The End of the Tour (2015)


Terry: I love you, man.

Russel: And I love you. Because I’ve learned that Platonic love *can* exist between two grown men.

Benjamin: And I’ve learned something, too. I’ve learned that a flawless profile, a perfect body, the right clothes, and a great car can get you far in America – almost to the top – but it can’t get you everything.

Wayne Campbell: Isn’t it great that we’re all better people?

Wayne’s World (1992)

Only fitting to start things off with a new review. This is a reposted version of a review I wrote for popculture-y (pronounced pop-culture-ee) – I implore you to visit their home page if you like things like television, theatre, stand-up comedy and comic books – you do, don’t you?

 The End of the Tour is a sharp and sentimental take on the legacy of late American author David Foster Wallace, which examines the peculiar impact of that legacy upon audiences past and present. Beginning with the tragic death of the author in 2008, the film plays off of the mixed emotions surrounding Wallace and his complex body of work, leaping between mythic eulogy and indie-film dramatics in its recounting of an extended interview between Wallace and journalist David Lipsky in 1996. The result is a kind of straight-faced love story between the author and his reader, which is elevated by the brilliant performances of leads Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

The real Lipsky’s five-day interview with Wallace, published in 2010 as the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, is a candid and sometimes frustrating text. All in all, the book presents a humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life figure, a man whom Lipsky describes as being “charmingly, vividly, overwhelmingly awake”. But on paper, it’s easy to imagine Lipsky as a bit of a prick, willfully misunderstanding the words coming out of Wallace’s mouth; the interview is rife with observations like “[Gentlemanly: He believes he’s flattering me by treating me as a matching peer]”. But this antagonism is surprisingly well-suited to the subject – Lipsky’s book contains some of Wallace’s most vivid and compelling statements about fiction (including his own works), contemporary culture and, of course, postmodernity.

Eisenberg as Lipsky (left) and Segel as Wallace (right)

In adapting this story for the screen, screenwriter Donald Margulies has excised a surprising amount of interview material; weirdly, the word “postmodern” is almost totally absent from the film. Instead, the film teases out the dramatic touch-points of Lipsky’s book – the movement between cities, the throng of Wallace’s nascent stardom, the conflict between its two principal ‘characters’ – to present a strange kind of love story, an intimate and occasionally threatening encounter between two troubled young men. As focalizer, Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a jealous and overtly cynical man, desperate to understand “the most talked about writer of a generation”, if only to countenance his own insecurities as an author. In response, Segel plays Wallace as a kind of paradox, both sincere and standoffish, both “regular guy” and literary force of nature.

The End of the Tour plays out like an actual romance, as the principals move from awkward first encounter, to unlikely friendship, all the way through to falling out and cathartic reconciliation. While this approach is likely intentional – Wallace appreciation is rife with stories of love, empathetic connection and “really human” connection – The End of the Tour occasionally over-plays its hand, conflating schmaltz with sentiment, or veering beyond intimacy towards straight-up predation. A particularly moving sermon on suicidal depression, delivered towards the end of the film, is undercut by its excessively intimate staging: Segel’s Wallace at the foot of the bed, half-shrouded in darkness, demanding yet another final word on himself and his legacy. Meanwhile, the characters Wallace and Lipsky loudly insist their love for “pretty girls” at book readings, and the film gets extensive mileage out of Wallace’s desire to get laid off of his fame, whilst he and Lipsky joust over a series of (largely sidelined) women characters.

Whilst this take may not succeed as a complete statement on the man and his works – and yes, the film has a few cracks at this towards the end – the simmering tension wrought between Segel and Eisenberg is well worth the price of admission. As a rumination on literary love, and the pitfalls of meeting your idols, The End of the Tour invites us to reconsider an author who, above all else, saw writing as “an act of communication between one human being and another”, an exchange writ large throughout the film.


Contagion (2011)

A HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS, DEADLY DISEASE breaks out in Hong Kong and America. Can GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE stop it in time? Can MATT DAMON protect the remaining fraction of his family?

