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Amorality Tale: Down Terrace’s Cursed Class

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, November 4th, 2010

"Down Terrace"

There was a storefront in my hometown that sold luxury dog accessories, irreverent gifts, frozen yogurt, and whatever’s stocked by a “mercantile” all within a few years’ time. Nothing good can come of such a place. It’s a fact of pop urban planning — or maybe just local hearsay — that certain corners are “cursed.” There are people like this too. They’re toxic, reeking of fated failure. They’re literally repellant, and you worry their floundering might be contagious. Usually movies are not made about these kinds of people. Nobody wants to sit with them for 90 minutes.

But these noxious souls are the stars of Down Terrace, the debut film by Ben Wheatley, which was released last year in the UK and is just now in New York. Bill and Karl, played by real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill, run a small-time crime syndicate in Brighton and are just back from prison. Maggie, the mediating matriarch (played by Julia Deakin) brews countless cups of tea while Bill attempts to quell bursts of rage and Karl spouts new-age nonsense (Timothy Leary’s genius, the power of fasting, triangles, caves). At one point, Maggie complains that she’s always “cleaning up after bloody men” — a double entendre of the nice, British variety. Senseless killing continues throughout the entire film. And when Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Vlada (Kerry Peacock), shows up unexpectedly — well into her third trimester — things go from bad to worse.

My powers of speculative empathy are most exercised when I imagine myself as a man who accidentally impregnates his girlfriend who then refuses to abort the baby. No hypothetical can make me madder than that. So although we’re asked to sympathize with Vlada, Karl’s reaction to her arrival (“I’ve heard of sudden death, but sudden birth?”) still struck a nerve in me. Karl’s the locus of most of the film’s humor. Down Terrace is marketed as a black comedy, so appropriately there aren’t many joke-jokes, but it’s still funny. In one scene, Karl vetoes Bill’s idea to name the baby “Norbert,” claiming it sounds medieval. Pointing out the absurdity of certain proper nouns will always guarantee a laugh from me.

The characters’ amorality seems to have been absorbed by way of environmental osmosis.

Vérité is often nothing more than a euphemism for ugliness. And there’s nothing uglier than suburban England — except for dusty bookshelves fortressed by tschotkes, of which there are also many shots here. Likewise, doom is written all over the characters’ faces, who look like they’ve walked straight out of a Kippenberger self-portrait. Vlada’s makeup is caked on, Maggie’s highlights are brassy, Bill’s handsomeness is encased in bloat, and the only source of Karl’s gravity is his relentless cruelty towards his own family. It’s exhausting to watch claustrophobic hopelessness. It’s impossible to feel for such a grim, miserable family — even when they aren’t killing everyone in their midst.

My own litmus test for bad moods is how disproportionately undone I can become at my own doorstep while searching my purse for house keys. The spectrum goes from mild annoyance to brink-of-tears fury. But even that self-knowledge didn’t prevent me from recognizing the first sign of Bill’s pathological rage. It comes right away, in the first scene. He’s throwing a tantrum, struggling to remove his tie (“It’s like a fucking noose!”). I laughed, but hesitantly, imagining what I must look like when the contents of my bag are spilled all over the hallway, and I’m frantically pawing through piles of personal trash. Never has menswear seemed like such a burden. Moments such as these — when we’re forced to identify with the characters’ irrational wrath — are depicted dangerously well.

The tokens of dinginess in Down Terrace would come across as mere indie signifiers if this were an American film: the days-of-the-week chapter titles in Helvetica, the grown men with mutton chops, the flimsy poly-blend polos. But here, they’re only meant as setpieces for a natural ambiance. And the stylizing works. Peripheral characters are killed off one-by-one until only the nuclear family (plus Vlada plus unborn baby) remains. Relatively unmotivated violence feels of a piece with such a vile atmosphere, and you don’t question the murders as much as you might in a more refined setting. The characters’ amorality seems to have been absorbed by way of environmental osmosis.

