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Posts Tagged ‘Catherine Keener’

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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You know, I try to be a positive, upbeat, and generally forgiving person (admittedly more out of a need to counteract my natural inclination to be extremely bitter, cynical, and vengeful than for any deeply felt moral or philosophical reasons). Despite this, some things retain the power to move me to a dark and terrible fury, and one of these is having films spoiled for me, especially by the websites of newspapers that I trust. And just such a thing happened the other day: in the wake of the release of the trailer for the latest iteration of a well-loved (and perhaps very slightly overrated) franchise that’s been around for nearly 40 years, I clicked onto an article promising to discuss a very specific sub-genre of horror, only to find myself being informed of, well, fairly crucial plot details of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, literally about an hour before I watched the movie.

Get Out isn’t a movie which is wholly dependent on its twist to function, but there is a definite element of mystery built into the story, and knowing the twist going in almost certainly affected my response to the movie – what might have seemed genuinely startling and unexpected, encountered without warning in the unsettling darkness of a movie theatre, inevitably had less impact communicated via text on a laptop. Maybe this is why I am somewhat less impressed with Get Out than many others; I don’t know. I just mention this in the interests of full disclosure an’ all that.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young photographer happily entangled with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), and about to embark on a trip to meet her parents for the first time. Despite everything, he is a little nervous: will they really be okay with their daughter having a relationship with an African-American man?

Nevertheless, off they go, eventually receiving a warm welcome from her father and mother (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Gradually, though, there is an accretion of tiny details that put Chris just a little bit on edge – Rose’s parents have black servants, who behave extremely strangely, and the attitude of the rest of their friends, when they descend for a party, is also slightly strange. The only African-American in the community acts very oddly indeed, attacking Chris and whispering ‘Get out!’ when startled by the flash on his phone camera, and Chris’ transport cop friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) is startled when he sees the picture – this is a man who disappeared months earlier…

Now, there’s a couple of things we need to keep in mind about Get Out, the first one being that – as mentioned – I had the revelation as to what’s really going in this movie spoiled for me in advance, and it is also – as you may have surmised – fundamentally about the African-American experience in the contemporary United States, something I am supremely under-equipped to presume to discuss in any meaningful way.

However, this movie is also presenting itself as a horror movie, and that at least is something I do feel qualified to comment on. Its closest antecedent, I would suggest, is The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin’s famous tale of… well, I’ve gone to great extremes in the past to avoid spoiling The Stepford Wives for anyone (see, this stuff matters to me), and I’m not going to change that now. Get Out is slightly more of a genre movie, slightly happier to wheel on the third-act violence and gore, but there’s still a distinct family resemblance, in that they are both horror films, to some extent paranoid fantasies, seeking to engage in social commentary and satire.

If we’re going to discuss the horror movie as a vehicle for social comment, then of course we should start with George A Romero and consider Dawn of the Dead: the story of a group of people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse and the accompanying collapse of society, but also on some level a commentary on consumerism in the modern world. Slightly more pertinently, Night of the Living Dead, also the story of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, but also (thanks to the casting of Duane Jones) obliquely about the civil rights struggle occurring in America when it was made.

Get Out, on the other hand, is the story of a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans, which also functions as, um, a story about a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans. There’s not really enough space here for the film to function on a metaphorical level in the same way as the films that clearly inspired it – what happens in the film is grisly and terrifying, to be sure, and obviously represents an attempt to control and destroy black identity, but even if it’s meant be a symbol of something in the real world, it’s not at all clear what that is.

I mean, some people have suggested the film is a satire on the corrosive and ultimately unhelpful effects of white liberalism – and some of the film’s wittiest moments concern Chris’s deadpan reactions to meeting a bunch of old white people who all assure him how much they love Obama and Tiger Woods – but this doesn’t seem to me to connect to the central notion of the film. I suppose you could argue the film is on some level about cultural appropriation, but again the horror aspect isn’t really a metaphor for this, unless you do some serious stretching. I’m not saying the film never touches on liberalism, or cultural appropriation, or indeed the realities of being a young black man in the USA today, it’s just that there are all these aspects of the film, and then there’s its central idea, which seems to be its own thing, not particularly related to any of them. (Film-making being what it is, Get Out was made before the Great Disaster of last November, and as a result is unable to comment on the implications of the Insane Clown President’s reign. Fertile ground for a future movie, perhaps.)