But first…

I’m not so much an expert on film as I am a ‘names-to-faces-to-roles’ kind of person. I’m the guy who pokes his cinema-going friend in the ribs and says, “That’s [actor], who was in [movie] with [other actor], played an alien on [sci-fi show], and did voiceovers for [cult cartoon]! I am enjoying this movie!” If my pedantry didn’t rely so much on being able to distinguish people’s faces, I might have seen a doctor by now.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, as you know, is studded with those famous faces, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard. While that sets off my inner-IMDB like a raging rocket, it kind of leaves me with no place to go. Nobody needs to be told that Matt Damon has appeared in many films, for example. Maybe a shout-out to comedian Demetri Martin then? Point is, anyone who sees this film will have their pop-culture brain tickled. Recognising actors in different roles is essentially Intertext 101.

What does this have to do with a film about a global pandemic?

Well, it’s certainly something you can think about while you’re bored. Huge stretches of this film are either non-essential (like a half-baked subplot involving Cotillard as a World Health Organisation investigator) or deliberately drawn out. There are some artistic reasons for this. Contagion is, as many reviewers have noticed, less of an apocalyptic film than a crime procedural. The WHO investigators, along with the American CDC, are collecting clues, testing hypotheses, and hanging about in offices for the entirety of the film. This is a fairly realistic portrayal (I assume) of what would actually happen in this kind of situation.

Perhaps, then, there is no way that a realistic, meticulously-detailed film about global events can be anything other than long, slow and bloated. There is nothing wrong with any single part of Contagion. Matt Damon’s scenes lend that necessary counterpoint to all the scientific intrigue; the husband to Paltrow’s ‘Patient Zero’, he observes the unfolding events from the bottom of the chain, all the uncertainty, violence and loss that results. Throughout the film, there are flashes of what it must be like to encounter a truly invisible, infiltrating enemy, one that gives no shit about national, cultural or personal borders. But other symptoms may include fatigue, irritability and emotional distancing.

So – whatever, go see Contagion. It’s not like there’s anything else on. And if you do get a little bored, just do what I did. Try and think of every movie that every actor in Contagion has ever been in. Picture it like a mind map. Now picture your attention spreading, along these lines of association, until it encompasses all those films, and all of the actors in those films, and all of the films that they’ve ever been in, and so forth. It takes a lot more conceptual effort than the film demands, but if you commit, Contagion can infect your pop culture brain.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Now, my entire experience of the Planet of the Apes franchise consists of the Troy McClure musical ‘Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get off’ in The Simpsons. This let me experience Rise of… without any preconceptions, judging it as a film first and a ‘franchise-film’ second. This approach made me like Tron: Legacy a whole lot more, but left me wanting to drown Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in a bricked hessian sack. Point is, the best franchise films stand alone, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a great film even if Charlton Heston had never existed.

No one can quite believe that they’re saying it, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a damn good film. It’s a prequel that isn’t boxed in by continuity or knowing winks to the audience. It’s a character study, of a hyper-intelligent CGI primate, that isn’t overly goofy or dead serious. The film is so grounded by the performance of Andy Serkis, as the revolutionary chimp Caesar, that it’s sci-fi conceit and action sequences go from ‘potentially disastrous’ to ‘fucking astonishing’. It’s a film about evolution, revolution and the dawn of consciousness – how we, as human beings of hyper-intelligent apes, come to be who we are.

Will (James Franco) is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his brain-regenerating drug on apes. After the tests go horribly wrong, he brings home one of the apes, Caesar, rather than put him down with the rest of the subjects. Caesar does not suffer from Alzheimer’s – in fact, he has absorbed the drug in utero, and his brain functions develop faster than a human child. The film charts Caesar’s development, from his idyllic childhood to his imprisonment by animal control, and develops an entire psychology around Serkis’ characterisation. He’s a tortured soul, driven to revolutionary action by circumstance, and his struggles are unexpectedly moving.

