Talking Movies

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

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September 26, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s comeback run continues with a third straight humdinger – this time in a more tragic vein as Cate Blanchett essays a comic Blanche DuBois.

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Humbled socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives in San Francisco, pleading poverty but still flying first class, to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Both women were adopted, but Ginger always felt their parents loved Jasmine more, and Jasmine continues their disapproval as she instantly disapproves of Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale); insisting that he’s no better than Ginger’s loutish ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Chili, however, gives as good as he gets, and his constant nagging steers Jasmine into a receptionist job with punctilious dentist Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg). Jasmine’s disruptive memories of her pampered life with ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), however, see her trying to recreate her previous social standing by landing bereaved diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). She also introduces Ginger to a boyfriend a step up from Chili, sound engineer Al (Louis CK). Will love triumph?

Woody Allen manages to combine fantastic comedy with a quite touching tragedy. Jasmine may appear a boozy socialite at first, with an unnerving habit of launching into intimate conversations about her life with complete strangers. Really she’s heavily medicated after a nervous breakdown and gets into those conversations because people assume she’s talking to them, when in fact she’s talking to thin air in which she sees Hal or other people. Blanchett is extraordinary in the lead, retaining our sympathy even as she delivers the most horrible lines. Blanchett is able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, in his second film with Allen after Vicky Cristina Barcelona, bathes the film in warm golden tones which make Jasmine’s sudden mental disintegrations all the more disturbing.

Jasmine’s life with Hal is patiently revealed in flashback to illuminate both the reasons for her breakdown, and just why Augie holds her so responsible for ruining Ginger’s life by trying to do her one good turn. Baldwin is on fine imperious form as the high-flying Wall Street tycoon whose fly-by-night practices Jasmine is (purposefully?) oblivious to, just as she doesn’t notice his endless affairs. But the other side of the comedy-drama tightrope being walked with such skill here is hilariously unhindered performances from Louis CK and Stuhlbarg as remarkably unsubtle suitors of the sisters. Blanchett has any number of waspish lines that are hysterically funny, and her relationship with her two nephews affords great opportunity to deploy them. Yet the comedy never undermines the dramatic substance and betrayal, infidelity, corruption, bad advice and bad luck subtly power the film.

The combination of two women’s romances and mental disintegration inevitably recalls Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this is a more ambitious and more successful film.

4/5

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

May 18, 2011

Win Win

Tom McCarthy’s third film as writer/director, after The Station Agent and The Visitor, is another understated little gem.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer in New Providence, New Jersey, whose legal practice is struggling almost as much as the abysmal high-school wrestling team he coaches. In dire need of money he spots an unethical opportunity to get $1,500 a month simply by acting as guardian for an elderly client with early dementia whose estranged daughter cannot be located. His plans are complicated, however, by the unexpected arrival of the man’s taciturn grandson Kyle. The boy is quickly adopted by the Flaherty family and, as he becomes more outgoing, his unsuspected prowess at wrestling sees him rapidly become the star of Flaherty’s high-school team. This win-win scenario is threatened by the sudden appearance of Kyle’s unstable mother (Melanie Lynskey) who may unravel everyone’s happiness by exposing the original deceit regarding Leo’s guardianship that Mike has engaged in…

It would be ridiculous to label McCarthy a cinematic American Chekhov, but it is accurate to say that his films sometimes feel like the best modern American short stories come to life. He has a regard for mundane details, defeated characters, and everyday struggles, and treats them with a humane sympathy and an eye for comic absurdity that makes them truly engaging. Giamatti is as wonderful as ever as a good man who has done one bad thing out of desperation but has parlayed it into a number of good things, all of which are now in peril because of his original sin. Amy Ryan is fantastic as Mike’s wife Jackie, a loving mother; whose violent verbal reproaches of Kyle’s mother Cindy belie an all encompassing compassion; counterpointed by Lynskey’s tremendously ambiguous turn as the unreliable Cindy. Jeffrey Tambor meanwhile has some wonderful moments as Mike’s assistant coach and fellow struggling lawyer who advocates ignoring their clanging office boiler until it explodes rather than pay for repairs.

This realistic portrait of an America in recession, where the villains are faceless systems of bureaucracy and a tanking economy, is rarely seen in pop culture, but McCarthy also has a talent for achieving redemptive moments without straying into bombast. There are numerous such moments here, from a guitar led montage of small victories in life, and the effect Kyle has on the worst member of the team Stemler, to the developing bond between Kyle and Mike, and the initiation into selfless responsibility of Mike’s roguish friend Tommy – enthusiastically played by Bobby Cannavale (TV’s Cupid himself). Indeed the ‘victory’ of Stemler despite Tommy’s doubts encapsulates McCarthy’s message, winning by ignoring your own morality just isn’t satisfying.

Win Win isn’t quite as good a film as the more revelatory The Visitor, but you never know where a Tom McCarthy film is going, and these days that’s most praiseworthy.

3.5/5

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