Not that it isn’t an effective piece of film-making, with a bunch of strong performances from virtually everyone in the cast, and Peele handles the shift from social comedy with darker undertones to full-on horror rather adroitly. However, it deploys a lot of very familiar horror tropes just a bit too knowingly, and some of the time you’re left wondering if this is genuinely meant to be a horror movie, or just some kind of witty pastiche of the genre. In the end I would say this is a well-made and very well-played film, clearly highly intelligent, but one which works much better in its earlier stages than in its final act, throughout which it sort of goes onto autopilot, and also one which never quite reaches the standard of the best of the films which inspired it. Still more fun than Moonlight, though, of course.

 

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film on you particularly want to see, sometimes you go because there was a trailer that looked sort of interesting, sometimes you go because the saturation-bombardment of publicity is inescapable and the film in question is a major cultural event. And sometimes you go to the cinema just because you want to go to the cinema, and what you go to see isn’t necessarily very important.

I tell you, folks, much as I enjoyed Trance last week, a lot of the films around at the moment really leave me sort of cold, which is a surprise as some of them are big-budget genre fantasies of the kind that once would have been right up my alley. But, truth be told, the likes of Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Killer really don’t appeal right now, and so – somewhat to my surprise – I found myself going to see Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet.

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I believe this is one of those movies enjoying what always seems to me like an eccentric release, by which I mean that it became available in theatres, on DVD, and for download at round about the same time. The theatre release probably qualifies as counter-programming, given the preponderance of big dumb movies for young people. That said, I sense a degree of uncertainty as to whom A Late Quartet is aimed at from its supporting programme – no actual cinema trailers at all, while the adverts preceding it appeared to be aimed at, to say the least, a broad demographic: one for spot cream, one for a cruise company, two connected with the dangers of degenerative eye disease and one for Wrestlemania 2013.

There’s only metaphorical wrestling in the movie itself, which is concerned with the activities of a long-established and celebrated string quartet, based in New York City. On cello is the patriarchal figure of Christopher Walken, while playing the viola is his adopted daughter, Catherine Keener. Keener’s husband Philip Seymour Hoffman is second violin, and Walken’s brilliant former student Mark Ivanir is first violin. As you can see, the ties that bind the four musicians are nearly as close as those of a family – only compounded by the fact that Ivanir is giving Keener and Hoffman’s daughter Imogen Poots private tuition – the difference being that their activities require, if anything, a greater degree of harmony than that of a comparable group of blood relations.

But hidden tensions between the different members of the group are suddenly articulated when Walken discovers a sudden deterioration in his technique is due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease: he will soon lose the ability to play to the necessary standard. Who should replace him? Should he even be replaced at all? With the future of the quartet suddenly in flux Hoffman takes this opportunity to voice his desire to play first violin at least some of the time, something the obsessively perfectionist Ivanir vehemently objects to. And so on, the relationships of the foursome rapidly becoming strained, to say the least.

Perhaps it’s the Manhattan setting, but it seemed to me that this movie isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing Woody Allen’s based his career on for the last two and a half decades – the personal and professional tribulations of a small coterie of affluent metropolitans. However, and I say this with all due respect and affection for Allen, A Late Quartet is a much more impressive and satisfying movie than anything he’s done recently. Partly this is because the unfolding of the plot is intelligent and convincing, with the different threads interacting subtly and plausibly, but also because this film doesn’t have the occasionally-uneasy throwing together of comedy and drama that marks some Allen movies. This movie is measured and consistent, restrained and classy almost all the way through (although a scene where Hoffman appears to be having a very nice time while a lithe flamenco dancer sits on him is slightly incongruous).

My musical experience is, of course, limited (currently trying to master Bat Out Of Hell on the ukulele, should anyone be interested), but all four actors make very convincing virtuoso musicians, and the film does a good job of suggesting some of the demands of this kind of career and the sacrifices involved. But it works as well as it does because they are superb in bringing these characters to life as real people – this film doesn’t have the biggest cast, but everyone in it is brilliant.

You don’t necessarily expect affecting humanity from a Christopher Walken performance, but he makes for a touching vulnerable figure here as he comes to term with the loss of the central element of his life. No-one else in cinema delivers a monologue quite like Walken does, and he gets a couple of crackers here. That said, he’s by no means the central character, and  – if I’m pushed – I’d have to say the acting honours go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is as compelling as usual as a man unwittingly in the midst of a midlife crisis. Admittedly, he is doing the kind of ‘wounded bear’ character we’ve seen from him before, but this is still a Rolls Royce display of screen acting.

But there really isn’t very much wrong with this film in any department. Some of the general arcs of the plot are, to some degree, predictable, but not to the extent that the film becomes dull or hackneyed. The ending manages to give a sense of closure without being unrealistically tidy or glib, which is a neat piece of storytelling before one even considers what it may be suggesting about the power of music or its true hold over the main characters – but then this film is a class act throughout. A thoroughly engaging and really impressive drama.

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