Writer/director Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college skewering nonsense.
Ingénue Lily (former America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton) transfers into Seven Oaks College which is dominated by the slightly unhinged clique of Greta Gerwig’s Violet. Violet is engaged in a deadly struggle with the editor of the campus newspaper The Daily Complainer over his efforts to shut the Roman Houses as her dim boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) lives at one of these frat houses. Violet is also engaged in trying to raise morale with her Suicide Prevention Centre, which she runs with best friend Rose (CSI: Miami star Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Violet thinks that creating an international dance craze with her original creation the Sambola may help change the world for the better. Lily becomes more assertive under Violet’s acerbic tutelage and indeed soon thinks that Violet’s clique may be the worst people imaginable for the job of preventing suicide…
Stillman is one of the most urbane auteurs imaginable and this return from an extended absence occasioned by a film set in Jamaica falling thru is full of delightful gags. An opening argument about whether Xavier is spelt with an X or a Z which instances the lamentable case of a Xorro who signed his name by slashing X with a sword, and was therefore unjustly considered illiterate exemplifies what follows. The ‘plot’ is a ramshackle series of comedic episodes with titles. A highlight being The Roman Holiday at which the frat boys go wild in costume to the strains of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra as the girls sigh that this seems to be the end of western civilisation. But following Lily from ingénue to mean girl while Violet declines is really all the structuring character arc you need when it allows glorious dialogue.
Billy Magnusen’s frat boy Thor who is hitting the books hard to try and fix in his mind what the primary colours are is a triumphant creation, and the transformative power of a bar of soap is an equally absurdist moment. Stillman also indulges in more subtle effects, as when a piece of pop Anti-Catholicism by a character is revealed later to be tragically misjudged. Gerwig is impressive as Violet, Echikunwoke receives an amazing character moment after milking her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’, which she applies to Talking Movies favourite Adam Brody; whose Charlie, alongside Hugo Becker’s exchange student Xavier, comes between Lily and Violet as romantic obstacles. People say horrible things to each other in this film but Stillman never has anything less than love for them.
No one in the world has ever really talked quite like a Whit Stillman character, but you feel sure that F Scott Fitzgerald’s characters would get on well with them.
April 23, 2012
Writer/director Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college skewering nonsense.
Glenn Close realises a lifetime’s ambition and finally turns her one-woman off-Broadway show based on George Moore’s novella into a feature film.
Close plays Albert Nobbs, a conscientious but taciturn waiter at the Morrison Hotel in Dublin in the year, well, oddly it’s never really specified, just sometime after 1898. Albert’s great secret is that he is really a woman. This is the moment at which suspension of disbelief needs a crane because the make-up job just makes Close look a bit odd, not like a man. The accent is a cannier choice, a soft London accent that doesn’t draw attention to the lightness of its timbre. But if ever a film was based around a make-up job it’s this movie, and the over-worked crane for suspending disbelief quite simply buckles early on when there is a shocking revelation that another male character is also a woman in disguise; a shock that is only if you haven’t immediately thought on seeing the character that it’s a woman.
John Banville co-wrote the script with Close and Gabriella Prekop and perhaps that’s the reason for the lack of driving plot. Nobbs is encouraged by her confidante Janet McTeer, who has set up house with Bronagh Gallagher, to use her substantial savings to open her own tobacconist’s shop. At this point Nobbs begins to think of enticing fellow Morrison servant Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) to join her in the enterprise, oblivious to the fact that Helen is only walking out with her to scrounge money for the fare to America. That plan is the brainchild of roguish Joe (Aaron Johnson), who via some delightful percussive maintenance on the Morrison’s misbehaving boiler has insinuated himself into the staff and then between Helen’s sheets. If that sounds half-interesting beware, this film’s deadly dull and never resolves the contradiction between its Shakespearean-obvious cross-dressing and its otherwise realistic universe.
Director Rodrigo Garcia coaxes good performances from his cast but McTeer, Johnson and Wasikowska come undone by virtue of their ropey accents far too frequently; even though McTeer outshines Close by virtue of having a more assertive character. I don’t know why Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is in the film as a debauched Wildean lord, except to pinpoint the class-based moral hypocrisy of Pauline Collins’ hotel owner, but such lack of purpose or context is everywhere. Are McTeer and Gallagher a lesbian couple or not? Does Nobbs think Helen will live with her as a companion or as a lover? These vital questions are never clearly answered until it’s far too late. Even more baffling is the politically de-contextualised Dublin setting. Why not just set it in London and eliminate the ropey accents, if not the unbelievable cross-dressing disguises?
