Jun 21, 2010

Mini-Reviews: Revanche / Helen / Buried Alive / Wild Target / Please Give

DIR: Götz Spielmann

Thanks to its very slow burning nature, and lack of a visceral payoff, calling this Austrian film a thriller might be stretching the point a little, but it is strangely riveting. It centres on Alex (Johannes Krisch), an ex-con working in a brothel and, on the sly, romancing one of the prostitutes, Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Wanting to escape from the brothel and from having to hide their relationship Alex plans a bank robbery, so that he and Tamara will be able to run away. Unfortunately it goes wrong. Tamara is shot accidentally shot dead by rookie cop Robert (Andreas Lust). Taking refuge with his grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser), Alex discovers that Robert and his wife (Ursula Strauss) live next door, and begins to plot vengeance.

I loved the opening forty minutes of this film; the slow grind of Alex and Tamara’s day to day life is brilliantly drawn by Spielmann, and the characters are intricate and, despite their obvious flaws, sympathetic. Kirsch and Potapenko give fantastic performances, and create a genuinely interesting relationship. It’s also worth noting an interesting choice with the subtitles here; as the Ukrainian Tamara speaks rather broken German the English subtitles reflect that; “I go car” for example, which really, along with Potapenko’s affecting work, helps paint a full picture of the character for an English speaking audience. I was genuinely saddened by the loss of her character, which does cast a melancholy over the whole of the rest of the film.

It’s not that the second half of the film is bad (though the character of Robert is frustratingly sketchily drawn). Kirsch continues to be excellent, while Ursula Strauss is equally good as Robert’s wife. However, for a long time very little happens besides Alex sawing very large piles of wood for his grandfather and while you’ve got a very real sense that film is building to something you do begin to wish it would get there. And then there’s what I call the Last House on the Left problem. The Last House on the Left problem arises when the entire plot of a film turns on you buying into a coincidence so outlandish that it is self defeating. Believing that Alex would find himself next door to the very man who shot his girlfriend is just that coincidence.

I appreciated the glacial visual style, redolent of Spielmann’s countryman Michael Haneke. I thought most of the performances were excellent and I was very pleased that the film didn’t go uncharacteristically over the top with its ending, but the pacing issue and that huge coincidence were just a bit much for me.

DIR: Joe Lawlor / Christine Molloy

Helen (played, in a remarkable debut, by Annie Townsend) is an 18-year-old girl, she’s about to leave care and about to finish college. When another girl, Joy, who attended college with her goes missing in a local park Helen is called on to be her stand in in a police reconstruction for a TV witness appeal. Helen becomes fascinated by Joy; she begins wearing the yellow leather jacket that Joy wore when she vanished, befriends her parents and gets close to her boyfriend.

That’s pretty much all that happens in Helen, and despite a running time of just 72 minutes it often happens very slowly and very quietly. Shots are often held for an inordinately long time, silences often seem to go on forever and yet every frame of the film speaks volumes. This is a remarkable piece of work from first time feature directors Lawlor and Molloy. If they aren’t always best served by some of their supporting cast (all their actors are amateurs) that still doesn’t detract from the simple stark power of their story and images. Helen is obviously a quite carefully designed film, from the composition of individual shots (especially one that has Helen lying in the forest from which Joy disappeared) right down to the selection of a canary yellow jacket for Helen to wear, making her stand out in a way that we see clearly when we first meet her, is unusual for her.

Lawlor and Molloy are also brilliantly served by Annie Townsend, who gives an extraordinary, completely real, completely raw, performance as Helen. She’s so available to the camera, so easy to read, and yet she’s convincingly closed off emotionally to the other characters. I can find n evidence that she’d acted before, and at least on film she hasn’t acted since, in a world where someone as bland as Kristin Stewart is a movie star it would really be terrible if someone so clearly talented as Townsend didn’t act again.

Helen is one of the best character studies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a genuinely fascinating look at a troubled young woman, and at a troubling event and how it effects the community and the individuals surrounding its happening. I suspect that a lot of people will hate it, many of them for many of the reasons I loved it, but I implore you to give this film 72 minutes of your time, because it will resonate much longer than that.

DIR: Frank Darabont

I like Frank Darabont as a filmmaker, but he’s not the reason I’ve spent the best part of 15 years chasing down this TV movie, which appears never to have had any home video release in the UK. I finally got it by getting a friend to record a Sky TV broadcast to DVD for me. Why? Why spend so long chasing a probably not especially brilliant, barely released, TV movie? Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in it.

She plays Tim Matheson’s wife, but she’s having an affair with William Atherton (Walter ‘this man has no dick’ Peck from Ghostbusters), who talks her into poisoning her husband so that she can sell his business and they can run away together. So far so low rent Double Indemnity, but Matheson doesn’t die and, after clawing his way out of his grave he discovers his wife’s affair and sets about crafting a suitable punishment for her and her lover.

