Human Capital

Quint and Drew face off

First-world and real-world problems collide in Human Capital, which started life as an American novel, became an Italian movie (Il capitale umano) in 2013 and then returned to the US in 2019 for this English-language version. How best to describe all three? Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Ice Storm will about do it. In other words a broad spectrum portrait of modern life, with a narrow focus critique of the elite at its core.

It starts, as Bonfire of the Vanities did, with a car accident, and then plays and replays the story from the point of view of each of the characters involved. Not the same events, exactly, but a “how did we get here?” summary.

First, the accident, a waiter cycling home after a hard shift is clipped by a speeding Jeep and goes flying into a thicket. Is the waiter dead? Who was driving the car? The film returns to these questions as its focus moves between the characters involved.

What a cast. Liev Schreiber as Drew Hagel, a try-hard real estate broker and ex gambler with a new wife, Ronnie (Betty Gabriel) now expecting twins, who borrows money he doesn’t have to place a stake with the hedge fund of big swinging Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard), his daughter’s boyfriend’s father. Without that family connection Quint wouldn’t even have given Drew the time of day, a fact the supercilious Quint doesn’t fail to make abundantly clear.

Quint’s wife, Carrie (Marisa Tomei), is the sort of pampered creature who needs a project and so she buys – or gets her husband to buy it for her – a rundown movie theatre. Drew’s daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), perma-pissed off with dad, about to leave home for good, dallying with Quint’s son Jamie (Fred Hechinger) possibly because he’s loaded, possibly because she believes him to be gay and therefore easy to deal with. Off to the side is Ian (Alex Wolff), a troubled teenage client of shrink Ronnie, who catches Shannon’s eye. See The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield for further details.

Maya Hawke as Shannon
Maya Hawke as Shannon


That’s the neatly dovetailing roster of potential hit-and-runners. Really, though, this film plays out through the eyes of Drew (suffering as the “dead cert” bet goes wrong), Carrie (distraught over the power asymmetry of her relationship with Quint) and Shannon (fearful that the relationship she wants with Ian won’t happen). Sweaty, tearful and moist respectively.

There are no bad performances in this film but the leads are particularly good, especially Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman), who has the extra challenge of playing a character in flux and does it well and with a breezy light touch. Oren Moverman wrote the screenplay and has an ear for the different ways the characters talk, while keeping everything inside a ballsy, recognisably Mametian universe.

A screen version of the Great American Novel is the intention, and Human Capital is happy to sit right in the middle of that tradition, making no mistakes but taking no big gambles. Unusually, and unsettlingly, Quint Manning is not the bad guy. He’s just a rich asshole being a rich asshole. None better than Sarsgaard at playing this level of entitlement. The fool, the one who gets his comeuppance, is Drew, rewarded for the biblical sin of covetousness.

When fate comes swinging at you, make sure you’re ready and not over-exposed. Which is a hard sell for anyone watching who’s mortgaged to the hilt, or scraping by month to month. At the other end of the telescope, meanwhile, the question has to be asked: whose story is this? Drew’s, my little precis would seem to suggest, but Moverman and director Marc Meyers seem to want to spend more time with Shannon, leaving Liev Schreiber and this potentially fascinating drama slightly hanging in the wind.



Human Capital – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









The King of Staten Island

Ray and Scott

The thing to know going into The King of Staten Island, co-written by Judd Apatow, Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson, is that Davidson’s father was a fireman who lost his life in the call of duty (at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, in fact).

The father of Scott Carlin, the character Davidson plays in this movie, also lost his life in the line of duty, so it’s fair to say there’s probably an autobiographical element in this semi-comic look at a life held in arrested development by family trauma.

If you don’t know Davidson, he’s the guy with the slappable face from Saturday Night Live, a slappability put to good use in this film about a much tattooed, tranked-up slob about town who’s all mouth and no trousers (unless you count joggers), full of plans going nowhere, like the one to open a “tattoo restaurant”. But who wants to eat while they’re being tattooed, points out Scott’s much smarter and sick-of-this-crap sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd).

So, a life of busy going nowhere except to somewhere he can hang out with his stoner mates, an aimless life brought to a shuddering halt when Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts seeing Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with a big moustache that is his character sketched in bristles, who is absolutely not intimidated by the sort of wiseass stoner bullshit that is Scott’s speciality.