The apes in this film are ‘more human than human’ – this drives the science-fiction aspect of the film. Watching a young Caesar vault through crossbeams and dining-room tables, you don’t feel like you’re watching an animal run amok – it’s more like a super-agile child existing freely in his childhood home. When the assorted chimps out-manoeuvre local police, it’s not like a primal force overpowering a civilised society – it’s an out-thinking, an out-classing. Super-humans on the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s amazing to think how Rise of the Planet of the Apes treats similar themes so much better than something like X-Men 3.

Caesar’s arc – from wide-eyed child to struggling adolescent to calculating revolutionary – is made so much more identifiable because it’s supposed to be happening to something ‘non-human’. Emotions both subtle and intense, both animal and civilised, make us identify with something both ‘other than’ and ‘more than’ human. This is thanks to Serkis’ performance (for which no Oscar category currently exists), the folks at WETA and some very effective direction from Rupert Wyatt. Everything comes together, and we forget the silliness of super-smart apes taking over the world, because we’re too busy caring about what happens next.

Most of the human performances, of course, suffer by comparison. Franco is perfectly adequate in his role, and best when playing off of Caesar. There are some pretty cartoonish villains, from the a-little-too-capitalist Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to a deliberately antagonistic caretaker (Tom Felton). There is a completely unnecessary love interest for Will (Freida Pinto), and otherwise zero performances by women to speak of. The strongest link is John Lithgow, playing Will’s Alzheimer’s-suffering father, Charles, in a sweet performance that in fact motivates the plot in the first place. Will is caring for, an attempting to cure, his own father whilst being one to Caesar. This kind of dynamic – father/son dynamics of aggression, identification and self-knowledge – really drive what happens throughout the film.

Outgrowing the father, upending society – Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, well-crafted blockbuster, and earns its investment from the viewer. Highly recommended.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The classic Judd Apatow romantic comedy formula centres on a close friendship threatened by a romantic involvement, the question of growing up and moving on from one stable relationship to another. The homoerotic subtext of this (see also: every Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film ever made) has already been handled in 2009’s I Love You Man, so Bridesmaids is free to play off this formula without leaning on knowing winks and gay jokes. The combination of the Apatow ‘80s comedy redux’ sensibility and open-ended SNL/The Office skits results in one of the cleverest comedies to come out this year.

Annie (Kristen Wiig) can’t get her shit together, something that becomes readily apparent as she struggles to function as Matron of Honour to bestie Lillian (fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph). Unhealthy relationships, a thwarted dream-business, and the threat of losing her best friend to some guy – Annie’s life is textbook romantic comedy, yet Wiig play the protagonist as both snarky and naive, unlikeable yet identifiable. The film’s best scenes stem directly from her performance, the classic neurotic who loses her train of thought, says the wrong thing and backtracks to a place far beyond the point. So much is revealed through slips of the tongue or avoided confessions that we get a tremendous sense of character in each scene, the desires and fears bubbling under the surface, that we can’t help but identify with Annie’s absurd crisis of communication.

Rounding out the cast is a range of strong women performers, whose backgrounds in TV comedy make them perfect for the slow-burning tone of Bridesmaids. The Office’s Ellie Kemper plays the naive foil to Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey as the insufferable newlywed Becca and cynical mother-of-three Rita respectively. Their energy alone makes for some of the most hilarious vignettes that sadly disappear as the film progresses. Mike and Molly’s Melissa McCarthy plays Megan, a foul-mouthed, ridiculously self-assured character who becomes instrumental in Annie’s third act resurrection. And Australia’s own Rose Byrne is delightfully villainous as Helen, the new-best-friend/ego-Ideal who stokes the fires of Annie’s insecurities.

