While I was in grad school I reviewed movies, because it got me into the cinema for free. Film reviews are technically very difficult – at least I think they are. You want to be generous but not a sap. The first-act synopsis eats annoyingly into the word count. You have to take an angle without bullying the reader into sharing it (a hard shift from scholarly criticism, where glittering unassailability is kind of the point). All this without revealing the spoilers that often feel like essential scaffolding for your argument. It’s a nightmare exercise and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Below are a few of the reviews I wrote for Varsity. I’ve cleaned up the copy here and there and junked a couple of bits that don’t seem as clever in retrospect. Well, if there’s any kind of writing that ought to humble the writer, it should probably be when they’re passing judgement on other people’s art.
Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo García, 2011)
Albert Nobbs is Glenn Close’s brainchild. She stars in it, she produced and heavily financed it, and she co-scripted it with Irish novelist John Banville. The shocking scarcity of good roles for older actresses in Hollywood is well known – it seems Close did the logical thing and created one for herself. Close plays Albert, a waiter in an 1890s Dublin hotel who has a secret: she is a woman living as a man. It started as a way to find work and protect herself from sexual predators; it is now, simply, who she is. Albert hides in plain sight behind the dual roles of male person and efficient servant. But this doesn’t leave a lot of room for a personality of her own – or for connecting with others.
Close captures Albert’s awkwardness with sensitivity. Unfortunately, this torturous oddness becomes the whole point of the film, which feels like a missed opportunity. Albert is a subsistence worker with a capricious boss in an environment of high unemployment, and that’s at least as dangerous to her security as her secret is. However, the desperations of poverty never disturb the polished costume-drama surface here. Close and Banville’s script is packed with sentimental “types” – the rich sadist, the abandoned young mother – but it misses chance after chance to raise the stakes. There are stand-out moments, such as Albert fretting over sums to keep her sweetheart (Mia Wasikowska) in chocolates and stockings long enough to persuade her to wed; or a young man desperate for work who is given one night to fix a recalcitrant boiler, and faces it down like a beast of myth. But the drama never really coheres. At one point, a character who ought to know better storms, “I don’t know why people live such miserable lives.”
Given that Albert’s so driven, her yearnings remain strangely inert. It’s never clear what she wants from others; why, for example, she wants a wife at all. The contrast with the loving lesbian marriage of her friends Hubert (Janet McTeer) and Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher) points up this weakness all the more. The problem, I think, is the film’s misplaced obsession with Albert’s “oddness.” By the rules of the class-bound, misogynistic society she lives and works in, yes, she is a weirdo. But when she’s among friends – people who also don’t fit in, and who’ve had to be secretive to survive – she doesn’t seem so weird after all.
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)
When a human smuggling plan goes awry, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a Gabonese teenager, finds himself on the run in the French port city of Le Havre. With the local police commissioner leaning on his best detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) for a quick capture, and the newspapers speculating on Idrissa’s Al-Qaida links, his situation is precarious.
Luckily, he has some help in the form of shoeshiner Marcel (André Wilms) and the close-knit community of his rundown dockside quartier. Can a man who keeps his life savings in a biscuit tin, a couple of shopkeepers, and an ageing rocker keep Idrissa out of the clutches of the police?
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki imports his familiar stilted comic style and his long-time leading lady Kati Outinen, who plays Marcel’s wife. But he plays up to the Frenchiness with lots of aperitifs, perfect produce, and accordion on the soundtrack. If you like your France more Tati than tatty, you’ll enjoy this film’s frothy aesthetic. I can see how some viewers might be non-plussed by such a romantic treatment of asylum seekers’ pain. If there’s a rosy, checked-tablecloth sort of a glow around the little community who take up Idrissa’s cause, you could read it as a metonym for the general principle of hospitality – the choice to see someone as a person first and a problem second.
With its kooky score (slide guitar and melodramatic swells of strings along with the aforementioned accordion), its unlikely reversals, and its deadpan delivery, Le Havre isn’t selling itself as social realism. But as an optimistic fable, it pleases.
The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, 2014)
Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is a handsome young American of good stock mooching around Europe, flirting with heiresses and pulling minor scams when he should be carving out a brilliant career at home. “Well, Chester, first I have to work out what I want to do.” Who’s Chester? That would be the shonky stockbroker on the lam in Athens (Viggo Mortensen) with a pretty young wife (Kirsten Dunst) and a strong resemblance to Rydal’s overbearing, recently-deceased father. This seems like the most promising sort of trouble.
