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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

An underling’s ultimate revenge fantasy comes to life in George Huang’s caustic look behind the scenes at the functioning of Hollywood’s inner machinery. Based on his own time spent groveling for minute snatches of progress up the slippery totem pole at Columbia, Swimming for Sharks (1994) is essentially a satirical black comedy. Though it has similar pretensions to something like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), there’s a much nastier twist in its tail.

Guy (Frank Whaley) has won a prime post as assistant to studio executive Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). From the moment he crosses the threshold at Keystone Pictures he begins to understand how brutal his initiation will be. Firstly from the man he’s succeeding, Rex (Benicio Del Toro), and then from Buddy himself who strips him of all delusions by insisting he repeat an important mantra for total comprehension of his lowly status: “I……….have………no………..brain.”

From there he assumes duties as Buddy’s virtual slave, catering to his most insignificant whims, and needing to be available at his beck and call. The only empathy he receives is from producer Dawn (Michelle Forbes) who needs to remain in Guy’s good books for easy, well-oiled access to Buddy. A hesitant relationship develops through which the conundrum of personal versus professional duty is weighed up.

After a year however, and under threat of losing every inch of the progress he’s achieved, Guy snaps, deciding a little payback is due to bring Buddy’s insidious ego down a few pegs. Huang’s structure works to the film's advantage, mixing and matching past and present tenses to reveal the progress of Guy’s night of magnificent revenge and his increasingly harsh indoctrination at Buddy’s hands.

Never, EVER bring this guy the wrong sugar with his coffee!

Spacey tears up the screen as the cruel, torturous, belittling, megalomaniacal Buddy. It's one of the many great roles of his career. With insults flowing like sharpened drill bits from his mouth he lets rip on the hapless Guy with demonic glee and reckless abandon. As uncomfortable as it to say this out’s fun to watch! Humiliation, when somebody else is on the receiving end, has a cruel but truthful attraction to it; we all know that. And besides, amongst the thunderous, sarcastic effrontery included in Buddy's profane, humiliating arsenal, there are highly quotable gems aplenty.

Whaley is well cast too in what has been a probable career high. He manages to exude a perfect mix of that believable everyman with enough ambition and fire in his belly to battle his way up the chain of command, whilst still retaining an integral wimpy aspect that most people can relate to. (Perhaps I speak for myself here)

Though the underutilised Forbes is typically good in the type of strong female role her brash but likable demeanor seems to engender, her relationship with Guy is never really believable. That's a minor quibble however, because the showdown between Buddy and Guy is, ultimately, the main attraction, where the juiciest moments come to life.

As the past and present converge, Huang raises the stakes and the penultimate scene, rife with dire implications, leaves a momentary, mysterious void in its wake. A gun goes off: does anyone die? The answer is shockingly plausible, prompting a misshapen realignment of power; like much of the film’s content, it’s irony laced with arsenic.

Guy (Frank Whaley) with Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey)


The Congress (Folman, 2013)

March 16th 2015 04:47

The live-action opening 40 minutes of Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) are marvellous. His latest, and follow up to the brilliant animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), takes a speculative peek into the future in much the same way Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE (2002) did, imagining a world in which flesh-and-blood actors have become obsolete. Instead, they sign over their identities to be infinitely scanned and manipulated inside a computer, thus eliminating the ‘lousy choices’ that Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, has made, derailing her career and effectively removing her from the A-list. Her beaten-down agent Al (Harvey Keitel) implores her to go with the flow, to live out her life in luxury whilst allowing her computer simulated self to prosper in the roles she never dared contemplate, whilst smarmy studio chief Jeff Green (Danny Huston) pares scenarios back to their basics in his hard sell of what the future holds for her kind. All three performers are excellent but Folman brings these early scenes to life with his eye for unique design details, the striking backdrops all brilliantly lit with a mix of natural and artificial white lights. Inside Wright’s home – an old hangar for what used to be an airport - a balanced palette of flags and meticulously coloured shapes provide a vibe somehow imbuing the scenes with both sterility and warmth.

