It’s a cliche to say, when a director of commercials and music videos helms his or her first feature film, that the result resembles a video extended to feature length–and certainly not one that’s always true, as the debuts of, among others, Ridley Scott (The Duellists) and David Fincher (Alien 3) have shown. But cliches aren’t necessarily inaccurate, and in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, Fredrik Bond has come up with a product that follows the aesthetic of his work with artists like Moby and Sigur Ros, rather than having any independent life of its own. The result is visually arresting at times, but silly and inert as drama.
Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf), at a loss after the death of his mother (Melissa Leo), flies to Bucharest at her ghostly behest (don’t ask), and is immediately embroiled in intrigue when the man sitting next to him on the flight dies in mid-air. When he lands, he finds out that the man has a gorgeous cellist daughter, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), and soon after that, he sees Gabi embroiled with evil gangster Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen, doing his James Bond villain thing), and we’re off.
The plot, such as it is, contains little more than the usual noir piffle, but Matt Drake’s script isn’t the point of the movie; Bond cares far more about his images and non-stop stylistic touches. The movie is narrated by the genial, garrulous off-screen presence of John Hurt (so we’ll know Bond’s seen Lars von Trier’s Mandalay, where Hurt served the same function), and every shot is attention-getting, from the opening sequence of Gabi, at Nigel’s order, shooting a slow-motion, upside-down Charlie who’s suspended over the water, i.e. his “necessary death” (and–SPOILER ALERT, I guess–if you think that’s not going to turn out to be a cheat, you’ve never seen a movie before), to the unnecessarily frenzied partying of Charlie with his new friends Carl (Rupert Grint, with a hard-on sequence that wouldn’t have been acceptable at Hogwarts) and Luke (James Buckley). All of this is scored within an inch of its life, with contributions by Bond’s pals Moby and Sigur Ros, among others, and it ends up feeling like a long night in that club that was cool 6 months ago.
Somewhat remarkably, given all the “look at me!” directorial nonsense around her, Wood manages to be very good as Gabi, and one presumes Grint was looking for a role that let him be very different than the way audiences have perceived him for a decade, and he found one. The rest of the cast fares less well. LeBeouf, although not egregiously miscast this time around, shows us once again that he can’t really carry a film; there’s something thin and insubstantial about his presence, and despite all the stubble, bloodshot eyes and bad behavior, he still seems like he should be starring in movies set in high school. Mikkelsen, a superb actor, and Til Schweiger as his henchman, are so wasted as the bad guys that they might as well be in a Jason Statham picture.
Bond is an accomplished technician, and Roman Vasyanov’s intrusive photography (he also shot End of Watch and The East), along with the crowded soundtrack, are almost certainly just what he wanted. But continuing to do, as a feature filmmaker, what he’s been doing for years, except this time for 108 minutes, isn’t the formula for success. The only thing Necessary Death makes essential is a Tylenol.
THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE
Toy’s House wasn’t the only movie at this year’s Sundance about boys fending for themselves. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete depicts a less voluntary version of the effort to keep going without adults, set in a much more hostile environment. George Tillman Jr’s film, written by Michael Starrbury, is set in a Brooklyn housing project, where the smart but struggling African-American Mister (not a nickname, and played by the very gifted young actor Skylan Brooks) and his younger, shyer Korean-American companion Pete (Ethan Dizon) share the sad bond of being sons of drug-addicted prostitutes who work for the local pimp and pusher Kris (Anthony Mackie); Mister’s mother Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), in marginally better shape than Pete’s, sometimes takes care of the younger boy as well, although “takes care of” really means Mister is reluctantly responsible for his surrogate brother.
One day, Gloria is arrested, and although freed on bail, she doesn’t come back. Mister is desperate not to be shipped off to the local group home, and he and Pete hide from the cops. After that, they spend a long, hot summer trying to keep food in the refrigerator, and for that matter keep the electricity for the refrigerator on, without letting any of the adults around them know what’s really happening.
