Up In The Air

It’s quite hard to dislike George Clooney. Especially his cool liberalism (unless, I guess, you’re on the political right) and that natural suave charm. Somehow he even manages to escape the potential charge of hypocrisy in the light of his outward concern for humanitarian issues as he takes a pay-cheque promoting coffee machines from a company whose track record in that area is less than spotless. Artistically he makes it all look so easy – whether it’s adverts, crowd-pleasing Oceans 11, 12, 13… or something more meditative or thoughtful.

Up In The Air appears then, at the outset,seems to be something of an open goal. And so it is, especially as behind the camera we have Jason Reitman, the director of superb, witty, subtle charming Juno. Clooney plays a man who flies around the states, making a living from sacking people on behalf of other companies who buy the services of his company. He’s prides himself on bringing the human touch; and he loves the forced politeness of the airline, hotel and car rental companies whom he chooses to use as homes on the road. He’s the ultimate man with no connections and no commitments. It’s no great surprise then, that film turns on challenges to his world – from his sister’s wedding, a woman he has a fling with on the road and a new employee seeking to bring a new way of working from the office, sacking by video-conference.

Clooney delivers the sort of performance you expect Clooney to deliver, and it’s no less enjoyable for that. The dark comedy just works in tone; the script has a similar (though adult, not adolescent) sharpness to Juno, and the rest of the cast are fine without being outstanding.

It’s good, though a long way from great. Why? Because, I think, it seems to get stuck at a half-way point between seeking to say something about work, culture and relationships at one extreme or a simple, darker-shade of comedy. It’s ends up being convincing at neither end of the spectrum, and what could have been a cleverly ambiguous ending becomes a cop-out. The film stares into an abyss, and gets so hypnotised by what it sees there that it’s frozen, head-hanging over the edge, unable to jump or back away.

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A Prophet: Formed In The Crucible

Why is it that sub-titled films are such a hard sell to English speaking audiences? In The Prophet we have a gritty, gripping crime/prison drama with more than a hint of Scorsese in its influences. While it will probably do well, it’s not going to tear up any trees in the box office  – largely because it’s spoken in French and the audience actually have to glance at the bottom of the screen to get the dialogue. Well it’s their loss. This is a straight-up great thriller, character study and examination of what makes us the people we become.

We join a scared, vulnerable 19-year old (Malik El Djebena, played by the brilliant newcomer Tahar Rahim), serving a 6-year stretch for attacking a police-officer, as he’s going up to the adult prison from the juvenile detention center. If ever there was a boy in man’s world, it’s Malik. He’s out of his depth,  a study in fear and naked vulnerability. He clocks the gangster mastermind who runs the prison, but keeps his distance. It’s a fruitless task. Needing a potential informant new to the prison out of the way, the mastermind puts young Malik in the ultimate human dilemma – kill the informant, or be killed. In the short term – half an hour or so of screen time – this triggers a superbly portrayed moral and personal panic and as a good a portrayal of the impact of of taking a life on the would-be killer as you are likely to see.

What that event triggers for the rest of the film, however, is even more brilliant and gripping. Set-against the shifting, seething racial tension at the heart of most globalised countries, we see a boy turning into a man. But what sort of man? Is he mad? Bad? Wise as a serpent? Innocent as dove? It’s brilliantly put-together and at times so tense you can hardly breathe. In the film’s final, subtly moving images, we are left to question the effects on the wider community Malik will rejoin as he leaves the prison. Does he leave his prison identity behind him? Or is he irrevocably changed? How can he not be  – are we not all fundamentally shaped and changed by all we do every day? These are the issues this films grapples with – in the context of the biggest possible of events (killing), and one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity (ethnic).

This then, is a film about the crucible that forms the personality. It poses the question do we ever really know anybody (Malik, each other, ourselves)? Does the central character ever know himself? He seems to change and reveal aspects of his identity so often  that he never knows where he stands; or is that just survival? That A Prophet does all this in the form of a gripping thriller about real people is verging on the miraculous. It left me reflecting that the only way to know myself, and that’s to know the one who formed me. Not bad for a thriller, that.

The Road: Urgent, terrible beauty

More filming the unfilmable. That is, unfilmable and unsellable if audiences depend on lazy and quick judgements. Cormac McCarthy’s novels are hot film property just now after the Oscar success of No Country For Old Men. In case you didn’t know, McCarthy is one of America’s greatest novelists. His territory is that of struggle against nameless and seemingly over-bearing suffering. The lazy and quick assessment of his work is that is bleak and depressing. Certainly it has that appearance, and his prose itself encourages such a view.  Such an assessment is though, shallow. There’s always hope and the possibility of resistance – McCarthy always seems to be saying that there’s a point to resisting evil even if evil’s victory seems inevitable. In fact it’s a thousand little victories that may lead up to one bigger one. Love, goodness, honesty – these are things worth living and dying for. That’s actually a profoundly hopeful message, and one that’s often either ignored or misunderstood as cheap by those who would prefer a more ‘honest’ total bleakness (quite what point there is in such people as the latter in engaging with any art of any sort is a philosophical contradiction they overlook).

