Talking Movies

January 26, 2012

The Descendants

George Clooney stars in a comedy drama set in Hawaii about a family facing up to bereavement and a truly first world problem involving tracts of ancestral land.

Clooney’s lawyer Matt King lives off only what he earns from his practice, as his principled father did, eschewing the vast wealth that he’s inherited from being one of the descendants of the daughter of the last King of Hawaii. His many cousins have no such scruples and squander their money on frivolous pleasures before selling another parcel of their inherited land to fund their idle lifestyles. However, a new law means they must sell off their remaining tracts in one go; and Matt as the responsible trustee has to guide his extended family away from selling to the highest bidder and towards selling to the local bidder. These machinations are rudely interrupted by his wife’s boating accident. Her living will requires that her life support be switched off and so Matt brings his wayward eldest daughter Alexandra home from boarding school to say goodbye.

Alexandra, played with considerable spark by Shailene Woodley, reveals that her mother had been cheating on, and planned to divorce, Matt. A stunned Matt quickly confirms this is true and tries to hide his secret grief as he informs everyone that his (unfaithful) wife is about to die. Robert Forster’s turn as her materialistic father is very hard to watch, as his misplaced trust in his daughter’s total devotion to Matt twists into blaming Matt for her death because he didn’t shower King money on her. Despite such potential for layered dramatic conflict The Descendants works best at its funniest moments, of which there are many. Nick Krause as Alexandra’s friend Sid is consistently hilarious, his amiable surfer dude helping her surprisingly effective buttressing of Matt’s inept attempts at parenting the troubled Scottie (Amara Miller).

Sideways director Alexander Payne coaxes good performances, including a surprisingly effective dramatic turn from Judy Greer as another betrayed spouse, but as co-writer he doesn’t inject his usual unpredictability. The 17 year old Alexandra and the 10 year old Scottie are basically Medium’s bickering but loving DuBois sisters Ariel and Brigitte. Matt’s quixotic quest to track down his wife’s lover Brian Speer uses a plot device that proudly displays a diploma from the ‘Well, Jesus, that was easy’ School of Screenwriting. The third act infuriates because it flags that a grand rom-com gesture is going to be made, which, like Clooney’s conference speech in Up in the Air, will annoy the characters attending the event interrupted by this nonsense. This film skirts dramatic deep waters to paddle in insubstantial dramedic shallows.

The Descendants illustrates the dangers of hype which also afflicted There Will Be Blood. Its Golden Globe wins promise a cracking serious comedy, but this is a decent comedy shackled to a too predictable drama.

3/5

January 20, 2012

Top 5 Bear Grylls Extractions

I’ve become hooked on Discovery UK’s midnight re-runs of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor so this is probably only the first in a series of lists celebrating his adventures.

(5) Jumping into a river in West Texas
One of the most visually arresting exits in the series has to be the moment Bear disappears from sight and is revealed to have jumped down a very sudden precipice into the Rio Grande. It’s the suddenness of the transition from scrambling over boulders to just running and leaping into space that makes this. And as rivers go it’s one guaranteed to alert people to your predicament merely by being in it.

(4) Hopping a truck in Alabama
The end of Southern Comfort comes to mind as Bear, covered in reddish mud as protection against a raging bushfire, comes back to winter forest that isn’t on fire, and suddenly hears a sound. It’s a honking logging truck as it slows down for making a turn around a bend, and Bear runs like hell and slides down a hillside to cut it off, and hits the road just in time to board it.

(3) Jumping onto a rope in Louisiana
Bear stands on the roof of a flooded house in Louisiana and the chopper comes in and dangles the rope-ladder as near him as it can. Which isn’t all that near. Bear takes a leap of faith and roars off the roof and out over the flooded water teeming with snakes, alligators and disease but manages to grab the oscillating rope-ladder with both hands and stay firmly on as the chopper pulls away.