As long as Mister and Pete concentrates on its title characters, it’s a strong, moving story. The growing relationship between the two boys is powerful, and the script even gets away with the conceit that Mister, a surprisingly sophisticated film buff (he’s memorized passages from Fargo) is determined to land a part on a TV pilot for a show set in Beverly Hills. The scene of his audition is one of the movie’s most piercing.
Where the film gets into trouble is with its adult characters and their interaction with the boys. Gloria is a hackneyed version of a heroin-addicted prostitute, and although Hudson works very hard to make the story’s too-neat ending work, and Tillman shoots the scene with as much restraint as possible, they can’t bring it off. Another character, Alice (Jordin Sparks), a former neighbor who escaped the projects thanks to a relationship with a wealthy man, but who still has fondness for Mister, never really makes any sense, and her fate is so melodramatic that it spins the whole movie off its axis (it’s like a twist out of Precious). There’s an inexplicably mean-spirited storeowner (Ken Maharaj) who appears to literally have the only shop selling food anywhere near the projects, a housing cop (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale) whose menace is the set-up for a climactic reveal, and a sentimentally-drawn homeless veteran (Jeffrey Wright). Another pop-eyed denizen of the project seems like a background character pulled from a Spike Lee movie. Mackie, as the pimp, is the only one who suggests layers below his stock figure, flickers of compassion and shrewdness showing through his massive beard.
Tillman is an experienced Hollywood director, with pictures like Soul Food, Men of Honor, Notorious and Faster to his credit, so Inevitable Defeat is much slicker than the usual Sundance drama, with confident photography by Reed Morano (her work includes Frozen River and Little Birds), and a score by Mark Isham and the film’s executive producer Alicia Keys.
The defeat of Inevitable Defeat wasn’t inevitable, but the movie never quite finds its path, mixing incisive, emotional moments with an assortment that are obvious and contrived. As a whole, the film is earnest and well-intentioned yet never cohesive.
THE LOOK OF LOVE
It just wouldn’t be a film festival without something from Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom isn’t at the very top of the film director pantheon, but he’s respected enough that his projects have been in near-constant festival demand for most of his two decade-long career, and one way or another they tend to be included in a line-up somewhere, whether they’re wonderful (The Trip, 24 Hour Party People), interesting failures (9 Songs, The Killer Inside Me), or not very good at all (A Summer In Genoa).
Winterbottom’s Sundance contribution this year was The Look of Love, and despite the presence of Steve Coogan, who’s starred in The Trip, 24 Hour Party People and other Winterbottom highlights, it would probably help to be British to appreciate this one. Look is the biography of Paul Raymond, a historical figure from late 1950s London and beyond whose name is fairly meaningless here, but who appears to have been the English equivalent of our Hugh Hefner. Like Hefner, Raymond pioneered the rise of pornography into local pop culture, starting with a string of Soho clubs that featured nude dance revues (and some extremely lucrative real estate investments), and expanding into (semi) legitimate theatre and increasingly explicit magazines. Raymond was also like Hefner in that he became the public face of the new sexuality, appearing on television, mixing with celebrities (he claimed his apartment had been decorated by Ringo Starr) and otherwise putting himself squarely up front.
The first half of Look of Love is buoyant, tracking Raymond’s rise, and his open marriage with tolerant wife Jean (Anna Friel), who asks for the details when he comes in at dawn after a night in some showgirl’s bed. She’s tolerant, at least, until Raymond falls for Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), who becomes his partner in every sense, appearing in his nude shows and becoming the main sex columnist of his Playboy-like magazine. It all turns dark in the second half, as showbiz bios and 1960s stories almost inevitably do–no sooner does someone mention the word “cocaine” then everything goes downhill. Raymond’s relationship with his children (by Jean) was particularly troubled, with essentially no contact with one of his sons, and a very difficult life for his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots), who had drug and other problems.
