Talking Movies

January 14, 2016

Top Performances of 2015

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films list, here are the Top Performances of 2015. 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 Actress

Kristen Stewart (Sils Maria) Who knew Stewart had it in her to stop biting her lip and actually act again? As Juliette Binoche’s foil she displayed an unsuspected flair for comedy alongside an argumentative intelligence.

Suzanne Clement (Mommy) Clement as the neighbour across the way was the heart of Xavier Dolan’s movie. She recovered from her own trauma by helping troubled Steve, and stood in for us; bearing tearful witness to events.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) Waterston made an unexpected breakthrough as Doc’s ex-girlfriend. She had few scenes, but the memorable mix of warmth and wisdom in the opening convincingly set Doc on his quest.

Runners Up:

Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) Davis broke out from indies with panache, grabbing a blockbuster role where she wasn’t just random NASA tech, but instead shared many archly comic moments with Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Julie Walters (Brooklyn) There was great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s and Walters provided most of it as the landlady with a waspish putdown for every tenant and every occasion.

Lea Seydoux (The Lobster) All the qualities attributed to her in Spectre, and entirely absent there, were on display here where she was icy cold, forceful, implacable, and without vanity as a sharp-suited rebel leader.

Also Placed:

Elizabeth Debicki (UNCLE) It was only in retrospect I realised she wasn’t actually a great villain. Debicki had used her commanding presence to temporarily conjure the impression of greatness from a threadbare part.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Sils Maria) Moretz was a hoot as a misbehaving starlet doing a play to gain prestige. She pulled off an uncanny balancing act between elements of Jennifer Lawrence and Lindsay Lohan’s personae.

Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip) Moss, as the long-suffering photographer girlfriend of novelist Philip, confidently took over the film for an unexpected segment tracing her own independent story of artistic development.

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Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman) Norton was transparently playing with his own persona, and having the time of his life doing it, but the hilarity of his preening self-regard was balanced by his self-awareness of his failings.

Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) Del Toro cut lines to make stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro troublingly mysterious, an inspired move as he slowly revealed himself to be a man without limits; breaking the law to do the right thing.

Colin Firth (Kingsman) Firth was effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and clearly loving it. His A Single Man tour de force of dry heartbreak now has a stellar contrast on his show-reel: his amazing kill-crazy rampage.

Ewan McGregor (Son of a Gun) McGregor rediscovered his charisma as an armed robber in a post-Moulin Rouge! best. Charming, but ruthless on a dime, he combined both qualities in a deliriously jump-started interrogation.

Runners Up:

Jeff Daniels (The Martian, Steve Jobs) Daniels’ Newsroom-based resurgence saw him verbally duel with Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender with much gravitas, but he also displayed his considerable comic abilities in both roles.

Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sicario) Brolin played law-men fond of crossing the line, but Graver’s dirty warrior sought cynical order rather than law-abiding chaos, while Bigfoot suffered from incommunicable psychic pain.

Benedict Wong (The Martian) Wong was wonderful as Bruce, the ever-harried Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks; his hang-dog expression always one step away from total defeat.

Michael Pena (Ant-Man) Ant-Man sans Edgar Wright’s visual panache plodded like hell for the first act and a half, save his showpiece narration, but Pena’s hysterically distracted inept nice guy criminal kept it going.

Also Placed:

Sean Harris (MI5, Macbeth) The wiry, soft-spoken Harris was scary in MI5 by virtue of his villain’s cunning and utter indifference to casualties, and, as Macduff, he set about revenge with an unnerving feel of unfussy control.

Jonathan Pryce (Listen Up Philip) Pryce let rip as the elder statesman novelist: self-preening, condescending, and supportive to his protégé; hiding his guilt behind anger to his daughter; and denying to himself his own sadness.

Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs) Rogen’s shambling, slightly bewildered Steve Wozniak was a man on a mission, and always bound to fail, but his live-action Fozzie Bear helped humanise Fassbender’s Jobs tremendously.

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Best Actress

Emily Blunt (Sicario) Blunt is assured as an FBI ‘thumper’ who joins a taskforce to hurt drug cartels. Mission-creep gives her doubts, but she’s too dogged for her own good, staying to find the task-force’s true purpose, becoming a Creon to Del Toro’s Antigone – devotion to the law is the right thing.

Rooney Mara (Carol) Mara is terrific as the ingénue who is seduced by Carol and her high society, but has both cruelly taken away from her, and then sets about making her own way in the world. Rooney uses the most subtle facial expressions to chart her transformation from ingénue to equal.

Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) Gerwig shines as the somewhat ridiculous, casually abrasive Brooke, who stumbles through life from one disaster to the next with little self-pity and can charm and/or guilt-trip people into bailing out her last/buying into her next madcap venture.

Lola Kirke (Mistress America) Kirke impressively held her own against Gerwig as the perceptive, quiet Tracy; an aspiring writer who got carried away by Brooke’s mad enthusiasm, but never quite lost sight of the ridiculousness of her venture; and played disappointment exceptionally well.

Runners Up:

Cate Blanchett (Carol) Blanchett was rather good as the socialite whose charming facade masks despair, exhaustion, desire, and a recklessness that at times comes very close to making her dangerous to herself and others. But Carol’s fiery decision to be herself gave her less a meaty arc than Mara.

Rebecca Ferguson (MI5) Was Ilsa Faust a properly defined femme fatale or not? Does it matter when Ferguson gave a performance of such rare mystery and ambiguity? In never quite being able to count on her there was a mix of Han Solo roguery with a more enigmatic quality; even after all explanations.