(2) Chopper rescue off a temple in Guatemala
Never start a fire on an ancient monument unless it’s a survival situation is the rider Bear issues to viewers before setting one on a Mayan temple in Guatemala. He then dashes up the temple to get higher so that he can reach the rope-ladder dropped down for him and swings off after the chopper, barely missing the trees when the rainforest reasserts itself. And, oh joy, leaves the fire burning strongly…

(1) Hopping a train in Montana
Walking along train-tracks to get back to civilisation is a good idea, following them through a long tunnel to avoid having to schlepp over the hillside is not such a good idea. The sinking feeling that the tracks are suddenly vibrating leads Bear and his crew to run for all their worth to dramatically dive out of the narrow tunnel just before the train rampages out of it, and then they bloody hop it!

Top Performances of 2011

In a new move for this blog, and as a complement to last week’s Top 10 Films of 2011, here are the Top Performances of 2011. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor, which was well and truly coming apart at the seams from so many great scene-stealing and buttressing performances last year. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

Best Supporting Actress
Mila Kunis (Black Swan) Kunis for me is far more impressive than Portman as she swaggers thru the film as the bad-girl chain-smoking, imperfect but sensual, ballerina – Dionysus in flesh.
Amy Ryan (Win Win) Ryan is fantastic as a loving mother who takes in a teenage waif despite violent misgivings and whose reproaches of his mother equally belie her huge compassion.
Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (Incendies) Her performance as Jeanne Marwan anchors the film as this ordinary Quebecois becomes ever more dogged in discovering her mother’s unknown life.
Runners Up:
Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) Knightley’s bold decision to take the smallest role pays off as she plays cruel and manipulative perfectly before then making us comprehend and forgive her.
Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class, The Beaver) Lawrence has talent to burn, whether depicting real terror and moral indecision as Mystique or Norah’s arc from contemptuousness to compassion.
Hayley Atwell (Captain America) Atwell makes this movie work as well as it does, because if you didn’t believe the slow thaw of her imperious character, the ending wouldn’t be upsetting.
Elle Fanning (Super 8) Elle serves notice that she’s as good as big sis with a startlingly assured turn, the highlight of which is her turning on the star-power on cue for the awful amateur film.
Also Placed:
Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, 50/50) Howard redeems herself after Eclipse as a preposterous flirt whose facade is demolished by Matt Damon’s medium, and an unreliable narcissist who fails the ailing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his hour of need.
Melanie Lynskey (Win Win) Lynskey is tremendously ambiguous as the unreliable mother who loves her son but maybe perhaps loves getting her hands on his grandfather’s money even more.
Marion Cotillard (Little White Lies, Midnight in Paris) Cotillard fleshes out a wonderfully conflicted lover and friend in Little White Lies, and she’s rarely been as out and out charming as in Midnight in Paris.

Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)
Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris) “Who wants to fight?!” Stoll’s Hemingway is a joy; delivering his monologues in an abrupt monotone he’s terse, funny, wise, and (whisper it) warmly human.
Noah Taylor (Submarine) Taylor is hilarious as the disappointed by life father who is awkward to the point of insanity, but also subtly registers both his depression and his amazing compassion.
Liam Cunningham (The Guard) Cunningham is wonderful as the chief drug-dealer, trying to be reasonable when he doesn’t need to be; a show behind a different truth exemplified in his exit.
Mark Strong (The Guard) Strong doesn’t have that big a role, but he walks off with a number of superb scenes because of his hilariously snarling contempt for the idiots he’s working with.
Runners Up:
Kurt Fuller (Midnight in Paris) Fuller was funny in Supernatural as Zachariah but here he takes a quantum leap with amazing delivery of great gags and one reaction shot that is just pure gold.
Jason Bateman (Paul) I’ve found Bateman to be stuck in a rut for a while now but this performance shakes things up with a comic abrasiveness that adds a new layer to his usual deadpan and timing.
Seth Rogen (50/50, Paul) Rogen added some nice dramatic depth to his usual clowning, but his reaction to the news that Swayze had not beat cancer is one of my favourite comedy moments of 2011.
Also Placed:
Hans Morten Hansen (Troll Hunter) Hansen steals every scene he’s in as the hapless bureaucrat heading the Troll Security Service whose cover-up stories are getting steadily more ludicrous.
Alan Tudyk (Transformers 3) His performance as Turturro’s Dutch assistant is completely insane on every level, and makes no logical sense at all, but it will reduce you to paralytic laughter.