All of that of course makes convincing people to come and see a film in which the world is ending and there’s no getting out of it, no last-minute rescue, a difficult one to make. Also difficult to deal with is the expectations of all those who fall in love with the stark and terrible beauty of McCarthy’s prose. While it should be true that we view adaptations of books not as versions of the printed word but independent interpretations of a text that is ‘out there’ and not confined to the printed page (as, in fact, McCarthy himself does), book-lovers rarely do. We often get hung up on incidentals, forgetting that it is impossible to be truly faithful to a 300 page book, let alone one as short as Where The Wild Things Are. If you miss that with The Road, then you miss a great deal. I loved the book, and the film works well. It’s not a genuinely great film in the same way that the book is a genuinely great book, but then that was always going to be unlikely. Where, though, the book has the   printed word, the film has beautifully shot empty devastation as well as a haunting and entirely appropriate score from Nick Cave (who else?).

What it also has, which is essential, is an utterly convincing, touching and beautiful relationship between the central and nameless father and son who are walking down the road of the title in the hope of reaching the coast, where food, community and life may be. Viggo Mortensen is, of course, perfect for this role; the son – who has come out of nowhere – is utterly astonishing in a part that calls more out of him than is strictly reasonable in terms of what he sees and experiences. His is a journey into the very worst sort of adulthood, and the very best sort of love that causes tears to well and a song of hope to form on the lips of all those with eyes to see and ears to truly hear.

I guess all the problems this film faces can be summed up in one word which so often disappoints optimism and scuppers hope: expectations. It’s no-one’s fault – it’s just that the book is truly extraordinary; in its genre it is free of cliché, and achieves a depth and poignancy that little else even comes close to. Even since its publication in 2006 it has left such legacy that it is impossible to live up to. Such is the committment to the material and humility of director John Hillcoat and team that they seem willing to live with the disappointment thy will inevitably seed for many who have either read the book or heard talk of its power. They shouldn’t have to live with that, though. Cormac McCarthy has been quoted as saying the film is unlike anything he has ever seen – he was so moved by it he was silent for 20 minutes after. Like the author, we should lay aside prejudice, easy judgement and preconceptions and see this for what it truly is: brilliant, beautiful, real, urgent and hopeful. It’s a story of its time and for its time that has become even more prophetically important since the book’s publication. All who are concerned about the present and the future morally, spiritually, politically and environmentally should both see and read this.

It is important. It is real. It is now in way that doesn’t bow to fashion and mode in the wrong sense. Engage, before it’s too late.

Nine

A film about a character in a film, which is really an autobiographical one about the director. That’s not the most appealing set-up, I agree. It makes you think that its full of post-modern navel gazing and empty symbolism. Well that would be harsh. Forget about the roots of the film (click on the link above if you’re really interested), and what you have is an enjoyable but at best morally dubious musical.

Chicago, also from director Rob Marshall, inexplicably became an awards darling. Though originally a huge show, I felt that never really captured the phyiscality of the dancing, and hence all you were left with were some decent songs and a morally story told by good-looking women in various states of undress. Nine is less well-known, generally speaking. This works to its advantage – the only expectations I went in with were ones as a result of Chicago. The positives are more or less all in the cast: it’s the very definition of heavy-weight; and it is true that there isn’t a single one of them who is out of their depth with singing, dancing and acting. Led, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who glides though the whole thing with the class and grace you expect.

All of which makes you wonder what Rob Marshall said to get all these people involved, and how someone like Judi Dench really feels about it. There’s much that’s good here, and much to enjoy, but for the second Rob Marshall musical in a row I’m left wondering why the camera had to spend so long lingering on the curves and skimpy costumes of the many women in the cast. It’s difficult to say this is just a lustful, lascivious piece – there’s a hint of real subtlety and intelligence at work here. But I can’t shake the discomfort – and once may just be an accident; for this, the second time, in two musicals you have to wonder what’s really in Rob Marshall’s heart. Good stuff, but leaving an aftertaste I can’t get rid of a week later.

Of grazed knees and open skies

How do you adapt the unadaptable? That’s a challenge that an increasing number of film-makers are willing to take on in these days if increasing technological advances. Lord Of The Rings set a pretty high benchmark, and recent years have seen a slew of films that have taken on the challenge of bringing to the screen what was previously thought to be impossible. It’s not just adaptations – The Matrix broke new ground on action sequences. James Cameron said it took him years to develop the technology to show what was in his head – sadly he didn’t seem to realise that a sense of wonder is more than just impressive visuals.

If anything’s un-filmable, then it may well be the classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. That’s partly because you mess with a much loved children’s book at your peril, and also down to the length. Just how do you make any sort of meaningful film out of an original with so few words in it? The answer is you take a director who understands the need to escape from claustrophobic and limiting environments (Spike Jonze), a screenwriter who’s creative with rhythm and syntax (author David Eggars), and don’t get too wedded to special effects. The wild things here are large furry monsters brilliantly voiced – especially by the inspired casting of James Gandolfini; the boy is simply brilliant – all wild, boyish exploration and tears.

