Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: The Jane Austen Book Club

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Following her husband’s decision to end their marriage Sylvia’s friends console her by starting a Jane Austen book club and trying to set her up with its sole male. Romance at the club though takes a familiarly Austen twist.

Sometimes bad books are the best ones to adapt. I remember this book getting slated on its release for having the temerity to include Jane Austen in the title when it was mere frothy chick-lit. Well guess what? In the hands of Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, who also directed, it becomes as refreshing as a cappuccino. This film is not going to win much critical acclaim for startling insight but its darned enjoyable and that’s a high achievement. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is distraught at her philandering husband ditching her after a speech in which he seems to imply he deserves a medal for staying married for 20 years. Her single friend Jocelyn (Bello) sets up a Jane Austen book club, which will read one Austen novel each month, and invites a younger man she meets a dog breeder’s conference to join. Her plan is to set him up with Sylvia. In a riff on the plot of Emma Jocelyn is blind to her own feelings and when, after Grigg has done everything in his power to woo her, he starts to show interest in Sylvia she gets jealous.

Mario Bello and Hugh Dancy are the heart of the film and both give winning turns. Emily Blunt though steals the show. She gives a tremendous performance as Prudie, the buttoned down daughter of a hippie, who is fatally attracted to a flirtatious student as she falls out of love with her good ole boy husband. This is a world away from her hilarious scene stealing in The Devil Wears Prada. Her performance here is very controlled as she brilliantly conveys that Prudie is battening down a lot of passion in a desperate effort not to become her mother, who briefly appears in an over the top cameo by Lynn Redgrave. Prudie has fallen out of love with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas: Buffy fans still hate him for a short-lived role) who places his career before their marriage. She thus picks Persuasion, Austen’s novel about giving love a second chance, for her turn in hosting the book club.

The highlight of the film comes as Blunt has a very LA Story moment when about to make a calamitous decision with Kevin Zegers’ tempter student. In a scene sound-tracked by Aimee Mann’s terrific ‘Save Me’, a traffic-light starts to flash ‘What Would Jane Do?’ at her. Silly but sweet, and the happy endings that occur are all the sweeter for being somewhat unexpected. No higher compliment can I pay this film than to say its depiction of the power and emotional insight of Austen’s Persuasion has made me eager to go out and get an Austen book I never read.

3/5

June 23, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XIV

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Edge of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

I blundered into the middle of Edge of Tomorrow aka All You Need is Kill aka Live. Die. Repeat. recently, at a time when I couldn’t commit to watching something, but was a bit annoyed that I couldn’t catch the first 20 minutes before turning off. Then realised that I could do something better, because it was showing on a channel with a +1 option. So I started switching between the two channels, one of them about 15 minutes in, the other 1 hour 15 minutes in. Back and forth, back and forth, even as Tom Cruise tried to explain to Emily Blunt how all this had happened to him before and how he’d got better at navigating this world, death by farcical death. An exposition lecture I was illustrating by channel-hopping. There is a peculiar joy to be derived from rewatching temporally trippy films in such a temporally scrambled way. I have fond memories of watching Interstellar with my Dad two years ago when RTE premiered it at a time of critically low DVR capacity. As a result of something running over we were forced to tape and watch, tape and watch, until eventually we found ourselves fatally behind, and forced to watch live until an ad-break because we couldn’t tape. And once the ads came we were able to finish the few minutes of taped material we needed in order to delete that chunk, setting us back nearly an hour in the story, and then we could start taping again while beginning the remaining 30 minute chunk of taped material. Dad complained at the end, not unreasonably, that he couldn’t make heard nor tail of the last three hours of gibberish.

The MARVELlous Mr Renner?

It’s slightly depressing to think that Jeremy Renner, despite having been pretty vocal about the shoddy writing of his character Hawkeye after The Avengers, is going to spend part of a second decade chained to him. As has been noted hereabouts the cinematic Hawkeye is a pale shadow of his immediate comic-book antecedent in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. As indeed are all the cinematic Avengers, which is what makes the Marvel Studios juggernaut so very depressing when it exists at the same time in history as Fast & Furious 5-thru 8. Looking back at this decade, as is becoming depressingly unavoidable, it’s clear that what Renner did when he jumped off the Marvel juggernaut was when he really shone: The Town, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Bourne Legacy, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Immigrant, American Hustle, Kill the Messenger, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Arrival, Wind River, The House, Tag. Renner lights up the two M:I movies, with Christopher McQuarrie dubbing him a fantastically funny ad-libber. His supporting turn in The Town is a masterpiece turning what is often a one-note character in heist movies into a wonderful imp, and in Arrival and Wind River he is superb at grounding sci-fi and Western noir in humanity.