Best Supporting Actor (Drama)
Tom Hiddleston (Thor) Hiddleston totally upends this film by making you prefer his clever, sinuous Loki over the boorish Thor. This is a marker from an actor of great subtlety and wit.
Cillian Murphy (In Time) Ignore all the old soul in young body guff, Murphy is terrific because he invests Leon with a dogged sense of righteousness despite knowing he’s on the wrong side.
Colin Farrell (Fright Night) Farrell is gloriously over the top in this role; you can see him almost tasting his dialogue as he says it in certain scenes as he milks it for laughs and suspense.
George Clooney (The Ides of March) Clooney paints Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic, but perhaps he’s just a weasel at heart.
Runners Up:
Maxim Gaudette (Incendies) Gaudette’s turn as the resistant twin Simon Marwan is crucial as his unwillingness to dig into the past and his later shock at what he finds stands in for the audience.
Anton Yelchin (The Beaver) Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his depressed father’s traits which may be his traits too.
Albert Brooks (Drive) Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his ‘nice’ mobster in a performance that is more terrifying because it’s so often quite charming.
Tommy Lee Jones (Captain America) Jones can do this sort of nonsense in his sleep but it looks like he’s woken up in order to really enjoy his great one-liners and fun cliché gruff soldier role.
Also Placed:
Sebastian Armesto (Anonymous) His Ben Jonson is a wonderful creation; wise, funny, and yet capable of stunning betrayal when his ego is burnt by the success (fake and real) of Shakespeare and the Earl of Oxford.
Guy Pearce (King’s Speech, Justice) Pearce is immaculate as Edward VIII; nonchalant, wilful, narcissistic, irresponsible; and shows great range with his ruthless, rational, and psychotic villain Simon in Justice.

Best Actress
Lubna Azabal (Incendies) Azabal plays Nawal Marwan, the dead mother whose life we uncover in flashback, and is amazing in keeping the audience’s sympathy with this victim, even as she becomes a perpetrator of violence, due to her defiant air and remarkably independent spirit.
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Mara perfectly embodies Lisbeth Salander in the detached delivery of dialogue and the perverse code of honour. She seems at points to be able to change her very size; tiny and delicate when being victimised, and then long-limbed and terrifying when revenging.
Runners Up:
Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) Wasikowska is almost unrecognisable from her Alice, and her Jane is wonderfully nuanced; there’s a great fire and determination behind the submissive exterior.
Evan Rachel Wood (Ides of March) Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock amazing to watch as her seductive facade just crumbles.
Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) Blunt manages to take what could be a manic pixie dream girl role and invest it with some realism as she’s charming and funny but also pragmatically aloof.
Also Placed:
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) Holding her own against Bridges and Damon she’s very impressive.
Amy Adams (The Fighter) Adams superbly brings a lot of hard toughness to her usual warmth.
Olivia Wilde Thirteen (Cowboys & Aliens) Thirteen does enigmatic very well as the woman who fell to earth.

