Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movies For Adults: A Bigger Splash, Dheepan, Maggie’s Plan, Indignation and Hell or High Water

A scene from A Bigger Splash.

The division between films made for adults and those directed at teenagers and young adults seems to be a perpetual reality in cinema today, but it’s even more apparent in the summer when the tent pole superhero movies, sequels and remakes dominate movie screens. Now, I actually go to some of those films, and I quite liked Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, typical of the consistently well-made and smart Marvel Comics adaptations – though admittedly their formulas are becoming tiresome. (Not enough real chances are taken with the characters, unlike in the comics’ source material and the generic long fight scene where our heroes end up bruised but not beaten is becoming cliché. But since A-List talents like Robert Downey Jr., James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender, among others, essay those roles, and since skilled directors like Kenneth Branagh often take on those projects, the films do make a dramatic impact.) But I also have to admit that most people over 50, such as the bulk of the students who take my film courses, have no interest in costumed caped crusaders and the like. They prefer films rife with adult situations, firmly grounded in reality and, ideally, not too sentimental in the end. Here then, are five films made just for their demographic, of varying quality, most of which say something about how we live now. (I could include here Whit Stillman’s period film Love & Friendship, which is based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. It’s certainly dialogue driven but it’s also as arid as Stilman’s other movies (Metropolitan, Barcelona) and saddled with uniformly dull, superficial performances, most notably by the film’s titular star Kate Beckinsale, lamely essaying a scheming, duplicitous widow in late 18th century England.)

A Bigger Splash follows upon I Am Love (2009), films where Italian director Luca Guadagnino has given English/Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, a strikingly unique actor who is not always utilized properly in movies, plum roles that allow her to shine in a way she rarely has been able to in the past. (She also starred in his debut feature The Protagonists (1999), which I have not seen.) In the fine I Am Love, she played a married Russian-Italian woman who throws over her secure life when she embarks on a torrid affair with her son’s best friend. That film showcased her in a sensual, powerfully emotive mode that made quite a mark. A Bigger Splash is a departure from that upfront part in that this time she plays a more recessive character who for most of the film doesn’t actually speak. As fiftyish rock star Marianne Lane (think Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders), she has damaged her vocal chords during her last tour and has been ordered by her doctor not to speak for a while so they can heal. Vacationing/hiding out in Italy, on a remote island called Pantelleria, with her younger boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), her silence is put to the test when her overbearing ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) shows up, with daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow. Marianne and Harry’s shared tumultuous history, the fraught relationship between Harry and Paul and the disquieting presence of the budding Penelope lead up to a slowly building tense and, even, dangerous situation which changes everything and, decidedly not for the better.

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash.
A Bigger Splash takes its time unfolding its tale, teasing out its story in a leisurely manner, which both approximates the lassitude of enjoying life in a resort-like environment and allows the movie to draw the viewer in as we learn more about this diverse and fascinating group of individuals, who are not what they appear to be on first meeting. Movies don’t have to rush head long to their conclusion, a lesson Hollywood would be wise to emulate more often. This is a character-driven film, not one dependent on plot. The screenplay is by David Kajganich from a story by Alain Paige, loosely based on a 1969 French film, La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), which I am not familiar with, but it plays out in English and Italian – feeling just as sexually free and frank as any Gallic film would. (The protagonists often lie around nude outdoors, as Europeans certainly would, but it’s something so casually depicted that those used to coy American movies, might be taken aback.) But A Bigger Splash is not about sex, even though that plays an important part in the proceedings. It’s fully about love, commitment and truth as Harry’s reappearance on the scene forces Marianne to contemplate her relationship with Paul and the fractured trajectory of her rocky life and career.

At first, I had my doubts about Fiennes’ performance, amusing as it often was. His ridiculous, spastic dance to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a hoot but there was also a self-consciousness to his performance that seemed contrived. Yet, when you consider that Harry is always aware of what he is doing and saying and knows full well when he’s gone too far and pushed someone’s’ buttons, the calculated nature of his acting makes perfect sense. And opposite Marianne, whom he knows the best, he relaxes more as she is so utterly familiar to him. Similarly, at the outset Dakota Johnson seemed not to be emoting at all as Penelope, appearing bland to a fault. However, the young girl she is portraying seems not to know much about the world, despite her provocative display of sexuality, and her overly laid back, disinterested mien is thus realistic for someone her age who is still trying to suss out the adults, including her father, around her.

