Talking Movies

September 9, 2018

Notes on The Seagull

The Seagull belatedly swooped into cinemas Friday. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

The impecunious teacher Semyon (Michael Zegen) loves the sullen housekeeper’s daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who loves the temperamental young writer Constantin (Billy Howle), who loves the flighty girl next door Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who loves the cynical famous writer Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who is the lover of the self-absorbed great actress Arkadina (Annette Bening), who had an affair with the dashing doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), who the downtrodden housekeeper Polina (Mare Winningham) still loves after all these years by the lake. No wonder the master of this chaotic Russian dacha, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), feels that he has never truly lived in his 60 years because he never got married or became a writer but ground away in the government bureaucracy till he had ground himself down. But grinding people down is what life does, as Constantin and Nina painfully discover…

If you can’t steal The Seagull from the role of Masha then you’re not awake. Elisabeth Moss is wide awake.

April 22, 2015

The Good Lie

Quebecois director Phillipe Falardeau makes his first Anglophone feature with a riveting tale of colliding cultures inspired by a true humanitarian crisis in 1980s Sudan.

The-Good-Lie-3

Rural Sudan in the 1980s would be recognisable to a Sudanese villager of the 1880s or 1780s. A simple life of cattle-farming is carried on, with tribal traditions intact. Brothers Theo (Okwar Jale) and Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok) bicker over a game of naming ancestors, while sister Abital (Keji Jale) despairs of them. And then civil war erupts around them, with helicopters raining gunfire on the village. As the elders grab spears to repel invasion, the three siblings run for safety. However, safety is a perilous thousand mile trek to a Kenyan refugee camp, during which they meet brothers Jeremiah (Thon Kueth) and Paul (Deng Ajuet). Thirteen years later the adult Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Abital (Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) are sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to be helped successfully integrate by employment agent Carrie (Reese Witherspoon).

Ah, Reese Witherspoon… The Good Lie is an engaging film, but the first 35 minutes are by far the most interesting, because thereafter Witherspoon and Corey Stoll as her taciturn but secretly compassionate boss Jack take the focus away from the Lost Boys of Sudan. Without going into Marxist overdrive, it’s not reasonable to criticise this shift in narrative focus, because it is so self-evident a truth that there is no way this movie gets a $20 million dollar budget without Witherspoon and Stoll being given leading roles. It is though admissible to lament this self-evident truth. The reality that in 1987 a lifestyle belonging to bygone centuries was still alive is fascinating, the realities of growing up in a ‘temporary’ refugee camp intrigues, but these stories are displaced by a ‘Coming to America’ culture clash, played for odd laughs.

Falardeau’s last film, Monsieur Lazhar, showed his enormous skill in working with child actors, as well as his concern (building on Congorama) in exploring collisions between cultures. He elicits wonderful characterisations from his child stars, especially the responsible Theo, and from the adult actors Duany and Jal who are both former child soldiers. But the culture clash feels patronising, even though American culture, much like PC Montreal in Lazhar, doesn’t seem as shining as one might expect when interrogated by refugees. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Warm Springs) doesn’t shrink from portraying the heartless bureaucratic insanity (that only increases after 9/11) of the American government. She also encapsulates the horror of civil war in a tense moment when the young Jeremiah takes a bible from Theo after he joins them, and you’re unsure if Theo’s led his siblings into danger.

The Good Lie is a solid but frustrating movie that makes you wish Falardeau had instead been let loose on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story about literal African-American culture clash.

3/5

January 20, 2012

Top Performances of 2011

In a new move for this blog, and as a complement to last week’s Top 10 Films of 2011, here are the Top Performances of 2011. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor, which was well and truly coming apart at the seams from so many great scene-stealing and buttressing performances last year. 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.

Best Supporting Actress
Mila Kunis (Black Swan) Kunis for me is far more impressive than Portman as she swaggers thru the film as the bad-girl chain-smoking, imperfect but sensual, ballerina – Dionysus in flesh.
Amy Ryan (Win Win) Ryan is fantastic as a loving mother who takes in a teenage waif despite violent misgivings and whose reproaches of his mother equally belie her huge compassion.
Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (Incendies) Her performance as Jeanne Marwan anchors the film as this ordinary Quebecois becomes ever more dogged in discovering her mother’s unknown life.
Runners Up:
Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) Knightley’s bold decision to take the smallest role pays off as she plays cruel and manipulative perfectly before then making us comprehend and forgive her.
Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class, The Beaver) Lawrence has talent to burn, whether depicting real terror and moral indecision as Mystique or Norah’s arc from contemptuousness to compassion.
Hayley Atwell (Captain America) Atwell makes this movie work as well as it does, because if you didn’t believe the slow thaw of her imperious character, the ending wouldn’t be upsetting.
Elle Fanning (Super 8) Elle serves notice that she’s as good as big sis with a startlingly assured turn, the highlight of which is her turning on the star-power on cue for the awful amateur film.
Also Placed:
Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, 50/50) Howard redeems herself after Eclipse as a preposterous flirt whose facade is demolished by Matt Damon’s medium, and an unreliable narcissist who fails the ailing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his hour of need.
Melanie Lynskey (Win Win) Lynskey is tremendously ambiguous as the unreliable mother who loves her son but maybe perhaps loves getting her hands on his grandfather’s money even more.
Marion Cotillard (Little White Lies, Midnight in Paris) Cotillard fleshes out a wonderfully conflicted lover and friend in Little White Lies, and she’s rarely been as out and out charming as in Midnight in Paris.

Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)
Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris) “Who wants to fight?!” Stoll’s Hemingway is a joy; delivering his monologues in an abrupt monotone he’s terse, funny, wise, and (whisper it) warmly human.
Noah Taylor (Submarine) Taylor is hilarious as the disappointed by life father who is awkward to the point of insanity, but also subtly registers both his depression and his amazing compassion.
Liam Cunningham (The Guard) Cunningham is wonderful as the chief drug-dealer, trying to be reasonable when he doesn’t need to be; a show behind a different truth exemplified in his exit.
Mark Strong (The Guard) Strong doesn’t have that big a role, but he walks off with a number of superb scenes because of his hilariously snarling contempt for the idiots he’s working with.
Runners Up:
Kurt Fuller (Midnight in Paris) Fuller was funny in Supernatural as Zachariah but here he takes a quantum leap with amazing delivery of great gags and one reaction shot that is just pure gold.
Jason Bateman (Paul) I’ve found Bateman to be stuck in a rut for a while now but this performance shakes things up with a comic abrasiveness that adds a new layer to his usual deadpan and timing.
Seth Rogen (50/50, Paul) Rogen added some nice dramatic depth to his usual clowning, but his reaction to the news that Swayze had not beat cancer is one of my favourite comedy moments of 2011.
Also Placed:
Hans Morten Hansen (Troll Hunter) Hansen steals every scene he’s in as the hapless bureaucrat heading the Troll Security Service whose cover-up stories are getting steadily more ludicrous.
Alan Tudyk (Transformers 3) His performance as Turturro’s Dutch assistant is completely insane on every level, and makes no logical sense at all, but it will reduce you to paralytic laughter.

Best Supporting Actor (Drama)
Tom Hiddleston (Thor) Hiddleston totally upends this film by making you prefer his clever, sinuous Loki over the boorish Thor. This is a marker from an actor of great subtlety and wit.
Cillian Murphy (In Time) Ignore all the old soul in young body guff, Murphy is terrific because he invests Leon with a dogged sense of righteousness despite knowing he’s on the wrong side.
Colin Farrell (Fright Night) Farrell is gloriously over the top in this role; you can see him almost tasting his dialogue as he says it in certain scenes as he milks it for laughs and suspense.
George Clooney (The Ides of March) Clooney paints Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic, but perhaps he’s just a weasel at heart.
Runners Up:
Maxim Gaudette (Incendies) Gaudette’s turn as the resistant twin Simon Marwan is crucial as his unwillingness to dig into the past and his later shock at what he finds stands in for the audience.
Anton Yelchin (The Beaver) Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his depressed father’s traits which may be his traits too.
Albert Brooks (Drive) Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his ‘nice’ mobster in a performance that is more terrifying because it’s so often quite charming.
Tommy Lee Jones (Captain America) Jones can do this sort of nonsense in his sleep but it looks like he’s woken up in order to really enjoy his great one-liners and fun cliché gruff soldier role.
Also Placed:
Sebastian Armesto (Anonymous) His Ben Jonson is a wonderful creation; wise, funny, and yet capable of stunning betrayal when his ego is burnt by the success (fake and real) of Shakespeare and the Earl of Oxford.
Guy Pearce (King’s Speech, Justice) Pearce is immaculate as Edward VIII; nonchalant, wilful, narcissistic, irresponsible; and shows great range with his ruthless, rational, and psychotic villain Simon in Justice.

Best Actress
Lubna Azabal (Incendies) Azabal plays Nawal Marwan, the dead mother whose life we uncover in flashback, and is amazing in keeping the audience’s sympathy with this victim, even as she becomes a perpetrator of violence, due to her defiant air and remarkably independent spirit.
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Mara perfectly embodies Lisbeth Salander in the detached delivery of dialogue and the perverse code of honour. She seems at points to be able to change her very size; tiny and delicate when being victimised, and then long-limbed and terrifying when revenging.
Runners Up:
Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) Wasikowska is almost unrecognisable from her Alice, and her Jane is wonderfully nuanced; there’s a great fire and determination behind the submissive exterior.
Evan Rachel Wood (Ides of March) Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock amazing to watch as her seductive facade just crumbles.
Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) Blunt manages to take what could be a manic pixie dream girl role and invest it with some realism as she’s charming and funny but also pragmatically aloof.
Also Placed:
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) Holding her own against Bridges and Damon she’s very impressive.
Amy Adams (The Fighter) Adams superbly brings a lot of hard toughness to her usual warmth.
Olivia Wilde Thirteen (Cowboys & Aliens) Thirteen does enigmatic very well as the woman who fell to earth.