Best Actor
Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) Fassbender turns his gleefulness into dark charisma to make his globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik a dark superhero capable of retaining audience sympathy even if he kills people. The philosophy that Magneto represents is thus given incredibly persuasive flesh.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) Shannon is incredibly subtle handling the cognitive dissonance of a man taking risky actions to safeguard against an apocalypse only he has foreknowledge of, while also tackling the possibility that it’s merely his inherited schizophrenia manifesting itself.
Runners Up:
Francois Cluzet (Little White Lies) Max’s nervous breakdown at the hands of elusive weasels and unwanted gay crushes is epically entertaining but Cluzet is able to do dramatic catharsis too.
Mel Gibson (The Beaver) A bravura performance that’s oddly humble. You hardly look at his face, and his vocal performance as the Beaver is spectacular; jumping from charming to menacing in a sentence.
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) Gleeson is hysterically funny as a deranged guard whose ethical compass, despite all the drugs and prostitutes, still points true north when his partner is killed.
Rhys Ifans (Anonymous) A rare thoughtful performance from Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford, the real writer of Shakespeare’s plays. He convinces as a learned renaissance man of great wisdom and an incredibly passionate soul.
Also Placed:
Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Craig is perfect casting as Mikael Blomqvist. He nails the ethical integrity and the womanising charm and wonderfully plays against type when called upon by the plot to be physically brave.
Otto Jespersen (Troll Hunter) Jespersen is wonderful as Hans the Troll Hunter. He finds much mordant comedy in essaying a man who is equal parts battle-weary and still stoically efficient.

January 11, 2012

The Darkest Hour 3-D

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Emile’s fine…

Emile Hirsch stars as a young tech entrepreneur in Chris Gorak’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama set in Moscow, and produced by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. Hirsch and his business partner and lifelong friend Max Minghella arrive in Moscow to launch a Russian expansion of their social networking site Globe Trot. Only to find that they’ve been royally screwed by their dodgy business associate played by Alexander Skarsgaard lookalike Joel Kinnaman, who has the advantage over them of actually speaking Russian and has stolen their idea. Disconsolate they retreat to Zvezda nightclub where they meet two users of Globe Trot, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor. Kinnaman shows up for a celebration of his business deal, but a fight is halted by a sudden power-cut that heralds the descent of alien invaders. What resemble glowing jellyfish descend from the skies and then become invisible, before shredding any human who touches them with a blast of electromagnetic wave energy that reduces them to their molecular structure instantly.

The Darkest Hour recalls Cloverfield in its quick setting up of a small group of people before realistically killing them off in shocking and suspenseful ways as they grapple with an alien invasion they don’t really comprehend. The script by Jon Spaiht was originally conceived for small town Ohio by Leslie Bohem & MT Ahern but became a far different beast when the chance to explore Russia opened up. Unfortunately the script lacks Drew Goddard’s wit and so, unlike Cloverfield, you’re not fully on board with rooting for these characters before they’re thrown into peril. The peril though is very well handled. A sequence in a deserted Red Square is memorable both for its stunning location and its tension as our heroes try to escape detection by an enemy they cannot see. Gorak’s love of 28 Days Later is clear from the joy he finds in filming scenes in a Moscow whose 14 million citizens have been reduced to a thin dust on the eerily empty streets. 

These Americans and Australian are totally lost in an urban environment where even the street signs are in an alphabet they can’t read. Gorak makes daytime a source of terror as only at night can the aliens be easily detected when they light up electric outlets. The science is explained by a nicely deranged Dato Bakhtadze as Sergei, riffing on Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later. Indeed the stars are comprehensively outshone by their support. Veronika Vernadskaya as Vika has some wonderful moments as the resolute teenage survivor. Gohas Kutsnko as Matveo is magnificent as a Russian soldier who has figured out to how to defeat the aliens and plans a Leningrad style resistance; he would rather die with Moscow at his back than survive in exile. This recalls Colin Farrell’s character in The Way Back, but with Bekmambetov advising we can apparently now regard this as a real Russian trait.

The ending stresses the note of hope too much, when the world’s population could now probably live comfortably in North London, but this is a solid piece of work.

3/5

January 9, 2012

Shame

If Bret Easton Ellis and Harold Pinter had ever co-written a movie it would feel like director Steve McQueen’s second feature film Shame.

