Talking Movies

May 23, 2013

The Moth Diaries

American Psycho director Mary Harron returns with a Carmilla-indebted horror of female vampires at an upstate New York private school starring Irish actress Sarah Bolger.

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Our heroine Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is inseparable from her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Indeed, haunted as she still is by the memory of her father’s suicide, Lucy may have been the only thing that kept Rebecca from spiralling out of control a few years previously. However, their bond is tested with the arrival of ethereal new student Ernessa (Lily Cole). The growing friendship between Ernessa and Lucy is resented by Rebecca, especially as other girls in their close-knit circle seem to self-destruct in various ways after getting too close to Ernessa’s baneful influence. And then Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) starts to teach them about Gothic fiction and Rebecca realises that Ernessa is undoubtedly a vampire, slowly draining the life out of Lucy. But is Rebecca merely suffering from nightmarish hallucinations as she slides towards the fate of her father?

I’m reviewing this film from the odd perspective of having attended the screening at JDIFF which featured a Q&A with Harron, and Jeff Bridges’ insistence that ‘the intentions are always good’ in film-making is true with a vengeance here. Harron’s explanation of the ambiguity she wanted to imbue the film with make it fit perfectly beside American Psycho in her canon. But… The Moth Diaries doesn’t actually possess that intended ambiguity. This is partly because you can see the twist a mile off as Ernessa isolates Rebecca by breaking up her social circle. But mostly it’s because Lily Cole does not look remotely human. Dressed in flowing black clothes that accentuate her height and porcelain doll head she might as well sport an “Hello, I’m a vampire” nametag on her first appearance. And a muted horror without ambiguity is dubious.

The Moth Diaries was a nightmare to finance because of its female focus, and, unlike Orson Welles’ Othello, which is stunning despite many jarring effects caused by its interrupted shooting, it feels as if Harron simply fell over the finishing line with relief rather than with the confidence that buoyed The Notorious Bettie Page. There’s some very clunky dialogue, especially in Speedman’s scenes, and many of the characters are clichés, though Valerie Tian does stellar work with a tokenistic role. But Bolger is a very sympathetic lead and Cronenberg favourite Gadon is a good foil for her. There’re some beautiful touches by DP Declan Quinn in varying the drab colour scheme of the school with vivid torrents of blood, ghostly moonlight walks, and disruptive flashbacks and sex scenes that drip bright colours, while Harron’s final Apollonian image is also impressive.

Harron is an interesting writer/director but this film is a disappointment. It outstays its welcome despite its short running time, largely because it never emerges from cliché’s comforting cocoon.

2.5/5

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February 1, 2013

Top Performances of 2012

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2012. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor. 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.

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Best Supporting Actor (Drama)

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) His cult leader is as scary and charismatic as his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, you believe this man could hold Martha in his thrall even as initial love-bombing degenerates into sexual abuse and criminal adventures.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method, On the Road) His droll Freud is charismatic and delivers great put-downs but is deeply ambiguous; did he deliberately corrupt Jung? As genteel junky William Burroughs he was unexpectedly warm and sane.

Runners Up:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe, Magic Mike) Wonderfully sleazy as Cabaret’s MC (sic), he erased his rom-coms with a revelatory Joe; icily calm, thawed by love, and psychotic.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire) His very precise turn as the dishonest android enlivened Prometheus, while his Haywire killer was very dashing.

Also Placed:

Sam Neill (The Hunter) Neill’s gravitas and underplayed emotional torment gave a weight to his dialogue scenes with Dafoe that underpinned Dafoe in the wilderness.

Trystan Gravelle (Stella Days) His teacher inspired Martin Sheen’s priest to defiance, but he also played the attraction to his landlady with great subtlety.

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Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)

Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Miller, as flamboyant senior Patrick, displays startling range in portraying charismatic rebel after his troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin. His turn is an exuberant joy that tramples clichés of gay characters in high-school movies.

Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) Whitford as a military-industrial office drone organised absurd office gambling pools, snarled obscenities at video monitors, indulged in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank, and rampaged hilariously thru great dialogue.

Runners Up:

Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) His musings on decadence’s decline would get this nod, but Brody also makes his character a good soul given to self-aggrandising deception.

Liev Schreiber (Goon) He makes us care for his lousy hockey player who dutifully serves his team, and establishes a convincing bond with his challenger Scott.