The irrestistible-force-meets-immovable-object dynamic now established, these two characters lock horns, in the gentle way that men do when they’re hostile but still playing at being peaceable, walking around each other slightly stiff legged but smiling, grimacing maybe. Ray, in an attempt to get Scott to do something, anything, forces him to walk his kids to school. Scott counters by trying to neutralise Ray when he realises the firefighter might be about to propose to his mother… and that she might accept.

Scott takes the kids to school
Taking the kids to school



The out-and-out comedy of Apatow’s early films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up soon gave way to something more muted, less needily craving laughs, like This Is 40, and that’s what we get here, a semi-comic drama that bumbles along quite nicely until it slightly overreaches emotionally. After Scott’s mother kicks both men out of her house for being… well, men, the two of them end up bunking down together at the firehouse, where mawkishness of the “I love you, man” variety starts to intrude as Ray and Scott learn more about each other, and Scott learns more about his dad’s bravery as a firefighter. It’s heartfelt, but a touch heavy-handed.

As an SNL-derived film (co-writer Sirus is an SNL writer) it ducks the charge of being a sketch stretched beyond its limits, which makes a change, but it’s caught bang to rights by another SNL tendency – nodding improv syndrome, when stumped actors’ brains whirr but nothing’s really happening downstairs in the mouth department.

Great cast. Bel Powley, good in everything, alongside the already mentioned Maude Apatow (also very good) and the needs-no-introduction Marisa Tomei. Plus Moises Arias, Lou Wilson and Ricky Velez, nailing it as part of Scott’s stoner crew, and a bizarre cameo by Steve Buscemi, who must have just been wandering by the lot that day, so brief and pointless is his appearance (lovely though it always is to see him, I hasten to add). And mention must be made of Alexis Rae Forlenza and Luke David Blumm, as the kids of Ray, a delightful pair whose characters are quietly instrumental in arresting Scott’s arrested development.

Nice film. Not the greatest accolade in the history of cinema, admittedly. Perhaps best watched on one of those Wednesday evenings in a long working week when feelgood (eventually) is what’s required.



The King of Staten Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Frankie

Isabelle Huppert as Frankie


Having made films with more than a hint of the French about them – character driven, focused on metropolitan angst, loose, semi-improvised acting style, unafraid to let nothing happen – Ira Sachs finally gets almost all of the way there with Frankie, a drama set in Portugal but with plenty of French speakers in his cast.

Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 drama Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Ceux Qui M’aiment Prendront le Train) is a close analogue, though here the central figure around which everything spins is still alive. She’s played by Isabelle Huppert as Françoise (aka Frankie), a famous actress who has called all her family together in Sintra, Portugal, for some yet-to-be-explained reason, though it isn’t hard to guess what it might be.

Pascal Greggory plays Frankie’s first husband and Sachs uses him more as a lucky charm – he was in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train – than as an important character. As Michel, now a happily out gay man, he’s part of Frankie’s extended and blended family, including her second husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her son Paul (Jérémie Renier), Jimmy’s daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), Sylvia’s husband Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and their daughter Maya (Sennia Nanua).

Floating around the edges is Frankie’s old friend Ilene (Marisa Tomei) and her on/off boyfriend Gary (Greg Kinnear) both of whom, we are told more often than seems necessary, are in Europe working on the latest Star Wars movie.

Relationships in various states of decay is Sachs’s abiding concern and they’re what gives this drama what little tension it has… eventually. Though everything constellates around Frankie, at the edges Paul is lovelorn, Sylvia and Ian’s marriage is in tatters, Gary is like a bull at a gate with the unconvinced Ilene, and young Maya is off at the beach, where a lusty local is giving her her first taste of the thing that’s causing most everyone else such grief. Frankie and Jimmy, meanwhile, are blissfully happy. But even there Sachs (and regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias) does eventually raise a little question mark.

Marisa Tomei and Isabelle Huppert
Ilene and Frankie



Having been a fan of Sachs’s films since I first saw 2005’s Forty Shades of Blue, I wanted Frankie to work but it didn’t, or not often enough. Too many scenes felt awkward, as if improvisation as a guiding principle had just been taken too far, when what was really needed was for someone to shout “cut”, offer some notes to struggling actors and then go again. Quite why all the characters so often needed to shout was a mystery too.

That said, there are some fabulous moments that do just work – Huppert and Gleeson just sitting down at a piano together, saying barely a word, the long-delayed moment when Tomei’s Ilene and Renier’s Paul finally meet, for what the matchmaking Frankie is hoping will be the beginning of a love affair.

