Nick and Meg have gotten into a bit of a rut in Le Week-End, and to get out of it they're "celebrating" — if that's the word — their 30th anniversary by heading back to a city they last saw on their honeymoon. Nick has even booked a room in the same hotel — which is not, alas, quite the way Meg remembers it. "Beige," she sniffs.
Recriminations follow, of course, but these two are kind of in sync even when they're fighting. And once Meg has found what she considers more acceptable lodgings, her mood brightens to the point that, to Nick's surprise, she's even willing to consider sex.
The next thing you hear is panting, but it's from climbing the stairs to Sacre Coeur. This is not 30 years ago, and Nick and Meg, alternately snarling and affectionate as played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, can be excused for being winded. Life has dealt them a lot of tough hills to climb.
And there's a new one, as Meg discovers when Nick doesn't seem to be enjoying a bistro lunch that they have both just agreed is spectacular: He's being forced out of his job as a college professor.
Nick will have another surprise for a college friend (Jeff Goldblum) who invites them to a party, only to watch as their frustrations go from passive-aggressive to toxic at the dinner table. The way they bicker and fret, Nick and Meg could almost be that couple in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight movies, only British and older.
But director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has something else in mind, something he hints broadly at by having his stars re-create a "cafe dance" scene from the '60s crime flick Band of Outsiders.
Turns out what the middle-aged souls in Le Week-End are channeling is the youthful rebellion that once fueled the French New Wave. As they execute the tricky dance steps, you realize they still think of themselves as teenagers — skipping out on restaurant checks, trashing their hotel room, mimicking old movie scenes. And since it's Broadbent, Duncan and Goldblum doing the skipping, trashing and mimicking, their second adolescence is great fun to watch.
As the star of Arrested Development, Jason Bateman became best known for being the most mature member of the emotionally stunted Bluth family; the roles that followed were largely of the same tone, casting the actor as the affable, mild-mannered, often put-upon nice guy.
Always playing the straight man amid casts of clowns must have created some built-up performance envy, because in his directorial debut he trades in Mr. Nice Guy for Mr. Guy Trilby, finally getting to play an apparent case of severely arrested development himself.
Trilby is a foul-mouthed 40-year-old who bears the unhealed emotional scars of a childhood trauma, and his grand plan to make things right involves exploiting a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee that will allow him to compete against kids.
Of course, word difficulty at that level of competition is enough to stump most people, so age isn't necessarily much of an advantage for Trilby. But what does give this middle-school dropout a leg up is an eidetic memory and a talent for sociopathic manipulation matched only by the ability to deliver the most profane and hurtful insult imaginable in any situation.
Now, spelling bees make for great drama, combining the adorability factor of brilliant but awkward kids with the stakes of high-tension competition. Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge are well aware of the heartwarming appeal of movies like Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee, and intentionally subvert it by tossing in Trilby as icy-veined, acid-tongued contrast. The result is a mostly well-matched balance of innocence against irreverence.
That central contrast is mostly played out through Trilby's uneasy friendship with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), the big-eyed moppet staying down the hall from the storage closet the bee's director has arranged for Trilby to bunk in. From their first encounter on the airplane to Los Angeles, it's clear the excitable kid is destined to soften Guy's rocky heart — mostly by being seemingly impervious to the older contestant's constant stream of insults. Of course, as a 10-year-old spelling prodigy, Chaitanya has some experience with deflecting abuse from cruel kids, so he remains unfazed by things like Trilby's insistence on referring to him as "Slumdog."
The real reason behind Trilby's entering the bee remains hidden through much of the movie, though it's a piece of information that Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter whose publication is sponsoring him, is constantly trying to draw out for a feature story on his unlikely run at orthographic greatness.
Unfortunately, their interactions lack the sweet-and-sour dynamic that makes the Guy-Chaitanya pairing work so well, and the central joke about their repeated and ill-advised sexual encounters are probably the weakest thing about the film.
Despite that, and despite a blandly two-dimensional villain that wastes the talents of Allison Janney as the tournament director, what Bateman has gleaned in his years in front of the camera is the importance of jaw-dropper laughs delivered at regular intervals, wrapped up in a pithy, tightly edited package. Rejecting Apatowian bloat in favor of a trim running time of only 88 minutes, Bad Words announces its high concept immediately and then goes about the business of telling its story without wasting a moment.
Bateman's directorial approach is not unlike Trilby's manner at the contestants' microphone, where our antihero immediately and confidently launches into his words and delivers the letters in an efficient, unbroken stream before taking his seat. In an era of overlong comedies, that's a not insignificant play; it seems that even when Bateman is playing a horrible human onscreen, he still can't help being a nice guy.
Unhinged by crises both monetary and amorous, a provincial Frenchwoman tells the employees at her restaurant, "I'll be back." Then she takes off in her ancient rattletrap with no escape plan beyond an illicit smoke and a drive to clear her addled head. Turns out she'll be gone a while.
Yes, there's a road movie in Bettie's cards. Yes, there will be formative ordeals. And yes, the payoff will be uplift, along with one of those toothsome al fresco country lunches where Mediterranean types wave their arms around and argue in friendly fashion.