McQueen reunites with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender for another stunning drama that thrillingly re-imagines cinema’s possibilities. Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful Irish-American businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his entire life around his secret sex addiction. The crippling nature of this addiction is hammered home in the opening sequence. This intercuts Brandon’s daily routine of sex with multiple anonymous partners (and ignoring phone calls from his sister) with him ogling a woman on the subway who initially flirts back but then gets increasingly uncomfortable even as David Escott’s unsettling strings surge in tandem with Brandon’s compulsion. When Brandon loses her in the crowd, the panicked despair on his face speaks volumes. Our sympathy is with Brandon when he’s scared of being rumbled at work for the hard-core pornography on his hard-drive, but Fassbender’s smile has never been so predatory. James Badge Dale as his boss is the socially acceptable clumsy pick-up artist but Brandon, sardonically watching him flail about, is a shark slyly circling too easy prey.

Brandon’s life starts to disintegrate when his wayward sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay with him. Mulligan and Fassbender aid each other in achieving remarkably raw performances. Cissy’s eccentric rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in unflinching close-up is incredibly brittle and leads to a devastating reaction shot of Brandon tearing up. Cissy and Brandon’s lack of inhibition around each other recalls the siblings in The War Zone, implying they were sexually abused as children; a reading reinforced by Brandon being so tortured by her having sex that he embarks on a midnight jog. McQueen though, like Pinter, is uninterested in explaining. The enigmatic line “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” may refer to a traumatic childhood, or it may not, and it’s delivered while Brandon and Cissy verbally flay each other in an argument that achieves a stunningly theatrical intensity by being a fixed-position long-take. McQueen similarly transforms Brandon’s frustrated jog into an unexpectedly transcendent sequence by shooting it as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks.

Brandon tries to cold-turkey away his addiction after Cissy confronts him, and even goes on a proper date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). McQueen’s middle distance long-take staging emphasises the comedy of their inept waiter but also introduces undertones of great unease. Brandon has no ability to commit to a normal loving relationship and his later (unflinchingly observed) failure to seduce her, and his subsequent exhibitionist recourse to a prostitute, emphasises that he has been empathetically corrupted by pornography. This is a film about sex addiction that avoids salaciousness as the sex scenes are made every bit as wincing to observe as watching an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay this is bodies in motion – as Brandon’s spectacular succumbing to his addiction in the finale is rendered semi-abstractly. Shame is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering compulsion derailing your whole life – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy.

Shame lacks the narrative momentum of Hunger, and Brandon’s emotional epiphany feels slightly contrived, but it leads to a devastating circular conclusion emphasising that temptation is ever present for any addict. McQueen and Fassbender are proving themselves to be as seminal a pairing as Herzog and Kinski…

5/5

2012: Fears

W.E.
Madonna (!!!) directs Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in a farcically sympathetic portrayal of the American who eventually became King Edward VIII’s wife. Edward is Master & Commander star James D’Arcy, who’s probably immensely relieved to have escaped from the ghetto of movies like Rise: Blood Hunter, but for us another trot around the bloody Abdication Crisis is a truly appalling vista. Edward VIII wanted all the wealth and privilege of being a King without the responsibility, and failed to challenge the absurdity of being forbidden to marry a divorced woman when the Church of England only existed because Henry VIII wanted to divorce a woman and remarry. Screw him…

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Stephen Daldry tries to win yet more bloody Oscar nominations with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy searching for the secrets left behind by the father he lost on 9/11. Daldry directs, Tom Hanks plays the father and Sandra Bullock the mother, the screenplay is by Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button scribe Eric Roth, it’s about a weighty subject, and is released within the three month attention span the Academy’s members have long since proven they possess – what’s not to hate about such a naked attempt not to make a good film but to make the sort of film that wins Oscars?

Battleship
Somewhere in Hollywood a studio executive called Delaney is about to crash his sports-car as he drives past a huge billboard poster for this movie. Delaney will stagger out of the wreckage, lurch into the traffic to stare at the promise of an incredibly fake-looking CGI alien invasion limited to the radius of an inexplicable force-field in the ocean being foiled by US Navy ships led by an equally inexplicable Liam Neeson, slumming it alongside Rihanna and shouting orders to Too Tall Skarsgaard while rattling thru an inane arc about responsibility with Taylor Kitsch, and Delaney will incoherently rave “Holy God Jesus! I thought I’d killed this movie in development!!”

