Talking Movies

January 15, 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman wasn’t just a movie villain, (nor even that) he was a stage star. The Guardian in taking stock of Rickman’s career noted six theatrical highlights; one of those was here at the Abbey.

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Rickman left graphic design to enter RADA at the late age of 26, and then became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1986 he had a success de scandale as Valmont, the mordant seducer in Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He was nominated for a Tony for the part, but when Hollywood rushed to make two versions of the story he was cast in neither. Instead he made his screen debut as Hans Gruber, the mordant terrorist in John McTiernan’s film Die Hard. Rickman was drily withering at the L&H in UCD in 2009 (when being presented with the James Joyce Fellowship) on the topic of why he always played villains. He didn’t always play villains, of course. People just didn’t see those films, nor did they see his stage work on the West End and Broadway.

He reunited with Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also transferred to Broadway after its initial West End triumph. He controversially played opposite Helen Mirren as Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, showed his political activism in directing My Name is Rachel Corrie, which he helped compile from the emails of the student protestor killed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, and conquered Broadway  in 2011 as an unfeasibly abrasive creative writing professor in the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar. And in 2010 he played the titular John Gabriel Borkman, in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen for the 2010 Dublin Theatre Festival, which again reunited Rickman with Lindsay Duncan, and toured onwards to London’s National Theatre and New York.

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Ibsen’s 1896 play about a disgraced banker resonated unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland. In a bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) battled her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan) for the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) and for Borkman himself in a, for the most part, three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Rickman was wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which were funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” Rickman had the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlined his schemes for shipping and mining that would have made Norway rich; only he had the vision necessary, but within 8 days of completing his plans his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinced himself he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless, so proclaimed “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial. Intriguingly Cathy Belton toured with this production as Mrs Wilton; who threatens Erhart’s role as pawn in the mind-games.

Rickman squeezed some laughs in Gambit from being comically obnoxious as vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shabandar, but it was a film unworthy of him, Colin Firth, or Stanley Tucci; all obviously attracted by a Coen Brothers screenplay that got lost in translation. But when Rickman made an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation, he found a small showy role for Tucci as his fabulously acerbic screen brother. Rickman’s King Louis XIV was a highlight of the film; weary, cynical, yet somehow also unexpectedly humane; but he kept his role small, and gathered familiar faces around him, including Sense & Sensibility co-star Kate Winslet as Madame Sabine De Barra and John Gabriel Borkman co-star Cathy Belton as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. Rickman seemed to like creating theatrical repertory companies outside of theatre. Consider his own casting, his reunions with Emma Thompson, and Daniel Radcliffe’s astonished gratitude that Rickman would always appear whenever Radcliffe was debuting a new stage role. So it’s fitting to end with words from a ‘rep’.

Cathy Belton issued this statement yesterday afternoon: “I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Alan’s passing today. It was a joy and a privilege to work with him but it was even more of a privilege to call him a dear friend. His talent was immense, his generosity of heart and time knew no bounds both professionally and personally. His dry Celtic wit was a joy to be around, always challenging, charming, questioning and listening. It was no wonder he felt so at home in Ireland during his many times working and visiting here. His death is such a great loss to us all, my heartfelt sympathies go to his beloved wife Rima, his rock and light at his side for over fifty years.  The world is a lesser place without him and I will miss him greatly.”

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January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2014. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as top of the class, the runners up being right behind them, with also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) Arquette’s character grows older but not wiser, instead we see her becomingly increasingly brittle as even she realises that she’s sensible about everything except her romantic choices.

Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) Forming a great double act with Ben Affleck, Coon broke out from theatre with a glorious turn as his twin sister– the foulmouthed and spiky voice of reason.

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) Lawrence was perhaps too young for the part, but she played it with such comic panache that her sporadic appearances energised an overlong film.

Runners Up:

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank) Gyllenhaal was pitch-perfect as scary obscurantist Clara, with wonderful nuance in the slow reveal of how such off-kilter music bonds her and Frank’s damaged and isolated psyches.

Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) Foy was bright, furious, and resentful, and blew Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of their character, the indomitable Murph.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) Paulson’s casual brutality towards slaves was deeply shocking, but her horror at being replaced sexually by a slave subtly underscored her menace.

Also Placed:

Amber Heard (3 Days to Kill) Parodying her hyper-sexualised persona (The Informers) Heard, in leathers and wigs, flirted with burlesque girls and sexualised both driving fast and injecting medicine.

Joey King (Wish I Was Here) Pitted against Zach Braff’s glibly sarcastic agnosticism the sincerity of King’s adherence to Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity blew him off the screen.

