The Company Men

The legacy of the global financial crisis and the collapse of the American manufacturing economy are addressed in John Wells’ sombre downsizing drama The Company Men, a timely exploration of the human cost of unemployment on three men, all working for fictional conglomerate GTX.

The story opens with brash sales manager Bobby (Ben Affleck) sweeping into the company car park in his white Porsche before taking a thirty-second meeting with the Human Resources executive Sally (Maria Bello), collecting his office ornaments in a box and getting back in his car. In order to cut costs and stabilise the company share price, Bobby and 4,999 other GTX workers have been made redundant by CEO James Salinger (Craig T Nelson) in an attempt to bolster the company share price. Now-former colleague Phil (Chris Cooper), a fifty-something executive who worked his way up from the factory floor, offers mild condolences but he is too concerned about his own position to care much. Bobby’s erstwhile mentor Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), Salinger’s closest confidante and right-hand man, heads the company’s ship-building division. He’s an old fashioned executive doing an increasingly old-fashioned job, making big, expensive things from iron and steel.

Initially, it is difficult to sympathise with the problems of three guys in incrementally costly suits, grinding their teeth about having to forego expensive green fees, luxury cars or private jets. Wells overcomes this instinctive aversion through the accretion of small, realistic details and well chosen dialogue, making sense of events as the characters do. Bobby and his wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) have not been planning for a rainy day. Once he is let go, they have nothing but his redundancy payments, no savings, no shares in the company. Everything is invested in their house, which is now worth a lot less than they paid for it. Maggie goes back to work as a nurse while Bobby spends his time looking for a new job, but money is still too tight. With two kids to feed and funds dwindling, he takes a job with a small construction company owned by his brother in law Jack (Kevin Costner), swallowing his pride, breaking a sweat and learning to live within restricted means.

In a sense, the film is a rejoinder to Jason Reitman’s slick Up In The Air, which made a mid-life drama out of the financial crisis. Superficially the same story (but told from the point of view of the guys who get fired) The Company Men takes a more serious approach, emphasising common sense, ethics, hard work and earned reward. Roger Deakins sensible photography reinforces the sober mood. Gradually, however, the precision and bite gives way to broadly-painted sentiment: going from clear to misty-eyed, sometimes within the same scene.

This sudden soft-centeredness might be the result of fitting four (including Coster’s) storylines together, but the resulting manipulation has the same deflating effect. First time feature director Wells has significant pedigree, producing and directing small-screen series’ like ER and The West Wing, but doesn’t have the same space in 100 minutes to tell a story that might comfortably fill twice as much time on television and the results are condensed and overemphasised.

Veterans Jones and Cooper are reliably intense and self-contained but Affleck’s struggles to find any real depth in Bobby with his performance limited to variations on mystification, impotence and rage, like a man who has stubbed his toe while looking for his keys. Best of the lot is Costner as the laconic carpenter, the epitome of blue-collar, beer-and-barbeque America. The film would have benefited from spending more time with him.

It might be ungainly and uneven but The Company Men cannot be faulted for its sincerity, ending on a hopeful note that emphasises resilience, self-belief, changing priorities and starting again. Timely, like I was saying.

The Adjustment Bureau

In The Adjustment Bureau, screenwriter and first time director George Nolfi expands and elaborates on a Philip K. Dick short story that imagines a vast bureaucracy of mysterious beings pulling the strings on humanity, arranging everyone’s lives to fit a vastly complicated, pre-determined plan.

The story opens in the middle of a political campaign as charismatic young Senate candidate David Norris (no, not that one) takes to the stump. His campaign, managed by shrewd best friend Charlie (Michael Kelly), is going well until an embarrassing photograph of Norris at a party is leaked to the press and his support collapses. While preparing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom, Norris meets free-spirited dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who laughs at his nervousness, kisses him on the lips and leaves him utterly besotted.

Some time later, Norris bumps into Elise on a bus. Kismet, you might think, but a group of mysterious men have been following the politician with the aim of stopping him from ever meeting Elise again. When he walks into his office and discovers a squadron of futuristic stormtroopers engaged in wiping his staff’s memories, Norris is captured by smooth-talking Mr Richardson (John Slattery from Mad Men) and given a unique peek behind the universal curtain.

These cosmic agents, in well-cut suits and sporting natty fedoras, operate under the control of an all-powerful Chairman, tinkering with fate to nudge mankind in a pre-set direction. Norris is told that Elise is “not part of the plan” and that the Bureau has decided what’s best. They also threaten to wipe his mind if he tries to find her. Clinging to deep-rooted notions of free will and fortune, and determined to track down the love of his life, Norris resists. He finds an ally in Harry (Anthony Mackie), a sympathetic agent who patiently explains how everything works and sets him on his way.