James Ransone (Sinister) His Deputy, embarrassingly eager to assist the hero’s research and so get a book acknowledgment, single-handedly lightens a tense film.

Richard Ayoade (The Watch) His deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic is hysterical, as he synchs with the filthy absurdity purveyed by Hill and Rogen.

Also Placed:

Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) Baldwin’s reality-bending interfering commentary on Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page’s burgeoning romance is Annie Hall-esque.

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) The Greatest Actor of His Generation (TM) is actually wonderful here as the kindly earnest scoutmaster unable to control his troops.

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Best Supporting Actress

Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) She excellently layered Lucy’s relief at getting her missing sister Martha back, with guilt at perhaps having driven her away originally, and a mingled desperation and despair over the prospects of healing her psychic scars.

Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar) As Alice, the traumatised but kind girl who most appreciates what M. Lazhar is trying to do for the class, this Quebecois Dakota Fanning gives a stunningly mature performance based on unspoken grief.

Shaleine Woodley (The Descendants) She displayed considerable spark as the troubled 17 year old banished to boarding school, who’s surprisingly effective at buttressing her father’s parenting of her younger sister even as she tells him home truths.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) Hathaway essayed a great languorous voice, a wonderful slinky physicality, and a good chemistry with Batman, as well equal viciousness with quips and kicks, but her delightful presence was sorely underused.

Runners Up:

Helene Florent (Cafe de Flore) Her abandoned wife sinking into depression at the loss of her life-long partner gives the film its emotional weight.

Ellen Page (To Rome with Love) Page’s madly attractive actress gets a huge build-up from Greta Gerwig and lives up to it with gloriously shallow sophistication.

Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress) Echikunwoke madly milks her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’ and has an amazing character moment.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) Banks is very funny delivering callous lines as talent scout Effie.

Also Placed:

Roisin Barron (Stitches) Barron’s verbally abrasive and physically abusive mean girl reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early swagger.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) Her terrifying Press Secretary; reshuffling the P.M.’s Cabinet for him, verbally abusing her own children; stole the film.

Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Whitman is hilariously narcissistic and garrulous as she dominates her unfortunate boyfriend.

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) A 75 year old assaults Jimmy Nesbitt and you feel concerned for him – Redgrave oft conjures up that ferocity as Fiennes’ mother.

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Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) Olsen’s debut as cult member Martha was startlingly assured – naive victim and spiteful malefactor – and her thoughtful and witty Zibby was a comedic turn of great charm and depth.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) Imperious as Katniss: a great action heroine who combined a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Her depressed Tiffany was quicksilver magic, flirty to angry in mere seconds.

Runners Up:

Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina) Knightley excelled at Anna’s early empathy, but she was startlingly alien as the hysteric Sabina who recovers to a nuanced fragility.

Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Watson is luminous as the sardonic senior who makes it her project to transform an isolated freshman into a fellow Rocky Horror  performer.

Also Placed:

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) Stone’s witty and very determined Gwen Stacy makes you realise how poorly used Dallas Bryce Howard was and how flat out poor Kirsten Dunst was.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) Gail, the sister with an inflated opinion of herself and a sharp mouth, is a meaty part with a lot of zinging put-downs.

Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love) Creton’s arc from teenage suicidal despair to apparent and actual contentment was utterly convincing, especially in her unease around her lost love.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Shame) His remarkably raw performance made us sympathise with a sex-addict scared of being rumbled at work, but that panicked despair on his face had a flipside, the predatory smile when picking up women. Balancing both was sublime.

Runners Up:

Woody Harrelson (Rampart) This tour-de-force made us care for a repellent character. Yes, he was a jerk and a dirty cop, but desired to do the right thing as he saw it.

Willem Dafoe (The Hunter) Dafoe’s physical presence as he stalked the Tasmanian bush was equalled by his emotional integration into the family he lodged with.

Mohamed Said Fellag (Monsiuer Lazhar) Fellag’s strict but loving teacher knows how to help the class recover from trauma and, driven by his loss, defies orders not to.

Also Placed:

Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) His drunken Irish soul man lifts the movie to comic heights it wouldn’t have hit, especially in his fractious relationship with Gail.

Muhammet Uzuner (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Dr Cemal was a creation of immense humanity, his Stoic voiceover while the camera observed waving grass at night mesmerising.