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Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) His character’s drugs spiral, even as his friendship with Ron becomes beautiful, was extremely moving, with his fierce commitment extending to deliberately ravaging his appearance.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) His vicious bible-thumping alcoholic was terrifying, but also complex; slaves are either sub-human or masters are guilty, and Epps is self-destructing from mercilessly exploiting his slaves.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) Hawke physically filled out in a career-best performance of serious comedy as deadbeat dad whose rebelliousness was an affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the world.

Runners Up:

Andrew Scott (The Stag, Locke) Scott was their sole highlight: his Locke vocal performance exuded excitability and exasperation, while Davin was a man fatally wounded by romantic rejection being tortured some more by his ex-girlfriend.

Killian Scott (Calvary, ’71) His Calvary misfit Milo was dementedly funny in rambling frustration, and he so transformed into ruthless IRA leader Quinn that he seemed not only older and tougher, but almost taller.

Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours) Efron’s previous subversions of his image were nothing next to this jackpot: his squeaky clean looks have never been put to such diabolical and hilarious use.

James Corden (Begin Again) Corden not only frequently gave the impression that he was ad-libbing great comedy moments, but also that he was improvising Knightley into unscripted corpsing bonhomie.

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) Bautista took what could have been a tiresome running gag and instead by dedicated deadpan made utter literalness to the point of insanity infinitely unexpected and hysterical.

Also Placed:

Adam Driver (What If, Tracks) Sparring against Mackenzie Davis and Daniel Radcliffe in What If he was highly amusing and occasionally sagacious, and was both funny and adorably awkward in Tracks.

Gene Jones (The Sacrament) He was patently playing Jim Jones, and turned the charisma up to 11 for a TV interview that was so mesmerising it explained Father’s cult of personality.

Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here) Patinkin brought deep humanity and biting humour to his wise, religious father disappointed by his glib, agnostic son but delighted by his bright, devout granddaughter.

Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) The man can actually act! And as celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt he transformed the oily character from the novel by bringing palpable warmth to the part.

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Best Actress

Keira Knightley (Begin Again) Knightley sang rather well, but not only did she carry a tune she also carried the movie with a return of her old confidence. Maybe all that’s needed to restore the old swagger is James Corden ad-libbing her into improvising so she forgets her stage-fright.

Mackenzie Davis (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, What If) Her What If wild child was oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, albeit interpolated with Daisy Buchanan, and was strikingly different from her reserved bookworm subtly using her wits to escape a noir nightmare in We Gotta.

Runners Up:

Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbours) It’s always a joy when Byrne gets to use her native Australian accent, and she swaggered with such foul-mouthed comedic assurance that at times Seth Rogen became her foil as the sensible one in their marriage.

Agyness Deyn (Electricity) Deyn was a commanding presence. She grabbed with both hands this defiant character, who wears short dresses and fluorescent jacket; drawing the eye to a body covered in cuts; and had no vanity in showing these effects of seizures.

Also Placed:

Juno Temple (Magic Magic) Temple reprised some elements of her naïf in Killer Joe, though thankfully she was less over-exposed here, and made her character’s steady descent into insomniac madness chillingly plausible.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey’s physical commitment to the role was jaw-dropping, initially rake-thin before then wasting away before your eyes to harrowing effect. Initially unsympathetic, he patiently revealed the hidden softer side which engaged Dr Eve, and beautifully developed an unlikely and most affecting friendship with Rayon.

Runners Up:

Daniel Radcliffe (What If) Radcliffe is sensational as the hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness this was a comic role of unexpected substance.

Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) It’s hard to imagine anyone else, save 1973 Elliot Gould, pulling off this role quite as well. The Ruffalo exudes immense shambolic charm, shuffling about in scruffy clothes, doing permit-free guerrilla location live music recording that would make Werner Herzog proud.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for all concerned Stevens burns a hole in the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance – playing scenes tongue-in-cheek serious as the charismatic helpful stranger.

Also Placed:

Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) Affleck as an actor too often contentedly coasts, and (even when gifted zingers as in Argo) acts as a still centre. But, with Fincher pushing him with endless takes, he was fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws.

Pal Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, In Order of Disappearance) The imposing Norwegian perfectly captured old-fashioned grit, naive enthusiasm, and quiet heroism as Thor Heyerdahl, and then played crime-lord The Count as an epically self-pitying vegan equally stressed by divorced parenting with his ex-wife, and a nasty turf war with Serbian mobsters.

August 20, 2014

What If

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in a rom-com in which their characters shy away from being more than friends.

