Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Face with a View: Sean Penn and This Must Be the Place

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 23, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

While visiting Paris last August, a particular movie poster kept catching my eye. Nestled incongruously among the myriad of CGI images of Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock (damn the French were excited about that Tintin movie!) was the strikingly large and dour face of Sean Penn. With teased hair, pale skin, lipstick and eyeliner reminiscent of an 80s-era glam rocker, Penn’s heartbreaking countenance was almost impossible to ignore. I was intrigued. I wrote down the movie’s title, This Must Be the Place (suggestively in English even in this French context), and vowed to find out more about it. The thumbnail description that I soon found left me all the more fascinated: Penn, it seemed, was playing an ageing 80s rock star who, upon the death of his father, ends up on a road trip across America in search of a Nazi war criminal. All that, plus an unapologetic nod to perhaps my favourite Talking Heads’ song, and I was hooked. I returned to Toronto soon after, and waited patiently for the film’s North American release. Months passed, and nothing. By the New Year, I’d forgotten about it completely.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when I finally had the chance to see it – and I’ve been talking it up ever since. This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common). The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves. (The film has played widely in France, Italy and the U.K., but as far as I can tell it hasn’t yet had any theatrical play in the U.S. or Canada. As of today, it certainly hasn’t screened in Toronto.) With the visual punch of Down by Law, and the quirky dialogue, characters and situations of Mystery Train, the movie looks and feels like a lost early Jim Jarmusch project – and no doubt the director intended it to be just that. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino – most famous for The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) – This Must Be the Place (though it is a Italian/French co-production) is Sorrentino’s first English-language feature, and apparently he wrote the screenplay with Sean Penn specifically in mind. And it is Penn’s film: he’s in practically every scene and his stunning performance carries the whole movie.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HBO’s Veep: Close, But No Cigar

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 12, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Veep, on HBO

This past Sunday, HBO aired the eighth and final episode of its new comedy Veep. Back in April, HBO premiered two new original comedy series: Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, and Veep, a political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated U.S. Vice President. Both series were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. As I wrote about at the time, Girls launched strong, with Dunham’s pilot effectively putting on display all the reasons why I knew I would keep watching. Veep, on the other hand, fell decidedly flat. Perhaps, I thought at the time, it was a question of my differing levels of expectation. I had few expectations for Girls and the original look and feel of the series made it easy to get excited about. But if Girls benefited from having few familiar names or faces behind it, Veep likely suffered if anything from its too exciting pedigree. Veep not only marked the return of Louis-Dreyfus to the world of edgy comedy (after five long seasons as the star of CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine. a traditionally-structured laugh track sitcom that I could never get myself to watch with any regularity), it was also created by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer/director behind the BBC’s The Thick of It, and its spin-off feature film In the Loop. (The Thick of It chronicles the efforts of a backbench British MP who, through no power or talent of his own, has risen beyond his own capacities. The show details, among other things, his struggles to merely keep his job – which he often succeeds at, more through a clumsy grace than strategy.) The Thick of It (which aired intermittently from 2005 to 2009) is like a post-HBO version of the BBC’s Yes Minister. With its mockumentary format, Iannucci’s signature profanity and the show’s improvised feel, The Thick of It was a popular and critical success, and the promise of bringing that raw energy to HBO in a new political satire, set in D.C. instead of London, perhaps set the bar rather high for the new series. But whatever the reasons, those first episodes of Veep left me cold. The potential of the series was visible (co-stars included Tony Hale, in perhaps his best role since Arrested Development ended in 2006, and Anna Chlumsky, who’d appeared in In the Loop in 2009), but all of its elements – strong as they were – didn’t come together enough to grab me. And following the scatologically-themed punch line to the second episode, I set the show aside for several weeks, only returning to those missed episodes in anticipation of this week's season finale. What I found when I returned was a series that was slowly beginning to find its way.