Taner Birsel (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Prosecutor Nusret was splendidly subtle, a man of equal empathy and diplomacy who slowly crumbles when deconstructed by Dr Cemal.

Honourable Mention:

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) Fiennes was fierce as a man of exceptional courage and nobility who will not humble himself for ‘appearances’.

Christoph Waltz (Carnage) His compulsive starting of fires, followed by excusing himself to shout “Hello, Walter!” into his phone, was joyous.

February 15, 2012

Fassbendering Bravely Onwards

Take a good look at the picture below.

This is Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender laughing at the HBO party after the Golden Globes. There is an even better picture, which I aggravatingly can’t track down as a jpg, in which Fassbender and Gleeson are cracking up so badly that you can barely see Fassbender’s eyes.

This is what losing looks like…

God only knows what they would have done had they both won their Best Actor categories at the Golden Globes. I suspect something like this.

I’d been wondering, indeed worrying, if Fassbender’s increasingly serious roles (in Shame and A Dangerous Method) since I last wrote about the concept would mean an end to Fassbendering, but an interview with David Cronenberg has given me renewed hope that the nonsense will remain no matter how many nominations accumulate.

Interviewed by Maclean’s Cronenberg said, “I felt that Michael’s innate sexiness would work with Keira, and his sense of humour and playfulness would work with Viggo on the set. Even with an intellectual character, his approach is visceral. He jokingly likes to say the only research he did was read ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Carl Jung.’ He reminds me of Errol Flynn. He has that same gently swashbuckling, charming tone.” Laughing, Cronenberg, adds: “He’s just so perky, it drives you crazy. One day I found him standing out in the sun in his costume and makeup, with this big smile. I said, ‘Michael, why are you smiling like that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know . . . life.’ I said, ‘It’s so irritating that you’re happy all the time.’ ”

Fassbendering it seems may disappear from the movies, although hopefully not all of them, but we can be reassured that it will never disappear from movie sets!

February 8, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg and a stellar cast tackle a clash between two heavyweights of 20th Century intellectual history, but this film punches just below its fighting weight.

Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their shared patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the disagreement between the two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. Atonement scriptwriter Christopher Hampton adapts his own play which begins with Sabina’s arrival at the Swiss clinic where Jung works. This allows him put Freud’s untested theory of the ‘talking cure’ into practice, leading to a meeting with Freud that sees the two men become friends and colleagues. Freud, however, sends a deranged colleague Otto Gross (played by an unruly Vincent Cassell) to Jung for treatment, and after their bruising debating sessions Jung succumbs to his darkest desires with Sabina, who is on her way to becoming an analyst herself; and a disciple of Freud…

Knightley, sporting an impressive Russian accent, gives a startlingly alien performance as the hysterical girl who slowly transforms herself into Jung’s intellectual equal. Her attacks of hysteria include a disturbing jutting of her jaw that conveys a body almost breaking in trying not to scream. Sabina’s recovery allows Knightley to play a nuanced fragility. Fassbender (looking oddly like James Joyce) is assured as a clever, kindly man corrupted by his own darkest desires. Viggo has a determinedly supporting role as Freud, but is droll in delivering put-downs, and wordlessly noting the class and religious divide between himself and Jung; which are slightly overplayed. He also excels at making Freud charismatic but ambiguous; did he send Gross to corrupt Jung because Jung threatened to undermine Freud’s sexualised theorising?

There is minor body horror in Sabina’s account of a waking hallucination of a mollusc attaching itself to her spine, but the real Cronenberg touch is the S&M between her and Jung. Cronenberg’s triumph is using deep focus in the therapy sessions so that we can observe the faces of both Jung and Sabina, and in foregrounding consistently compelling verbal fencing between characters who professionally dissect language for its nuances. Emotions trump ideas though… Freud’s insistence on total obedience or excommunication, his dogmatic atheism, his refusal to abrogate sexual interpretations to anything, and Jung’s counterpointing of a spiritual instinct and metaphoric rather than literal readings of Oedipus complexes are never adequately explored. Jung’s empirical discovery of the complexes is glancingly depicted, but his theory of synchronicity (a psychic echo of physical events) is rendered as stark gibberish, while Freud’s concept of the death drive and Jung’s anima/animus theory become Sabina’s ideas…

This is an excellently played drama that is always absorbing, but more detail about the ideas of the characters rather than just their emotions would have made it truly great.

4/5

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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