Review round-up: 'Nowhere Boy,' 'Freakonomics,' and 'Tamara Drewe'
I saw one of these films at Sundance, one at Toronto, and one was downloaded as a rental to my PS3. They're all open in theaters this weekend, although none of them are what I would call a wide release. I can only really recommend one of them with any real enthusiasm, but I'm guessing they'll all have their audience. It's just a matter of
"Freakonomics" is an all-star line-up of documentary filmmakers, all of them working on separate segments of a film that attempts to illustrate the different principles explained in the book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Eugene Jarecki, and Morgan Spurlock all worked on the film, and it's expertly made, engaging from moment to moment, and about as unfocused as you'd expect a film made that that many people to be. While I think each of the individual sequences, including "Pure Corruption," "Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed," and "It's Not Always A Wonderful Life," works as an individual idea, I still don't get the overall throughline that makes "Freakonomics" work as a whole. It all plays like an elaborate commercial for the book, all tease and no meat.
I rented the film over my PS3, something I've been playing with this week since I was given a stack of "free rental" cards at Fantastic Fest on behalf of Qriocity.com. I don't really get the whole middle-man service there, but whatever. Because of the free rental cards, I watched this, "American Grindhouse," "Superman/Batman: Apocalypse," and I've still got "The Lottery" and "I'm Still Here" sitting on the hard drive ready to be watched.
There's a reason no one's made a feature film that professes to tell the entire story of The Beatles: it's impossible. If you want to understand how that moment happened between those people, you need to understand the people… where they came from, when they grew up, how they were shaped, how they met, what influenced them… all of that before you even tell the story of the band and their music.
John Lennon was the most naked of the Beatles, psychologically speaking, and even more so once he moved into his solo work. Any serious reading of his work reveals a preoccupation with figures of motherhood and, in particular, his mother Julia. And even if you don't ever consciously figure it out, it's this undercurrent in everything he wrote, and it resulted in some truly great music.
"Nowhere Boy" takes the same approach as another Beatles-centric film I like a lot, "Backbeat," focusing on one small and specific story. In this case, the focus is young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), who lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). He's already convinced that he needs to be famous, and there's a huge amount of class clown in him with a dash of Elvis Presley for good measure. He's just starting to become aware of the effect he has on girls, and he's starting to enjoy it as well. He's a bit of a hellraiser, but he's also got a real sweetness about him. The person he's probably closest to is his Uncle George (David Threlfall), who keeps him somewhat anchored. When Uncle George dies, though, John learns that his mother isn't missing or dead, but is instead living a whole new life nearby. He meets Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and the two of them start a friendship that's almost like a secret romance, a relationship that has a major impact on both of them.
There's a little bit of the "Beatles: Origin Story" stuff in here, but the focus of the film is on this lonely kid who suddenly realizes that his mother can be part of his life… just not the part he needs. As adapted by Matt Greenhalgh from Julia Baird's memoir, and as directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, it's the sort of film that builds a quiet head of steam, so when it finally pulls out all the stops as a tearjerker, there's no shame in handing yourself over to it. It's one thing to hear about the heartbreak that informed the work of John Lennon, but it's much more effective to get a feel for it yourself, and that's the real strength of this strong little film.
I've read a number of reviews where people have sung the praises of "Tamara Drewe," so obviously it works for some people.
Personally, the film forced me to confront my long-simmering suspicion that I just don't like Gemma Arterton onscreen. I don't buy it. I don't believe a single word she says. I don't believe she's playing a character in anything, and I have yet to see her really vanish into a role. Even her best work, "The Disappearance Of Alice Creed," is a case where a director is really the star of the film, and her work appears "brave" mainly because she's naked and abused. She's a blank, though, and considering this entire film hinges on the idea that she would have a ripple effect on an entire community by virtue of her presence, I'd consider that a pretty serious failure.
Stephen Frears gives the film a bright cartoon feel which is appropriate since it's based on a comic strip by Posy Simmonds, eventually collected as a graphic novel that's loosely based on Thomas Hardy's "Far From The Madding Crowd." Moira Buffini's screenplay is busy and filled with event and character, but I don't think it's half as funny as it thinks it is. Tamara Drewe (Arterton) grew up in a small English village, then moved away. She was a rich girl, cute, but marred by a gigantic beak, a honker, a nose-and-a-half. Now, after successful plastic surgery and a reinvention as a hipster journalist, Tamara Drewe moves back, and all the men she left behind go insane. Roger Allam, so good as the oily bad guy in "Speed Racer," plays Nicholas Hardiment, a pompous mystery novelist who runs a writer's retreat with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). Dominic Cooper plays Ben Sergeant, the sort of rock-star who only ever exists in terrible romantic comedy films. And there's the boy who got away, Andy Cobb, played by Luke Evans, who is transparently set up as The One Tamara Should Be With from the very start of the film. They run through some really tired and creaky plot mechanics, then the film takes a left turn in tone at the end that is so wildly out of place that it sort of pisses away whatever little goodwill I had towards everything in the film that isn't named "Gemma Arterton."
It's rough when your only criticism of an actor is that you don't connect to them, but that's a hard truth about the way we think of films. We fall in love with movies. We fall in love with people in those movies. We build these affections for all sorts of reasons, and when an actor fails us in that regard over and over, it's worth noting. I feel bad for Arterton, because I think she's being pushed into things she's not ready for, and it's going to eat her alive. For now, "Tamara Drewe" strikes me as a near-miss by a talented filmmaker, a goofy romantic cartoon with a lead that just never quite comes into focus.
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