Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

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November 18, 2015

Mockingjay: Part 2

The Hunger Games saga comes to a conclusion with a hugely enjoyable film that unleashes some surprises before it succumbs to Peterjacksonitis in actually ending.

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Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from a brutal attack by her brainwashed beau Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As the medics of District 13 try to deprogramme him from the sadistic conditioning inflicted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss is frustrated in her quest for vengeance by rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore); who insists on keeping her off the front lines. But when Katniss goes AWOL it’s not very AWOL as Coin and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) form a propaganda core around her including Peeta, childhood friend Gayle (Liam Hemsworth), film-maker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), and fellow Victor Finnick (Sam Claflin). But their mission to make propaganda just behind the frontlines and Katniss’ wish to assassinate Snow personally soon lead to chaos and tragedy.

Mockingjay: Part 2 is tonally quite different to last year’s Mockingjay. Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems shoot it with huge assurance, but it never really establishes what kind of new iteration of Hunger Games movie it wants to be. Instead it feels like the propaganda war of the last one, mashed together with a ‘guys on a mission’ movie to give more action beats to the story. And that’s before we get to how it really falls prey to the Lord of the Rings curse of not knowing how to get off the stage. But that’s not to say there is not much to love here. The location shooting in Paris and Berlin is terrific, rendering the deserted Capitol a fitting venue for the ’76th annual Hunger Games’ as Finnick dryly dubs Snow’s desperate gambit to booby-trap his own city.

Ocean’s 11 production design Philip Messina has worked on all the Hunger Games movies, and his work here completes the fleshing out of the Panem universe that began with the bigger budget of Catching Fire. Francis Lawrence showcases some agonisingly suspenseful directing in a sequence where the suicide squad (sic) are attacked by Capitol mutts in the sewers. It is a marvel from start to finish, with the claustrophobic tunnels lit minimally while the tension builds reminiscent of Alien, while the action makes you think this was what Alien Resurrection might have been aiming for in its trademark episode. Lawrence’s love of complicated villains also continues with Donald Sutherland working wonders with his six scenes as he sows doubts in Katniss’ mind, and the film embraces a deeply cynical view of messianic leadership.

Mockingjay: Part 2 could have been leaner, but it could scarcely have been meaner, and it comes out fighting for most of its running time.

3.5/5

February 4, 2015

2015: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:22 pm
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Chappie

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe travels to Gallipoli in search of his three missing sons in 1919. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko and official Yilmaz Erdogan, while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman, Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney round out the cast.

 

Chappie

Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are career criminals who kidnap the titular character and raise him as their own adopted son – but he’s a robot! Yeah… This peculiar feature is definitely a change of pace for writer/director Neill Blomkamp but it’s not clear from his first two features District 9 and Elysium whether he has the chops for a smart sci-fi crime comedy mash-up. District 9 was a gore-fest with a hysterically muddled message about apartheid, while Elysium was an embarrassing, illogical call to arms for Obamacare. Jackman’s been on a bit of a roll though so fingers crossed.

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The Gunman

March 20th sees Sean Penn attempts a Liam Neeson do-over by teaming up with Taken director Pierre Morel for a tale of a former special forces operative who wants to retire with his lover, only for his military contractor bosses to stomp on his plan; forcing him to go on the run. The lover in question is Italian actress Jasmin Trinca, while the organisation and its enemies have an unusually classy cast: Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. Morel will undoubtedly joyously orchestrate mayhem in London and Barcelona, but can he make Penn lighten up?

 

Furious 7

The death of Paul Walker delayed his final film. Following the death of Han, Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Dwayne Johnson) seek revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham as the brother of Fast 6’s villain). Chris Morgan pens his third successive Furious screenplay but, apart from dubious additions like Ronda Rousey and Iggy Azalea to the cast, the main concern is how director James Wan (The Conjuring) will rise to the challenge of replacing Justin Lin. Wan can direct horror but how will he handle Tony Jaa’s chaos?

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John Wick

April 10th sees the belated release of Keanu Reeves’ acclaimed low-fi action movie in which his sweater-loving retired hit-man wreaks havoc after his dog is killed; it being his last link to his dead wife for whom he’d quit the underworld. M:I-4 villain Michael Nyqvist is the head of the Russian mob who soon discovers his son Alfie Allen has accidentally unleashed a rampage and a half. Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix, directs with a welcome emphasis on fight choreography and takes long enough to make the action between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki’s assassin comprehensible.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well here’s an odd one and no mistake. Original director George Miller returns to the franchise after thirty years, co-writing with comics artist Brendan McCarthy and Mad Max actor Nick Lathouris. Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy channelling his inner Mel Gibson, roaring around the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback with Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. This does look like Mad Max 2, but it’s not a remake; merely an excuse to do Mad Max 2 like sequences of vehicular mayhem but with a huge budget for the mostly practical effects, and some CGI sandstorm silliness.