Dick’s novels and short stories have provided sci-fi screenwriters with a packed slate of mind-bending films, from Ridley Scott’s eternal Blade Runner to Richard Linklater’s curious cartoon A Scanner Darkly. The Adjustment Bureau is not the worst adaptation of the writer’s work (that would be a toss-up between John Woo’s Paycheck and Lee Tamahori’s Next) but the film nevertheless falls into the same trap as many of its predecessors by taking the germ of a bizarre, provocative idea and expanding it to fit the standard form of multiplex Hollywood cinema. The original short story had no pair of star-cross’d lovers, was set mostly in a suburban garden and featured a talking dog in a pivotal role. After a snappy, head-scratching set-up, Nolfi’s lop-sided film disintegrates into a drearily breathless, mechanical chase, with Damon and Blunt thrown together in a gallop around photogenic New York landmarks, pausing only to clarify the philosophical nuances in clumsy gulps.

Nolfi’s attempt to blend Dick’s fantastical notions with a political conspiracy thriller and a romantic melodrama – and then justify it all - means that all traces of Dick’s formless dread and itchy paranoia fade into the background. What replaces it is not nearly as interesting.

Animal Kingdom

“Crooks always come undone”, someone warns at the start of David Michôd’s ice-cold, brutally efficient Australian crime thriller Animal Kingdom, a masterful examination of how, precisely, that undoing comes about.

After his mother dies from a self-inflicted heroin overdose, and with nowhere else to turn, teenager Joshua (James Frecheville) is taken in by his estranged grandmother Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominated for the role). A bottle-blonde Lady Macbeth with painted eyebrows and a lizard’s smile, Smurf lives with her three adult sons; Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) in an anonymous house in the Melbourne suburbs. From there she controls the family business – selling drugs and robbing banks - sending her boys out to do her bidding and taking a share of the spoils. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to get by, with Smurf maintaining order and boosting morale through a strict regimen of hearty meals, bear-hugs and creepy, full-mouth kisses.

Shy and withdrawn, Jay is soon accompanying his uncles as they scout the city, looking for their next job. Pope, the eldest, is also the most dangerous, having inherited his mother’s cunning and added a few murderous new tricks of his own. Hyperactive Craig is the most unpredictable, liable to fly off into a murderous rage without much provocation. Darren, only a few years older than Jay, has less of an appetite for crime, acting as a reluctant foot-soldier for his older brothers. When the brother’s ignore a caution from a crooked cop to “keep their heads in”, they come to the attention of the city’s Special Branch, led by Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce). Good cop Leckie, an honest family man with a trustworthy moustache, wants to catch the Cody gang and thinks Jay offers a chink in their armour but he also believes the young man can be rescued from the lion’s den, and is worth saving.

As the title suggests, what follows is a snapshot of ruthless predators and their prey. The dialogue and exposition are stripped back to the bare minimum, with Michôd trapping much of the action inside the Cody’s tiny bungalow or Leckie’s close-walled interrogation room. Frecheville plays Jay as if the young man is constantly holding his breath, afraid that the tiniest movement will draw attention to him. His sense of dread permeates throughout the film, with the tension building inexorably in the second half of the story before a shock twist delivers some measure of relief. Writer and director Michôd has clearly studied at Scorsese’s knee (the film might well be re-titled G’Day Fellas) but effortlessly carries his weighty influences, aided by a sharply plotted, momentum-filled story and superb performances from his ensemble cast.


British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost attempt to replicate the success of their cult British genre comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Paul, their first American studio comedy, their first screenplay and, crucially, their first film without director and co-writer Edgar Wright. The results are a so-so mix of boisterous male-bonding, sci-fi references and chasing around; not particularly good but not awful either.

After a prologue that might have come directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paul opens with sci-fi nerd best pals Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) wandering through San Diego’s geek festival Comic Con as preamble for a road trip through America’s best known UFO hotspots. Their first stop is Roswell, a town deep in the Nevada desert famous for an alleged crash landing by an alien craft in the late 1940s. After a close encounter with a pair of violent rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), Graeme and Clive meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a wise-cracking, chain-smoking alien being who is on the run after escaping from the US military base known as Area 51, where he has spent the last sixty years advising the government.