Bridesmaids is a film of neat and not-so-neat doublings, right down to the two male love interests. Jon Hamm seems to relish playing the handsome douchebag in everything new he does, and in this film he’s almost a femme fatale in his ridiculousness. Officer Rhodes (Irish actor Chris O’Dowd) comes off a little wet or undeveloped by comparison, yet the romantic-comedy trajectory invariably makes him likeable and makes for a tidy, happy ending.

Again, the real strength of Bridesmaids is the way in which the standard rom-com formula serves as the foundation for a series of escalating set-pieces – like all classic comedies, it’s one to be remembered not for its narrative as a whole, but for all the memorable jokes and situations that crop up inside it. Though films of this nature necessarily drag in the third act, as the comedic despair gives way to resolution and reconstitution, Bridesmaids generates enough good will and laughs slow-burning and belly to carry itself from rendezvous to ring.


Source Code (2011)

From the mind of Duncan Jones (son of David Robert Jones AKA Bowie), the director of 2009’s sci-fi gem Moon, comes Source Code, another foray into quantum doublings, though experiments and downright professional storytelling. Whilst Moon played heavily on sci-fi classics to create its moody, isolated atmosphere, Source Code is an original approach to an action thriller, one that pays equal attention to its science-fiction pedigree and the emotional weight of its story. The film also avoids the storytelling pitfalls of its contemporaries (here’s looking at The Adjustment Bureau) to provide a compelling resolution, a rare commodity in films like this.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan, who finds himself reliving the last eight minutes of another man’s life aboard a train in Chicago. At the end of those eight minutes, a bomb detonates, killing everyone on board. At this abrupt terminus, Colter finds himself (as himself) in a downed chopper capsule, being debriefed by members of a nondescript military organisation. He is part of the ‘Source Code’ project, which, through some understated quantum technobabble, allows him to inhabit the last vestiges of a dead man’s brain – the final moments of a man who has died, as it happens, that morning. His task is to collect information regarding the bombing, in order to prevent an imminent second attack.

This setup, which calls to mind at least two episodes of Fringe, provides a foundation for several narrative twists (which I wouldn’t dream of ruining here), and a sustained, detailed thematic treatment of identity, memory and self-determination. Gyllenhaal inhabits his confused, reactionary character remarkably well, and it’s a pleasure to watch the different tonal shifts each time he enters the source code, armed with new information and attitudes. His actions aboard the train create new chaos-theory-style permutations, a different string of events each time. But this effect is never gimmicky, and it ties into a developing narrative – we actually care about the little changes in these doomed characters’ lives.

The little changes, and the little details that develop around the sci-fi premise, continue to reward and surprise the viewer. Effects, such as minor flickers in the source code or different takes on the same explosion, are tied effectively to emotional beats in the story. Unlike the safe, cyberpunk Matrix, the warping, nebulous source code is a site of uncanny fascination and dread. One particular effect, which relies simply on a jump between voice and text, is so laden with pathos that I found it startling. This is the result of equally strong performances by Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan as an obliviously innocent fellow passenger, Vera Farmiga as a reserved, though invested military liaison, and Jeffrey Wright as the ambitious, sinister programmer of the source code.

As the suspense builds, buoyed by the interaction of sympathetic leads, we get the sense of something crucial to sci-fi – relatable people encountering the unknown. The array of plot twists, none of which feels remotely cheap, keeps the viewer guessing alongside the protagonist. And the conclusion, which ties all of the loose ends whilst inciting the imagination with new possibilities, gives this film the mark of a high-calibre sci-fi.


The Social Network (2010)

Despite everything I’d heard, read or seen on it, I didn’t know what to expect from David Fincher’s The Social Network going in. The acclaimed director of Fight Club and Benjamin Button helming Aaron Sorkin’s (TV’s The West Wing) adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, detailing the inception and resulting chaos surrounding Facebook – already a lot to anticipate, sure, but how on earth would it translate to film? Fortunately, both Fincher and Sorkin play to their strengths and, thanks to excellent performances throughout, The Social Network can be chalked up as another reason to be excited about film in 2010. The film is both perfectly-executed and thematically dense, without losing sight of the manic, ambitious characters involved.

