Talking Movies

January 13, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

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(10) Steve Jobs

The combination of Michael Fassbender, Aaron Sorkin, and Danny Boyle produced a far warmer movie than Sorkin’s previous tech biopic The Social Network. Sorkin’s theatrical script was tense, hilarious, meta-textual, and heart-warming as if each iteration of the same confrontations pushed Jobs closer to doing the right thing, as Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score became less electronic and more orchestral, while Boyle’s changing film formats emphasised the passage of time and  thereby generated unexpected pathos.

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(9) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Since JJ Abrams became Tom Cruise’s producing co-pilot this vanity franchise has suddenly become great fun. This doesn’t equal the blast that was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s combined great comedy and stunts, with a truly mysterious femme fatale, and some well staged action sequences; the highlight being assassins’ night out at the Viennese opera, riffing shamelessly and gloriously on Alfred Hitchcock’s twice-told Royal Albert Hall sequence.

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(8) The Martian

Director Ridley Scott may have demurred at this being a Golden Globe ‘comedy’ but Drew Goddard should write all Scott’s future movies on the basis of this screenplay chock-full of great jokes. You know you’re looking at an unprecedented ensemble of scene-stealers when Kristen Wiig ends up straight man to the Fassbendering all around her, and this valorisation of can-do science arguably realised Tomorrowland’s stated intention of restoring technological optimism to the popular imagination.

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(7) Sicario

Denis Villeneuve once again directed a thriller so spare, savage, and elemental that, like Incendies, it invited comparison with Greek tragedy. Amidst Roger Deakins’ stunning aerial photography and Johann Johannsson’s unnerving score Emily Blunt’s steely FBI heroine, in her conflict with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, became a veritable Creon to his Antigone: for her devotion to upholding the law is the right thing, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing.

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(6) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman was on top form as an obnoxiously solipsistic novelist who retreated to the place in the country of new mentor Jonathan Pryce, and alienated his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), his mentor’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), his students, and, well, just about everybody else. This was a tour-de-force by writer/director Alex Ross Perry who threw in a wonderfully gloomy jazz score, a narrator, and alternating perspectives to create an unashamedly literary, unhappy, ‘unrelatable’ story.

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(5) Mistress America

Expectations were high after Frances Ha, and Baumbach and Gerwig’s follow-up did not disappoint. Their script provided compelling characters, with great jokes and screwball set-ups, as well as a literary sense of melancholy. The story of Brooke and Tracy is one of the best observer/hero films I’ve seen lately; from Tracy’s loneliness at college, to her meeting with the whirlwind of energy that is Brooke, to her co-option into Brooke’s restaurant dream, and all the fall-out from Tracy’s attempts to have her cake and eat it; sharply observed, but with great sympathy.

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(4) Carol

The Brief Encounter set-up of the extended flashback to explain the true nature of what superficially appeared to be casual meeting was played out with immense delicacy by stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Maray in a feast of glances and little gestures under the subtle direction of Todd Haynes. Carter Burwell’s score added the emotion forced to go unspoken in Phyllis Nagy’s sleek adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel which mixed romance with coming-of-age story as Mara’s shopgirl followed her artistic path and so moved from ingénue to the equal of Blanchett’s socialite.

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(3) Eden

Mia Hansen-Love followed-up Goodbye First Love with another exploration of 20 years in a character’s life. Paul (Felix de Givry) was the guy standing just next to Daft Punk in the 1993 photo of Parisian house music enthusiasts, and the story of his rise as a DJ wasn’t just about the music. We met the women in his life, including Pauline Etienne’s Louise and Greta Gerwig’s American writer Julia, and the male friends who came and went. Eden was always engaging, hilarious, tender, poignant, and rousing; in short it felt like a life.

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(2) Furious 7

Paul Walker bowed out with a gloriously nonsensical romp which made pigswill of the laws of physics because Vin Diesel, The Rock and The State said so. This franchise under the direction of Justin Lin, and now James Wan, has broken free of any link to humdrum reality to become distilled cinematic joy. And it’s so much fun they can even break rules, like not killing the mentor, yet still set themselves up for an awesome finale. CC: Whedon & Abrams, there are other ways to motivate characters and raise the stakes…

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(1) Birdman

Michael Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s meta-riff on Keaton being overshadowed by his Bat-past. Keaton was hilarious and affecting by turns, and in support Edward Norton shone in a play on his persona: preening self-regard with notes of self-loathing. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work was spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion of a single take, but the time-lapses made you suspect it was a cinematic conceit designed to conceal the theatrical nature of essentially four long-takes. Indeed the characters were highly conscious that theatre was the only medium for a Carver adaptation; the days of Short Cuts are gone. Birdman was interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time was enough to overcome any quibbles.