Jurassic World

Jurassic World

Jurassic World opens its gates in June, boasting an all-new attraction: super-dinosaur Indominus Rex, designed to revive flagging interest in the franchise park. From the trailer it appears that in reviving this franchise new hero Chris Pratt has combined the personae of past stars Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Bryce Dallas Howard meanwhile takes over Richard Attenborough’s presiding over disaster with the best of intentions gig. Apparently there will be some animatronic dinosaurs, but the swooping CGI shots of the functioning park emphasise how far blockbuster visuals have come since Spielberg grounded his digital VFX with full-scale models.

 

Mission: Impossible 5

July sees Tom Cruise return as Ethan Hunt for more quality popcorn as Christopher McQuarrie makes a quantum directorial leap from Jack Reacher. Paula Patton is replaced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all return, as do Robert Elswit as cinematographer and JJ Abrams as producer. The trademark stunt this time appears to be Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a flying cargo plane, the villain is possibly Alec Baldwin’s character, and the screenplay is by a curious combo of Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and video game writer Will Staples.

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St James Place

October 9th sees the release of something of an unusual dream team: Steven Spielberg directs a Coen Brother script with Tom Hanks in the lead. Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer recruited by the CIA to work with the Russian and American embassies in London in 1961 after Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is shot down. The Company hope to secretly negotiate a release for the pilot, and keep all operations at arms’ length from DC to maintain plausible deniability. Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, and Eve Hewson round out the impressive cast of this drama.

 

Crimson Peak

October 16th sees Guillermo del Toro reunite with Mimic scribe Matthew Robbins. Their screenplay with Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) sees young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) travel to the titular mansion of a mysterious man, who lives in seclusion in the mountains. Apparently del Toro has outdone himself with the production design of the mansion’s interior. The cast includes Supernatural’s Jim Beaver as Wasikowska’s father (!!!), Tom Hiddleston, Doug Jones, Charlie Hunnam, and the inevitable Jessica Chastain. But can del Toro, who’s not had it easy lately (The Strain), deliver a romantic ghost story mixed with Gothic horror?

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Spectre

The latest Bond film will be released on November 6th. In a hilarious reversal of prestige John Logan’s screenplay was overhauled by perennial rewrite victims and action purveyors Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sam Mendes returns to direct as Daniel Craig’s 007 investigates the titular shadowy organisation, which makes a most welcome return after decades of lawsuits. Christoph Waltz may be Blofeld, Daniel Bautista is definitely his henchmen, Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are Bond girls, and charmingly Jesper Christensen’s Mr White links Paul Haggis’ Solace and Spectre. And Andrew Scott joins the cast! Perhaps Moriarty’s a Spectre operative.

 

Mr Holmes

Writer/director Bill Condon has been on quite a losing streak (Breaking Dawn: I & II, The Fifth Estate). So he’s reteamed with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen for another period piece. Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) from Tideland novelist Mitch Cullin’s work, this finds a 93 year old Holmes living in retirement in Sussex in the 1940s troubled by a failing memory and an unsolved case. Condon reunites with Kinsey’s Laura Linney, and intriguingly has cast Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada, but this will be closer to ‘His Last Bow’ or Michael Chabon’s retired Holmes pastiche?

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Mockingjay: Part II

All good things come to an end, and Jennifer Lawrence’s duel with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow reaches its climax in November with what director Francis Lawrence considers the most violent movie of the quadrilogy. Familiar TV faces join the cast, with Game of Thrones’ Gwendolen Christie as Commander Lyme and Prison Break’s Robert Knepper as Antonius, and Philip Seymour Hoffman takes his posthumous bow as Plutarch Heavensbee. The last movie shook up the dynamic of these movies with a propaganda war, so it will be interesting to see how Lawrence stages an all-out rebellion against the Capitol.

 

Macbeth

Arriving sometime towards the end of year is Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. That pairing enough is reason to be excited, but we’ll also get Paddy Considine as Banquo, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, and Jack Reynor as Malcolm. Not to mention that Kurzel directed The Snowtown Murders and his DP Adam Arkapaw shot True Detective. Hopes must be high therefore that this will be both visually striking and emotionally chilling in its depiction of Macbeth’s descent into bloody madness.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie event of 2015 arrives on December 18th. The original heroes (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) and their sidekicks (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels) will all be making a welcome return after the passionless prequel protagonists. Director JJ Abrams has also cast a number of rising stars (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Gwendolen Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac) and a total unknown (Daisy Ridley – allegedly the protagonist!) The trailer seemed to indicate that this trilogy might actually be some fun, but Super 8 showed that fan-boys sometimes forget to bring originality.