The film does tell a story of a sort, but it’s more about evoking a mood of childhood – watching it I could feel again the warm tears associated with the grazed knees of games enthusiastically played, the exciting possibilities of wild spaces and open skies and the constant wish to escape somewhere more exciting. This film evokes all and more beautifully – and as such, this is no children’s film. It’s for anyone who is or has been a child. Like Avatar it’s aiming at a wide market. Like Avatar, it’s trying to put on screen what many might naturally shy away from. Like Avatar, story isn’t the most important thing about it. Unlike Avatar, the emotions and themes it evokes are more deep, wondrous and beautiful than anything in the film people are putting on a new set of glasses to watch. You don’t need new glasses to see things differently with Wild Things. James Cameron should have taken lessons.

Outliers: The Making of Genius

I originally said that this blog was going to be about movies and other stuff. There hasn’t been much ‘other stuff’ so far (OK, 1 post!), so I’m aiming to boost that a little now. Here’s the first in that category, with a quick look at Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers who has both influenced culture and is very much a product of it. A writer for the esteemed New Yorker magazine,  hard to imagine Gladwell achieving such wide-spread success in other eras. His first book The Tipping Point, was one of the big non-fiction publishing stories of the last decade. To many it came out nowhere to quickly become part of popular and political culture – rock stars, environmentalists and politicians were all dropping the phrase into speech and conversation. It was one of those accessible, eye-opening books that was genuinely convincing and intriguing; but it’s fair to say that it’s success owed much to the ‘infotainment’ culture contributed to by 24-hour news channels and opinionated bloggers. His second book was less eye-catching and, frankly, slightly more dull. Blink attempted to get inside the moments when we instinctively know, feel or sense something that turns out to be reliable and true – it was one of those books that always felt like it was on the runway and never really took off.

So in the post-Christmas haze I turned my attention to Outliers, published in 2008 and on my reading list more or less since then. The book’s aim is to understand what leads to someone being outstanding in a given field – and as you might have come to expect from Gladwell, it’s iconoclastic, verges on the convoluted and is not a little controversial. It’s the sort of book that will suffer for not being his first – The Tipping Point deserved success, but got it partly because it came out of nowhere. Now we know Gladwell’s game, so we are more inured to it – but Outliers is potentially both more explosive and influential.

It starts off on the sort of well-argued but ultimately uncontroversial ground that I remember my mother talking about to explain my relative lack of sporting success at school (though it’s true that’s probably got more to do with general sporting incompetence). He goes into some depth (as well as breadth) to demonstrate that in addition to natural talent, the achievement of sporting success for an individual pretty much depends on when you’re born. Many people may have thought of this before, but no-one has expressed it so convincingly and in such an accessible fashion. It’s as the book progresses that things get more explosive, demonstrating the luck as well as the talent in the background of the Bill Gates story or (more potentially inflammatory), why people from some cultures might be better at maths than others. Most gripping was the story of the turn-around in safety record of Korean Air – the roots of what turned out to be a deep-seated problem that had its roots in an endemic and in many ways honourable aspect of national culture, and how that was addressed.

Frankly, in the wrong hands this could be dangerous material. It’s the sort of stuff that some may bend and twist to more sinister ends of one race’s alleged superiority over another. Gladwell doesn’t have any time for that, of course; and that’s made extra clear from the book’s best segment – a brilliant Epilogue that looks at his own family’s history and what led him to the point he is now at. He undercuts the potential misuse of this material by turning the analysis carefully but entertainingly on himself.

Such a tactic, of course, may not be enough to stop somebody taking passages out of context and turning it to their own, more uncomfortable, ends. Should Gladwell worry about that? Probably not – that’s the role of wise leadership and community accountability; we all have a duty to watch carefully for the signs and seeds of prejudice and evil. That shouldn’t, though, stop us taking Gladwell’s lessons on. We won’t, of course: as a culture we are too closely wedded to the idea that hard work and ability will get us through – salvation and success by our own works. Sadly it’s not that simple. In addition, there’s another debate to be had about what we define success as. That’s not an area Gladwell gets in to, and to be fair it isn’t his purview here. Ironically, it’s the book’s thesis itself that helps explain why the ideas at the center of it most probably won’t be widely taken on. It is something that lies more deeply within human nature. We like to think that if we have the talent then that will be enough, with hard work to get us through. It plays to human pride and self-sufficiency. Gladwell shows us it’s not the simple, and his conclusions really should be more widely read and applied; luck, access to facilities, space and time to dream and create, a nurturing and creative culture – all need to be in place to for success to occur. The question that leaves us with is this: do we have the courage for the journey this would lead us on, the humility to act on it and the vigilance to protect us from those of dubious motives?

Read and enjoy Outliers. It’s entertaining and stimulating. How, though, do we go to the next stage?