At first, I thought it was an ethical failing of the film that I wasn’t obliged to react to its brutality, that the dreariness numbed me to its violence. And this suspicion was complicated by the half-expected resolution, the only time at which the plot feels so urgently assured. Bill and Vlada’s baby-bump-buffered-embrace in the final scene is their first moment of visible relief. It’s horrifying to feel only now, in the wake of such total bloodshed, that all might be OK, that only by removing human irritants can life proceed.

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Clone Like Me: On Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Carrie Mulligan and Keira Knightly in "Never Let Me Go"

Based on the 2005 novel by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a successful example of sensationalist plot and subdued language gone celluloid. It’s the mid-1990s, and the British government is cloning humans to provide donor organs for transplant surgeries. The story is framed by the reminiscing voice of our heroine, Kathy, played by the kind-eyed Carrie Mulligan. She looks back on her formative years spent at Hailsham, a boarding school established to educate and incubate child clones until they’re ready for their first donations at age eighteen.  It follows her relationship with Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield, and Ruth, the archetypical frenemie who snatches him away, played by Keira Knightly, who is even more gaunt than usual in the role. For her sake, I hope this doesn’t typecast her as an eternal inpatient; though it feels like her peaked pallor, ghoulish piano fingers, and seemingly detachable jaw might finally have found a purpose.

Adult Kathy is a “carer,” one who nurses donors throughout surgeries until their inevitable, euphemistic “completion.” It’s only a matter of time though before she too will have to donate. Essential information is deployed cautiously, with little dramatic irony. Our vision of Hailsham as a fortifying utopia is destroyed concurrently with the childrens’ naïve innocence. “You will become adults, but only briefly,” says Miss Lucy, an idealistic — and quickly sacked — teacher with a prolicivity towards full-disclosure.

It’s in the film’s final segment that all mounting emotion coalesces. Kathy and Tommy are driving home after being forced to face their close demise. He gets out of the car, stumbles into the middle of the road — profile backlight by the headlights — and begins to howl, werewolf-like. Andrew Garfield’s face is fragile and ropey, like a baby dinosaur’s, and he can distort it terribly when his sweetness breaks into uncontrollable wails. The shot is maintained for a queasily long time, forcing a full spectrum of reaction: first, satisfaction of recognizable repetition (a similar scene transpires earlier when Tommy is a young boy — he slaps Kathy away when she tries to calm him down), then mild disappointment at the predictability of the echoing, then sympathy with Tommy, then repulsion at such a carnal outpouring, then sympathy once again, and finally relief that the scene is not an exact rehashing — that he doesn’t hit Kathy when she tries to comfort him.

Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings.

The masterful structuring within the last few minutes is when the authorial precision of Ishiguro’s screenplay comes through most. And in his cyclical style, we conclude where we began, with Kathy peering through a pane of glass at Tommy. He’s dying on the operating table, organs extracted one-by-one. The scene is at once clinical and gripping, like an Eakins painting made animate. We see doctors’ hands wielding metallic instruments; we see Tommy’s eyes dim out. Kathy’s closing monologue indicates an acceptance of what’s in store.

Storyline aside, it should be said that Adam Kimmel’s cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design positively feed off the assumption of the audience’s casual anglophilia. And they deliver: There are romps through misty moors, rugby shirts in the perfect shade of ecru, cups of tea resting on leather-bound tomes, girls sitting cross-legged in cable knit sweaters, Wellies by the front door. The coziness ensures our empathy with the clones, who speak, act, and feel just like all the “originals” we’ve ever encountered in life. The fetishizing really only starts to feel sinister during the scenes at Hailsham, which to me came across like a pedophile’s playground, teeming with Tadzios, littered with Lolitas. They do their “maths” homework and play “at sport.” Throngs of pale little thighs trot across green fields. There’s something alarming about such unnervingly beautiful children, especially in great quantity — their rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes straight off an advertisement for alpine muesli. It’s hard to look at children so Aryan and so sprightly and not think Nazi youth. Considering that discussions of cloning always seem to devolve into arguments about eugenics, I guess this is the point.