Jesse Eisenberg (the thinking man’s Michael Cera) is Mark Zuckerberg, played here as a brilliant sociopath and magnificent bastard, whose social awkwardness begets perhaps the most pervasive phenomenon of the 21st century. With the help and funding of best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the thinking man’s Daniel Radcliffe?), Zuckerberg’s “the Facebook” spreads to hundreds of college campuses across the US, and the two enjoy an unprecedented, peculiar kind of rock-star popularity. There are two major problems, though, and they drive the film’s narrative – first, the Facebook was allegedly commissioned by a trio of high-profile Harvard players (Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, and Max Minghella) who feel cheated enough to sue. Secondly, following the introduction of Napster creator, the fluid Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, the thinking man’s… fuck it, Nick Carter?), co-creator Saverin finds himself screwed out of his cut, and sues.

Thus the story is revealed as a retrospective/legal proceeding, which builds the tension in ways you might not expect. We see the battered egos of the young men involved (women are tellingly absent, playing ciphers to the psyches of Zuckerberg and company) as the series of alleged betrayals and doubletalk build to crisis point. Eisenberg and Garfield play a perfect bromance-gone-wrong, eclipsing the Winklevoss case in the film’s third act. Meanwhile, Timberlake is perfectly cast as a kind-of-empty, altogether different kind of sociopath, playing foil to Zuckerberg’s dreams of, well, stardom. Sean Parker is played here as a paranoiac, ultimately unreliable partner, but there’s enough of a sense that he, too, is caught in this game of faces and spaces.

This is the meat of The Social Network’s narrative – the idea that the representation (ie, Facebook) can overtake the reality (ie, real life) and the fallout that results when this goes too far. In an early sequence, we are treated to a montage that twins computer coding and web browsing with its real-world referent, in this case a swinging fraternity party. So the insidious question becomes: can the virtual replace (or, very importantly, repair) the reality of half-glances, tequila shooters and general self-confidence? I’ll leave that one to the real sociopaths.

Instead of being a case study of business-gone-right, The Social Network becomes an allegory for some great work of art, and like Freud always said, all the greatest works of art can be traced to a perhaps-impressed girl somewhere. Thus Zuckerberg’s emotional malaise (brilliantly disguised behind ambition and Machiavellian douchebaggery) is rather neatly bookended by the brief performances of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, the one who got away, and Rashida Jones (from The US Office) as the stranger who says the right thing. In the film’s closing there is the hint, perhaps the prayer, that this Facebook thing (calling it public domain is an understatement – Facebook became the public domain) can offer some hope to its creator, some kind of reconciliation. F5, F5, F5…

Behind this well-crafted story are two distinct authors. Sorkin’s command of hyperactive dialogue is less Kevin Smith and more Woody Allen, that is, natural, stylised and sometimes surprisingly funny. Fincher, meanwhile, crafts a series of vivid, colourful impressions, utilising a sophisticated composition of shots and never failing to keep our attention without resorting to gimmickry. From the bleak, austere shots of Harvard, to the crispness of Palo Alto, with a range of high and low-end partying in between, everything coheres. Even the period is captured – the opening credits ring to The White Stripes lesser-known ‘Ball and Biscuit’, and damn it if 2010 hasn’t been the year for rediscovering White Stripes songs (see also, ‘Icky Thump’ in The Other Guys)… A final mention to Trent Reznor, whose work on the post-industrial score is never out of place.

So, having had no definite expectations, I emerge declaring The Social Network to be another top film of this year, another piece that captures the zeitgeist of this decade past. What this amounts to, considering also the adrenaline/whimsy of Scott Pilgrim, is a closer inspection of irony, detachment, representation – all the things we inherited from the postmodern 90s – and a movement towards whatever comes after. The potential for human connection and expression survives, not just in the hearts of the middle-aged men behind The Social Network, but in the generation that traverses that kind of network every day, without losing or escaping their identity.