Best Actor
Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) Fassbender turns his gleefulness into dark charisma to make his globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik a dark superhero capable of retaining audience sympathy even if he kills people. The philosophy that Magneto represents is thus given incredibly persuasive flesh.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) Shannon is incredibly subtle handling the cognitive dissonance of a man taking risky actions to safeguard against an apocalypse only he has foreknowledge of, while also tackling the possibility that it’s merely his inherited schizophrenia manifesting itself.
Runners Up:
Francois Cluzet (Little White Lies) Max’s nervous breakdown at the hands of elusive weasels and unwanted gay crushes is epically entertaining but Cluzet is able to do dramatic catharsis too.
Mel Gibson (The Beaver) A bravura performance that’s oddly humble. You hardly look at his face, and his vocal performance as the Beaver is spectacular; jumping from charming to menacing in a sentence.
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) Gleeson is hysterically funny as a deranged guard whose ethical compass, despite all the drugs and prostitutes, still points true north when his partner is killed.
Rhys Ifans (Anonymous) A rare thoughtful performance from Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford, the real writer of Shakespeare’s plays. He convinces as a learned renaissance man of great wisdom and an incredibly passionate soul.
Also Placed:
Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Craig is perfect casting as Mikael Blomqvist. He nails the ethical integrity and the womanising charm and wonderfully plays against type when called upon by the plot to be physically brave.
Otto Jespersen (Troll Hunter) Jespersen is wonderful as Hans the Troll Hunter. He finds much mordant comedy in essaying a man who is equal parts battle-weary and still stoically efficient.

November 1, 2011

The Mystery of Midnight in Paris

It may seem excessive to devote an entire blog to analysing just why Midnight in Paris has been such a success, but I think it deserves serious consideration.

On the most superficial level it’s not hard to see why it’s been such a box office hit. It’s been given a promotional push far exceeding any Woody Allen film for a long time, even more so than the much heralded return to form (and Jonathan Rhys-Meyer star-making) Match Point. The marketing push has also largely and cunningly disguised the fact that it’s a Woody Allen film, his stock not being that high. Instead the notion of the film being a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with funny lines and a great high concept has been touted in its endless TV spots. I’ve heard some people argue convincingly that even the evocative and romantic title is enough to entice people to check it out, without the Owen Wilson selling point.

But of course once you’ve sat down in the cinema and realised with horror from the jazz soundtrack and the credits font that it’s a Woody Allen film we come to the even more surprising part of the success story – that this is not a bait and switch deal, this really is a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams are fantastically ill-matched lovers and Allen grants them numerous hysterical scenes where they fail to communicate or connect, he insults her parents, or she takes the side of her obnoxious pedantic friend against him. Allen has never lost the ability to write great gags but such consistent excellence scene after scene has eluded him for years.

Then there’s the central hook – living in roaring Twenties Paris with America’s Lost Generation writers. You don’t need to have read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or know anything about the tortured lives of the Fitzgeralds to respond with delirious happiness and recognition to Allen’s inspired recreation of them. A terse yet wise Hemingway who speaks in blunt short sentences or delivers paragraph long monologues in an abrupt monotone, a Zelda talented and charming yet also clearly troubled, an F Scott who talks like his own characters and is obviously deeply in love but also deeply torn, just feel right – and how perfect that these great writers actually do talk about writing while they get drunk nightly, and that Hemingway keeps steadily producing work for Gertrude Stein to critique for him.

But the hook is only part of the success. There is a sweetness to the movie’s romances and a maturity to its pronouncements on Golden Age thinking that are completely unexpected. Numerous critics have complained that in recent works (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Melinda & Melinda) Allen has constructed a fictive universe so exclusively preoccupied with sexual faithlessness and infidelity that it is not only impossible to care for the characters but that the whole filmic experience is also quite depressing. By contrast you feel certain Wilson’s Gil will be faithful when he finally meets his soul mate at the film’s close, just as you applaud his decision to follow Stein’s advice to write about hope instead of despair, and live that ethos in the now too.

Midnight in Paris is probably Allen’s best film since 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but just how he rediscovered his talent so spectacularly at age 76 will remain as joyfully insoluble a mystery as how Owen Wilson time-travels.

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