Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Bones of Hollowood

It is to Sofia Coppola's credit that she makes films about the excessive privilege she seems so well accustomed to instead of professing any kind of concern about, say, the poor, and so she must be criticised or praised accordingly.

In the case of her latest film, unfortunately, there is very little to praise. In fact, the very first image of Somewhere pretty much sums up 90% of the movie: a black Ferrari speeds round and round a dirt track, the camera perfectly still and letting the car roar in and out of frame. This happens about five times and there are no credits, just the monotonous sound of the car and a view of the desert outside Los Angeles.

Then Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) gets out of his car and we can see that he's no flashy dresser. In fact, he's going to wear the same old boots, jeans and various check shirts throughout this film. Unlike the kind of actor who has come up through the ranks of college and theatre productions, he was clearly one of those good-luck stories of going to a film audition for a laugh, getting the part and becoming spectacularly rich and famous.

When an actor asks him about Method acting at one of those interminable La La Land parties, Johnny can scarcely answer him, except to say something like hang in there. Women throw themselves at him but he is so bored that he falls asleep with his head between a woman's thighs.

If there are such moments of droll humour, they are very few and far between. A lot of the film is made up of Johnny sitting on the couch in his famous artist's hotel and smoking. And drinking a beer. And lighting another cigarette.

Or his head is covered in latex for a special effect. He sits on a chair, with only his nostrils showing, and the camera slowly, ever so slowly, tracks in on his monstrous white face while he breathes. The whole idea is that when he sees the final result, himself as an ugly old man, it will spark an existential crisis, but just how laboured does it have to be?

What might have saved him is his lovely daughter, played by the delightfully natural Elle Fanning, who is only tagged along when he is more or less given no other choice but to comply. And when he does half-heartedly apologise to her about maybe not being the most responsible kind of father around, his voice is drowned out by the publicity helicopter droning behind him.

On and on it goes, until he finally realises that his life is - hello - empty.

Coppola seems to be making an homage to her father and especially his Italian contemporaries' existential movies of the Seventies. The only problem is they did it much better and that was then, this is now and the rich still have to earn our sympathy - just as it ever was.

At the very other end of the scale in every respect is Winter's Bone, also by a woman director, Debra Granik.

Unlike Johnny Marco, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) does not have the luxury of money or time. Her father is a drug dealer who had been caught and posted his house as collateral to get him out on bail. Now he's disappeared and if Ree can't find him she and her mother and two younger siblings are out on the bones of their arses in a week's time.

The mother has retreated into herself or maybe her brains are just fried by the kind of stuff her husband cooks, so it's all down to 17-year-old Ree.

The setting is the grim Ozark mountain region of southern Missouri and always in the wintry background guns are being fired. They could be hunters' rifles, or they could be drug deals gone wrong. If the mountains are beautiful then people's yards are full of broken caravans and disused tyres.

Usually a film about something that is off-screen doesn't work; here it works a treat, just adding to the menace and uncertainty of Ree's predicament. We actually want to see the father and have him held to account.

But no one will tell Ree where her father is and Granik manages to persuade us that as mean and nasty as these Deliverance-type folks are, the women as much as the men, there is also something innately decent about them.

It's a paradox that is beautifully exemplified by Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a nasty piece of work on the edge of excessive violence and genuine pity. When she tells him that she's never really trusted him he replies that's because she's a smart girl.

At one stage she is so desperate that she decides to join the army for the $40 000 inducement, but she's too young and the recruiting officer gives her some surprisingly good advice. So not even that ironic course of action will provide a way out.

And so there's the heavy metal music in the background, the forest settings of slasher movies as well as their implements: axes and an electric saw. But it is the realism of the story that makes this film and its final discovery so chilling, even if the ending is a little drawn out.

Winter's Bone didn't win the Sundance Film Festival Prize for nothing, and it and Lawrence have also been nominated for Golden Globe Awards. Somewhere hasn't and probably won't and definitely shouldn't.

But there you have it. Those who are rich and bored out of their minds, and those who will become cannon  fodder to help their dependants. Hollywood and America. You either love it or you hate it.

Neil Sonnekus

*Matter of Fact: In my review of Due Date I neglected to mention that the first name of that fine actor Downey Jr is, in fact, Robert. And in last week's review of the dire The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest I inferred that the capital of Sweden is Oslo, which of course it's not. It is Stockholm.

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