Swinton, however, excels in A Bigger Splash; her acting is beyond question. With mostly just her expression, she still manages to transmit a strong sexual presence, a passionate nature and more than a little anger at what she perceives Harry’s wrongs regarding her but also a self-loathing in that she still has feelings for the guy. (He can be likeable, even charming.) It’s a complex, nuanced performance, nicely balanced with that of Schoenaerts, who, pleasingly underplays the role of Paul, the quiet, reflective and sane man, who nevertheless betrays an uncertainty around Harry, who tries to bait him whenever and however he can. You can see why Marianne would fall for Paul and you believe how well they fit together.

I was struck mostly in A Bigger Splash by how genuinely grown up the whole movie felt, proffering as it does mostly messed up folks doing some pretty stupid, appalling things – in short, behaving the way so many of us do, and yet, Guadagnino’s deceptively tight direction – not a shot is wasted – still keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering what is going to happen next. And all without a superhero power in sight.

Claudine Vinasithamby and Antonythasan Jesuthasan in Dheepan.

At first glance, the connections between Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) and his earlier crime dramas – 2009's Un prophète (A Prophet) and 2005's De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), tough movies that delved into the rough and dangerous French criminal underworld – are not at all apparent. Dheepan tells the story of Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger soldier who, to escape a refugee camp after his country’s civil war ends, impersonates a dead man named Dheepan. With a 9-year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and a woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) in tow – both of whom he has just met in the camp – he  moves to France, where the trio poses as a family. (Dheepan’s actions in the civil war would prevent him from emigrating under his own moniker.) Dheepan quickly is given a job as a caretaker in a suburb of Paris and attempts to settle into a hopefully, quieter and calmer life than the tumultuous one he has left behind.

The first hour of Dheepan is quite exquisite, often letting the pictures tell the story, without dialogue. Through Dheepan's eyes we see a familiar but fresh take on French life, including the presence of the drug-dealing gangs which essentially run the housing estate where Dheepan works. This new world is so strange to him, but he seems to be getting by, even slowly developing feelings for the woman who is pretending to be his spouse. Underplayed, superbly acted by the trio at the center of the action, Dheepan promises a subtle take on immigrant life, attitudes and experiences in the West, a supremely topical subject in today's Europe.

The film, however, takes a different, deliberate and somewhat wrongheaded turn about halfway through, one which renders it a lot more conventional than I would have liked. (It was written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré.) It’s not the sudden appearance of a Sri Lankan general, a war criminal whom Dheepan served under back home – though that plot point is problematically predicable in its own right. (It’s pretty much dispensed with as soon as it’s introduced anyway.) Thei issues lie with what happens afterwards as Dheepan confronts the gang, which has pretty much ignored him till now, allowing the film to slip into a violent dénouement, topped off by (an unconvincing) fantastical coda. Oh, the ending is effective enough but the more riveting tale of Dheepan and his budding relationship with Illayaal and Yilani seems to have been tossed over in favour of the more obvious fireworks. (I’m quite surprised that this relatively accessible movie won the Cannes Film Festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or, as that prize of late has more often gone to pretentious twaddle like The White Ribbon, Amour, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and The Tree of Life.) Audiard’s movies are always worth seeing but like his previous movie, Rust and Bone (a short story stretched out to a feature-length movie), Dheepan is not really thought through.

Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig in Maggie's Plan.

