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.

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.