The seductive details seem endless, and the pleasure they inspire feels, at times, just short of heavy-handed. The children barter for toys with colorful tokens. Glass bottles of creamy milk are systematically snatched up by tiny paws. The aestheticizing is aggressive, but always deliberate. The palette throughout, with its overexposed brightness and punctuating color dissolves (celadon, cornflower, butter yellow), feels like a nod to English films of the 1960s. Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now come to mind. It’s a faded, menacing cheer in keeping with the horrific reality of children who live only to die.

Alternate histories lend themselves well to the screen: Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings. And startling anachronisms are always fun to spot. The British have a rich history of dystopian science fiction, of civic allegory run amok. It makes sense that an insular island — an obsolete empire — would produce extreme parable. The enclosed spaces (gothic manors, futuristic hospitals, thatched-roof conclaves) exaggerate isolation and remove. Microcosms make for good thought experiments. The hypothesis — and conclusion — here seem to be one and the same. Clones: They’re just like us.

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Death Be Not Proud

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood contemplates the great beyond — with mixed results.
By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dallas Bryce Howard and Matt Damon in "Hereafter."

It’s hard to say a bad word about Clint Eastwood. The man is freakin’ Clint Eastwood for goodness sake! He has five Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guilt Life Achievement Award, two Cannes Film Awards, and he is, at 80 years old, every bit as flinty and awesome as ever.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see what the general consensus will be for Hereafter, Eastwood’s 31st as director. Early reviews are mixed!

J. Hoberman at Village Voice writes, “Eastwood rides a sleepy burro deep into Iñárritu territory. Multiple story lines cross international borders to mix personal tragedy with post-9/11 existential terror: Hereafter is a mawkish mondo mistico, obvious, schematic, and sometimes subtitled.”

Rex Reed, on the other hand, points out, “Hereafter might be tender, but in no way is it the work of a tenderfoot. It’s a change of pace, but it exemplifies every carefully honed aspect of the treasured director’s craft. Besides, Mr. Eastwood has earned the right to make any kind of movie he wants (at unthinkable expense), and when a man reaches his midnight years, it’s perfectly understandable that he starts contemplating the afterlife.”

Whether it’s Clint contemplating the great beyond, or just being done in by the surprisingly sincere Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) screenplay, what perhaps is most interesting about Hereafter it will undoubtedly be compared to 1990’s Ghost (or maybe even The Sixth Sense). Hey, it’s hard to take a psychic who can speak to the dead seriously (even if it is being played by Matt Damon) once you’ve got Whoopie in your head (if this isn’t a Hollywood golden rule yet, maybe it should be).  Or maybe it’s just no one is that comfortable with thinking about the afterlife…be in What Dreams May Come or The Lovely Bones or even Flatliners. (As Lisa Schwartzbaum at Entertainment Weekly cited in her review, “The great philosopher Woody Allen once said, ”I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.’”).

The strongest scenes in Hereafter come early: the recreation of the 2004 tsunami is as breathtaking, terrifying and as well done as any action flick of recent memory (eat your heart out Michael Bay!); the painful tableaux of a lonely man sitting alone in silence eating dinner; or a young boy wishing his departed twin brother goodnight before turning out the lights.  But then things get a little murky in the middle, and sort of gradually slide into a different movie altogether; “Clint Eastwood’s supernatural drama Hereafter starts big and ends small, its hold gradually slackening, its thread dissolving,” wrote David Edelstein (who also hilariously compared the visions of  the dead to “the old TV promos for Lost” in New York magazine). Will devoted Eastwood fans find their way to theaters to watch this one? Clint Eastwood did apparently refer to the tone of the film as a chick flick, “But one that men will like, too. Or at least one that won’t make them want to stick a Swiss Army Knife in their leg.” Now there’s the tough guy we love.

This will be Sara Vilkomerson’s final post for Girl on Film. Starting soon, she will be a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. Congratulations to Sara — we wish her the best!  Next week, look for an announcement about THIRTEEN’s new film blogger. Stay tuned.

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Due Date: Is It a Plane or a Train or an Automobile Again? Here’s Hoping!

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, September 24th, 2010

Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in "Due Date."