November 25, 2014

Mockingjay – Part I

 

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Jennifer Lawrence assumes her role as symbol of the revolution in the third instalment of The Hunger Games; which might be the best one yet.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is suffering from the experience of the Quarter Quell even more than the trauma of the original Hunger Games; hiding in tunnels, having panic attacks, and in total denial that her home, District 12, has been destroyed. Her rescuer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken her to the underground bunker that houses the survivors of District 13’s destruction by the forces of the Capitol. He introduces her to President Coin (Julianne Moore), and, after, Katniss is allowed to see District 12 for herself, takes charge of turning Katniss into the Mockingjay – symbol of the Revolution. But it’s only after shooting a hysterically inept propaganda video that Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) makes a ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ speech, and Katniss is allowed into combat; trailed by Plutarch’s recruit, film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Katniss’ raw reactions make her a weapon in a propaganda war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) taunting her with his own weapon – Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

“Moves and countermoves,” as Donald Sutherland whispers, are the substance of this film; and it makes for an unusual and shadowy blockbuster. The characters in the Capitol are distanced from us: President Snow only appears 5 times, Peeta and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) are merely faces on giant television screens, other kidnapped victors are mentioned but not seen. The relationship of the air war of propaganda videos to the ground war of rebel action is shown by director Francis Lawrence utilising the ever-increasing budget to flesh out more and more of the geographical variety of the world of Panem. Loggers in District 7 rebelling against Snow’s increased quotas take up Katniss’ spontaneous rallying cry “If we burn, you burn with us” after her traumatic baptism of fire into the war in District 8. Rebels in District 5 turn Katniss’ folk-song, creatively edited by Plutarch, into a revolutionary marching song; like ‘John Brown’s Body’ morphing into the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A long-take where Katniss walks down the ramp of a hovercraft which takes off to reveal the ruins behind her before we follow her as she walks into rubble exemplifies both Francis Lawrence’s masterful use of CGI and the exceptional sets. District 12 resembles Terminator 2’s skull-strewn future, a wave of humanity descending a spiral staircase in District 13 is rendered hypnotic, and Coin’s addresses to the populace in that bunker make you appreciate how poorly realised Zion was in the Matrix sequels. The decision to split Suzanne Collins’ novel in two is fully justified as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, and also Jonathan from Buffy!) provide a screenplay that makes us fear anyone; including the ever stoic Gale (Liam Hemsworth); could die, ratchets up tensions for its suspenseful finale, and drops a truly creepy character detail during it to boot. Francis Lawrence rises to the challenge of creating a different type of Hunger Games movie, while Jennifer Lawrence retains Katniss’ fire while layering her with uncertainty.

Interstellar is the most intelligent blockbuster of 2014, but Mockingjay’s tactical battle might be the most interesting popcorn movie.

4/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:58 pm
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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

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

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(9) Catching Fire

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

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 (8) Short Term 12

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

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(7) White House Down

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

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(6) Now You See Me

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

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(5) Frances Ha

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

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(4) Blue Jasmine

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

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(3) This is The End

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

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

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

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(1) Mud

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

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

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Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

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In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense inConstantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

June 14, 2012

Stay Hungry

I’ll be writing more in the near future about director Francis Lawrence in his own right, but for now let me emit a whoop of delight and a howl of despair regarding the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire.
 
I have a very high regard for Lawrence and am delighted that he’s been given the chance to direct the sequel as I think his flair for suspenseful action directing and deliberately measured pacing, and his aversion to pointless shaky-cam, are precisely what Gary Ross failed to bring to the table. Regrettably along with the announcement that Lawrence was taking the directing helm came the unwelcome rider that two of my least favourite screenwriters are charged with crash-writing an adaptation of the novel for him to start shooting in August. Ross’ screenplay with novelist Suzanne Collins and (the enigma that is) Billy Ray mirrored his shooting style of showily out of focus backgrounds and close-in focus on the faces of his actors. His film was infuriatingly lacking in scope. Some of this was inexperience in action directing, leading to an inability to locate action within a coherent geography, but some was due to frankly bizarre decisions to leave things unsaid which should have been bellowed. When rebellion was whispered about we had almost no knowledge of the history of the rebellion or the current state of Panem and the districts it domineers. And these aren’t additions that necessitated reshoots, they could have been added in ADR; just take Katniss’ send-off of Rue which incites a riot in District 11. If you haven’t read the book you can only guess at what actual meaning this obviously meaningful symbol has (ditto Katniss’ wearing of a Mockingjay); would it have killed Ross to have Wes Bentley ADR over a shot of his back in the control room a horrified “My God! She’s making the salute of the Rebellion!”?
 
All these problems could be fixed quickly in the opening of the second film, but that Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are entrusted with the job. I’ve previously berated Beaufoy over his adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which sent me scurrying to read the book, which he infuriatingly reversed in multiple respects. Novelist Paul Torday’s dry comedy and political satire was sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivered only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife was hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent in the film; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion were all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminated in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which made me groan, and later enraged me when I realised that everything I hated most in the film as cliché was delightfully subverted in the novel. Beaufoy also ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal novel Q & A into the disingenuously feel-good Slumdog Millionaire so I despair at what he’ll do to Catching Fire to make it a ‘well-made-screenplay’. And then Michael Arndt will polish the adaptation… Little Miss Sunshine may have won a screenplay for Best Oscar but I passionately hate it as perhaps the supreme example of the maddeningly cutesy indie clichés that win Oscar nominations needed for marketing purposes; from the quirk by numbers characters, to the complete lack of anything approaching emotionally authentic personal relationships, and the ending that solves absolutely none of the characters’ problems but provides a three-card-trick ‘subversive’ feel-good ending.
 
Jennifer Lawrence will be fantastic again as Katniss Everdeen, but Francis Lawrence can’t fix a screenplay and direct at the same time.

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