Talking Movies

October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

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February 5, 2015

Patrick’s Day

The enfant terrible of Irish cinema writer/director Terry McMahon follows up Charlie Casanova with another exercise in epating les bourgeoisie.

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Patrick (Moe Dunford) was born on St Patrick’s Day. And so every year his devoted mother Maura (Kerry Fox) has made a ritual of getting him a silly hat or glasses, going for a meal, and taking a photo. But this year she loses her son. He finds himself in the company of suicidal air hostess Karen (Catherine Walker), who takes him back to her hotel room; across the corridor from his; and deflowers him. But the reason Patrick is a taciturn virgin at 26, and seems mildly out of it, is that he has mental health issues. But as Karen is drawn into Maura’s attempts to control her son’s life, along with Garda Freeman (Philip Jackson), the question is posed – who is truly crazy here? Patrick and Freddie (Aaron Monaghan) in the psychiatric hospital or the ‘sane’ world outside?

McMahon’s script is artificial and problematic. Karen’s dialogue, especially her use of ‘kiddo’ and her initial introduction, is the worst offender for ham-fisted dialogue, but there are also wearisome cinematic clichés that telegraph their arrival; like Maura knocking all her photos with Patrick off the wall. All give the impression that McMahon is scripting based on how people act in films rather than from any sort of observation of how people act in reality. Karen’s suicide attempt with pills is remarkably inept, and not deliberately so as is with Colin Firth in A Single Man, and her suicidal impulses are never explored and quickly forgotten. There’s a scene with a dog in which Patrick tosses a scrap of food into traffic for the dog to get, the dog of course gets hit by a car – why do that? Well, the script said to; so Patrick could bring the dog inside to the cafe where the manager recognises Patrick’s condition, saying his son had the same. This scene’s remarkable, contrivance aside, because it’s not clear at all what Patrick’s condition is…

Patrick seems off from the start, but maybe that’s the tranquilisers he’s on zoning him out. He has a regimen to control his schizophrenia. But then later it’s revealed that he has intellectual disability. He has a mental age of 14. But then a later anecdote indicates that at age 9 he couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction. But then the schizophrenia is emphasised again… John Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic given to auditory and visual hallucinations. He’s also a mathematical genius whose invention of game theory earned him the Nobel for economics. Schizophrenia and intellectual disability are not connected. McMahon is depicting a thirtysomething woman having sex with a man with a teenage boy’s mind. Far from realising how dubious this is Patrick’s Day expects us to unfurl a banner with ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ on it for the finale. And that’s before we get to the compound of Ken Kesey and RD Laing that is the presentation of the psychiatric hospital run by bad people and the madness of mother Maura constantly kissing her adult son on the lips.

We are meant to feel traumatised by Patrick’s treatment at the hands of authority figures in the third act. But it’s impossible to feel anything when it’s so obviously George Lucas’ proverbial cinematic gimmick of drowning a bag of kittens to make the audience cry – everything has been so contrived that McMahon has unintentionally achieved a Brechtian alienation. Dunford’s performance is one of blank bafflement alternated with childish surliness and childish exuberance. It’s not possible to care about Patrick’s distress because he’s scary – he has the force of a strong man, able to break noses with a single sharp punch, but the self-control of a petulant child – and the film doesn’t seem to realise that. Dunford, like Walker, Jackson, and Fox, is a good actor being incredibly ill-served by the script in which McMahon’s desire to provoke outweighs all else. RD Laing and Ken Kesey were of their time (and Adam Curtis has persuasively argued that Laing has had a baneful effect on modern medicine), and simply replicating their ideas is a startlingly outdated, unoriginal way to criticise Ireland 2015.

Patrick’s Day is technically very competent but its script is so troubling both aesthetically and morally that you wish Terry McMahon would just drop his auteurist ambitions and direct someone else’s screenplay next time.

