Monday, June 16, 2014


When you're bored, horny and under twenty the days go slow. Two friends sit in a car in a carpark because they might as well and play what if games. Even these are too involved and when one of them refuses the other one's rules the latter drives the car into a wall as a big loud, impacting and pointless exclamation mark. As this film progresses with a kind of checklist of teen movie essentials it gathers the same kind of ennui as it's depicting but there's method in this and by the end its form has cooked and set almost because it might as well. And that's a good thing.

Teddy, blonde and cherubic has a limited talent as an artist but at least he uses it. He makes his own trouble but is aware of it. His best friend Fred is a barely controlled miasma of boredom and anger who would get anything he wanted if he wanted anything. His harvesting of pranks, thrills and backyard blowjobs only seems to lead him back to powerlessness and anger. April has a crush on her soccer coach (the ubiquitous and irresistible James Franco) and he has a crush on her and her babysitting nights with his son flick the intimacy meter needle toward danger. That kind of thing.

This film's narrative fashions an arc from a group of short stories that blend seamlessly enough to feel like one, if the creative writing class threads can be a little bare. A light motif about reversing one cigarette out of a new pack as a lucky one is used like a homework assignment (find a folky habit and use it to bring two characters together). Other moments play like character keynote exercises. Perhaps there are a few too many scenes which clog rather than widen the flow (the friend's stoned dad coming on to Teddy) by diverting from the already fragile central weave about the teens. While the grownup world is kept at arm's length there is enough of it shown from an adolescent point of view to emphasise authority here and light-on care there. When we are sitting among the teens at their slobbering, crapulent parties, wincing at their doughy morality or waiting listlessly with them as they sit and stare into the surrounding inertia.

Most of the setups here are medium or close, intimate. The wide or long shots are used conventionally for scene establishment. However, this film does not come across as form-chasing as the short stories for beginners mentioned o'erhead. If anything, the approach reminded me more of Gus Van Sant's Elephant than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Both of those are worthy entries in the teen genre but the former feels more of a model here for the admission it encourages of a lighter touch. Light is what you get here but, as it's Bloomsday at the moment I'll pun, light is what's needed to see what depth there is, and there is.

Is it too neatly wrapped at the end? Maybe. But maybe that is in tribute to the short fiction at its source. But there is a moment of pure cinema that I wish had been held longer. A character is driving against the traffic at night. Cars are swerving to avoid a collision. Apart from the clean analogy of the best defence against forces of chaos there is such a beautiful and gripping motion to it, a kind of weightless choreography that would be mesmerising ... if it were just a few seconds longer. Anyway.... whatever, dudettes.

The stream of Coppola's that sprang in the 70s with Francis and some monumental cinema is, like the poor, trickles still. And for all the Jason Schwatrzmans and Nick Cages there are Sophias. And for all of Sophia's formless Somewheres there are the stronger fabric of a Marie Antoinette or a Bling Ring. Now there's a Gia. I saw this film as a surprise given me by friends for my birthday. I saw the credits only at the end. Oh .... that's what it was chosen.

I had refused to put my specs on to read the title on the ticket given me and my friends honoured my wish to carry the surprise to the credits. I'm glad all that happened. Knowing the Coppola brand attached might have weighted my perception unfairly toward or from but the merits and drawbacks stood and it was with a smile that I saw the name come up. It didn't have to be good bad or indifferent but I happily recorded it as a curate's egg with a few genuinely impressive cinematic moments which the name sealed. Apocalypse no. But neither a retrod Heathers or Mean Girls. Most hauntingly, there is the solid empathy with a recently lived adolescence and a clear commitment to put it on screen. Next one, please.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Jonathon Glazer has given us three feature films almost completely unlike each other and almost completely unlike anything else. But it hasn't been smooth sailing. Sexy Beast shot itself in the foot with a clunking geezer caper in the third act that clouded any deeper themes aired in the first two. Birth should have been an eerie imaginative fiction but was so glacial and whispery that it came off as precious rather than compelling. So how's this one?

Plot: Two aliens arrive on earth to harvest humans. One supervises from a motorbike and the other lures men on the streets from a van, asking directions and data mining chit chat before offering the eligible a lift. The luring alien begins to identify with the guise she has adopted and splinters from the mission and begins one of her own to assimilate with the locals.

Physicality is an anchor in this almost entirely cold film. Without it being so deliberate there would be too much threat to the integrity of this almost entirely fragile film. The reason the alien so easily lures the men into the van and then to a bizarre fate is that it's wearing a Scarlett Johanson skin. This was assumed along with clothing from the first victim we see.

But while sexually irresistible Johanson is able to carry the dead eyed blank of her character's natural state through moments where she presents the human traits absorbed earlier it is impossible to feel anything but chilled to hear her laugh and flirt knowing she is really the alien. It's desirable (well ... we want our beautiful movie star back) but intentionally barred from us until the film on its own terms provides a way as the alien begins to understand the power of her guise, her skin.

This creates an unnerving companionship with Her in which the same movie star was used to similar effect. In that film it was impossible to imagine anyone but the A-List beauty talking, giving everyone in the cinema an instant key into the protagonist's growing romantic obsession with the voice. It was a trick but I bet no one minded it (I didn't). Here we are saved from too much alienation (boom boom) because we feel familiar with the visage. The same thing was done in the 70s when Nicholas Roeg cast David Bowie as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The sight of the naked movie-star-skinned alien gazing at herself in a mirror makes us wonder how we would feel to look upon ourselves in such perfection. It is enough for the being under the skin to want to be the one who first possessed it. This is the journey that engages us emotionally, after we have seen such confronting coldness, and your acceptance of this film will depend on how much you engage with that journey.

This isn't easy until that moment as we are given such an estranging world to move through. The harvesting process is by turns beautiful and wrenching as we see more than once the victim follow the woman across a mirror finish floor so enthralled by her that he fails to notice or mind that he is sinking into it. That's in the trailer. The other parts I'll leave you to discover when you buy a ticket but I will say that the state the victims find themselves in is masterfully designed, being both liquid and breathable. The sight of the alien walking back over the surface as seen from many metres below has an eerie beauty as her form grows more distant by the second. I can recall no scene from any other film like this one. It strikes me as something that formed wordlessly in the imagination and was translated image by image from that daydream directly and has less the quality of genre cinema (sci fi in this case) than the striking visions of Matthew Barney. And there's more where it came from.

Another moment when the supervisor is closely circling the female alien she is completely inert but his expression is stern. If there were any dialogue to this scene it would be punitive. An act of mercy shown to a would-be victim follows one of confronting detachment in the preceding sequence (and it's hard to revisit in memory). It is the mercy that compels her to leave the mission. And so her self image, borrowed or not, swells to life. A montage of women on the streets at first suggests that the alien is moving on to female targets but is more, with the process of subsequent scenes, like the stirrings of curiosity about them and her own guise, like a longing identification.

I wonder if the investment in the visual as primary carriage of meaning here has allowed Glazer better access to the sui generis movies he has sought to make. At first, the blend of Kubrickian perfection with an increasing earthiness (boom boom redux) feels insubstantial but this film haunts, tenaciously, and won't let you go until you've put more thought into it. Up to you.