At least for an American viewer, Look of Love treads very familiar territory, and without the kind of insight that would make the journey worthwhile. Matt Greenhaigh’s script feels accurate, and it tries to show Raymond’s selfishness as well as his good-humored exuberance, but it doesn’t dig very deeply. Look is a well-made, intelligent piece of work–it’s far better than the awkward, misshapen Lovelace, the festival’s other porn biography–but in the end, it’s another drama about the excesses of the 1960s and 70s catching up with those who made the mistake of enjoying them. Coogan gives a diligent, well-considered performance that lacks the brilliance of his more improvisational work, and Poots can’t do much as the film’s relegated tragic figure, but Friel and especially Egerton liven things up when they’re center-screen.
Unlike most of Winterbottom’s gritty work, Look of Love is an exercise in high (if deliberately excessive) style. Hubert Taczanowski’s photography, Stephanie Collie’s costumes and Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design are all candy colors and opulent interiors (plus, of course, naked women), and as the title indicates, the music leans heavily on Burt Bacharach tunes and the like. The movie is always pleasant enough to watch, it’s just unexceptional.
The thing about Michael Winterbottom is that he never stops working, and his films never stop being screened at festivals, so no doubt his next project will be unveiled at Cannes, or Toronto, or the next Sundance. Look of Love is one of his more forgettable works, and soon enough it will slip our minds and we’ll move on to his next.
Touchy Feely offers the gifted writer/director Lynn Shelton taking herself very, very seriously for the most part. It turns out to be a less effective mode for her than those of her recent small-scale comedies Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, which had marvelously well-judged tones. (In her more mainstream work, she recently directed a hilarious New Girl episode that aired a couple of weeks ago.)
Although the dialogue in Touchy Feely is probably semi-improvised by the actors, as that in Shelton’s other features have been, the film as a whole feels far more organized and deliberate. The story concerns a curious, and unexplained, series of parallel events that affect two middle-aged siblings: while New Age masseuse Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) abruptly develops a physical aversion to touching the flesh of others, her more conventional dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais) just as suddenly finds himself with a magic touch that seems to cure the temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ) causing blinding pain in the heads and jaws of some of his patients.
These changes disrupt both their lives. Abby is unable to perform her job, and she begins to become estranged from her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy); in a further complication, Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) has a crush on Jesse. Meanwhile, Paul finds himself an increasingly beloved figure, and starts to be attracted to the kind of non-medical healing he’d always ridiculed, in the person of Bronwyn (Allison Janney), Abby’s Reiki therapist.
Touchy Feely is a much more abstract film than Shelton’s other work, and in some ways it’s more ambitious. The photography by Benjamin Kasulke (who’s shot all of her features) is luminous, and the very close-up shots of human skin achieve a mix of beauty and almost frightening otherworldliness that expresses Abby’s visceral disconnection from flesh. There are lovely, apt songs on the soundtrack, and the sound design as a whole is complex. Despite all that, Touchy has very little of the characterizational detail that made Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister distinctive. Although there’s a suggestion that Abby’s problems are a reaction to her decision to move in with Jesse, her issues with touch seem imposed on her, rather than something arising from her character, and that’s even more true of Paul’s healing touch. Presumably Shelton means to present themes of interconnectivity and the meaning of different forms of contact, but none of it comes together, and the movie trails off into a happy but vague ending.
All the actors in Touchy Feely are excellent, but they’re restrained in a way the stars of Shelton’s other films haven’t been, and they have limited impact. DeWitt, in particular, is less complicated and interesting than she was able to be in Your Sister’s Sister. Pais fares better because he has a more comic part, and Page does well in the limited role of his frustrated daughter, as does Janney as the therapist.
Touchy Feely comes across as an exceptionally heartfelt piece of work, yet it lives up all too well to its title, lacking the sharp insight of Shelton’s other films, and groping for a hazy spiritual warmth that it never quite achieves. It’s so smoothed out that it has no edges at all.