Emma Stone (Irrational Man, Birdman) Stone delivered an amazing rant in Birdman as well as sparking off Edward Norton, and then displayed her full range with a quiet performance as a student enamoured with her professor in Irrational Man; articulating outraged conscience with great sincerity.

Also Placed:

Juliette Binoche (Sils Maria) Binoche was fully committed to her role as an actress over-analysing to death taking the other part in a two-hander play that made her, and her failed attempts to keep a straight face and seriously engage with  her while she PA defended comic-book movies was a particular joy.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) Monroe gave a strong performance, especially in playing early scenes with a dreamy quality which allowed an ambiguity later about her character hallucinating as PTSD before it became clear ‘It’ was very real and needed a Ripey response Monroe was well capable of giving.

 Steve-Jobs

Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Steve Jobs) Fassbender’s low-key delivery gave us a weary warrior who lost his mind from one damn killing too many, while his irrepressible warmth allowed Jobs say horrible things but remain charismatic till the belated quasi-apology “I’m poorly made.”

Michael Keaton (Birdman) Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback with a transparent riff on his own persona. His comic timing was superb, his lack of vanity Oscar-worthy (cough), and he outdid Edward Norton (Greatest Actor of His Generation TM) in artistic and emotional angst.

David Oyewelo (Selma) Oyelowo gave a fiery performance as MLK, whipping up a mass demonstration for a Voting Rights Act. He oozed charisma in three speeches, but was extremely vulnerable in King’s guilt and self-doubt over deaths caused by his rhetoric and leadership, and shame at his infidelities.

Matt Damon (The Martian) Damon’s best studio lead since The Adjustment Bureau was powered by Drew Goddard’s hilarious screenplay. As a one-man show on Mars his sequences were a never-ending vlog of riffs and one-liners, and Damon delivered with immense charm and comic timing.

Runners Up:

Jason Schwartzman (Listen Up Philip) Schwartzman was on familiar Bored to Death turf but he made Philip intriguing. A hugely narcissistic novelist, lacking in empathy, and casually abrasive, but also talented, capable of being hurt to a devastating degree, and perhaps too emotionally guarded because of that.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) Keanu made one hell of a comeback as a civilised hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick too.

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, Irrational Man) Phoenix shambled endearingly as the perma-stoned PI straight man to a merry-go-round of lunatics, while his self-loathing philosophy professor embracing Dostoyevskyean freedom saw him deliver a truly amazing expression: guilt, fear, relief, and panic.

Also Placed:

Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) A Pacino quality came off Isaac’s performance as oil entrepreneur Abel Morales. Early, subtle Pacino. Abel would not be bullied, would not break the law, and would not accept dirty deeds on his behalf. Isaac played this principled soul with a quiet, dignified stillness.

Tom Cruise (MI5) His implausible early escape up a pole got a few laughs at my screening. I believed Cruise could do it, he’s a fitness nut. Also in other ways, but plane stunt nuts is good; and there’s a self-deprecating quality to Cruise, absent from his 90s heyday, that makes him very winning.

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September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

June 1, 2012

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise that made his name back in 1979, but sadly this semi-prequel fails to match his own classic…

Archaeologists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green discover cave-paintings in Scotland in 2089 that appear to clinch their theory that a race of intelligent aliens that they’ve dubbed The Engineers appeared to humanity thousands of years earlier and initiated civilisations from Hawaii to Babylonia. Four years later they awake from cryo-sleep on the good ship Prometheus of the sinister Weyland Corporation to explore the distant planet that could possibly be the home of the Engineers, according to the star map they left behind. Aloof mission commander Vickers (Charlize Theron) is bitingly sceptical of the value of their quest for humanity’s origin while hard-bitten captain Vanek (Idris Elba) is happy to let the scientists poke around futilely so long as he gets to drink and play Stephen Stills’ accordion. Things of course go horribly wrong, as they always do in Alien movies…

It’s notable that Scott was praised in 1979 for dirtying up sci-fi by presenting a vision of the future which was already old yet Michael Fassbender’s android picks up a speck of grit off the gleaming floor of Prometheus as if it was an aberration. Scott’s vision of the future this time round is positively gleaming, and rather too full of CGI hologram technology. One suspects Fassbender’s android would have malfunctioned at the first sight of the Nostromo, a spaceship held together by duct tape if there ever was one. A very measured and precise Fassbender has some fun as the android styling his hair in imitation of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and not being entirely honest with the crew, but while this film shares the slow first hour of Alien, it never really finds a higher gear.

The crew of underdeveloped characters played by colourful British actors like Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall and Emun Elliott are picked off by creatures that are more chimera than xenomorph; and perhaps there’s a nod to the scientific principle that you can never observe a phenomenon without changing its nature, but what of it? There’s no real gear-shift into suspense horror or even action. Noomi Rapace is, with apologies to Stieg Larsson and Patricia Highsmith, The Girl Who Followed Ripley, yet her role is, bar one outstandingly nasty suspense sequence, largely a cipher for ‘Faith’ and her wobbly English accent constantly distracts. The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts and LOST main-man Damon Lindelof provide the screenplay which feels all too often like a bad mythology episode of LOST. There’s a plot revelation towards the end that should surprise absolutely no one who read the credits at the start, the ‘big idea’ of the movie feels derivative, and the questions of faith and ultimate purpose and meaning that are raised are dealt with facilely. And that’s to say nothing of the conclusion, twenty minutes in which the search for an end leads to the beginning of the sequel.

Prometheus is always watchable, largely due to the stellar cast, but doesn’t even equal Benedict Wong’s other faith in space movie Sunshine. A missed opportunity…

2.5/5

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