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October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

August 23, 2015

By the Bog of Cats

Selina Cartmell directs Marina Carr’s relocation of Medea to the Midlands for its first revival since its 1998 Abbey premiere.

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We meet Hester Swane (Susan Lynch) in what seems a disused quarry next the titular bog, dragging a dead black swan, a prophetic bird from which the blind Catwoman (Brid Ni Neachtain) divines Hester’s death by sundown. This emphasises the earlier omen of Hester meeting the Ghost Fancier (David Shannon) in the morning fog, who apologised for being early… Hester’s day was already set to be bad as Carthage Kilbride (Barry John O’Connor), the father of her child Josie (Eve Maher/Elodie Devins), is marrying the much younger Caroline Cassidy (Rachel O’Byrne), the daughter of big farmer Xavier Cassidy (Peter Gowen). The vinegary Mrs Kilbride (Marion O’Dwyer) is delighted at this advantageous match, that will ‘knock some semblance of legitimacy’ into her granddaughter. But Hester is determined not to go quietly, despite her neighbour Monica Murray (Jane Brennan) begging Hester to keep her signed promise to leave the bog for the new house in the town that Xavier has bought her…

Monica Frawley’s set is impressively stark, the craggy rocks being relieved only by a tent in the background for the raucous wedding sequence. This channels the intensity of Greek tragedy which Carr smashes into Irish archetypes. Catwoman the Tiresian blind seer mingles with an Irish mammy from Hell in Mrs Kilbride, Hester’s Tinker blood is the barbarian origins that Greeks despise, while Creon banishing Medea from Corinth is Xavier moving Hester off the bog; except that Xavier is also a monstrous patriarch out of John McGahern’s work. Irish country and western music floats over proceedings, even inflecting the cowboy-outfitted drawling Ghost Fancier, but Kilian Waters’ AV design is oddly under-used, indeed largely abandoned after a prologue in which Hester’s sunken caravan is investigated by a character who disappears out of sight but whose point-of-view is relayed on a big screen. This play is about passion, mostly the thirst for revenge, as conveyed by Lynch in a performance of snarling intensity.

But, as Euripides’ 1960s translator Philip Vellacott noted, Medea presents “an oppressed victim claiming sympathy” until “the punishment shows itself twice as wicked as the crime, sympathy changes sides; and we are left with only one comfort, that since the worst has been reached, there can be no worse thing to follow.” After the interval Carr unduly prolongs Hester’s embittered rampage, as we’ve lost sympathy by dint of her past before she proves childishly and murderously unwilling to distinguish between death and exile. Hester’s most affecting scenes come before the interval: lamenting her betrayal by Carthage, making fun of Mrs Kilbride with her daughter Josie. O’Dwyer is hilariously spiteful before the interval as Mrs Kilbride, but raises the roof as a Freudian nightmare against the double-act of Ni Neachtain’s Catwoman and Des Nealon’s Fr Willow at the memorable wedding bacchanalia. O’Byrne evinces a quiet sadness, while special mention must go to the young actress playing Josie with bright, phenomenal confidence.

By the Bog of Cats is a production of admirable commitment which loses its way latterly because of its repetitious focus on Hester but lingers long in the mind.

3.5/5

By the Bog of Cats continues its run at the Abbey until September 12th.

August 9, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Avengers

Edward Norton was undiplomatically relieved of his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers after one disastrous production meeting…

INT.LOS ANGELES, MARVEL CONFERENCE ROOM-DAY
DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s celebrated agent but a Marvel Studios producer who by an amazing coincidence has the same surname, is seated beside JOSS WHEDON at the head of a long conference table. EDWARD NORTON sits at the opposite end with a stack of comics and books, while SCARLETT JOHANSSON and SAMUEL L JACKSON sit beside two empty chairs on one side, with CHRIS EVANS and CHRIS HEMSWORTH opposite them, beside another two empty chairs.

DELANEY: First off I’d like to thank all of you who showed up today, for taking the time to come here to meet your new writer/director for The Avengers, Joss Whedon.
WHEDON: Hi everyone. This is just a sort of informal meet and greet to talk you through some of the broad ideas that I have for the direction I’m going to take the film in and-
NORTON: Well I’m glad that I’ve caught you in time then because I have some creative ideas I’d like to talk about regarding Hulk’s centrality in-

He is interrupted by ROBERT DOWNEY JR exploding into the room with a cup of coffee in each hand and a cell phone nestled under his chin against his shoulder. He precariously keeps everything from spilling or dropping while dancing over to sit next to Scarlett Johansson who he purrs at before facing the others.