0.5/5

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

 

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

 

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

 

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

September 29, 2010

Buried

Ryan Reynolds acts his heart out alone on-screen for 90 minutes in this real-time thriller but a weak script fails to match his efforts…

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck-driver in Iraq who wakes up after his convoy is ambushed to find that he’s been buried alive with only 90 minutes of oxygen left. He’s been left a phone with dodgy reception and a fading battery, and he fruitlessly calls his wife’s voicemail, a preposterously annoying neighbour, and various American agencies before the kidnapper rings to instruct Conroy to record and send his own ransom video. Comparisons to Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’, which placed Nick Stokes in a coffin with only 12 hours for Grissom and his team to find him before the oxygen ran out, are inevitable. There are superficial similarities; the presence of a deadly weapon in the coffin, the intrusion of menacing fauna, the desperation that alternates between despair and panic; but also a shameless riff on Tarantino’s wonderful “Are you a terrorist?” “Well I guess that depends. Are you terrified?” But director Rodrigo Cortes is no Tarantino…

Cortes never leaves the coffin for the duration of the movie. This isn’t as Hitchcockian as he’d like because A Single Man cinematographer Eduard Grau’s six-minute takes include a ridiculous tracking shot around the coffin that makes it feel larger than some bed-sits. Reynolds displays considerable dramatic chops along with some nice comedic touches but his performance is better than Chris Sparling’s script. There are high-points in the writing like Stephen Tobolowsky as a HR man using legal chicanery to backslide on an insurance pay-out, while Robert Patterson’s crisp British voice is marvellous casting for Dan Brenner, the SAS type in charge of tracking down Conroy’s location, but mostly by staging conversations in the dark Cortes remove the visual field of reference to such an extent that this becomes a radio-play.

That fact focuses far too much attention onto the script, and it doesn’t take experience in screenwriting to realise just how few routes this story can take. Conroy frustratingly sits on vital information – for no reason, and there is an outrageous Chekhov’s Rifle of a detail that is left hanging before paying off as part of ‘the very oldest trick in the book’ – used in the deeply frustrating ending. Buried wants, structurally, to have its cake and eat it, and this only underscores its lack of profundity. In the end this is just needlessly nasty (Reynolds is forced to cut off his finger, pointlessly), perhaps in the wrong medium, and lacks the emotional power and depth to match Reynolds’ performance.

Reynolds fans will appreciate a fine turn that is a master-class in creating empathy out of thin air, but fans of suspense or drama would do well to avoid a film that can’t deliver on its promises.

2/5

February 10, 2010

A Single Man

Fashion designer Tom Ford makes a stunning directorial debut with a film whose unsurprisingly impeccable tailoring and gorgeous visuals are matched by surprising depth of characterisation and emotional maturity.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, a very English professor of literature in a small college in Los Angeles who we follow over the course of one day, November 30 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis has the world on edge but for the suicidal George the world already ended 8 months previously when his partner Jim died in a car accident. This being 1962 George has no public outlet for his crushing grief, indeed, in the most upsetting scene you will see all year, George only finds out about Jim’s death because one of Jim’s cousins defies Jim’s parents and rings from Colorado to inform George, before telling him that he can’t come to the funeral – which is for family only…

George outwardly appears to be exactly who is supposed to be, as he informs us in the opening voiceover but he is pretending on two levels, and the more important deception is not the pretence that he is straight but the pretence that he is okay. In fact he struggles to find any compelling reason to get out of bed every day as the one person who anchored his existence in the world is gone. Ford makes great use of suddenly varying the colour saturation within shots to show the bleakness of the world from George’s point of view, with occasional surges of colour when he is momentarily aroused or excited, or when he is overtaken by a sudden flood of memories.

Matthew Goode is wonderfully warm in these flashbacks as Jim, George’s partner of 16 years. What’s most refreshing is that Ford’s depiction of this gay couple prioritises the latter element over the former as we see them in scenes of cosy domesticity trading barbed insults alongside serious musings. A scene where they discuss women is marvellous for mapping changing gay mores as George remembers his youthful sexual relationship with his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), an alcoholic divorced fellow English exile who is now his most tangible link with the world. Charley and an enigmatic young student (Nicholas Hoult) who is apparently stalking him might be the only forces able to stop George from killing himself, other than his endless inability to find a comfortable enough position in his bed in which to pull the trigger – a sequence of jet-black hilarity.

Ford, who financed the film as well as co-writing and directing, has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines. Firth’s performance which is full of dry wit beside the expressive grief is a career highlight in an early contender for film of the year. Highly Recommended.

4/5

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