Faced with evidence of life on other planets and jumping at the chance to live out a real-life ET fantasy, Graeme and Clive take Paul into their wagon and hit the road. Paul must make his way to Devil’s Mountain in Wyoming where his mother-ship will be waiting to take him home. Things get more complicated when the trio accidentally kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a one-eyed Bible-basher who wears a t-shirt that depicts Jesus shooting Darwin in the head. Her father (John Carroll Lynch), fearing his daughter has been abducted by aliens, gives chase with his shotgun. Meanwhile, mysterious Man In Black Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) is hot on Paul's trail, aided and abetted by clueless FBI agents Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), all taking commands from an unseen female agent known as ‘The Man’.

With Pegg and Frost having been clutched to Hollywood’s bosom following the cult success of their previous films at the American multiplexes, expectations were high for Paul. And, although there are obvious similarities and clear comparison points, Paul is a very different film to those the duo made with Edgar Wright; broader, more commercially appealing and gentler than its predecessors. The central pairing have bags of chemistry, as you’d expect from real life best friends, a natural energy that transfers well to the screen. Still, their screenplay is short on surprise, thin on plotting and is lacking a few jokes. It’s also curiously lacking in any kind of interpersonal conflict, the root of much of the laughs in the pairs previous outings. It’s perhaps unfair to criticize the pair for not forming a better bond with a CGI cartoon, but while Rogen’s tiny, grey alien is well written and skilfully rendered, he is never convincingly real.

Paul contains so many nods to the sci-fi genre, Pegg and Frost are in danger of ending up in neck braces. Almost every frame of the film contains a reference to a classic space opera, to the point where the story is consumed by homages and name-drops. The story becomes a procession of reference points – connected by the chase – leaving the characters and their relationships hostage to predictability. Unlike the pair’s British films, there is no element of subversion in this pastiche, no sly inversion of expectations and therefore, no surprise.

Never Let Me Go

Mark Romanek’s beautifully realised adaptation of the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a gloomy romance set in a parallel universe, familiar to us but subtly different.

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield star as Kathy, Ruth and Tommy: twentysomethings who have grown up in 1970s Britain in Hailsham, a peculiar elite boarding school hidden behind high walls in the countryside. The headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) tells her pupils they are “special” and insists on a long list of draconian rules, including dire warnings about what will happen if they leave the school grounds. Hailsham might seem privileged but is a contained world, hermetically sealed from the outside. Then a new teacher (Sally Hawkins) arrives and makes a startling revelation to the children about who they are and why they’re there. We jump ahead in time to 1985, where the three teenagers are now living as part of a group on a remote farm, free to wander the countryside but living under curfew. Another jump in time brings us to 1994, and the old friends and lovers are reunited to deal with the ramifications of their sinister past.

And that’s about all I can say about the plot. Rather than give away the ending, revealing much more about the particulars of NLMG might ruin the beginning; this is one of those films where the less you know going in, the more rewarding the experience is likely to be. In attempting to replicate the spare, thoughtful prose of the novel, Romanek’s film emphasises mood and atmosphere over rigid explanations. The world in which these characters live and breathe remains almost unexplored, the bureaucracy that governs their lives is unexplained and the true horror of their situation is only alluded to. At first, this blank slate is disconcerting, mirroring the cloistered confusion the characters feel, but Alex Garland’s screenplay sticks closely to the mood and spirit of Ishiguro’s novel, slowly drip-feeding information to the audience. This reluctance to explain the real nature of NLMG’s parallel world might explain the film’s sense of restraint and resignation. As the reality of their situation dawns on the characters, they look among themselves for answers, bringing only more confusion.

The shy love triangle that forms the spine of the story offers a different dramatic reward to seeing a wrong righted and a villain vanquished. NLMG is too subtle for all that obvious noise and fuss, perhaps too subtle for its own good. The circumstances become more compelling than the drama, the mystery more intriguing than the characters trying to figure it out, the science more interesting than the fiction, if you follow me.

None of which should be taken as a reason not to see the film, which evolves through the fog of parable and suggestion into an achingly sad story of futility, albeit one told at a polite remove. The performances from the three main players are exceptional, Mulligan in particular gracefully capturing the ethereal nature of her character, who narrates the story. Her gently lulling voice calmly describes her struggle to make sense of her life with an uncanny combination of seemliness, rage and grief. Knightly and Garfield are likewise superb, investing their characters with a sweet innocence that develops into a touching empathy. Later, Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough play a devoted Irish couple, graduates of a school similar to Hailsham, who want to escape their programmed lives. It is also worth noting the meticulous care taken in selecting the children who play the younger versions of the characters. All three bear striking resemblances to their older counterparts, adding another layer of the uncanny to what is a strange, shivery film.