January 8, 2019

Top Performances of 2018

July 13, 2018

Les Femmes d’Inception

The box-office failure of Ocean’s 8 made me think of a conceit from the summer of 2014 when in an argument I recast Inception with all the male roles played by women and vice versa.

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Look, I didn’t have anything to do with you not making it into the recasting. And stop asking me questions while I’m trying to handle the plastic explosives.

It wasn’t always possible to cast the same nationality or exact age but I quite liked my recasting then, and think it still stands up now. Try in particular to think about the scene in limbo near the very end where Cobb, Mal and Ariadne are at the table chez Cobb arguing over whether Cobb should stay with Mal in limbo forever.

Replacing Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb – Cate Blanchett

Replacing Joseph Gordon-Levit as Arthur – Lizzy Caplan

Replacing Tom Hardy as Eames – Emily Blunt

Replacing Ellen Page as Ariadne – Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Replacing Ken Watanabe as Saito – Li Gong

Replacing Dileep Rao as the Chemist – Archie Panjabi

Replacing Marion Cotillard as Mal – Mads Mikkelsen

Replacing Cillian Murphy as Fisher – Jodie Whitaker

Replacing Tom Berenger as Uncle Peter – Margo Martindale

Replacing Pete Postlethwaite as Fisher Sr – Eva-Marie Saint

Replacing Lukas Haas as the 1st Architect – Tina Majorino

and

Replacing Michael Caine as Miles – Vanessa Redgrave

July 1, 2018

Notes on Sicario 2

Sicario 2 is an unexpected sequel providing counterprogramming for the World Cup. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Sicario 2 starts off with some of the most disturbing and troubling scenes we’re likely to see this year – a prolonged suicide bombing and a retributive hi-tech torture in Djibouti. But these eventually prove to be a bit of a red herring as we return to fighting cartels in Mexico, and find that two men with no limits (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin) eventually question whether they have reached a point where they hit a moral limit. There are great sequences in Mexico: a kidnapping, a murder in broad daylight, and an ambush on a desert road where the abrupt transition to dirt road covers a convoy in a cloud of dust, neutralising the surveillance in 10 miles utility of the drone above. But ultimately Sicario 2 made me think of Hellboy II. Delighted not to have an audience stand-in getting between us and Hellboy, we all soon discovered that character was as necessary as Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Extremities of behaviour work best when observed by someone like Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the original.

Sicario 2 feels different from the original, because it is missing so many key personnel. Brolin and Del Toro return but as well as Blunt, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins sit this one out. Composer Johann Johannsson died recently and the picture is dedicated to him, and his music only plays in the last scenes (just before his name appears), reminding us how important his score was to creating the mood of the original. Stefano Sollima directed Italian crime show Gomorrah, and his style of observing extreme violence casually dispensed could best be described as blank in the vein of that show’s 2008 movie progenitor, where Villeneuve and Deakins, while also cold, provided a more Kubrickian detachment; eschewing commentary but inviting your moral reprobation. They also were far more adventurous in their shooting style, here there is less night-vision and thermal-vision photography than your weekly episode of SEAL Team. Ultimately returning writer Taylor Sheridan provides a screenplay that lacks the singular focus that gave Sicario its irresistible momentum and such richness of character.

