99 HOMES **** High Rise Excellence


99-homes

MICHAEL SHANNON (FROM the underrated “Take Shelter”) is one of those actors who always seems to pop up in interesting movies. In “99 Homes”, he does not disappoint. The movie could well have been called “99 Lives”. It focuses on the agonizing human side of the 2008 housing crisis when, it seems, half of blue collar America had their lives foreclosed.

The movie begins with a stark image of the lives shattered by the implosion of cheap mortgages: we see the blood-smeared wall of someone who’s just shot himself. And emerging from the scene of this suicide, liken a succubus, is Rick Carver, Shannon’s real estate agent turned gun-toting eviction supremo. Carver is the cold, ruthless amoral face of the bank closures. As he tells his distraught victims, “I’m not evicting you, the bank is”… in other words, don’t blame me! For Carver, a home is no more than real estate… just a concrete box waiting to be flipped for a profit.

One of the concrete boxes he forecloses on (with, of course the full support of the police) is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield who co-produced, emerging out of his Spiderman outfit to give a stunning performance). Nash is a recently unemployed carpenter/plumber/mason and general Jack of all trades. He lives with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern in a thankless role as his distraught conscience) in the home they’ve always lived in. No matter. The clash between Carver and Nash is the existential clash (as Carver sees it) between winners (“America is only for winners” he tells Nash) and losers; between an implacable (and in this case, corrupt) law and a sense of moral decency; between the abstract and bloodless idea of ‘The Bank’ and the tears of ‘real’ people; between real estate and a home.

The human dimension of Writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s well-crafted moral maze comes when, in urgent need of a handyman, Carver turns to Nash. Out of desperation, Nash swallows his revulsion of working with the man who kicked him out of his home and begins to work for him. Carver finds that he’s lucked out: Nash is more than a handy man; he’s an excellent leader. He’s also desperate to get back his home. And, as Carver well knows, a desperate man will do desperate things. Bit by bit, the lure of easy money, much of it made by bending the law, strips away Nash’s conscience and self worth. Profit as always, wins out over the values of human decency and empathy. Justice loses out to the law. The trajectory of the story follows Nash’s moral decline…his drift from proud father and son to a ‘nose’ following the scent of the money.

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In the hands of lesser actors, Bahrani’s fable of human frailty could easily have come across as a bit too strident, as there’s no question whose side the director is on. But Garfield’s Nash emerges as a basically decent person (with a wonderfully realized bond with his son), torn apart by circumstances and his own too fallible humanity. The Englishman Garfield inhabits this down and out blue collar American as if it’s his own skin. As he suffers wordlessly, introspectively, his is a master-class of acting with the eyes. He allows us to see beyond them to his conflict and despair and greed and tragic loss that’s tearing him apart.

For Carver however, as the embodiment of the housing crash, of ruthless profiteering, ever on the prowl for fresh victims like some daylight Nosferatu, Shannon offers a portrait of unfeeling sleaze. If Garfield communicates his anguish via the despair in his eyes, Shannon’s sneer shouts his contempt of the losers.

It’s a writer’s movie. Bahrani shares writing credits with fellow writers, Amir Naderi and Bahreh Azimi. Theirs is a screenplay that’s densely, almost theatrically articulate. For the sleazy Carver is, if nothing else, a glib, smooth talking apologist for unrepentant greed. And those writers gave him a magnificent script to bring alive.

It’s a jucily written role in a jucily well directed film.

And finally as an aside, the team that brought this very American tale to the screens are Americans of Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Afghani and English descent. How very American (but don’t tell Trump)

AMERICAN ULTRA** Sigh


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“AMERICAN ULTRA” WRITTEN, by Max Landis (John’s son) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (a British Iranian), is a confused, blood-drenched, humorless little movie. From the trailers, it seemed like a cliched but funny enough premise: a stoned, sleeper agent is activated, and, much to his surprise turns out to be a highly trained lethal weapon. Call it a pastiche of “Bourne Identity” meets “The Long Kiss Goodnight”.

But by reel two (to use an antiquated reference point) the comic vein dries up. Landis is a very young (he’s only 30), but prolific writer and he just didn’t have the experience or nous to sustain this one trick pony of an idea for the entire 90 minute journey of the film. So, in a movie that seems to have been written even as it was being shot, he segued away from absurdist humor to what feels like an homage to Robert Rodriguez in his “Machete” phase. It’s not a successful genre mash-up.

Alas, neither the nerdy charm of Jessie Eisenberg nor the low-keyed sparkle of Kristen Stewart, manage to rescue this farrago. Jessie has already settled into a cinematic ‘type’ and here he lives up to his own cliché of the bumbling nerd. He’s not alone. Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fawning, effeminate bag-man from “Veep” phones in his own cliche in a role as a fawning effeminate drone operator. Poor Kristen: she had the hardest job. With no character type to fall back on, she tries valiantly to make something of her underwritten mish-mash role – of loving supporter, come CIA operative.