Niccol’s film, as entertaining as it was, got bogged down ultimately in the need to service the story with very conventional notions of identity, corruption and abuse of power. Folman on the other hand, simply won’t be corralled by such orthodoxy. There’s not a whiff of a formulaic counterpoint that might hamper the spontaneous freefall of his vision. Once it leaps forward 20 years and sends Wright into the heart of a 'restricted animated zone', the bedlam begins. Ostensibly she’s to be a guest at Miramount’s Futurist Conference whilst re-negotiating her next contract, but this is a meagre set-up from which will sprout an uncontainable plot, spilling free of the borderlines of any rational imagination. After a full-scale rebellion is launched on the Abrahama Hotel, you’ll have just as much fun spotting, in the background of many scenes, famous figures from pop culture past and present as sorting through the ramifications of Folman’s shape-shifting, mind-expanding extrapolations of his lightly referenced source material, Stanislaw Lem’s novel.

Occasionally the weight of Folman’s ideas sees them crumbling in upon themselves - a natural by-product of letting your imaginings run unchecked - but the level of his artistry combined with a free-spirited audaciousness means that The Congress grows in stature the more you submerge yourself in its notions of sanity and madness sharing borderlines, in the scale of its outlandish imagery, and just go with the flow. With Max Richter’s eclectic, emotionally enriching score working reflexively to musically elucidate the chaos, Folman searches for a humane core on which to hang Robin’s quest to find her son, lost on the other side of the mirror, as it were, between the real and animated spheres. The Congress will confuse, expand your mind, confound - in the best possible way - and astonish. It’s a minor masterpiece of sorts that may only give us a glimpse at its real depths with repeat viewings.

The Congress is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.


As with any Jean-Pierre Jeunet project, it’s the tidal sensory perception of extraordinary colours that remains burned in your memory. A fantasist’s domain drenched in green landscapes and yellow complexions, his worlds leap off the screen with a vividness often imitated but never replicated with the same extraordinary artistry. Of course, every other hue on the colour spectrum is also utilised by the director of Amelie (2001), and even if the meticulous attention to detail in art direction and production design threaten to overshadow narrative substance, there’s enough crammed into every frame to keep your attention.

His latest film, adapted from a whimsical novel by Reif Larsen, tells the story of T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett), a talented 10 year-old inventor from rural Montana, who lives with his older brother Layton (Jacob Davies), sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), toaster-murdering mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), and cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie). When T.S. invents an electric wheel that might be the key to the creation of a perpetual motion machine he’s offered a prestigious award by the Smithsonian in Washington. Running away from home he heads cross country to collect his award. Much of his travels are aboard a motor home on the back of a freight train before a kindly trucker (Julian Richings) offers a final assist to his ultimate destination.

Despite initial fears of Jeunet being ill-suited by the transplantation to the States and away from his comfort zone, he survives with his artistic credibility intact. Even though, it must be said, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2014) is only a shadow of his best work including Amelie and his pair of brilliant early, eccentric collaborations with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991), and The City of Lost Children (1995). With the bucolic, catchy melodicism of first-time composer Denis Sanacore’s excellent guitar-strumming score providing an authentic feel for the locale, and an engaging debut by Catlett in the lead, the film is spirited and inventive if not particularly riveting.

Occasionally the regularly doled out quirkiness feels forced; with animated asides and fleeting anecdotal flashbacks, it almost begs to be laughed at and for a long time there’s intrigue in T.S’s cross-country quest but little heart to stoke its fire. Finally, as the end nears, the film finds its soul as the blackest day in the boy’s life – the death of his brother Layton - glossed over as another erroneous detail in the roundabout telling of his tale, is probed for its veiled, darker emotional context. Judy Davis as the Smithsonian representative is used unsatisfyingly as a tool for mild satire, her G.H. Jibsen’s initial amazement as the inventor’s identity replaced by darker motivations. Too readily she becomes heavily focused on greedy manipulation of the boy’s unique dimensions and gifts. The comedy in her scenes feels out of whack, both broadly played and predictable - the only damp spot, in fact, on what is an otherwise strong and subtly poignant final act.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is now out on DVD from Madman Entertainment.



In Order of Disappearance (Moland, 2014)

February 24th 2015 04:55

Wise Blood (Huston, 1979)

February 17th 2015 03:24

The Infinite Man (Sullivan, 2014)

January 14th 2015 03:50

Life of Crime (Schecter, 2014)

January 7th 2015 02:11


Wetlands (Wnendt, 2013)

December 2nd 2014 04:50

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