These moments come mostly towards the end. While Sachs is simultaneously wrapping up and suggesting that life goes on, the drama suddenly takes wing, almost as if on its own, in a couple of scenes notable for what’s not said rather than what is.

Huppert glides through the whole thing, partly because her character, Frankie, is one of those blithe spirits, partly because Huppert tends to glide, and partly because there really isn’t a whole lot of stuff going on, apart from the BIG THING, which is barely mentioned, and I won’t mention either.

A failure, but an interesting failure. Watch it to see actors you wouldn’t expect to see together – Kinnear and Huppert, for example – and to see sun-drenched Sintra, a town that looks busy and buzzy with tourists, with people enjoying themselves. There isn’t much of that going on with Frankie and her brood.



Frankie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 December

 

 

Big Daddy dies, 1997

On this day in 1997, the wrestler born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax, England, in 1930, died. Crabtree came from a wrestling family – his father, also named Shirley Crabtree, was a wrestler, as were his nephews Steve and Scott Crabtree (though they both wrestled under the name Valentine). Shirley Crabtree followed his father into the ring in 1952 (the same year that Vince McMahon was creating the WWF brand in the USA). With his 64 inch chest and blond hair, Crabtree became a prominent blue-eye (ie hero type) and won the European Heavyweight Championships twice before retiring in 1966. He returned in 1972 as a heel (ie bad guy) with the character of the Battling Guardsman before returning again in 1974 as Big Daddy, named after the Burl Ives character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Initially Big Daddy was a heel, an image that was reinforced when he formed a tag team with Martin Ruane, the 6ft 11in (2.11m) 685lb (311kg) wrestler known as Giant Haystacks, who would later become his arch rival. By 1977 Crabtree had returned yet again, again as Big Daddy, but this time as a blue-eye who wore a sequinned cape and arrived ringside draped in the national flag to the sound of We Shall Not Be Moved over the sound system. Big Daddy was, as his name suggests, big. This led to an ungainliness in his movements, though Crabtree turned this to his advantage by developing signature movements such as the Big Splash, which involved him dropping his bulky body belly first onto a prostrate opponent – at which point he would encourage the crowd to shout “Easy. Easy”. Big Daddy’s career almost came to an end when he Big Splash-ed Mal “King Kong” Kirk during a bout, and Kirk died (the coroner absolved Crabtree of blame, pointing to Kirk’s serious heart condition). Crabtree took the death personally, but continued wrestling into his 60s, though he became increasingly a static presence, against which lighter, prettier wrestlers would hurl themselves to little effect.

 

 

 

The Wrestler (2008, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

A reminder that Mickey Rourke is an actor who operates outside the pantomime arena, when he wants to, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is all about age, breakdown, decay and the everyday heroics necessary to just keep going. The fact that it stars Rourke, who famously abandoned acting to become a boxer, then returned to movies years later a collagen-lipped beat-up reminder of his former self, makes this film, at some level, the story of Rourke himself. And it’s a heartbreaker, the journey with the small-fry wrestler at the wrong end of his career, a tough guy with a heart of gold, a good word for everybody, a man who’s gone a bit deaf, works on the meat counter (nice touch) at a supermarket where he’s bossed about by a ballbusting dick, whose daughter hates him, whose lap-dancer girlfriend isn’t even really his girlfriend. It’s the insights into the wrestling game that make this film so powerful – the tanning salon, the hair extensions, the growth hormone and the painkillers, the eye-opening and eye-watering use of a staple gun. And Aronofsky and documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot it all arthouse – dark, handheld, grainy, many key scenes are so underlit you have to squint through the mood to work out what’s going on. As for plot – there isn’t much of one, we’re just following Randy “The Ram” Robinson from one indignity to the next, while he fumbles about trying to work out what to do with what’s left of his life now his career is over, or as good as over. Is it a metaphor for the baby boomers, more generally? It can be if you want it to be, though Aronofsky has learnt from some of the excess of earlier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) and plays it straight. He’s blessed to have Rourke, and to have Evan Rachel Wood as the estranged daughter, Marisa Tomei as the girlfriend who isn’t a girlfriend. And to have all those New Jersey locations, looking every bit as busted, chipped and beaten up as The Ram himself. As for Rourke, wait till you hear his “I’m an old broken down piece of meat speech”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Should have been Rourke’s Oscar winner
  • Aronofsky’s best film – yes, better than Black Swan
  • Real insight into to how the theatrical world of wrestling works
  • Bruce Springsteen’s tender title song

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Wrestler – at Amazon