The Sisters Brothers

Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.

If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers

In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.

That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.

With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)

0573 | Il Racconto Dei Racconti (Tale Of Tales)

I love a lavish, beautifully-designed and visually-stunning film, I generally enjoy portmanteaus, and given that today’s the day the UK votes on whether it wishes to stay as a member of the European Union or leave I’ll happily celebrate any film that helps to highlight cross-border collaboration, at least as it applies within the film industry. Fairy tale compendium Tale Of Tales is a joint Italian/English production, it’s an English language film, it’s directed by an Italian, it’s based on stories by a 16th/17th Century Italian writer, it’s scored by a Frenchman and it includes a number of French, English, Scottish and Italian actors (with a Mexican and an American thrown in for good measure). Crucially, though, it’s no europudding; the likes of Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek deliver performances that are strong enough to keep the film and its three interweaving fairy tales ticking along, and there are a number of impressive turns from less widely-known cast members, such as Bebe Cave, Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael. Above all else, though, this is a film worth watching for its sumptous production design, striking photography and exemplary costume work.

Director Matteo Garrone – hitherto best known for his excellent and gritty Neapolitan crime film Gomorrah, which is a world away from this new effort – has taken three of Giambattista Basile’s lesser-known stories and imbued them with a distinctly adult-flavoured tone; due to reasonably strong scenes of sex and gory violence it’s apparent after five minutes that Tale Of Tales isn’t for children, even though Basile was the man behind the early versions of stories that later ‘inspired’ the Brothers Grimm to write the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel. The film has a strong sense of tone that brings to mind the work of Guillermo del Toro, first and foremost, though I’ve seen Tale Of Tales imaginatively described as ‘Pasolini meets Monty Python’ elsewhere. Garrone clearly revels in the macarbre material, with monsters, giant fleas, ogres, witches and necromancers vying for screen time with the common fairy tale staples like kings, queens, princes and princesses. He also deftly incorporates a number of sudden twists and unexpected bouts of violence, and though I doubt many adults will find Tale Of Tales disturbing by today’s standards, I found the trio of stories quite engaging as a result of these deviations, as well as being weird and unfamiliar enough to hold my interest. Of the three it was Jones’ performance as a foolish king who neglects his daughter that eventually made that particular thread my favourite, although the most extravagant visual elements and special effects are largely to be found within the story about Salma Hayek’s queen, and the prices she must pay in order to give birth to a son. It’s shot mainly in and around three gorgeous castles in Italy, and although there’s certainly plenty of style over substance here, when the style in question is as beautiful and as imaginative as this I’m not going to complain too much.

Directed by: Matteo Garrone.
Written by: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso. Based on Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile.
Starring: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, John C. Reilly.
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
Editing: Marco Spoletini.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 134 minutes.
Year: 2016.

0384 | The Lobster

There’s a reason why Yorgos Lanthimos has a reputation for being a director who is drawn first and foremost to stories with unusual premises, but his English language debut The Lobster makes previous efforts like Dogtooth and Alps look like the works of a committed realist. One of the stranger films I’ve seen in 2015, it’s a satire about love, dating, coupledom and singledom, set in Ireland, and taking place either in an alternative present to our own or in the very near future. In this world being single has effectively been outlawed by the state and defiant loners live as fugitives in the wild; single people are forced to attend a kind of strictly-run dating camp in a rural hotel and may only return to the city if they have successfully coupled-up within 45 days. Those who fail to do so are turned into an animal of their own choosing, and there’s no explanation as to how or why this has come to be  it just is. Our guide comes in the (unusually portly) shape of Colin Farrell, whose character David is first seen being unceremoniously booted out by his wife of eleven years, who no longer loves him. Without much ado the newly-single David dutifully checks in to a giant spa hotel on the coast, where he is tasked with finding a suitable mate. Pressed on the matter he states that his animal of choice, should it be necessary, is a lobster, and he gives a number of peculiar reasons as to why that is the case. Most other people, according to Olivia Coleman’s stern hotel manager, choose dogs; and that’s why there are so many dogs in the world.

lobster-620x400So far so odd. In fact Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is overflowing with oddness, particularly during its hotel-set first half. Guests are referred to by their defining characterstics and include Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man, Ashley Jensen’s Biscuit Woman (she is a fan of butter biscuits), John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man, and so forth; it is these single characteristics that must be relied upon in order to find a match among the other guests. As a group they are given rather stilted demonstrations by hotel staff that show the benefits of being in a couple and must attend excruciatingly awkward dances in which all the men wear the same combination of blazer, shirt and trousers and all the women wear the same kind of dress. Meanwhile each day an alarm sounds and the hotel’s single guests are bundled into a minibus and driven to the nearby woods, where they must hunt loners; bagging a loner with a tranquiliser dart gives the captor an extra night’s accommodation in the hotel, thereby extending their stay of grace. And if you think that’s all very strange then wait until you see the delights of room service or the punishment meted out to anyone caught masturbating in flagrante.

