Film reviews: The Judge | Palo Alto | Citizenfour

The Judge. Picture: Contributed
The Judge. Picture: Contributed
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NOT even Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall can change the verdict on this courtroom drama

The Judge (15)

Directed by David Dobkin

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Fermiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio

Star rating: * *

The legal drama hasn’t really been in vogue since the 1990s, when John Grisham potboilers became an industry in their own right the way Young Adult novels and comic book properties are today. Every studio seemed to have one. Mercifully, audiences tired of watching stories about ambitious legal eagles trying to remember what the law meant to them before the lure of defending white-collar criminals for huge fees compromised their ideals.

Sadly, no-one seems to have told director David Dobkin. Cashing in whatever clout he might have earned as the man responsible for The Wedding Crashers and body-swap comedy The Change-Up, he’s decided to try his hand at a honking, sub-Grisham courtroom drama about, yes, an ambitious legal eagle trying to remember what the law meant to him before the lure of defending white-collar criminals for huge fees compromised his ideals.

This is Hank Palmer, a man so smug and objectionable – the opening scene has him urinating on a lowly public defender – that the only way to make him seem in any way appealing is to have him played by Robert Downey Jr. His garrulous, still-boyish charms shouldn’t, of course, be underestimated: as Tony Stark in Marvel’s Iron Man movies he managed to make a billionaire arms dealer a hero you could root for, so doing the same for a cynical big-city lawyer shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Besides, it’s not as if he hasn’t had plenty of courtroom experience already, both in real life and, worse, as part of the cast of Ally McBeal. But even a live-wire actor of Downey’s skill and experience can’t breathe much life into a film this dreary and tonally jumbled.

Hank’s redemptive journey begins when he’s forced to return to his small Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral. This opens up old family wounds, mostly involving Hank’s father, Joseph, a local judge whose love was never forthcoming for reasons that will be tortuously laid out over the course of the movie.

The Judge – almost everyone refers to him by his position – is played by Robert Duvall, whose gravitas should be a perfect counterpoint to Downey’s glibness, and it is, but watching these two titans engage in scenery-chewing verbal jousting proves oddly stultifying thanks to Dobkin’s habit of staging their conflicts against backdrops rife with overwrought symbolism (one bust-up even takes place in a storm shelter on a rain-lashed night).

Nevertheless, their antagonistic relationship is the driving force of the plot. As the Judge is arrested for vehicular manslaughter following a hit-and-run, Hank turns out to be the only man capable of defending him. Not that Joseph wants his son’s help of course.

For specious reasons (mostly to stop the film coming to a premature end by having Hank simply get the evidence-light case thrown out of court), Hank’s pop has hired a country-bumpkin lawyer (Dax Shepherd) who’s never tried a criminal case. His ineptitude ensures the case goes to trial, forcing Hank to stick around to make sure his dad gets the best defence possible – whether he wants it or not.

Of course, this also gives Hank the opportunity to reconnect with the small-town life he ran out on, something that involves him digging out his old Metallica T-shirts, going for bike rides and rekindling his relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Vera Fermiga).

Before he gets to the last of these, he accidentally gets it on with her college-age daughter, a particularly icky development made worse by Dobkin’s mining this potential love triangle for laughs by suggesting Hank might have committed incest – and then resolving the issue in a way that doesn’t actually absolve him of the charge.

Sugary scenes between Hank and his own young daughter are also shoehorned in to show that he cares about more than just himself, and there’s a bit of terminal illness thrown in to expedite Hank’s softening view of his estranged family.

But the creaky subplots and supporting characters don’t end there: a savant-like younger brother obsessed with shooting super 8 films is the conduit through which Dobkin reveals convenient snippets of family history.

Billy Bob Thornton’s arrival as a ruthless prosecutor promises courtroom fireworks, but provides little beyond well-groomed facial hair and odd character quirks.

It’s just all a bit naff. Downey and Duvall might seem like guarantees of watchability, but any evidence of compelling storytelling is purely circumstantial.

Palo Alto (15)

Directed by Gia Coppola

Starring: Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff

Star rating: * * * *

The Coppola family business would appear to be in safe hands for another generation if Gia Coppola’s debut feature Palo Alto is anything to go by. The granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia, she has a dreamy, photographer’s eye for detail and a lyrical, unobtrusive style which she uses to wonderful effect in this wispy evocation of teenage life.