There are a few really clever ideas here, the pretty horrifying dénouement being one of them, but it’s wrapped up in uninspired direction from Darabont, lacklustre performances, a lack of chemistry between the leads and a whole pile of quite laughable contrivances. It’s schlock, and to be fair Jennifer Jason Leigh has the ability to lift schlock above its station (just look at Single White Female), but here even she seems a little lost. She’s especially hamstrung by William Atherton, who gives a wooden performance, providing her little to play off and the pair have all the chemistry of a cat and a dog. She does pull out a strong performance in the film’s disturbing last few minutes, but it’s rather little and rather late. Overall it’s a surprisingly uninspired performance.

Among the rest of the cast Hoyt Axton (who I know only from Gremlins) does his avuncular thing as the town Sherriff and Tim Matheson does what he can with a role that essentially degenerates into bogeyman territory. Even by the relatively low standards I had expected of it, Buried Alive disappointed.

DIR: Jonathan Lynn

From the sound of the imdb reviews, this film is an incredibly close remake of the 1993 French film Cible Émouvante in all but one respect. The plot has translated exactly, the character names are almost the same, but the British appear to have forgotten to bring the funny. I understand that on any journey, say a cross channel one, you’re liable to lose a couple of things but mislaying the comedy in a remake of a farce seems somewhat beyond careless.

Bill Nighy plays professional killer Victor Maynard, whose latest contract requires him to kill Emily Blunt (according to imdb her character’s name is Rose, but I don’t recall getting that information from the film). Predictably he gets an attack of conscience and so he, Rose and a young man named Tony (Rupert Grint), who accidentally gets caught up in the incident have to hide out from Victor’s employer (Rupert Everett) and the new hitman he’s hired (Martin Freeman).

Wild Target is shockingly unfunny. It’s not as if the people involved in it aren’t funny. Director Jonathan Lynn was one of the creators of Yes Minister, Bill Nighy has been funny even in some pretty dire films and Rupert Grint is reliable comic relief in the Harry Potter series. So what happened? Why when so many jokes are being thrown at the wall do absolutely none stick? One of the major reasons is that Emily Blunt just isn’t a comedienne, she’s certainly very alluring as Rose, but she's more irritating than she is funny (half the time I just wanted Nighy to shoot her in the head so we could all go home).

That said, as noted before, everyone’s comic metronome is here hopelessly off the beat. Nighy just doesn’t seem interested, Grint flails around, desperately searching for either a character or a reason he’s in this movie (it’s lost on me). Martin Freeman underplays to almost the point of invisibility and Rupert Everett has so little screen time and so little to do that he may as well not exist. This film would have been equally amusing had it actually, rather than just figuratively, consisted of 98 minutes of tumbleweed blowing across the screen.

DIR: Nicole Holofcener

I want to like Nicole Holofcener’s films, and I feel like I should like them. Please Give, for example, has some nicely drawn characters; Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as a middle aged couple who buy old furniture from the relatives of people who have just died, Sarah Steele as their teenage daughter. There’s also another family; Ann Guilbert as Andra, a 91 year old woman whose home Platt and Keener are planning to buy when she dies and Amanda Peet and British actress Rebecca Hall as Andra’s granddaughters. It’s got some clever dialogue. It’s often pretty funny and the acting is excellent all round. But I didn’t like Please Give because, largely, I just didn’t care.

I didn’t care, for example, about Catherine Keener’s Kate (though Keener, as ever, is flawless) and her mounting guilt about what she does for a living. I certainly didn’t care about her problems with her daughter Abby, who seemed to me in desperate need of a slap (particularly in a sequence where, when Kate gives $20 to a beggar Abby snatches it out of his hand, keeps it, and demands that Kate give him $5 instead). I didn’t much care about Kate and her husband Alex’s marital problems, largely because I didn’t buy the threat to it nor his affair.

I didn’t care about Amanda Peet as Mary, because Holofcener writes her as such a bitch that I had trouble buying her as a character, and certainly I didn’t care about Abby, whose feeling of entitlement to a $200 pair of jeans results in a final scene which sent me out of the cinema fuming. The one character I did care about, probably because she was the only one I warmed to at all, the only one I’d want to spend any time with, was Rebecca Hall’s character, also called Rebecca. Hall is a fast rising talent, and with good reason; she strikingly beautiful and, more importantly, I’ve never seen her be less than excellent in anything. Here she’s the film’s much needed ray of sunshine. Rebecca, who spends most of her time looking after her Grandmother, could just have been played as a saint, but Hall makes her simpler than that; not perfect, just a decent, caring, but very real, person.

There’s nothing notably wrong with Please Give. The story isn’t eventful, but it’s well told and at all levels the writing and acting is strong. It just struck the wrong chord with me, at the end of the day I just struggled to find any interest in well off people who were either struggling with the guilt of being well off in a vague sort of way (Keener), or just bitching about their lives (most of the rest of the cast. I, quite simply, don’t give a fuck.

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