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February Film Remnants: A Capsule Review Roundup

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Sometimes the good ones get away. Fortunately Film Remnants is there to lasso them back.

Young Adult

(Jason Reitman, US, 2011, 94 mins)

Charlize Theron is the beating black heart of this astute tragicomedy, that sees her one time prom queen, now the listless and unhappy author of teen guff, return to her “hick town” with regressing intent. The plan is to reclaim her high school boyfriend, the nice but vacant (now married) Buddy Slade, prompted, in what transpires to be a significant psychological kick, by the delivery of a baby pic to Mavis’ inbox: Buddy’s bairn.

As you might expect from writer Diablo Cody, this is long on truth, short on flaky sentiment. A lesser voyage into juvenilia may have been content to have Mavis revel in child-like stupidity, before completing her arc and growing up in the final act. Fortunately Cody’s script isn’t ghost written by screenplay software. Mavis doesn’t grow up and she’s not enlightened at the close. THOSE scenes, the ones designed to nanny, while in truth creating a yawning chasm between your own experience and the wonderful world of movies, are thankfully absent. This is anthropological rather than aspirational.

We’re alert to the fact that Mavis’ quest is rooted in something more than nostalgia. This is a character that’s never more than half a day from a fresh hangover, who anxiously pulls the hair from her scalp. Her life is populated with substitutions: a small dog for a baby, the simple and fairy tale world of teen-lit for the complications and disappointments of adulthood. Even her favourite song – The Concept by Teenage Fanclub, is deftly chosen. Somewhere therein is the essence of her relationship with Buddy and the girl she once was.

Theron is superb as the lost and lonely Mavis. She’s both cynical and heart breaking as that very real archetype; the person who burnt brightly in their teens, only to fade away, perhaps because of bad luck, perhaps due to self-sabotage. She’s excellently supported by Patton Oswalt as the “fat geek” from school who unexpectedly gets a second chance to get close to his one-time masturbatory fantasy. The realisation that the two characters have more in common than appearances suggest is both reassuring for fat geeks everywhere, and honest.

A wonderful film, destined to be embraced by despondent thirtysomethings everywhere.

Safe House

(Daniel Espinosa, US, 2012, 115 mins)

Director Daniel Espinosa may look like Tony Scott in disguise, if this highly stylised, colour-filtered thriller is anything to go by, but assuming he’s a real person, not a nom de plume for Ridley’s brother, he’s adopted the younger Scott’s talent for staging visceral spectacle and adding enough testosterone to a print to engorge male spectators.

The plot may be creaky – a rogue agent and rookie are hunted by mercenaries, but Safe House has a lot going for it. There’s pace for a start; it moves like a thoroughbred thanks to dynamic editing, and both leads are engaging and likable. Ryan Reynolds can’t claim to be a charisma machine but he’s required to do little more than look pensive and point a gun, both of which he manages with aplomb. Denzel Washington, meanwhile, can do this mildly dangerous, cocksure routine in his sleep. There’s nothing to compete with the finery of his turn as an alleyway mugger in Death Wish, but what could?

If the twists are signposted and the backstory opaque, who cares? Safe House is action schlock from the top draw. You may struggle to hang on to most of it, but there’s enough smashing and strutting here to mark Espinosa’s next as one to look forward to. If he exists, that is.

Rampart

(Oren Moverman, US, 2011, 108 mins)

The prospect of a neo-noir co-written by L.A Confidential author James Ellroy is tantalising indeed and Rampart, with a three dimensional, flawed and morally short circuited central character, portrayed with absolute conviction by Woody Harrelson, doesn’t disappoint.

It’s a gritty, grubby exploration of human failure, with a tight focus on Harrelson’s crooked beat cop. The film eschews bullets for an intimate dissection of a man with a depreciating influence on his family and events, entangled in vice, corruption and the threat of an investigation into his nefarious activities. Add the suggestion that he may have murdered a rapist, a seed that once planted, grows into sympathy, only for the lot to be uprooted with a final act revelation, and you’ve got a film of great psychological complexity, bolstered by canny composition; a movie with a literary heartbeat.

Inevitably, with such a narrow focus, supporting characters are less well drawn. However, Rampart – referring to the precinct under scrutiny following a set of scandals, is a hugely rewarding watch; a film that goes to the soul’s dark corners, like the best noirs, never to emerge. The late 90s setting, acting as neat shorthand for the racial tensions besetting Angelenos of the period, makes the streets seem a little less safe, while Harrelson’s characterisation is so vivid that you can almost hear the tick tick of a human time bomb counting down to destruction.

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