The Two Faces of January is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, who also adapted it for the screen from a Patricia Highsmith novel. It’s an Americans-in-Europe crime thriller set in 1967, when the frocks were better and not only villains smoked. January is high-Highsmith Eurocamp, and Amini would have seemed the perfect choice to helm an adaptation, considering his script for Drive somehow managed to be both lurid and genuinely touching. Sadly, his latest script is less airy – many opportunities for humour and dramatic tension get bogged down in psychologising. The best bits come early on, when a precarious balance is maintained between the competing wills and motives of thief, wife, and drifter. But somehow the drama deflates rather than escalates when things starts coming apart.
Marcel Zyskind’s camera stays in claustrophobic shallow focus, scrutinising the rumpled linens and baggy, tired eyes of the travellers. A low-light graininess and ochre filter replicates 1960s Eastmancolor (or the way it looks to us, anyway, now it’s red-shifted in the can), even if the every-pore close-ups are unmistakably digital. The anachronistic texture doesn’t really tell us anything, though, it just kind of sits there – like a heat-wilted fedora or pastel headscarf.
Normally I’m a sucker for an Americans-in-Europe thriller. They let you pretend you’re in the Greek islands, and they elevate the banalities of leisure travel. Schlubs like us heft heavy suitcases, forget our passports in hotels, suffer through our companions’ sulking fits. It all becomes more glamorous if those suitcases are crammed with ill-gotten cash and you’re wanted for murder. Movies like The Good Thief (Neil Jordan, 2002) and Minghella’s 1999 Ripley are great crime yarns that also capture the aspirational glamour and petty frustrations of being an ocean away from home. In The Two Faces of January, what with the sweat, the bad booze, and the arguments, it all ends just ends up being a bit knackering – and not just for the characters on screen.
To be fair, I think I would have enjoyed this film more if I hadn’t had to review it. It looks good. The pacing satisfies. I started out earnestly scribbling notes like “ouzo – bickering – white elephants” and “Asterion ref – father/monster?” But when a character says, “Wait here, I’ll be right back” before literally descending into the labyrinth of Knossos, zippo in hand, you start to feel a little bit punked.
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
Wes Anderson is a one-man genre, and you’ll recognise all the ingredients in his latest outing, Moonrise Kingdom. The look is pastel nostalgia, the mood is broody, and the different generations can’t seem to get along. But fans looking for more of the same in Moonrise Kingdom will find that Anderson’s surpassed himself, making his most accomplished and enjoyable film to date.
The plot (not usually Anderson’s strength, but this one’s a corker) revolves around a pair of star-crossed twelve-year-old lovers. Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) know that they’re made for each other. But when they run away into the forest, they call down the fury of Suzy’s parents, the local police, Social Services, and Sam’s bullying Eagle Scout troop.
This is the most thrilling departure from Anderson’s previous films – almost all of them feature adult-child clashes, but you rarely see the kids push back. In films like The Royal Tennenbaums and The Life Aquatic, overbearing patriarchs and chilly, inscrutable moms suck all the oxygen out of the room, preventing their adult children from asserting their own identities or desires.
Suzy and Sam, on the other hand, know exactly what they want, regardless of whether anyone will listen. “I can’t argue with anything you’ve said,” says Bruce Willis’ local cop to Sam, “But then, I don’t have to, because you’re twelve years old.” Maybe so, but Suzy and Sam have fierce determination and loyalty on their side, and they’re not to be underestimated.
The chemistry between the terrific young actors seems to give a jolt to every aspect of Anderson’s filmmaking. His scripting has never been so on-point, handling zingy repartee and heartfelt reveals with equal confidence. The score is a delight; the background visual gags are sharper than ever.
Even the trademark Anderson look becomes something transcendent here. After ninety minutes in this pastel 1960s world, the grouchiest nostalgia-phobe will be longing for knee socks, canvas tents, and Francoise Hardy records. Design team Adam Stockhausen and Gerald Sullivan have created a coastal New England that perfectly balances the pastoral and the claustrophobic. There’s nowhere to run, which suggests that everyone’s going to have to compromise before this thing is over.
Anderson made his first short in 1994, so Moonrise Kingdom brings his film career up to the age of majority. That feels about right. With some adult characters who are actually willing to learn (well played all round by Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis and Ed Norton) and young protagonists with backbone, Moonrise announces a good young film-maker’s entry into artistic maturity.
Banner image from Le Havre, dir. Aki Kaurismäki, 2011.