), a man twice her age who sweeps the young girl off her feet with concerts, expensive meals and, most importantly, lots of attention. Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker on only her second English language film, seems to have a surprising eye for the period, which is captured with assurance, reality and a strong eye for detail. Beyond that concern, the film looks wonderful, Scherfig captures bold, colourful images when Jenny is away from her parents and her school, off having the time of her life with David, giving Mulligan a gamine sophisticate look not a million miles from Audrey Hepburn. In Jenny’s home and school the film is a little more drab, like a little of the colour goes out of her life when she’s there. It’s subtly done, but reflects nicely the divisions between Jenny’s two worlds.

Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby are also blessed with a distinguished and largely outstanding cast. Going curiously unmentioned in many reviews is Rosamund Pike, who is wonderful as a sophisticated, but very stupid, friend of David’s. It’s a part that could easily have been overplayed, but Pike makes Helen dimwitted in a way that, though extreme and very funny, is also believable. This means that when there are dramatic demands made of her it doesn’t seem entirely out of step with the character. Twice lately Pike has worked wonders with a thin part, and she deserves to be getting more notice for it. Much of the rest of the supporting cast is made up of the cream of Britain’s female character actors. Emma Thompson does good, authoritative, work as Jenny’s headmistress and Sally Hawkins impresses in a small, but pivotal, one scene role, while Cara Seymour lends solid, near silent, presence as Jenny’s mother. In another small supporting part Olivia Williams comes close to stealing the film as Jenny’s teacher Miss Stubbs, the hurt in her face when she says, in reply to Jenny, “I’m sorry you think I’m dead” is almost palpable.

An exceptional cast then, and that’s before we get to talk about the leads. Peter Sarsgaard first made an impression on me with his terrifying performance as John Lotter in Boys Don’t Cry. Since then he’s racked up performance after performance that demonstrates his chameleonic brilliance as a character actor. Here his upper crust English accent sounds a little forced, but it could easily be argued that that’s a valid character choice, and besides, otherwise he’s flawless. David is a loathsome, slimy, character. He’s clearly at least 30, and yet he spends most of the film attempting to seduce a 16-year-old girl. Skilfully, Sarsgaard walks the fine line of making David unsympathetic to the audience, while also allowing us to see how and why Jenny and her parents are charmed by him. Carey Mulligan has been plugging away as an actress for a few years, having debuted in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice. She’s hit on a starmaking role here, and gives a performance that simply demands your attention. Though 22 at the time of filming, Mulligan certainly looks young enough to convince as 16 year old Jenny, indeed at times she looks younger, almost troublingly so in certain scenes. Jenny is written as an extremely intelligent girl, and Mulligan exudes that quality on screen, both in her character and in her acting, which is precise and detailed without ever being mannered. She gives a supremely natural and laid back performance that both charms and impresses.

One more performance must be mentioned because, for all the deserved plaudits that Carey Mulligan is attracting, and all the awards she may reap from this performance, the film is stolen from under her nose by an exceptional performance from Alfred Molina. Molina is brilliant as a Father struggling to do the very best for his daughter, trying hard to show her how much he loves her (the scene in which he gives her a Latin dictionary for her birthday is wonderful). In the single best scene of the film he brings Jenny a cup of tea and some biscuits and, standing outside her bedroom door, pours his heart out. It is hugely moving, and brilliantly underplayed by Molina.

My only real problems with the film are little ones; Dominic Cooper’s over broad performance as David’s friend; a rather predictable script (I promise you, you already know what happens with David and Jenny); a terrible, trite, pointless ending, in which, all of a sudden, the film feels a need to tell us something stunningly obvious and banal in voiceover. I think the reason I didn’t entirely love it is simply that behind the wonderful performances lies a story that’s rather unexceptional, but I can still highly recommend that you get yourself An Education.

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