If you really want to see Close on great form in a late career sparkler I suggest you look at a DVD box-set of Damages.
In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.
1. What is NetFlix?
GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.
2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?
FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?
FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
GH: Fire away.
FC: The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
GH: Moving on!
4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?
FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.
FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…
5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?
FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.
6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?
FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?
7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?
GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.
Axis Cinema on Ballymun Main Street is home to The Pictures, which started as a film club and has grown to become a great social network for the over 55s in Ballymun. They’ve offered a diverse film programme this spring, the last titles of which will shortly be on screen.
presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis, in association with access>Cinema
Date: 30th April Time: 2.30pm
Tickets: €2 Members / €4 Non-Members / €3 Membership
Ed Zwick’s thriller stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly. Escaped prisoner of war Hounsou claims to know the location of a huge blood diamond, and as these diamonds are mined in African war zones and sold to finance conflicts Connelly’s crusading reporter is as interested in finding it as DiCaprio’s cynical South African mercenary.
presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis, in association with access>Cinema
Date: 28th May Time: 2.30pm
Tickets: Free (As part of Bealtaine Festival)
The special May Pictures screening will be presented as part of the Bealtaine Festival that celebrates creativity in older age. The film will be announced in early May and will be for free.
Located at the heart of Ballymun, Axis is an arts venue, a production company, an arts development organisation, a community resource centre, and home to a number of community development organisations. More information on www.axis-ballymun.ie
April 16, 2012
Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.
Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…
Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.
This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.
Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.
Paul Torday’s acclaimed comic novel is brought to life by a top British cast, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Lasse Hallstrom sabotage the comedy.
Ewan McGregor is Dr. Fred Jones, a humdrum fisheries scientist who is whisked out of his quiet existence in London by an implausible fishery project in the Middle East on the insistence of his superiors; themselves bullied by Kristin Scott Thomas’ terrifying spin-doctor Patricia Maxwell, who sees an opportunity for a rare good news story about British involvement in the region. He begins working for a Yemeni Sheikh of such quiet assuredness and obviously good intentions that Fred’s misgivings slowly melt away. As he becomes more committed to the success of the scheme Fred also steadily becomes more besotted with the Sheikh’s English project manager Harriet (Emily Blunt), to the increasing displeasure of his icy wife Mary (Rachel Stirling). Harriet, however, is pining for her MIA soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison), and Fred is equally oblivious to Al-Qaeda’s murderous objections to the Sheikh’s westernising dream…
There is some wonderful comedy in this film, a highlight being Fred’s patronising doodling on a whiteboard to explain to Harriet how ridiculous the whole project is. But there aren’t enough jokes to really make this work as a comedy. McGregor is on subdued form as the straight man, with irritating references to Asperger’s thrown in to make his awkwardness part of a new cliché zeitgeist. Blunt effortlessly moves from casually charming to emotionally raw, and Amr Waked is on fine form as the charismatic Sheikh who equates fishing with universal brotherhood, but the best scenes come from Scott Thomas’ domineering Press Secretary. All her scenes are delightful; whether she’s harassing the P.M. with IMs re-shuffling his Cabinet for him, terrorising her minions with an instruction to find a good news story from the Middle East in 60 minutes, or verbally abusing her own children.
A bad adaptation sends you scurrying to the book in frustration or bewilderment – looking for more depth or to discover if the original story was poor. Beaufoy’s script made me read the book, which he’s infuriatingly reversed in many respects; just as he ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal Q & A into Slumdog Millionaire. Torday’s dry comedy and political satire is sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivers only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife is hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent here; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion are all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminate in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which should elicit groans…
This is a prime example of a film that is structurally as sound as a bell, and therefore excruciatingly predictable viewing.
I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.
I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.
I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.
Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.
Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…
April 10, 2012
Five American teenagers travel to a remote cabin in the woods in the South for a debauched weekend; terrible things ensue, and by gad sir is it hysterically funny…
Alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth) invites his loose girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her sober friend Dana (Kristen Connolly) to join his bookish friend Holden (Jesse Williams) and their mutual stoner friend Marty (Fran Kranz) at his cousin’s vacant cabin in the woods. Once there they unwittingly unleash forces of evil that pick them off by one. The set-up and execution is the stuff of parodic cliché. But then, it is parodic cliché, because the script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard; with the great Goddard making his directorial debut. The sinister blood-stained opening credits are interrupted by coffee-making, and then the mundane office drones sequence that launched is interrupted by the inappropriately sound-tracked title card. This is by far the funniest film I’ve seen in quite some time…
Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins play the office drones in the control room of a giant military-industrial operation that Goddard uses to undercut all the horror clichés. They have tremendous comedic chemistry and make this move terrific fun as they organise office gambling pools, snarl at video monitors, indulge in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank sequence, and humiliate Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk; a harassed chemist and intern respectively. It’s a privilege to see Studio 60’s Whitford again rampaging thru great comedic dialogue, his delivery of lines like “I think, mostly, that I just want this moment to end now” guaranteed to bring the house down. Great lines like “Yeah, I kind of dismembered that guy with a trowel” abound and Kranz, despite his irritating vocal delivery, grabs a lot of them. The true acting revelation though is just how likeable Hemsworth is when he’s not playing Thor.
This is not a scary movie. There’s gore aplenty at the end, but it’s so ridiculous that one setting in particular seems like it was a bet with Piranha 3-D auteur Alexandre Aja on who could use more fake blood. Having read Buffy season 8 I’m inclined to praise Goddard for everything that’s great, especially all the hilarious nonsense with Whitford, Jenkins & Co, and blame Whedon for everything that doesn’t work, namely the final act’s descent into VFX overload and lame mythology. The collision of military science and magic screams Whedon’s disastrous Initiative in Buffy season 4 and the increasingly silly mythic tone is pure Season 8. Goddard meanwhile has always specialised in joyous (and undercutting) comedy preceding incredibly bleak shocks. Here his comedy soars before unveiling the most fitting character death you could hope for.
Sure the ending is deeply unsatisfactory and the whole third act is increasingly preposterous, but this so damn funny that it must be judged an excellent film overall.
As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.
Fear of Marketing
In a nigh endless series of blogs last year about the state of Hollywood I noted the utter laziness of marketers when it came to doing their job. To wit, their reluctance to actually market something from scratch; they’d far rather market something that someone in the past had managed to make a successful brand than make something a successful brand themselves – which one might have imagined was what they were paid for. Anywho, I laughed hysterically when I discovered that The Avengers had actually been re-titled for the British and Irish market (we’re hard to tell apart apparently) as Marvel Avengers Assemble. Obviously Marvel Avengers Assemble is funny in its own right as a ludicrously clumsy title. Far funnier though is the idea that The Avengers, a show which ended its 9 year run in 1970, and which, even if one counts its second incarnation in the late 1970s as The New Avengers, has been off-air for over 30 years is considered to have such abiding brand strength that a $100 million marketing budget can’t defeat it. Apparently the marketers have decided that bus posters, Tube posters, cinema trailers, bus-stop posters, TV spots, huge outdoor advertising hoardings, radio spots, and endless media interviews across radio, print, digital, and TV won’t be enough to get punters to comprehend that The Avengers starring Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson will not feature Downey Jr in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella, even if it might admittedly feature Johansson in tight leather kicking people. I’ve started thinking about other films that have titles that could equally profit in the renaming stakes from such fear of confusion. Perhaps The Magnificent Seven in order to avoid confusion with The Seven Samurai could be re-titled Seven Gunslingers Assemble for the Japanese market.
Not all taglines are coherent
At the risk of harping on about this lack of effort on the part of people supposedly in charge of enticing us to the cinema, did anyone else raise an eyebrow at the tagline for Chronicle? ‘Not all heroes are super’. It’s meant to be enticingly dark; implying this is a movie about people like Fassbender’s Magneto. But…think about it for a second. ‘Not all heroes are super’. Yes, obviously. Heroes generally tend not to be super, but just ordinary people. Well, ‘ordinary’ in the sense that they are usually charismatic, have an exceptionally developed skill (like archery, or even just running like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man) or are an intellectual or practical genius, with a sound moral compass; even if rusty. The tagline meant ‘Not all super-humans are heroes’, but that’s not a good tagline, even if it accurately expresses the intended meaning.