The abundance of sequels these days means cyclical discussion of the same problems: resetting characters emotionally in order to place on the same reconciliatory arc again in Jurassic World 2, and in this case characters that worked best as supporting enigmas are placed centre stage because they were popular, and by explaining them away you remove the mystique to the point where they are no longer enigmas. This is certainly true with Alejandro, who seems to have reached the end of the line by being made the leading man. This is a pity as Sheridan’s original screenplay was so full of memorable dialogue that you lament the lack of it here as everything becomes a bit more routine, even as he hints at his interest but can’t really develop it in a notion that deserves a full blog post. Ever since Euripides wrote The Trojan Women during the Peloponnesian War artists have been wringing their hands over winning by the wrong methods invalidating the value of such victory. But must you win to wring hands?…

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

April 21, 2018

From the Archives: 27 Dresses

The second deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a review which gets quite thoroughly side-tracked by James Marsden.

This film is meant to be about perennial bridesmaid Jane Nichols in her quest to finally be the one walking up the aisle at her 28th wedding. Katherine Heigl though is, surprisingly, too bland in the lead to hold our attention so it should really be titled Everything Goes Right for James Marsden. If you’ve been following the career of poor Marsden you will have seen him lose the girl to Wolverine and Superman and get stitched up royally by Lena Headey in Gossip. 2007 represented something of a breakthrough for Marsden as he managed to at least not get screwed over in Hairspray before in Enchanted he finally got a girl…not the girl admittedly, but still it was one more girl than he’d managed to get up to that point. Now finally Marsden appears in a film where the script’s structure makes it clear that, barring genre-bending catastrophes, he has to get the girl.

27 Dresses won’t change the world of romantic comedies but it lacks any bite whatever. Marsden, a cynical reporter stuck in a hellish job writing romantic froth about society weddings, meets lovelorn PA Jane. They, of course, don’t get on. He steals her appointments book to check his hunch that she’s a wedding junkie and so writes a story about her 27 weddings as bridesmaid/fixer. Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada, disappointingly forgets to bring any of that film’s acerbity to this script. Judy Greer does her best to have some fun with her role as Jane’s best friend, traditionally the role in romantic comedies that actors enjoy playing the most, but her bitchy lines aren’t a patch on Emily Blunt’s equivalent repartee in Prada. Sadly this film just lacks any pizzazz. Marsden who romped his way through Enchanted is having noticeably less of a good time here.

Perhaps he’s subdued by the presence of Malina Akerman as Jane’s obnoxious sister, who immediately snares Jane’s boss (Edward Burns-sleepwalking his way towards his paycheque) and asks Jane to be her bridesmaid and plan their wedding, ending all hope of Jane finally consummating her unrequited love for him. Akerman has appeared in some of the worst films of the past year, The Invasion, The Brothers Solomon, and The Heartbreak Kid and has one of the most grating screen presences imaginable. Theoretically pretty in a square jawed blonde sort of way she just lacks any sort of charm to make an audience care about her character’s various humiliations in this film, actually we cheer them on! Marsden is having some fun but 27 Dresses is just curiously anaemic as a romantic comedy. The funniest sequences involve montages of Heigl at various weddings which set up the closing visual gag which is sweet and funny but this is really one for Marsden completists only.

2/5

January 11, 2018

Fears: 2018

The Post

Hanks fights Nixon – yay!

But at wrong newspaper – boo!

Spielberg, what the hell?

 

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis swansong

There Will Be Bodices (sic)

Somewhat overwrought?

 

The Shape of Water

Del Toro is back

Less Gothic, more Creature-y

and boo hiss Shannon

 

Red Sparrow

J-Law needs a hit

This will not be it. Too bad.

Ersatz Nikita.

Annihilation

Portman and a man

Odd that, but Garland ‘writes well’

And directs again

 

New Mutants

Fox does X-horror

X-Men that is, obscure ones

They’re affordable

 

The God Particle

Cloverfield in space

Elizabeth Debicki

Looks on earth aghast

 

Pacific Rim

Exit Del Toro,

Enter Steven S DeKnight,

Thanks a bunch, China

Solo

Disney paid a lot

You must help them make it back

Han: the Wall St. Years

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The infinity

is really the damn cast list

Makes LOST seem restrained

 

Sicario 2

Blunt has not come back

Instead the wolf is let loose

Del Toro, that is

 

Ocean’s 8

Cinema’s great hug

Retconned as male privilege;

All girl cast fixes that

 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Critics applaud, not

because the thing is done well

but because it’s done

 

A Wrinkle in Time

‘Oprah for ’20!’

It starts here! Diverse sci-fi.