Total Recall
Director Len Wiseman proved with Die Hard 4.0 that he has talent, but that does not mean remaking Total Recall is a good idea. 22 years after Arnie’s original our hero is now Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale (of course) is the dame, and there will be no mucking about on Mars because that’s not in the original story. But justifying your over-hasty remake by your fidelity to the source text is deeply suspect. Philip K Dick’s short story is clever, hilarious, and wonderful, but it’s a short story. It would barely sustain an episode of The Outer Limits. Wiseman’s foray may actually justify itself by being less ludicrously violent…

The Avengers
Joss Whedon co-writes and directs Marvel’s huge gamble to tie together the fate of all their various franchise characters in one huge blockbuster. I’ve voiced my doubts about this enterprise repeatedly and at some length. Whedon has experience writing the X-Men characters to superb effect, and he will draw great performances from his cast, probably insert a large number of good lines and hilarious moments, and may even pull off the truly great action sequence that has thus far eluded nearly all the in-house Marvel movies, but, this appears in Fears because of its lack of commercial and interior logic, and the artistic pitfalls of its choice of villains.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Kristen Stewart was once a very capable young actress. Then she became a global star almost overnight, and a horrible stiltedness overtook her. The question is now that the end of Twilight is nigh, can she manage to overcome the brittleness it inspired? Well, if she can she probably won’t start the acting comeback with this overblown nonsensical ‘version’ which sees Snow White as Warrior Princess teaming up with Thor Chris Hemsworth to take down Charlize Theron’s evil Queen with the help of a coterie of British actors of a certain age as the dwarves. Warwick Davis won’t be happy about that because Ricky Gervais will.

Men in Black 3
Will Smith seems to make a Men in Black film whenever he’s panicked about his career. I didn’t think Hancock and Seven Pounds not being well received constituted that big a crisis but apparently he did, and so here we are – once again with Smith travelling thru time in 3-D to fight aliens who are pursuing Josh Brolin aka Tommy Lee Jones in the 1960s. Four capable writers have fiddled with this script, and Barry Sonenfeld hasn’t directed a hit in a long time, so this one comes with ‘Approach with Caution’ stickers plastered all over it despite Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader’s presence in the cast.

The Dark Knight Rises
If this film isn’t a disaster I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman seems vindicated as a casting choice from the trailer, and there are pleasing hints from the chants being translated for Bruce Wayne as ‘Rise’ that perhaps Ras Al’Ghul’s methods really are supernatural, but, the Bat-wing seen hovering above the Bat-mobile at the end of the trailer looks like something out of Rocobop (by which I mean 1987 special effects in a 2012 movie), and the destruction of the football pitch by Bane is embarrassingly fake-looking. Perhaps Nolan has crammed in so damn much to this final instalment that he couldn’t find time to pull it off more practically, but such obnoxiously obvious CGI is the polar opposite of the legion of compositing shots he used in The Dark Knight. Would it really have been so hard to film the football player running in the stadium in Pittsburgh, then build a replica grass pitch set and blow it up in Hollywood, and composite the two together so that it looked real because what you were seeing was real – just from two different places at two different times cunningly yoked together by digital trickery. I think this is a film that no one will like, but that some people might admire; because Batman dies at the end. Bane can’t kill Batman and get away with it, audiences would rebel. But, I’m convinced that Nolan’s watched Sherlock and the end of the movie will see Batman sacrifice himself in order to rid Gotham of the intolerable evil of Bane. Batman and Bane will topple off Gotham’s Reichenbach Falls locked in eternal combat. But I think along the way to this unforgettable and traumatic finale the sense of fun that must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman will be entirely absent, the level of grotesquery from the brutal villain will be unbearable, and everyone will start muttering about how it ruins the first two movies.

