Films I Saw This Week 18/05/15
French director Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood holds a very rare distinction; it is home to the very best portrayal of teenagers and teenage life I have ever seen in a film. You won’t find any ‘LOL’ texts or pop culture references here, just the real emotions, fears, insecurities, and joys of teenagers. I’d be amazed if the film wasn’t heavily improvised by its excellent cast. The debuting Karidja Touré is sublime as the disillusioned girl who falls in with the wrong group and soon finds herself spiralling out of control.
If the plot sounds cliché, that’s purely my poor description, for Girlhood avoids the usual moral preaching to show the good times along with the bad. There are numerous scenes which show just how well Sciamma knows her subject; a long take of the four main girls dancing to Rihanna’s Diamonds captures a real sense of friendship and bliss, and brutal fight scenes with rival girls are shot with the sense of both uneasy giddiness felt during real schoolyard fights. Girlhood only falters in its final section, where it does descend into seedy gangland territory, and misses the youthful energy brought to it by Touré’s friends. Otherwise, it’s a realistic and often worrying look at life in the French ghetto, reminiscent of the now-twenty years old La Haine; if it isn’t entirely relatable, it’s certainly recognisable.
Despite containing the most unhinged performance of Robert De Niro’s career, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 Robert Mitchum/Gregory Peck thriller is a surprisingly inconsistent affair. When it’s good, it’s classic; almost supernatural early scenes of De Niro’s Max Cady stalking Nick Nolte’s morally questionable layer; a chilling scene between De Niro and the excellent Juliette Lewis, one of the finest scenes of Scorsese’s career; and the final, iconic boat house showdown.
While these moments in the film are undeniably great, Scorsese seems conflicted with what kind of film he wants to make, and there’s some weird mood whiplash through. Loud, over-the-top Hitchcockian suspense scenes sit alongside a horribly disturbing rape scene, and paranoid mystery thrills are followed by graphic, gratuitous murders. De Niro is outstanding in his most horrible villainous role (his character does have a point about deserving a fair trial; a more interesting film would make Max less horrific), but Scorsese lets him down slightly, by not fully getting a grasp on what film he wants Cape Fear to be.
The final film of the legendary Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an underrated gem, and a fine way for Lumet’s curtains to close. Sharp writing and a killer ensemble cast elevate this film from its admittedly small and stuffy set up. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are both outstandingly desperate and sleazy as two brothers who decide to rob their parents’ jewellery store to pay off their debts, and in supporting roles, Albert Finney is tragic as their father, Marisa Tomei is as likable as ever, and Fordonfilm’s favourite character actor Michael Shannon is menacing as the man threatening to collapse their plan.
The film’s digital look is occasionally rough and there are a few too many twists and turns towards the end, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an excellent character piece and the sort of grown up thriller that is becoming all too infrequent. It’s a testament to the strength of cinema in 2007 that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award.
It’s surprising that Kathryn’s Bigelow sci-fi flop has never become a bigger cult film. It may lack the meatheaded action of Point Break or the effortless cool of Near Dark, but Strange Days has plenty of style and invention to offer. Ralph Fiennes, struggling with an American accent but otherwise as dependable as you’d hope, plays an ex-cop who deals in virtual reality videotapes, filmed with a wonderfully-90’s headpiece that records what the user sees. The extended opening scene, showcasing a failed restaurant robbery (the video is declined because Fiennes refuses to buy snuff films, or ‘blackjacks’), is a forgotten masterpiece of action cinema, raising pulses in a way the rest of the film doesn’t quite manage.
To recite the rest of the plot would be almost impossible, because Strange Days is, sadly, almost incoherent. Set two days before the end of 1999, we see a political rapper murdered, a prostitute being pursued by two rogue police officers, Juliette Lewis as an underwritten punk singer and Fiennes’ ex-girlfriend, Angela Bassett as a tough cop out to help Fiennes, and a ‘who’s-the-killer?’ mystery that feels somewhat lacklustre. Strange Days is very enjoyable, and it’s great to see a big budget film take as many risks in both story and casting (it’s hardly a shock to know the film made about a fifth of its budget back at the box office). The opening scene is a classic, and the story is something original and genuinely interesting. At two and a half hours, however, Strange Days struggles to stay on the rails.
Since his death in 2014, my appreciation of Robin Williams as an actor has only increased. Over the years, it got harder to see his talents, due to the sheer amount of poor films he made, from wheezing family comedies (Bicentennial Man, Old Dogs) to shameless melodrama (the infamous Patch Adams). Now that Williams has passed on and we are left with his completed filmography, it’s become much easier to witness just how talented an actor he was. His creepy performances in One Hour Photo and Insomnia were terrific showcases in subtlety, while on the other side of the scale, his lovely, Oscar winning performance in Good Will Hunting is among the most heart-warming in history. His role in World’s Greatest Dad as a depressed school teacher is perhaps his last truly great showcase.
A blacker-than-tar comedy, in which Williams covers up his son’s death by auto-erotic asphyxiation by making him out to be a tortured poet, World’s Greatest Dad is a highly unusual film, managing to balance really dark subject matter and, to put it mildly, offensive humour with a surprising amount of genuine pathos. The scene in which Williams wordlessly finds his son’s body is absolutely heart-breaking, quite possibly his finest on-screen moment. While the rest of the film is patchy, sometimes too obvious or just too bleak to work as a comedy, World’s Greatest Dad deserves to be seen as yet another sign that, when he wanted to be, Robin Williams was one of the finest actors of all time.
By Harry Ford
- Posted in: Films I Saw This Week ♦ Reviews
- Tagged: 1991, 1995, 2007, 2009, 2015, albert finney, before the devil knows you're dead, best film, best performance, cape fear, classic, ethan hawke, foreign language, girlhood, james cameron, kathryn bigelow, la haine, marisa tomei, martin scorsese, michael shannon, near dark, nick nolte, overrated, phillip seymour hoffman, point break, ralph fiennes, remake, robert de niro, robin williams, sidney lumet, strange days, world's greatest dad