In the end, “American Ultra” feels like something concocted after the pleasures of a large bong and directed while still stoned, with the ghost of Wes Craven hovering around and screaming for more blood, more spilt guts and more explosions to pump up the excitement. What started out as an ephemeral evening’s entertainment has clearly morphed into some crazed producer’s wannabe franchise with the new (and totally unconvincing) badass Jessie. Call him Jessie Stratham.

But perhaps there’s a bigger idea hiding here. Maybe someone should turn this ” amnesiac is really a trained killer” trope on its head. How about the trained killer that turns out to be an estate agent. Maybe from Foxtons. Or maybe there’s really no difference there.

Whatever. Give this one a miss

BARBARA HEPWORTH AT THE TATE***


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IN THE FIRST room of the new (and often misogynist…since the curator seemed more interested as Barbara as Nicholson’s lover and his influence than her art) Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain, are her early, smaller, table sized sculptures. They’re mainly of animals and a few torsos – a curled snake, a couple of birds, mother and child etc. They are all smooth, almost tactile objects, from which any extraneous ornamentation has been excised. The result, are objects that resemble talismans; iconic representations of the spirit of the animal or human suggested by their forms. By the late 30’s and 40’s when Hepworth was in her ascendency, abstract sculpture was by no means new. However these almost abstract, shapes, merely suggestive, like Platonic forms, of their inspirations seem to herald a fresh kind of visual perspective.

They have such a caressable, tactile quality – pushing the three dimensional density of sculpture into a dimension of touch – that you wonder where Jonathan Ive’s Apple designs would be had there been no Hepworth.

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Many of her works are simply called, “Form Number One” etc. Imagine being able to give birth…to bring a new form, like a new colour, into the world? Artists are gods.

These early works feel as though Hepworth had reached back a millennia to rob the past of some of its images, stripping away the eschatology and inserting her own spiritual energy. As a result, somehow the early sculpture on show wouldn’t feel out of place had they been exhumed from the dark bowels of some sand blasted pyramid.

And yet, they belong in another world.

As her career progressed, the forms become larger, more abstract. But their inspiration remains the natural world. She has translated the landscape around her – natural rock formations, trees – into her, burnished, re-shaped perspective and infused it with a point of view and meaning.

It’s almost landscape sculpture. She has reframed the external universe into her own perspective

To that point, it’s interesting to compare her work – and how far sculpture had come at this period – with, say the work of Rodin (see below). His large muscular sculptures have a strong narrative drive… clear expressions of an idea, an historical point of view. Of these you can ask the question, “What does it mean?” and engage with the work through this perspective. Hayworth’s work operates at a different level. “What does it mean?” becomes a meaningless question.

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Her wooden pieces glorify the material – the wood glows. The pieces breathe. It’s as if Hayworth had seduced rather than chopped it into its forms. Far from Plato’s dumb-ass criticism that art is mere imitation (of nature), here art IS its own nature.
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Often placed as they are, outdoors (she was fastidious on where they were located) these -man made- objects offer an interesting dynamic: amidst the mutability of nature, their timelessness impose an ontological shock. Here are works inspired by the natural environment that feel both naturally in their right places and still incongruously out of place. They’re as meaningless and impractical and as critically vital as, say, a tree or a stream, or a chance encounter with an idea. They force viewers to engage with them both as objects qua objects and also as a means of refocusing on their surroundings.

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We tend to take art for granted as something that hangs on a museum wall or some place of hallowed power and importance (which of course du Champ turned on its head). But the strategic location of the works of sculptors such as Hepworth, Henry Moore or, of late, Anthony Gormley, so abruptively there, forcing viewers to stumble upon them with all the shock of bumping into a friend or a sudden naked man is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the art.

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Street art – Keith Herring (back in the day) and now Bansky, Stick Man etc is, like Pop Art was in the 60’s, probably some of the most exciting art around. Literally. But I digress
Her later art – the metal pieces – are stark contrasts to the earlier wooden pieces. Whereas the former felt coaxed into life, these later metal pieces seem to have been wrestled into submission. This is the sculptor exercising her mastery over her material, bending the harsh heavy metal to her will, forcing it to assume surprising curves and twists. It’s as though the material, through its shape is breaking out of its limitations, breaking away from its heavy masculinity to delight and surprise its viewers with an energy and rhythm and, at times, flippancy.

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The link with the earlier stone and wood pieces is the organic relationship that seems to exist between sculptor and her material. You feel as though the designs triangulate her strong sense of her environment and the materials themselves. Michaelangelo spoke of sculpting as a means of uncovering of the form within the stone; the sculptor as explorer and discoverer. Her work is so cliché free and honest that some of her work feels like this… as though the tortured curves of her bronzes demanded their creation. And, fortunate for us, she came along.