The Bourne Legacy
The Bourne franchise is really starting to really resemble the world of Robert Ludlum now, in the sense that the great man has passed on and yet still work emerges bearing his name. Jeremy Renner plays an agent who is not Jason Bourne, but has a tenuous enough link to Bourne’s world to justify the attention grabbing title. Renner is a fine actor, and it’s nice to see him headline a big summer blockbuster, but this has pointless cash-in written all over it. Tony Gilroy, writer on all previous three films, now directs this one as well in the knowledge that Damon will only return for Greengrass directing…

Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Quentin Tarantino’s movie about escaped slaves, underground railroaders, and bounty-hunters battling for freedom and money. Sounds good! So why is a Leonesque adventure in a nonsensical 19th Century in the Fears side of the ledger rather than the Hopes? Because just once I’d like Tarantino to make a film where you didn’t have to wince at the prospect of the unspeakable violence that was undoubtedly about to come your way along with the great dialogue, cut-up structure, and bravura directing. Is it too much to ask that he rein in his sadism for a PG-13 story one of these days?

Lincoln
Spielberg had been making this movie for a decade with Liam Neeson before he finally actually started making it and abruptly went with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th POTUS. No longer based on 2008’s immensely long book of the moment Team of Rivals, this is now a details biopic of a working President, as Lincoln in his final months tries to legislatively copper-fasten the victory against slavery. Day-Lewis will powerhouse his way thru proceedings, leading a strong cast including the peerless Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but what worries is Tony Kushner’s script. Munich obsessively shied away from discussion of the causes and conduct of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can Kushner really do ‘details’?

300: The Battle of Artemisia
Zack Snyder has co-written with his original 300 compadres this sequel for another director to helm while he’s busy trying to make Superman soar again at the box-office. The fact that all of the 300 Spartan warriors died in the first movie bar the narrator, who went on to lead the hilarious charge in the next battle that closed the original film, doesn’t stop Snyder & Co making a sequel – about different characters, at a different battle, before Thermopylae. Apparently sequel has some new and strange meaning that Snyder will instruct us in thru an epic, unintentionally hilarious, battle between freedom-loving Americans Athenians and tyrannical Persians.

The Great Gatsby
I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but that is why I can’t think Baz Lurhmann’s film of it can be anything but a disaster. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his nemesis, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway may narrate us all into a coma, and Carey Mulligan for all her strengths will struggle with the eternally thankless role of Daisy. My great fear is Lurhmann’s inability to handle subtlety. Gatsby is all about Fitzgerald’s prose, which flows like sparkling champagne, not swooping thru raucous parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes…

Breaking Dawn: Part II
The decision to split Breaking Dawn into two films would hopefully be unwise after the awfulness of the padded Part I, but the need to see how things end will defeat any desire to punish such commercial crassness. What now for the rapidly ageing Renesme and her creepily smitten werewolf protector Jacob? How will Bella adjust to being a very, very thirsty newborn vampire? Can Michael Sheen Fassbender this film to campy heights as the Volturi travel en masse to Forks to abduct her? Or will director Bill Condon’s bizarrely perfunctory approach produce another bloated, inert, embarrassing disaster and end the series on a very low note?

2012: Hopes

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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

Top 10 Films of 2011

(10) The Adjustment Bureau
George Nolfi’s Philip K Dick adaptation had a too neat resolution, but against that one flaw must be set a brace of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting villains, a truly dazzling romance that craftily worked on two different levels, superb comedy from Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and a delightful temporally skipping structure that organically built to an unexpected and thrilling action chase finale. Nolfi took an idea from Dick and built something warm and great around it.
 
(9) Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s direction was ridiculously self-effacing, but he coaxed the performances to match Alex Garland’s subtle screen imagining of Kazuo Ishiguro’s offbeat sci-fi novel, while the casting of child actors to match their adult equivalents was very impressive. Keira Knightley as the villainous Ruth outshone Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as she invested the smallest role of the trio with great cruelty and then complexity. This was a heartbreaking slow-burner.