DOWNEY: Hello, hello, hello – sorry I’m late, I’m trying to find a Moriarty. (nods) Sam the man. Scarlett witch. Buffy-man. Delaney. (beat) And, two new guys.
EVANS: Chris Evans – Captain America.
HEMSWORTH: Chris Hemsworth – The Mighty Thor.
DOWNEY: You’re both Chris? Oh man that’s too much for me to deal with this early in the morning.
JACKSON: Robert, it’s 2pm.
DOWNEY: Is it? Am I that confused with the time? What time is it London then? I’ve been annoying Ritchie all morning/day/night. I’m just gonna call you Cap’n.
EVANS: Fine with me.
DOWNEY: And I’ll call you Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Okay. Aren’t we short some actresses?
DOWNEY: Oh, Gwyneth’s in London. She said she wanted to spend more time with – iPhone, iPod?
JOHANSSON: Apple!
DOWNEY: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
NORTON: Where’s Jennifer Connelly?
DELANEY: We’re not sure if we’re using her yet.
NORTON: Well now hang on a minute!
DOWNEY: Oh, we should totally use her, and I mean that in as sexual a manner as the rating will allow. We should have like three different love triangles in the movie – one for each act. In the first act it can be all crazy Scarlett vs Gwyneth action for me, and in the second act it can be all me vs Ed for Jennifer-
NORTON: It’s Edward actually.
DOWNEY: -and the third act should be totally homoerotic, so that it looks like it’s me vs Cap’n for Gwyneth but actually we really totally want each other and the girl is just a medium for our inexpressible homosocial desires.
DELANEY: Whedon, don’t even think about taking him up on any of those ideas, especially the last. This film has been enough trouble for me already…
DOWNEY: (phone rings) Ooh, Ritchie.

Downey bounds to his feet and dashes out of the room with a cup of coffee.

WHEDON: (to Delaney) Are you sure he’s not on drugs?
EVANS: (to Johansson) Scarlett, did he just come onto me?
JOHANSSON: (to Evans) No Chris, he’s just still in Sherlock Holmes mode.
DELANEY: (to Whedon) Downey’s on fire right now commercially, this is one time where he can legitimately be high on life.
NORTON: (perturbed by the skittish nature of this meeting) Right…like I said I had some creative ideas regarding Hulk’s centrality in the film’s mythos. Now, I brought along a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone as well as a Hulk graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and some trade paperbacks of the late 1970s comics and I think that-

Downey re-enters the room talking, tosses his empty coffee cup and picks up his other cup of coffee, starts to leave the room again but his call ends just as he opens the door.

DOWNEY: Couldn’t you get Ian McKellen then? (beat) What do you mean too old? (beat) Well couldn’t we rewrite the part to make it less physical? (beat) Well get back to me with this mystery option of yours as soon as you can.

He turns around and walks back to his seat.

DOWNEY: Right, sorry about that. Where were we?
WHEDON: I was about to say that the broad theme I have for the movie is-
JOHANSSON: Can I just ask if my character will have some purpose other than titillation in a backseat in this movie?
HEMSWORTH: Can I take Jon Favreau’s part in that scene if we’re doing one?

Whedon starts to crawl up into a foetal position in his chair.

JOHANSSON: It’s just a bit insulting that Jennifer might not even be in the film because Gwyneth and I are already there to be eye-candy but not play a pivotal ro-
DELANEY: Jesus, Johansson! Do you have push the feminist line so hard at this point?

He starts to stroke Whedon’s head soothingly while cooing to him.

DELANEY: (Accusingly to Johansson) Doesn’t he have enough to do without making every female character he ever writes Buffy as well? He’s got to somehow combine four different franchises into one coherent film and also-
JACKSON:  Possibly save the Thor franchise, no offense, Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Hell, none taken, I haven’t even seen a rough cut of it yet.
DOWNEY: I think they should have just released the table read where Branagh did all the parts for the production heads, no offense.
HEMSWORTH: Starting to take offense, but broadly I agree that was fairly awesome.
JACKSON: How’s your film looking Cap’n?
EVANS: Okay, not great, but Hugo Weaving’s going to steal it, the Aussie bastard.
JOHANSSON: Where are we with villains for The Avengers?

Whedon suddenly comes alive again and crawls back into an upright position.

