Sunday, 2 February 2014

Filmdog Weekly #5 (Thank You For Smoking, A Beautiful Mind, Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

Welcome to #FilmdogWeekly. This week we're attempting to wean ourselves off the addictive Thank You For Smoking. Once we've quit we're off to spook Russell Crowe's paranoid John Nash in A Beautiful Mind before soaking up the Catalonian sun in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona...

Thank You For Smoking (Netflix)
'It's cool'

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is handsome and charming. So why is he one of the most hated men in America?

It's because he's the chief spokesperson for Big Tobacco, lobbying hard on behalf of the multi-million dollar cigarette companies to ensure they are fairly represented in the media. Nick's the perfect PR guy. He spins and he wins. Smooth talking, movie star looks, ultra confident. So he's a monster right?

Well no, not at all. In fact he's probably one of the most likeable characters you'll see in a film and probably the best role Aaron Eckhaart has played. Nick possesses such a school-boyish enthusiasm, like a scout eager to keep earning badges, that he's essentially portrayed as 'the good guy' while William H. Macy's Senator Finistirre, a hard-line campaigner against the dangers of cigarettes, is this movie's bad guy. 

A Business trip to California provides Nick with the chance to spend some quality time with his son Joey and re-establish his paternal credentials, and we're more than happy to come along for the ride as he finally has to face up to the potentially hazardous consequences of his 'moral flexibility'. Along the way we're treated to an awkward 'What Does Your Father Do?' day at school, a masterclass in winning a debate and a litany of great characters as Nick's luck runs out faster than it takes to smoke a Marlboro Light.

It's a very fine satire and a great film for an afternoon on the sofa. Despite the various plot politics you're not required to use a lot of brain power as the script practically does all the work for you. It's punchy, full of great dialogue and I highly recommend it. You'll thank me for watching.

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A Beautiful Mind (Netflix)
'I've got a question...You're crazy'
'I don't give a fuck who you are. Who on earth had the fucking audacity to take out the Best Actor's poem? You fucking piece of shit - I'll make sure you never work in Hollywood...'
...said the polite Mr Crowe to BBC Director Malcolm Gerrie after the latter had cut the Gladiator star's four-line poem from that evening's scheduled television coverage of the 2002 BAFTA ceremony. Reports at the time suggest Crowe was so furious with the decision to edit his reading of 'Sanctity by Patrick Kavanagh that he ordered two heavies to bring the beeb man to a private room before pinning him to the wall and delivering an ode of an altogether different manner.

As Gerrie stood, pinned to the wall, hot Victoria Bitter spittle spraying into his face, how he must have wished he could turn back the clock to reconsider his options and change the course of history. If only he'd left Crowe's speech in the planned broadcast, then the world would've had the chance to experience Crowe's life-changing poem. As things stood, those not attending the ceremony at London's Grosvenor House Hotel that evening would spend the rest of their days in ignorance.

The film itself is somewhat underwhelming and more than a little anodyne. John Nash is a brilliant mathematician and code breaker but is lacking in basic fundamental social skills. We follow his journey as a young student at Princeton University as he competes with his peers for greatness, spurred on not by the reward of financial grants but by the desire for acclaim. He has a roommate, Charles, played by Paul Bettany (he and Crowe would go on to star in the excellent Master and Commander two years later) who helps John cut loose when his work starts getting the better of him.

As his career as a successful maths theorist progresses, so do his troubles begin to flourish. Several paranoid episodes lead to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and suddenly we find ourselves not quite knowing what is real and what is in John's (beautiful) mind, leaving his faithful wife (Jennifer Connelly) holding the baby. 

Once the full scale of Nash's psychological problems are revealed, the final third of the film quickly runs out of steam, and I couldn't help but think it a shame that the beautiful mind in question seemed to be situated within the skull of a complete arseholeI'm surprised this garnered such critical acclaim too, winning four Oscars, four Golden Globes and two BAFTAS, but then again the subject material fits the bill perfectly. No doubt the real John Nash must have had a hard time of it, but this film seems less focused in addressing the realities of his mental illness and more on Russell Crowe's ability to turn his 'overact button' up to 11. 

If anything, A Beautiful Mind feels like an extended episode of Quantum Leap, albeit one in which Sam Beckett doesn't save the day and therefore doesn't make the leap out of John Nash, leaving him doomed to spend the rest of his days traipsing around New Jersey in the body of an old man while Al desperately hits his colourful remote control. Shame really. Sam Beckett's next leap was going to be into the body of Malcolm Gerrie just as Russell Crowe delivers his poem.

* * (* scrapes 3 Filmdogs)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Netflix)1
'¡Amigos Amigos Amigos!'

Two New Yorkers spend the summer in Barcelona in this Woody Allen effort from 2008. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a brunette. This, dear Filmdoggers, indicates she is the conservative one. She's engaged to be married to a boring guy back in the USA at the end of the summer. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) has blonde hair and is a free spirit searching for her true calling.

Our two girls arrive in Barcelona for the summer intent on soaking up as much sun and Catalonian culture as they can but soon find their heads and their hearts going into meltdown with the introduction of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome and very charming artist who persuades the girls to accompany him on a weekend to Oviedo.

I won't spoil it but the story involves some rumpy-pumpy and the re-evaluation by several characters of what they actually want from life and ironically it turns out to be Cristina who has her head screwed on the most, finding peace in a new hobby and adapting to the European lifestyle while Vicky desperately ponders whether she's making a huge mistake by marrying Doug (Chris Messina). The film sparks into life with the arrival of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's ex-wife and muse who really sets the cat amongst the pigeons.

I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona but probably less for the actual story and more for the film's themes and setting. I felt most empathy for Cristina, coming to the realisation that she's not blessed with any divine talent like Juan Antonio or Maria Elena, but finding a sense of belonging to her surroundings. 

If you can rate a film on how it left you feeling then I'd say this was a success, at least to the point where I felt like opening a bottle of red wine, playing my guitar and buying some paint and canvas. Olé!

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1 comment:

  1. I don't remember watching "A Beautiful Mind" although I think I did, but I loved both "Thank You For Smoking" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". Both those movies were a nice surprise.