Love this or get coat

 

Mute

Duncan Jones does ‘Hush’

Berlin barman tracks girlfriend

His fists speak for him

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s X-3 remade,

with little context for Jean,

who cares? C.G.I!

 

John F Donovan

We have waited long,

Too long for Dolan anglais,

Now we fear for Snow

 

Holmes and Watson

Will Ferrell bromance

Can’t be worse than Downey/Law

A dumb comedy

 

January 20, 2016

2016: Hopes

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Midnight Special

Mud writer/director Jeff Nichols makes his studio debut on April 15th with this tale he places roughly in the territory of John Carpenter’s Starman and De Palma’s The Fury. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays a father forced to go on the run with his son after discovering the kid has special powers, and the FBI is interested in them… Sam Shepard also recurs, as does cinematographer Adam Stone, while Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton join the Nichols stable. It’s hard to imagine a genre tale from Nichols, but perhaps an unusually heart-felt Stephen King captures it.

Everybody Wants Some

April 15th sees Richard Linklater release a ‘spiritual sequel’ to both Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. Little is known for sure about Everybody Wants Some, other than it’s a comedy-drama about college baseball players during the 1980s, that follows a boy entering college, meeting a girl, and a new band of male friends. The cast features Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and Zoey Deutch, so in retrospect may be as star-studded as his 1993 exploration of the end of high school. Hopefully it’s as archetypal and poignant as that as regards the college experience.

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Love & Friendship

On April 27th almost exactly four years since Damsels in Distress the urbane Whit Stillman returns with another tale of female friendship, with a little help in the scripting department from Jane Austen. His Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny reunite for this adaptation of Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’ novella shot in Ireland. Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and Xavier Samuel are the supporting players as Beckinsale tries to marry off her daughter (Morfydd Clark) but the real attraction is Stillman, poet of dry wit and elite social rituals, adapting an author with similar preoccupations.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third directorial effort, out on May 20th, sees him back on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory. Get ready for Ryan Gosling to Bogart his way thru the seedy side of the City of Angels as Holland March, PI. March partners up with a rookie cop (Matt Bomer) to investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star. But standing in his way is an LA Confidential reunion: Kim Basinger as femme fatale, Russell Crowe as Det. Jackson Healy. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of terrific dialogue carrying some hysterically self-aware genre deconstruction.

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Queen of Earth

We can expect writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s latest movie to hit Irish cinemas sometime in June. Listen Up Philip star Elisabeth Moss takes centre-stage here alongside Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston as two old friends who retreat to a lake house only to discover that they have grown very far apart with the passage of time. Keegan DeWitt scores his second movie for ARP not with jazz but a dissonance appropriate to the unusual close-ups, that have invited comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as a spiky Waterston hurts an emotionally wounded Moss in all the old familiar places.

Independence Day: Resurgence

Roland Emmerich, the maestro of bombastic action that is actually mocking its audience, returns on June 24th (for some reason) with a belated sequel in which the aliens come back. Jeff Goldblum has led a 20 year scramble to harness alien tech to strengthen earth’s defences but will those efforts (and Liam Hemsworth’s mad piloting skills) be enough against an even more imposing armada? Sela Ward is the POTUS, Bill Pullman’s POTUS has grown a beard, his daughter has morphed from Mae Whitman into Maika Monroe, and the indefatigable Judd Hirsch returns to snark about these changes.

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La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling team up again on July 15th for an original musical from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Gosling is a jazz musician in LA who falls in love with Stone’s aspiring actress, and that’s all you need for plot. Stone did an acclaimed turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, but whether Gosling or JK Simmons (!!) can hold a tune is unknown. The real question is will it be half-embarrassed to be a musical (Chicago), attempt unwise grittiness (New York, New York), or be as mental as aMoulin Rouge! with original songs?

Suicide Squad

And on August 5th we finally get to see what Fury auteur David Ayer has done with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. The latest trailer has amped up the nonsense quotient considerably, and this now looks like The Dirty Dozen scripted by Grant Morrison. Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). All eyes are on Robbie’s take on Harley, well until Jared Leto’s Mistah J turns up…

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Sausage Party

August 12th sees the release of probably the most ridiculous film you will see all year, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have scripted an adult animation about a sausage in a grocery store on a quest to discover the truth of his existence. Apart from Jay Baruchel, all the voices you’d expect are present and correct: James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, David Krumholtz, as well as Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek. But given how Green Hornet failed can R-rated semi-improvised comedy and animation go hand in hand?