WHEDON: Villains? Villains! Villains, villains are important. Villains should have some depth and-
NORTON: Exactly, (takes a deep breath) now I figured that a conflict between legal duty and human feeling like Creon suffers would be perfect for giving a villain some depth and sympathy and that if Hulk were to be the Antigone to Fury’s Creon then-
DOWNEY: (phone rings) YEAH! (beat) WHAT?! (beat) Let me call you back. (hangs up) He wants to cast Jason Statham as Professor Moriarty for the next movie now. Thoughts, people?
WHEDON: (to Delaney) How come Ritchie gets to cast his regulars and I don’t?
DELANEY: (to Whedon) When you make a film that makes as much money as Sherlock Holmes I’ll let you use motion-capture to cast Nathan Fillion in every part, but until that day…
JOHANSSON: I like the idea of Statham, sounds like it could be a lot of fun.
DOWNEY: But I don’t want a Moriarty who spends his time telling his minions they’re ‘bang aht of order’.
WHEDON: You realise that in England if you met a guy on the street and he got in your face you’d be terrified if he sounded like Statham and just amused if he sounded like McKellen.
DOWNEY: I want someone who sounds proper British! Not Dick Van Dyke British!
NORTON: (lunges into a micro-second of silence) So, my concept would not only give a villain depth and problematise notions of heroism it would also give Jennifer a pivotal role. It raises interesting ethical questions and subverts expectations! (beams)
JACKSON: Whedon, man, could you move this along? I’ve got three other meetings to fit in this afternoon.
DOWNEY: Do you have to constantly make films now that you’re off drugs because you have an addictive personality?
JACKSON: How many cups of coffee have you had in the last hour? How many topics have you talked about since you came in here and how fast have you talked? Hm? Now talk to me about addictive personalities…
DOWNEY: Touche. I can see why your character is the boss of my character.
NORTON: And I think that basing the film around Hulk’s ethical dilemmas and introducing Iron Man as a Deus Ex Machina in the third act when all seems lost would utterly confound audience expectations and wow the critics globally.

There is dead silence around the room instantly, as jaws drop down and hang there

WHEDON: Edward, three things. (1) I’m directing this film, not you. (2) I can’t base a franchise cross-over around the weaker performer of the two franchises to date. (3) The story-lining stage is kinda over. We’re already thinking sets and costumes.
NORTON: You mean you won’t even consider playing this as a Greek tragedy?
DELANEY: NO! NO!! Look that where sort of craziness got Ang Lee’s Hulk!!
NORTON: Do I at least get some input into the editing process then?

Samuel L Jackson falls off his chair, he then drags himself up to table height.

JACKSON: Good God Man! We’re just actors!! Actors!!! (he falls to the ground)
EVANS: What he said.
NORTON: Wait, you have no interest at all in any creative input by me into this?
WHEDON: Interest in your acting ability, everything else creative I can handle…
NORTON: FINE! FINE! Well I can see I’ve been wasting my time taking this seriously when apparently all the rest of you want to do is make phone calls, drink coffee and bitch about casting choices. Well I am not just an actor but also a writer/director and an editor, and I had a vision that would have wowed millions around the globe and tapped into Jungian undercurrents but FINE! I’m not upset!!
HEMSWORTH: (giggles) ‘Don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry’.

Norton sits quietly fuming, fighting it, but then, he turns pale green and swells in size, but manages to restrain himself so that only his shirt bursts open, and then storms over and lifts Hemsworth in his chair and throws him thru the office window.

NORTON: HULK SMASH! HULK UNAPPRECIATED! HULK EXPOSE HIMSELF TO GAMMA RAYS FOR RESEARCH AND GET NO THANKS! HULK COMBINE COMIC-BOOKS WITH GREEK TRAGEDY FOR SUPER-STORYLINE AND GETS ACTORS PASSING OUT IN RESPONSE! GARH!!

Norton/Hulk storms out of the room, yanking the door off its hinges as he goes.

DOWNEY: Hulk/Edward doesn’t play well with other children.
DELANEY: Shut up.
EVANS: Looks like we’re going to need a new Hulk.
WHEDON: If you write something that means ‘Edward doesn’t play well with other children’ in the press release then I won’t push Nathan Fillion to replace him as Hulk.
DELANEY: Okay, I’ll write something like “We need an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our talented cast”. Deal?
WHEDON: Deal.
DOWNEY: Ooh! I think I know someone who’d be good for Hulk. I’ve been hearing a lot about him – some wiry guy with real intensity, name’s James Marsters I think…
DELANEY: Frak My Life.
EVANS: (beat) Should we tell people that Edward Norton actually is the Hulk now?
JACKSON: (to himself) I had no idea his method went so deep! I’ve gotta apologise to the man, that’s a level of commitment all actors should aspire to.
JOHANSSON: (looking out the window) I’m just glad we’re on the ground floor…

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