The movie Due Date isn’t out till November 5th, but that hasn’t stopped people (or, rather, The Internet) from buzzing obsessively over it. And why not? It’s Todd Phillips’s follow-up to The Hangover — the ’09 summer smash which seemed to single-handedly bring back the bromantic comedy — and it stars the uber-hot Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis (aka the most popular guys, these days, in the Hollywood lunch room).  The synopsis and trailer indicate a tale of mismatched travelers, forced together to try to get home in time for the impending birth of Robert Downey, Jr.’s character’s child. It’s a good trailer — viewed almost a half a million times already on YouTube!— giving room for the two stars’ offbeat delivery. (One version of the trailer features a solemn Robert Downey Jr. sharing a painful memory about the day his father abandoned their family, to which a crazy-eyed Galifianakis cracks up.) It had us thinking fondly about a different movie from over twenty years ago…and we’re beginning to think that someone over there at HBO was having the very same thought, because the Home Box Office has been playing the 1987 classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles an awful lot lately.

Seriously though, have you watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles lately? Written and directed by John Hughes, it stars Steve Martin and John Candy (guess which one would be played by Galifianakis in a remake) as an Odd Couple-like pair­­ who team up during a travel disaster in order to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s a very funny movie, and probably every dude of a certain age can recite some of the more memorable moments from the film (“Those aren’t pillows!”). ”Like certain other popular entertainments (It’s a Wonderful Life, E.T., Casablanca), it not only contained a universal theme, but also matched it with the right actors and story, so that it shrugged off the other movies of its kind and stood above them in a kind of perfection,” wrote Roger Ebert, when re-evaluating the film in 2000.

Here’s a fun thing to think about the next time you watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and there’s still time to set your DVR! HBO is playing it again on Saturday). Would any of its comedy be lost in the age of the internet/iPhone? (Would Steve Martin’s tightly wound character have been tweeting his displeasure at his mistreatment by the rental agency rather than losing his mind in line?  Discuss!).  Of course, Due Date, isn’t a true remake of the Hughes film, but it’s certainly never a bad  idea to stick these particular two actors in a road trip movie (and very clever indeed to put one them on a no-fly list as a nod to modern times) and sit back and see what happens. Apparently it will involve (in no particular order): a French Bulldog, Jamie Foxx, and human remains in a coffee can. Consider us there. And hey, Hollywood…start thinking about a re-do on All of Me next! We humbly suggest Jason Bateman and Elizabeth Banks as our choice of players.

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Ben Affleck’s Life, Take Five

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, September 17th, 2010

Ben Affleck in "The Town"

If Ben Affleck was a cat, and a Hollywood career was a stand-in for lives (just stay with us on this one, we’re going somewhere, we promise), we figure he’d be up to his fourth life. Perhaps even five! We’re talking, of course, about the release this weekend of Affleck’s The Town, a movie he not only stars in but co-wrote and directed, which has critics going sort of gaga for Affleck all over again, partying like it’s 1997.

It was in 1997, of course, that Good Will Hunting came out of nowhere, ushering in the era of Matt and Ben, culminating in a couple of matching Oscars (and goofy grins) for its screenplay. People knew of these guys before then…sorta. Affleck may have been the more visible thanks to his turns in Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy, but after the Good Will Hunting moment the two started to drift into different paths. Damon to a serious actor path — working with Francis Ford Copoola, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, and remember how good he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley?, not to mention the Bourne and Oceans franchises. Affleck, on the other hand, seemed to drift more toward matinee idol fare — fitting for his naturally heroic jawline — with Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Reindeer Games. He started dating famous ladies, first Gwyneth and then there was that regrettable “Bennifer” period with JLo. People speculated (unfairly it seems now) that it must have been Damon behind the Good Will Hunting success. And then, you know, there was Gigli and Jersey Girl. Yeow.

But perhaps in one of the more delightful Hollywood reinventions, Affleck turned his ship around. He started choosing better projects, less showy parts like Hollywood Land and State of Play. And most importantly, in 2007, he directed Gone Baby Gone, a well-executed turn that garnered an Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan and raves for his brother, Casey. Was this too a fluke, the world wondered? Just another case of an actor ducking behind the camera? (As Anthony Lane wrote this week in The New Yorker, “The need to migrate behind the camera has never died, and no leading male has been immune — Bambi, perhaps, although rumors persist of stag footage locked away in the Disney vaults”.)