Performances are deliberately stilted and the minimal dialogue is spoken by the actors in an awkward fashion. A female voiceover occasionally tells us how David is feeling but it too is suitably deadpan, applying a matter-of-factness to the whole coupling thing and the whole animal thing. I found the first half of The Lobster very funny indeed, but the appeal of its humour is far from broad, and I expect a lot of people will either dislike it outright or be left scratching their heads as to why pockets of audience members are chuckling away. However it helps that Farrell, Jensen, Whishaw, Coleman and Reilly have a very good grasp of the tone Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou are going for, and the utter indifference displayed by their characters with regard to the situation they are in helps to sell the outlandish premise.

lobster-film-review-oct15I’m not the first reviewer to make the following point but sadly the film does lose its way when the action moves on from the hotel. The Lobster‘s second half, which introduces several more characters (played competently enough by the likes of Léa Seydoux, Rachel Weisz and Michael Smiley), simply isn’t as weird, as interesting or as funny as the first, and although there are amusing moments the species of animals wandering around in the background in the woods grows ever more incongruous by the minute it begins to drag long before the offbeat, dangling finale. Once Lanthimos has established the idea that there is great pressure on members of society to become part of a couple he labours the point that similar levels of pressure and dogmatism also apply to those who are resolutely celibate, and all-but forgets about the metamorphosis aspect of the screenplay; as the film moved past the 90 minute mark a few members of the audience in the screening I attended walked out, though in most cases that can be taken as a sign of an interesting film, for one reason or another. Still, it feels like there was a chance for something extra special here, a kind of Being John Malkovich for the modern day, but greatness just slips out of The Lobster‘s claws. That said there’s more than enough here to warrant a viewing and there’s plenty of arch commentary on the dating merry-go-round.

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ben Whishaw, Michael Smiley, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen.
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis.
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
118 minutes.
Year:
2015.

 

0125 | Carnage

Like Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage – adapted from Yasmina Reza’s play God Of Carnage ­by Reza and Polanski – deals with the fallout of a fairly innocuous incident involving the striking of a child. Here, however, the aggressor is not an adult but another child of the same age, and after Zachary Cowan belts Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick, the middle class Brooklyn parents of both boys meet to discuss the incident and to draft a letter to be sent to the boys’ school.

In the film’s opening scene we witness the blow in question from afar, but it is the last we will see of either Zachary or Ethan until the very end of the film. The meat in-between takes place entirely at the apartment of well-meaning lefties Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly); he’s a salesman, she writes serious-sounding books about various crises in Africa. The Longstreets are playing host to Zachary’s parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan, a colder, more upscale pair of New Yorkers played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet; he’s a bigshot lawyer pre-occupied with an impending lawsuit against a big pharma client, she’s an investment banker.

While relations between the two sets of parents are initially cordial, with politeness dictating that certain things should be said and certain other things should remain unsaid, the foursome gradually begin to bicker and argue as they discuss punishment for Zachary, as well as Michael’s decision to cruelly abandon an unwanted pet gerbil. Penelope apparently can’t let certain issues pass without comment and, in turn, Alan is irritable and a born arguer, infuriating Penelope with both his calmness and his desire to endlessly debate the use of specific words (and, indeed, his reliance on his phone). It is left to their respective partners to smooth the conversation from time to time while remaining loyal to their respective wife and husband, but the alliances begin to shift as the arguments get more and more heated and alcohol comes into the equation. The Cowans attempt to leave the apartment repeatedly but are drawn back for one reason or another. Amusingly this all leads to schoolyard-level bickering between the four as more and more anger pours out and long-standing grievances are aired.

