By BRUCE DENNILL
Before We Go / Directed by Chris Evans / PGL
Demolition / Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee / 16LDV
Sleeping With Other People / Directed by Leslye Headland 16SLN
Free State / Directed by Sallas De Jager / 13LPV
Touched With Fire / Directed by Paul Dalio / 13L
Tumbledown / Directed by Sean Mewshaw / PGLS
Relationships are unique – weird, profound, crazy, ugly, superficial, silly, wonderful, funny and sad. Films cover this entire range, sometimes well and sometimes terribly. It’s interesting to watch a few options in a row, not only for entertainment reasons but to gain perspective on where you fit in on the curve – processed fantasy that it is.
Chris Evans, clean-cut, muscle-bound Captain America actor that he is, is unlikely to have been given an easy ride as a first-time director. But his compact, intimate romance Before You Go, in which he stars opposite Alice Eve, is, while hardly original, well made and affecting. It’s not known if the title is knowingly a nod to Richard Linklater’s trilogy – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight – but the style of the piece is very similar. It involves a couple who meet by chance late one New York night. Brooke (Eve) is desperate to get home, but misses her train. Nick (Evans) is a busker who tries to help the harassed woman. Their efforts to smooth out her predicament require them to spend several hours together, far outside their respective comfort zones. The script requires them to do do some odd things, but this is New York in the early morning hours, and the pacing and character interaction makes sense, so it rings true. Add to that the leads’ combined charm, and Before You Go is a very watchable, enjoyable film.
Demolition is one of a run of recent Jake Gyllenhaal films in which the actor seems to be doing his best to undermine his own A-list standing, and he does a good job of it in this idiosyncratic project. Gyllenhaal plays an investment banker who loses his wife in an accident. He is assaulted by grief, and an incident with a malfunctioning vending machine is enough to send him over the edge. He begins an increasingly intense series of communications with the company who stock the machines and connects with a company service representative there – a single mother (Naomi Watts). The two develop their relationship in a stilted, awkward way that is never exciting or starry-eyed, but is nonetheless quietly tender. These are hurt, sometimes desperate people, and as uncomfortable as their emotional circumstances are, they are still capable of communicating moments of beauty. Strange, and in some ways slight, this is worthwhile viewing.
“Traditional” romances used to look at the way a couple slowly became familiar with each other’s foibles, figuring out how to first live with each other and then to respect and love each other in spite – or because – of the way each is constructed. Many contemporary romances – at least according to the Hollywood definition of the word – skip all of that and go straight to the sex. In terms of what people watch movies for, that makes a lot of sense (check “most paused moments” in a Google search), but in terms of entertainment it’s less convincing, not least because such an angle is uninspired to the point of cliché. Sleeping With Other People clearly – there’s a clue in the title – believes that the latter approach is the best one, making sex the central structure around which a likeable but never especially deep couple (Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie) interact. That doesn’t sound terribly unreasonable, but these two likeable actors play people who are so shallow and glib in regard to attributes of any real value that they purport to be surprised when their relationship doesn’t make progress because they’re both promiscuous. There are a few laughs and the charisma of the leads is notable, but well before the end of the film, the vanity of the characters – and the emotional ennui it masks (badly) becomes tiresome.
In South African film Free State, love crosses the race barrier in small-town South Africa, one of the riskier places on the planet for that to happen given that the story takes place at the height of apartheid. There is some terribly wooden acting from the support cast at the beginning of the piece, but sticking with it proves worthwhile as the tale – of a white law student and an Indian law student and their developing relationship – unfolds. There is little sophistication to the script, with blind political loyalty and religious fundamentalism being the villains as much as any of the people practicing them. But the central performances by Nicola Breytenbach and Andrew Govender are genuine and full of heart, and the deep-seated communal pain the themes tap into, experienced by most reasonable South Africans at some level, make for poignant viewing. And a twist adds unexpected weight to the denouement.
Touched With Fire is a message movie with a difference. It is designed to examine a challenging, enigmatic topic – bipolar disorder – and it does so with integrity, creativity and an unwillingness to pander to stereotypes. Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby play Carla and Marco respectively, two adults whose condition renders them less than capable in the eyes of many, including the family members who sincerely support them, even when doing so causes crushing heartbreak. Carla and Marco’s relationship has a rocky start – both are strong personalities, and he’s an uber-cynical intellectual to boot. But their shared condition and perspective on it gives them common ground; a platform on which to build an unlikely romance and, from there, hope for a life beyond hospitals and being treated as somehow less than “normal”. Some of the scenarios require a slight suspension of disbelief, but the film succeeds in raising questions about the way bipolar sufferers are treated and their frustrations at having their voices go unheard. This film offers rare insight into an illness that is not so much ignored as avoided because of its complexity and the often antisocial behaviour of those afflicted by it. It allows two characters on the dark side of the equation to eloquently state their case, and while many viewers won’t be comfortable with their points of view, but you’re a truly insensitive sort if you come away from watching this with less compassion than you had going in.
Tumbledown, by a first-time director and scriptwriters, has the feel of a Cameron Crowe project. As is fitting, that being the case, it concerns an indie musician, or rather, his legacy. A folk artist with a small but already legendary output, he died young, leaving his widow Hannah (Rebecca Hall) with her grief, and the added burden of managing the growing cult around his music from her base in rural main, where his music was created. It’s a fascinating back-story, and one that the film’s other protagonist, Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) finds particularly persuasive. He arrives from New York with a reputation and an agenda, intent on digging up the full story of the mysterious artist for a book he’s writing. This brings him into conflict with Hannah, who’s reticent when it comes to revealing details of her late husband or the relationship she had with him. Hall and Sudeikis, both excellent actors and, in this case, given a script worthy of their talents, play off each other beautifully and have wonderful chemistry. Their relationship is cleverly developed, their dialogue well-written and the pacing of the whole thing right on the mark. And everything is anchored by gorgeous music from Damien Jurado, who is a real-life equivalent of the fictional musician at the heart of this film. Thin on clichés, packed with sensitivity and full of humour, Tumbledown is polished but gloriously un-Hollywood.