That’s a subject both Francis (with The Outsiders) and Sofia (with The Virgin Suicides) have covered, but this Coppola brings something new to the table, capturing that brief, blissed-out moment when teens exist in a sort of netherworld where the freedoms of childhood are rubbing up against the encroaching responsibilities of adulthood.

The teens in Palo Alto aren’t super-confident, hyper-articulate or easily categorised the way they tend to be in most movies about high school. They experiment with drugs and alcohol and sex, make mistakes and figure little things out for themselves, but this isn’t a film built around big melodramatic moments. Based on a short story collection by James Franco (who also co-stars as a high school girls’ football coach with a little too much interest in his young charges), Palo Alto instead explores in a more resonant and relatable way how those significant moments just become a part of the fabric of everyday life. As a teacher tells a student he’s helping with her homework: “History is about saying what happened and figuring out why it happened.” The film, though, is presented from the perspective of the students – none of whom are yet fully attuned to the notion of cause and effect.

That gives the film a much more truthful quality, and there’s a nice irony in the fact that the protagonists think the centre of the world is elsewhere when the eponymous city in which they live is actually at the heart of Silicon Valley and thus home to the tech industries driving their existence. But the film also benefits from the open-hearted performances of Coppola’s cast. Emma Roberts, inset, is especially good as April, a fairly average kid distracted by the inappropriately flirtatious relationship Franco’s character has formed with her. She’s complimented by Jack Kilmer (son of Val), making his debut as Teddy, the vacant, artsy kid she kind of likes, but who is himself being led astray by his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff).

There’s not much more plot to it than that; this is a film of moods and sensations, one that understands that the moment adolescence is over it becomes a half-remembered dream and so should be presented as such.

Citizenfour (15)

Directed by: Laura Poitras

Star rating: * * * * *

Billed as a real-life thriller, Laura Poitras’s insider account of the moment NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, inset, came forward with his astonishing revelations about the extent of the US government’s surveillance activities certainly delivers. Along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Poitras was contacted by Snowden himself (using the titular codename) as part of his plan to get the information out in a responsible way.

Those initial Hong Kong-based meetings are documented here, with Poitras shaping her footage of Snowden as he outlines the significance of his purloined information to Greenwald and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill into an almost minute-by-minute account of the story in the few days running up to the first published articles and the immediate aftermath. It’s astonishing stuff; full of bizarre revelations and incredible details that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist would struggle to make up.

Cathedrals of Culture (12A)

Directed by: Wim Wenders, Robert Redford, Margreth Olin, Michael Madsen, Karim Aïnousz

Star rating: * * *

Less visually punishing than his 3D dance film Pina, Wim Wenders’ latest foray into esoteric documentary film-making sees the German auteur overseeing a portmanteau of films whimsically designed to tell the stories – and “reflect the souls” – of the titular culture centres.

Voiceover narration which articulates the imagined thoughts and feelings of the buildings in question combines with calming shots of their interiors and exteriors to give the whole endeavour a bit of a 2001 vibe – with the malevolent HAL replaced by the benevolent likes of the National Library of Russia and the Pompidou Centre.

Robert Redford cheats a bit with his segment, deploying archival footage to narrate the story of the Salk Institute in San Diego instead of anthropomorphising its structure. Then again, his contribution also lacks some of the preciousness of Wenders’ own piece on the home of the Berlin Philharmonic or Margreth Olin’s film about the Oslo Opera House. But there are grace notes elsewhere that make this a worthwhile examination of the relationship between culture and the buildings in which it’s housed.

Björk: Biophilia Live (U)

Directed by: Peter Strickland, Nick Fenton

Star rating: * * *

This concert film featuring Iceland’s world-conquering pop pixie, Björk is the culmination of a wide-ranging multimedia project that started with the recording of her eighth studio album Biophilia and subsequently expanded across a series of apps and interactive websites linking together various theoretical concepts related to the love and appreciation of nature and music. Heady stuff, in other words, and something that might only appeal to the already-converted, but for those who like Björk, this offers a spectacular document of an artist at the peak of her crazy, creative powers.

Kicking off with an explanation of biophilia from David Attenborough, the film does a good job of capturing some of the euphoria that comes from staging a huge live event connecting so many clearly happy fans with their idol. As a film, too, it understands the strange alchemical power that comes from combining sound and vision on the big screen, something perhaps attributable to co-director Peter Strickland who explored similar themes in his acclaimed horror film Berberian Sound Studio.