But that payoff will be hard won. And more to the point, when did we last see a road picture with a heroine who's past 60, played in fine knockabout form by none other than Catherine Deneuve, ice goddess?
To the best of my recollection, Deneuve hasn't been called a whore onscreen since 1967's Belle de Jour. Emmanuelle Bercot's On My Way is a whole other ball of wax: Written expressly for Deneuve, this ribald comedy means to knock the actress clean off her coolly aloof perch. And she gives every appearance of loving it.
Bettie, who's hardly a vision in beige shirt and tan slacks, was never actually a hooker or anything like. She's had a checkered love life, sure, and it gets a full airing, but only to underline the fact that she's an unreconstructed child who lives with her meddlesome maman (Claude Gensac) and still pines for a no-good married lover.
Bettie's odyssey through France's leafy Loire valley will grow her up, but along the way she endures acts of cruelty and kindness more commonly seen in some cheerfully crass British working-class romp through Sheffield or Manchester. Accordingly, Bettie will end up being a calendar girl of sorts, but not before waking up with a hangover and a barely clad stud several decades her junior, who will tell her, "You must have been stunning."
She was, and is, though these days Deneuve is more stately than statuesque, and looks at once amused and bemused at being thrust into physical comedy. She has stuff to rue as well: Once, long ago — on the cusp of the women's movement that paved the way for female road movies — Bettie was Miss Brittany, and in the running for Miss France. It didn't work out, and if fOn My Way is Bettie's story, it might also be Deneuve's, or that of any woman whose run as a beauty has come to an end, and who must find other resources to bring to a life full of grown-up risk.
If Deneuve's looks no longer stop us cold, that frees her from her duties as a professional icebox, and frees us up to move with Bettie as she grows up. A couple of hysterical tantrums from her loser daughter (nicely played by singer-songwriter Camille) make it clear that Bettie was never much of a parent herself. Granted a second chance with her precocious but vulnerable grandson (Nemo Schiffman, a little of whose undeniable charm goes a long way) on a trip across country to his paternal grandfather's house, Bettie doesn't just mature. She also lightens up.
Comedy breathes a little heavy in On My Way, and the ending is entirely to be expected. But the movie has a soundtrack full of pop delights and a loose-limbed way of making itself up as it goes along. Sometimes the ad-libbing feels like a drag, but it also makes room for grace notes of bittersweet insight. In the rundown cottage of a kindly villager in his nineties, Bettie champs at the bit like a restless teenager while he rolls her a cigarette in his bloated old hands — and almost misses an astonishing admission that has shaped the old man's life. In that lovely moment, On My Way more than earns its keep.
Painted lips, slicked-back hair and pumping fists form the core of Matt Wolf's documentary Teenage, an impressionistic history of how our concept of the teenager came to be. Composed almost entirely of dazzling archival footage — young people laboring, exercising, fighting, dancing, drinking and playing — the film traces the history of the teenager from the late 19th century to 1945.
It's an impressive journey: The film winds through Europe and the United States, both World Wars and many subcultures to get to the birth of the teenager in its recognizable form today. But 78 minutes and a lot of black and white later comes the realization that we're not really any closer to understanding the teenager, past or present.
Footage from England, Germany and America composes most of the film, which covers various forms of youth identities, from juvenile delinquents, flappers and Hitler Youth to jitterbugs, sub-debs and victory girls. Teenage progresses chronologically, hopping across the Atlantic so many times it's hard to keep track of what country's actually on the screen. Though transitions are sometimes marked, more often than not footage of one country simply blends into footage from another.
In one successful juxtaposition, an FDR speech about America's youth, running over images of well-dressed and carefree American teenagers, is directly followed by footage of a youthful crowd attending a Nazi rally. But in another instance, footage of American and English flappers of the 1920s runs up against images of the nature-loving Vandervogel, then back again to American flappers and imitators of actor Rudolph Valentino, with only accented voiceovers as indicators that our location has changed. (Four actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, provide narration.) This is presumably meant to show the similarities of youth across national borders, but its main effect is disorientation.
As entrancing as the images are, and as interesting as the history may be, the material of Teenage doesn't easily lend itself to narrative, which is where a few innovative scenes come into play. Interspersed with the archival footage are four segments with actors based on real people: British flapper Brenda Dean Paul, Hitler Youth member Melita Maschmann, rebellious German Tommie Scheel, and African-American Boy Scout Warren Wall. Filmed in color but with just enough vintage effects applied that they look like the rest of the film, these short segments zero in on figures particularly indicative of their time, lending some personality to what would otherwise be a film full of anonymous black-and-white bodies.
At 19, Brenda Dean Paul is the life of the 1926 British flapper scene before she develops a morphine addiction and falls prey to societal shunning. Around the same time, Tommie Scheel is part of the Hamburg Swings, a group of friends who reject the dominance of the Hitler Youth, play smuggled American records at their secret parties, and end up in trouble with the Gestapo.