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Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his old college roommate Allan (Adam Driver). They spark off each other, and Chantry turns out to be Allan’s cousin, and to have a boyfriend… Wallace promptly ‘loses’ her number, but when they run into each other again because their shared interests are farcically obvious he decides to endure copyright lawyer Ben (Rafe Spall) for the sake of Chantry; and an email correspondence begins with discussing Elvis’ fatal cuisine. Wallace lives with his sister Ellie (Jemima Rooper), after a scarring break-up with an uncredited Sarah Gadon; which led to him dropping out of med school. When Allan moves to Dublin for a conference on international copyright, working alongside the attractive Julianne (Oona Chaplin), Allan and his new girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) decide to make Wallace stop asking ‘What if?’

I enjoyed What If but quite often its ribald dialogue seemed to me to be trying too hard. Now that may sound odd after recent encomiums on Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but their ribaldry cannot be detached from the warm-heartedness of their absurdist riffs; it’s intrinsic to their comedy. The salty dialogue of What If feels extrinsic to the comedy because of its superfluity, which is odd because director Michael Dowse worked with Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel on Goon, so perhaps it’s TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play that’s to blame. Having said which it is that almost mythical creature – the romantic comedy that’s actually funny, a speech on Bruce Willis’ manliness is peerless. It’s also very interesting. The hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically gives a lot of substance to the comedy.

Daniel Radcliffe is sensational. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but this is one of 2014’s best performances, combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness. Driver and Davis, despite lifting a Seth Rogen/Michelle Williams routine from Take This Waltz, are highly amusing in their matchmaking antics. Davis’ wild child is oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, and strikingly different from her bookworm in We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. There’s also the joy of seeing Irish financing cause proceedings to up sticks from a major North American city (see if you can guess which one before the postcard scene) for a sequence in the tiny Irish metropolis. Tiny. A city, extending from Mick Wallace’s Italian Quarter, over the bridge, thru Temple Bar, and up to College Green; which somehow houses Ballsbridge residences. And so to Zoe Kazan…

Kazan does nothing to win me over after Ruby Sparks and Orson Welles & Me. Chantry’s willingness to string Wallace along isn’t loveable, but What If is a strong enough movie to carry her.

4/5

February 8, 2012

The Woman in Black

Director James Watkins abundantly fulfils the promise he showed with 2008’s Eden Lake by unleashing a terrifying film that establishes him as a true master of horror.

Daniel Radcliffe is back in the realms of the supernatural, but this time he has no magical powers with which to fight evil… Watkins’ Eden Lake was a social horror in which chavs terrorised a yuppie couple, but his follow-up is a classical haunted house story set in the early 1920s. The film unnerves from the prologue where three young children commit suicide at the behest of the titular ghost. Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer has lost his wife in childbirth, and is sent to the Norfolk broads on sufferance that if he doesn’t clear up the nightmarish paperwork concerning Eel Marsh House he will lose his job. The unwelcoming villagers try to convince him not to stay, and the ‘incompetent’ local solicitor thrusts documents in his hands; begging him not to visit the house. Driven by duty Radcliffe ignores them…

Sam, a wonderful Ciaran Hinds as the friendly local toff, is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but in this acutely observed 1920s the huge numbers of War dead has created a hunger for communication with the gone thru mediums. It quickly becomes clear that any sighting of the Woman leads to a child’s death. And Radcliffe has a child… Eel Marsh House, situated on a mountainous rise in the Broads with a road washed away by tides twice daily, is a tremendously eerie location. Inside, courtesy of the world’s creepiest toy shop, the dimly-lit house is primed for scares. Classy horror might best be described as a concentrating on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror. This is the best ‘classy horror’ film I’ve seen since 2008’s The Orphanage, because a maestro is conducting.

Watkins disdains the ‘ha, made you jump!’ scares that blighted Black Swan. Instead he delivers three amazing releases of tension in innocuous but sharp surprises at the house, before a slightly unnerved Radcliffe returns to the village only to encounter a true horror. It is when he returns to Eel Marsh House and informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night and get shot of the paperwork in one go that things become terrifying. Hitchcock defined suspense as the pleasurable/tense wait for something you knew was going to happen, and Watkins delivers multiple bravura sequences of truly terrifying attendance on the arrival of malevolent spirits. Jane Goldman’s lean adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel creates an escalating feeling of sheer dread and the ending defeats the cliché you may be expecting. That’s if you don’t bolt, screaming, before the end…

Eden Lake was a dazzling technical achievement but it was hard to recommend. The Woman in Black, while almost unbearable for the nervously disposed, cannot be recommended enough.

5/5

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