With The Town, Affleck has stopped “Ben Affleck, director” from being a joke. It’s a supremely enjoyable and well-crafted heist film, set in Affleck’s beloved hometown of Boston. If there’s one thing Affleck clearly has a knack for, it’s casting (just like other actor/director hybrids like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford): the great Jeremy Renner — is this guy the hottest thing going these days in Hollywood or what? — is just right as the empty-eyed perhaps sociopathic friend and armed-robber partner, Jon Hamm manages to make us forget about Don Draper for two hours as the FBI agent circling around the hunted criminals, and Rebecca Hall is perfectly lovely and damaged in just the right amounts. Oh, and Chris Cooper playing Affleck’s character’s father?  Amazing. (“Getting Chris Cooper to play your old man, for instance, is a risky move, and Cooper, granted a single scene, walks off with it in his pocket,” wrote Lane. Very true.) And Affleck himself does the wisest thing possible; he allows himself to blend in and have his supporting actors shine all around him, turning in a subtle and layered performance. The real question will be what life will be the next one.

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In Defense of The Switch

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman in "The Switch"

The Switch, the romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman that was released on August 20, is currently rocking a 52% on Rotten Tomatoes. It came in 8th place its opening weekend, behind Vampires Suck, Piranha 3D, and Lottery Ticket.

We’d like to take this opportunity to defend this movie. We’re not saying it’s  up there with the best of the best of the genres like The Awful Truth (not to be confused with the truly awful The Ugly Truth), or even the best thing you’ll see this year, or even this summer. But it’s way way more enjoyable than its low rating number might lead you to believe.

It’s true that the premise of the film and the trailer the studio ran with it pretty much lets you know from the very beginning exactly where it’s going to go: Pretty platonic-on-the-surface friends Kassie (Aniston) and Wally (Bateman) pal around together untroubled in their respective roles of A-type personality and slacker until Kassie announces that she’s going to have a baby on her own with a sperm donor. And then, yes, there’s a “switch” and the birth of an adorable moppet that seems an awful lot like Wally. And years pass and then – should we spoil the surprise? – things change between the old friends. Inception-like plot twisting it is not. However! The acting in this movie is what elevates this little movie out of the sadly subpar romcom slush pile.

First, there’s Jason Bateman. Cause, come on…God bless Jason Bateman. We’ve been wanting him to start getting lead roles practically since the days when he was on Little House on the Prairie (remember that? We sure do. And we’re not even going to get into the collected awesomeness of The Hogan Family and Teen Wolf Too). But over the last few years Bateman has carved out a nice niche for himself, playing the quick-witted quipper in movies like Juno, Hancock, and Up in the Air. And The Switch is really his movie, as he’s able to move beyond funny one-liners and display actual emotional depth. Plus, boyish good looks aside, the man is 41 years old which makes him the ideal candidate to start taking on the Tom Hanksian parts of the ’90s.

And then there’s Jennifer Aniston. We’ve never been on board with the media’s insistence on painting her as a victim or sad cougar single lady (though we’ve questioned recent career choices such as Love Happens and Bounty Hunter – though she was just about our favorite in the miserable He’s Just Not That Into You), especially when she’s as likeable and relatable as ever in The Switch. So, back off world and leave Jen alone!

Lastly, while we were — as usual — charmed by Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis’s oft-kilter contributions, the thing that really helped this movie was the casting of Thomas Robinson as little Sebastian. As The New York Times noted (in it’s not-so-positive review) “A thoroughly likable, stubbornly opinionated child who cares about global warming and animal welfare, he is the rare male movie moppet who isn’t a sports or a video-game nut. Here is a boy who doesn’t end up winning a championship at the last possible moment and who has something that resembles a real personality.” We agree with this sentiment and then some!

So do you need to rush out and spend 12 bucks on The Switch? Probably not. However if you are anything like us (and the friend we saw it with who was equally enthused) and need an easy-on-the-eyes-and-brain flick that will make you laugh and-yes!-cry, you could do a lot lot worse.

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