Though a number of factors contributed to the birth of the teenager, Teenage focuses on two forces in particular: consumerism, primarily seen through an obsession with American music; and, perhaps more notably, the impact of World Wars I and II and the various labor programs which readied youth to fight in them. While teenagers are generally associated with cultural consumption — of fashion, music, film and so on — their labor and role in the World Wars is often overlooked in the development contemporary youth culture.
This thread begins in England, where rapid urban industrialization, evolving child labor laws, and a lack of compulsory education left children to wander the streets, form gangs and commit sometimes heinous crimes. The Boy Scouts, founded by Englishman Robert Baden-Powell in 1908, had the double advantage of occupying youth and preparing them for military service. Later, in the Great Depression of the '30s, Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps, also designed to keep young men busy, employed and in good physical condition.
In this vein comes the most surprising — and chilling — part of the teenager's history. Around the same time as FDR's employment program, millions of young Germans searching for community, adventure and something to do, enrolled in the Hitler Youth. Though ostensibly more focused on recreation than on premilitary training, the Hitler Youth were obsessed with exercise, physical condition and bonding with their "Aryan" countrymen.
Underscoring the initial popularity of the National Socialist Party among German youth is this acknowledgement from Hitler: "When an opponent says 'I will not come over to your side,' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already.'" But as scary as this piece of history is, we're left wondering exactly how it contributed to the birth of the modern teenager, if at all.
Teenage certainly has a point of view, but the mechanics of its argument are buried beneath washed-out images and soft voiceovers. Part of this fuzziness is due to the film's adaptation from Jon Savage's 2007 book of the same name, a massive, obsessively researched history (which, coincidentally, Savage wrote after a documentary series on the topic fell through). In serving as a complement to the book, Teenage aims more for atmosphere than for evidence, providing a meditative rather than an analytic argument. This is assisted by the entrancing, sometimes ethereal music of Bradford Cox, of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter fame, which helps unify the disparate images into a coherent force. But for those wishing to more fully understand the history of the teenager, the film is fairly dependent on the book, for which it nearly serves as a very long, promotional video.
Despite its polemical weakness, Teenage is an enveloping experience, a reminder of history's power in shaping what appear to be cultural constants. The film casts a spell comparable to that of a youthful daze, dragging the viewer along from dance party to battleground, uncovering a relatively unexamined past. If only it gave us the tools to comprehend it.
There are three categories of schemers in Big Men, Rachel Boynton's illuminating documentary about the oil business in West Africa: businessmen, politicians and bandits. Sometimes, though, it's hard to tell the types apart.
Filmed over about five years, the movie follows the seesawing fortunes of Kosmos Energy, a small Dallas oil company. Small, that is, by the standards of ExxonMobil, the massive firm that briefly enters the story as a potential partner. At one of its high points, Kosmos was valued at $6 billion, which is enough money to attract attention, especially in an impoverished land.
Kosmos' principal asset is a lease for Jubilee Field, an oil reserve off the coast of previously undrilled Ghana. When Boynton's tale opens in 2007, oil futures are regularly hitting new highs, and Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman is on great terms with his well-connected Ghanaian intermediary, George Owusu.
That connection is necessary because Ghana's oil officially belongs to the country. Such a system can work if the government does. At a conference hosted by the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, Norway's oil minister explains how his country claims much of oil drillers' profits for the public good. (Musselman claps politely, but looks pained.)
For every Norway, however, there's a Nigeria. Boynton paid multiple visits to that country, the world's 12th largest petroleum producer. There, oil fuels tribal and religious strife, and leaves the landscape blackened and burning. Among the groups that pillage the local extraction industry is a sort of Niger Delta street gang called the Deadly Underdogs.
Back in Dallas, everyone's upbeat until another Texan, George W. Bush, presides over an economic crash. And while oil prices plummet, the Ghanaian president that Musselman has been cultivating loses his reelection bid. Furthermore, it's beginning to look like Kosmos will be charged under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Suddenly, Musselman no longer looks smart, and the New York investors on the company's board of directors want him out. Because the writer-director followed Kosmos for so long, however, we get to watch yet another bounce in its fortunes.
The writer-director also books a return trip to Nigeria, where the environment is still degraded, but the Deadly Underdogs have gone mainstream. They no longer wear masks for on-camera interviews.
If there's a problem with the documentary, it's that the link between Ghana and Nigeria seems tenuous. The countries are geographically close, and both have oil. But Ghana is more stable, and less likely to experience Nigerian-style small-time petroleum piracy, if only because its deposits are offshore.
Big Men opens with a quotation from Milton Friedman, the bard of free-marketeering. Yet Boynton doesn't offer a political interpretation of the events she documents, preferring to let Musselman, Owusu and the others talk.
Remarkably enough, they do. There's even a candid interview with Jeffrey Harris, the Kosmos board chairman who represented the hedge funds and investment banks that capitalized the offshore venture. Such big men, like the smaller operators in Nigeria, seek financial reward. But they also crave to be to be seen as important and successful.
That's the link between Musselman, in his vast ranch house outside Dallas, Harris, in his Manhattan skyscraper, and the Deadly Underdogs, in their Niger Delta shanties. They all want money, and they all spell it r-e-s-p-e-c-t. (Recommended)