I love Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) but Maggie’s Plan is a pallid comedic vehicle which lets her and her fans down hard. She’s playing the same sexy, quirky character (think a young Diane Keaton overlaid with Gerwig’s own unique off kilter sensuality) we’ve seen before – Maggie Harden, a business director dying to have a child and seeking someone to donate their sperm for just that endeavour –  and writer-director Rebecca Miller’s screenplay, wherein Maggie busts up professor John Harding’s marriage (Ethan Hawke), weds him, only to realize she’s made a big mistake, is a provocative enough concept. But Miller’s direction is flat – her New York setting only reminds you of Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, While We're Young), Gerwig’s real life partner, who’s much more successfully tilled the same soil – and she doesn’t really know what to do with her characters. Any movie that wastes the likes of Bill Hader, Wallace Shawn (in what amounts to a glorified cameo role) and, especially, Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), a rich talent who’s generally not given or taken good parts in the movies, doesn’t have much going for it. And what was Miller thinking in making Prof. Harding’s professor ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), German? The way Georgette comes across is highly caricatured; it’s likely the worst acting the usually reliable Moore has ever done. Hawke’s would-be novelist becomes less interesting as the film goes on and eventually Gerwig’s Maggie wears thin, too, though she tries her level best to remain enticing. She’s been on a roll lately, but Maggie’s Plan is a creative glitch in what is certain to continue to be a very successful career.

Logan Lerman in Indignation.

Philip Roth’s 2008 short novel Indignation was a dread-inducing and highly disturbing 50s set drama about Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy who, to escape his over protective father, encamps to a WASPy Ohio college where his father’s worst nightmares about his son’s fate in a dangerous world come tragically true. The movie adaption of the book, by producer/writer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) making his directing debut, pretty much removes all of the book’s surrealistic elements and offers up, instead, a pedestrian depiction of its time period which is as conventional as movies come. Schamus simply doesn’t have the chops behind the camera to bring the past convincingly onscreen – his war scenes seem particularly fake –  and the changes he’s made as a screenwriter, including adding an unnecessary romantic coda to the movie, fail to bring Roth’s pungent, dark novel to life. Logan Lerman as Marcus is fine but he’s not nearly as intense –  the most intense person she’s ever met –  as his would-be girlfriend Olivia (Sarah Gadon) puts it or as Roth wrote him to be. (Lerman's Marcus is certainly highly serious and contemplativem but not intense.) Only Gadon as the fragile, disturbed Olivia, who is riveting, approximates the strengths of Roth’s work. Otherwise it’s all ho-hum.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water makes no bones about being about the people who are, increasingly, turning to Donald Trump –  minus the racism, however. Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, it’s the story of two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and ex-con Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) who carry out a series of small bank robberies in West Texas for reasons beyond simple greed. Up against them is canny Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), about to retire, who is determined to bring them down before he hangs up his guns.

Interestingly, it’s Toby, who has never committed a crime in his life who comes up with the idea. He’s been poor all his life, as he declaims late in the film, and wants to do better for his two sons and for his bitter ex-wife who has no faith in him at all. In short, he’s one of Trump’s less educated Americans, with few job prospects in present day America and living in an environment of depressed towns and ramshackle homes, not including those repossessed by the banks. They’re the main villains here and while I have no use for them myself, there’s not one scene in the movie that has the emotional power of the one in Arthur Penn’s depression-era drama Bonnie & Clyde, wherein the bank robbers let a sharecropping family and their helper shoot out the doors and windows of their repossessed home. Hell or High Water is just too obvious about its theme – hell, all those hanging signs in the movie reminding you of debt and loans owed tell you that, ad nauseam – and while we get that the towns the Howards rob are depressed, they seem almost bereft of all life. (Hey, if they have a bank branch, they should look more populated than they do.)

What does work in the movie are the performances. Bridges is predictably good but so is Gil Birmingham as Bridge’s Native American-Mexican partner Alberto Parker, who stoically endures Hamilton’s mildly racist barbs that don’t disguise the deep affection the two men have for each other. Ben Foster, who has a tendency to overact, is fine as Tanner, an excitable, reckless sort who will go to the wall for his younger brother. (I totally believed Pine and Foster as siblings.) And as the man who sets the plot in motion, Pine, displaying not a whit of the braggadocio of his Captain James t. Kirk, keeps you watching in a recessive performance that is highly compelling. His scenes opposite Bridges are especially (and quietly) powerful. And while Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t offer up strong characterization – the actors are better than the material here – his story doesn’t play out predictably. Mackenzie’s direction is also atmospheric enough to, at least partially, overcome the movie’s sledgehammer approach to the issues it raises. In short, Hell or High Water is hardly the masterpiece it’s been called by some but it’s certainly potent enough.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on groundbreaking movies in the fall. He will also be lecturing on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, beginning on Sept. 8.

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