(8) Submarine
Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut from his own adaptation of the Welsh novel and impressed mightily. The comedy was superb, as you’d expect, whether it was the offbeat character moments, deflating jump cuts and preposterous slow-mos, or priceless cinematic in-jokes. What surprised was his assurance in handling drama, from depression to mortal illness and infidelity to suicide, with growing overtones of menace and a refreshing lack of predictability.

(7) Little White Lies
An incredibly Americanised French film, whether it was fun on a yacht being sound-tracked by Creedence or grand romantic gestures being accompanied by Antony and the Johnsons. Marion Cotillard & Co leave a comatose friend’s bedside for their annual holiday and comic madness involving weasels and crushes and endless dramas over love ensue. It’s over-long but mostly the Flaubertian lack of plot made time cease to matter for both the characters and the audience.

(5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s version surpassed the Swedish original by reinstating more of the texture of Stieg Larsson’s book, creating a mystery rather than a thriller, in which the characters dominate the plot and are allowed to have complex emotional lives outside of cracking the cold case. The villain is marvellously drawn, and Fincher not only draws out maximum suspense from the story, but betters the Swedish version by both keeping the nastiest sequences and then also refusing to soften Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are both pitch-perfect in the lead roles.

(5) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen amazed by somehow delivering a fantastical romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Allen granted Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams’ bickering engaged couple numerous hysterical scenes of utterly failing to connect, not least with her hilariously snooty parents. The recreation of the roaring Twenties Paris of America’s Lost Generation writers was positively inspired, most notably in its Hemingway who monologues in an abrupt monotone, and the film itself equally warm and wise.

(4) Take Shelter
This stunning film is both a Donnie Darko inflected tale of approaching apocalypse that only our hero has foreknowledge of but which sets his sanity on edge, and a terrifyingly realistic story of a man’s descent into a mental illness so subtle yet devastating that he can bankrupt his family by being plausible enough at the bank to secure loans to carry out construction to safeguard against an imaginary threat. Taut, terrifically ambiguous, and nightmarishly scary on several levels, this achieves such intensity that at its climax the simple act of Michael Shannon opening a storm shelter door becomes a moment of unbearable suspense and incredible emotional consequence.

(3) The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut was an impressively inventive profane farce which could be best described as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – Connemara. Brendan Gleeson seized with both Fassbendering hands the chance to play the world’s most demented Guard while Don Cheadle was an effective foil as the exasperated FBI Agent teaming up with him to bring down the preposterously philosophical drug-smugglers Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong. Endlessly quotable and showcasing wonderful running gags, an unlikely action finale, and an ambiguous ending that poked fun at Hollywood resolutions this was the comedy of 2011.

(2) X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn finally got to direct an X-Men movie and, with his co-writers, at last gave some substance to the friendship and enmity of Magneto and Professor X. Michael Fassbender’s rightly vengeful Nazi-hunter Erik complicated comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass and added real weight to the tragedy of Mystique turning to his philosophy over the compassion personified by her mentor Xavier. Vaughn balanced this trauma with very funny montages of Erik and Xavier recruiting and training mutants for the CIA, but it was the casual tossing in of an enormous shock in the finale which exemplifed the supreme assuredness of this fine blockbuster.

(1) Incendies
This French-Canadian film unnerves from its opening shot, is always enthralling, and by the end has become quite simply devastating. A couple of Montreal siblings discover that their mother had unbeknownst to them lived a life of startling savagery in Lebanon’s 1980s civil war before emigrating. This is a merciless depiction of a vicious war where each side torches the other’s orphanages, burns women and children alive in buses, and recruits the other’s young boys as soldiers when not just shooting them in the head. The siblings uncover and come to terms with an extraordinary journey in search of vengeance, leading to the ultimate crime, and forgiveness…

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