Clearly originally written for the stage, Carnage relies heavily on its four well-drawn characters, and by extension the considerable acting talents of its four stars. Foster’s Penelope is proud but uptight, in truth concerned just as much about her coffee table art books (left deliberately on display for guests to notice and idly thumb) than her son’s fight and injuries. She is the first to confront and the first to explode with rage, and when the other three do catch up emotionally it leaves the actress with nowhere else to go; she just gets louder and redder as the film progresses. Reilly’s Michael is a regular guy, keen to share his own treasured possessions – whiskey and cigars – so that relations remain cordial, but Penelope’s overall disappointment in him as a partner surfaces gradually, with his boorishness in particular causing her anguish. Reilly plays this kind of amiable character very well indeed.

As a couple the Cowans – by way of comparison – are colder, sleeker, and seemingly more harassed by the time they are losing going round in circles with the Longstreets. Christoph Waltz is superb as the controlled-but-slightly-peeved Alan Cowan, and he delivers a completely believable performance in a film where the other three actors – presumably deliberately – go way over the top. Alan is the only character able to see that the entire process is pointless, but his frustration comes from knowing he must go through the motions to appease his wife and Ethan’s parents.

Despite a slip or two Waltz nails the accent, as does Winslet, who perhaps has the least interesting of the four parts to work with. She is still very good for the majority of the film, and gives the film its one truly jaw-dropping moment, although it’s unfortunate that she must act drunk after her character has barely had two sips of whiskey. Great actress though she is, it’s clearly someone pretending to be drunk, and the exaggerated slurring is irritating. Still, the shifting dynamic between Alan and Nancy is fun to watch, especially when the one thing Alan really does care about is damaged by his wife; they look like a couple that will get divorced at some stage, but for now both tolerate the constant back and forth sniping.

Polanski’s film is initially fun, subtly examining middle class conceits and sham conventions of politeness. The forced niceness makes you cringe at times, and Winslet and Foster both do an excellent job early on of letting their masks slip ever-so-slightly, whetting the appetite for the row that follows. However the rising volume of the voices and the gradual increase in the amount of bickering becomes boring after a while, and the stroppier the behavior becomes the less authentic it all feels.

Plays and films that ridicule and criticize the double standards or the ways of the middle class are ten-a-penny, so the question is whether Carnage actually stands out from the pack at all. The cast certainly helps in this respect, but ultimately it doesn’t really go far enough in its attack, and once these character types have had their moment of ridicule it simply goes round in ever-decreasing circles. This isn’t Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and it lacks the verve and matter-of-fact slightness of Woody Allen’s poisoned darts. These upwardly-mobile post-yuppie parents are ripe for lampooning, but once Polanski and Reza have taken care of this you have to wonder what the point of it all is supposed to be. There’s no savage criticism and the only message that comes through clearly is that some parents have issues and act like selfish, pedantic arseholes from time to time. Hardly revelatory.

Polanski – still a fugitive of course – shot the film in Paris (the opening and closing sequences were shot by a second unit in Brooklyn Bridge Park), and it’s certainly possible that some part of his own experiences with the US have in some way informed the adaptation. God Of Carnage was a fairly open and obvious criticism of American values even before Polanski got involved, but more relevantly the director’s decision to cast two Europeans as an American couple playing opposite two American actors has been remarked upon. Do the Longstreets represent Europe in some way? Do the Cowans – with their twin obsessions of money and lawsuits – represent a blinkered distillation of the United States that Polanski has been dealing with for close to 25 years?

The first half of this comedy drama, in which excruciating politeness is the order of the day and the four characters must keep their inner thoughts in check, is engaging and enjoyable; watching these talented actors slowly reveal to the camera how the characters really feel about one another is a real treat. The apartment setting is not cramped but our expectations these days of multiple locations ensures a certain degree of claustrophobia begins to take hold sooner rather than later; Polanski teases by moving the action to the building’s hallway twice, but brings it back to the main room of the Longstreet’s home almost immediately. Like the Cowans we are seemingly unable to escape.

The second half of the film – following a superb intermission in which Winslet’s Nancy loses some recently-eaten cobbler – is unfortunately not as good, as it essentially relies on the fact that ‘the gloves are off’ but not enough of the punches thrown actually land. Sadly despite only being 80 minutes long this runs out of steam around the hour mark, but it’s worth watching for the acting and it’s a nice throwback to stripped-back, minimal filmmaking of old.

The Basics:

Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 79 minutes
Year: 2011
Rating: 6.1