War on Everyone

The Guard in New Mexico! Okay, maybe not quite, but in that wheelhouse. In late August John Michael McDonagh makes his American bow with a blackly comic thriller about two renegade cops (Alexander Skarsgaard and Michael Pena) who have devoted themselves to blackmailing and framing every criminal who crosses their path. And then they come across that somebody they shouldn’t have messed with… McDonagh’s two previous outings as writer/director have been very distinctive, visually, philosophically, and verbally, but you wonder if he’ll have to endlessly self-censor his take no prisoners comedy for ‘liberal’ American sensibilities. Hopefully not.

American actor Matt Damon attends a press conference for his new movie "The Great Wall" in Beijing, China on July 2, 2015. Pictured: Matt Damon Ref: SPL1069228 020715 Picture by: Imaginechina / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles:310-821-2666 New York:212-619-2666 London:870-934-2666 photodesk@splashnews.com

The Girl on the Train

Following Gone Girl another book of the moment thriller gets rapidly filmed on October 7th when Emily Blunt becomes the titular voyeur. From her commuter train seat she witnesses the interactions of perfect couple Haley Bennett and Luke Evans as she slows down at a station on the way to London. Then one day she sees something she shouldn’t have, and decides to investigate… The impressive supporting cast includes Rebecca Ferguson, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Justin Theroux, but it’s not clear if Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has relocated the action to New York.

The Great Wall

November 23rd sees Chinese director Zhang Yimou embrace Hollywood, with an English-language story about the construction of the Great Wall of China scripted by Max Brooks and Tony Gilroy. Zhang has assembled an impressive international cast including Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Zhang Hanyu, and Mackenzie Foy for this sci-fi fantasy of the Wall’s completion. Little is known about the actual plot, but Zhang’s recent movies about the Cultural Revolution have been a drastic change of pace from the highly stylised colourful martial arts epics of Imperial China he’s known for in the West.

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The Founder

Michael Keaton cements his leading man comeback on November 25th with a blackly comic biopic of Ray Kroc. Who is Ray Kroc you ask? The Founder of … McDonald’s. Yes the McDonald brothers did own a hamburger store, but it wasn’t them that expanded into a national and then global, brand. That was all Kroc, who bought them out, and then forgot to pay them royalties; one of several incidents of what people might call either unethical behaviour or recurrent amnesia. Supporting players include Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson, so this tale might be quite tasty.

Story of Your Life

Denis Villeneuve gears up for directing Blade Runner 2 with an original sci-fi movie that should arrive late in 2016. A first contact story, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story, it follows Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert recruited by the U.S. military. Her job is to decipher an alien race’s communications, but her close encounter with ET causes vivid flashbacks to events from her life. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are physicists and spooks trying to figure out what her unnerving experiences mean for rest of the humanity.

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Passengers

Stomping on Rogue One with a December 21st release date is the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Poor Keanu Reeves spent years trying to make this sci-fi rom-com happen but as soon as these two expressed interest Jon Spaihts’ long-circling script got permission to land. Pratt wakes from cryo-sleep 90 years too early, so wakes up another passenger to relieve his loneliness on the somnambulant spaceship. Michael Sheen is a robot, but the potential for delight is offset by worthy director Morten Tyldum and the high probability of the contrivance of every other rom-com being used.

Assassin’s Creed

‘One for the studio, One for ourselves’. As it were. December 21st sees the acclaimed Macbeth trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and director Justin Kurzel reunite for a blockbuster based on the all-conquering game. Ubisoft Motion Pictures (yes, that’s really a thing now) and New Regency have opted not to adapt the story of Desmond Miles, or Ezio Auditore; perhaps in case this bombs. Fassbender plays original character Callum Lynch who can commune with his ancestor Aguilar, also played by Fassbender; presumably with a devilish grin as he battles the Spanish Inquisition. Fingers crossed that this works.

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.

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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.

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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