Talking Movies

January 26, 2012

The Descendants

George Clooney stars in a comedy drama set in Hawaii about a family facing up to bereavement and a truly first world problem involving tracts of ancestral land.

Clooney’s lawyer Matt King lives off only what he earns from his practice, as his principled father did, eschewing the vast wealth that he’s inherited from being one of the descendants of the daughter of the last King of Hawaii. His many cousins have no such scruples and squander their money on frivolous pleasures before selling another parcel of their inherited land to fund their idle lifestyles. However, a new law means they must sell off their remaining tracts in one go; and Matt as the responsible trustee has to guide his extended family away from selling to the highest bidder and towards selling to the local bidder. These machinations are rudely interrupted by his wife’s boating accident. Her living will requires that her life support be switched off and so Matt brings his wayward eldest daughter Alexandra home from boarding school to say goodbye.

Alexandra, played with considerable spark by Shailene Woodley, reveals that her mother had been cheating on, and planned to divorce, Matt. A stunned Matt quickly confirms this is true and tries to hide his secret grief as he informs everyone that his (unfaithful) wife is about to die. Robert Forster’s turn as her materialistic father is very hard to watch, as his misplaced trust in his daughter’s total devotion to Matt twists into blaming Matt for her death because he didn’t shower King money on her. Despite such potential for layered dramatic conflict The Descendants works best at its funniest moments, of which there are many. Nick Krause as Alexandra’s friend Sid is consistently hilarious, his amiable surfer dude helping her surprisingly effective buttressing of Matt’s inept attempts at parenting the troubled Scottie (Amara Miller).

Sideways director Alexander Payne coaxes good performances, including a surprisingly effective dramatic turn from Judy Greer as another betrayed spouse, but as co-writer he doesn’t inject his usual unpredictability. The 17 year old Alexandra and the 10 year old Scottie are basically Medium’s bickering but loving DuBois sisters Ariel and Brigitte. Matt’s quixotic quest to track down his wife’s lover Brian Speer uses a plot device that proudly displays a diploma from the ‘Well, Jesus, that was easy’ School of Screenwriting. The third act infuriates because it flags that a grand rom-com gesture is going to be made, which, like Clooney’s conference speech in Up in the Air, will annoy the characters attending the event interrupted by this nonsense. This film skirts dramatic deep waters to paddle in insubstantial dramedic shallows.

The Descendants illustrates the dangers of hype which also afflicted There Will Be Blood. Its Golden Globe wins promise a cracking serious comedy, but this is a decent comedy shackled to a too predictable drama.

3/5

January 20, 2012

Top Performances of 2011

In a new move for this blog, and as a complement to last week’s Top 10 Films of 2011, here are the Top Performances of 2011. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor, which was well and truly coming apart at the seams from so many great scene-stealing and buttressing performances last year. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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

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

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

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

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

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

April 13, 2011

Salvage Operation: Ocean’s Thirteen

2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen got lumped in with that summer’s plague of under-performing threequels but, while it is not as masterful as 2001’s joyous franchise-originator, not only does it atone for Ocean’s Twelve it also contains, amid the stylish shots and great music, one genuinely great sub-plot which should be salvaged for posterity.

Casey Affleck is dispatched to Mexico to infiltrate the factory which makes the die for villain Al Pacino’s casino and introduce a new polymer into the mix so that the elaborate con can be pulled off by flipping the loaded die in the finale. However he’s no sooner there, ‘blending in’ with his hilarious/racist moustache, than he starts complaining about the lack of air-conditioning in the factory. However another worker tells him to stop complaining and put his mask back on before he gets them all fired, the evil factory owners are watching them… Later we see Affleck in el local taverna complaining about el conditiones bestiale; delightfully these sequences barely need to be subtitled, so perfectly chosen are the Spanish words to be half-comprehensible. Affleck ends by gazing at a poster of Zapata on the wall and muttering revolutionary sentiments. Guess what happens next… Back in the main plot George Clooney and Brad Pitt hear that the factory is offline. Why, they ask puzzledly? Cut to Affleck leading the chants of the workers separated from their factory by a wire fence.

Affleck’s screen brother Scott Caan is dispatched to sort this nonsense out and get the factory back online so that the loaded die will arrive in time for the third act. A short while later Clooney and Pitt ring him for an update, which he delivers with his phone in one hand while lighting and then hurling a Molotov cocktail over the wire fence at the guards with the other – “It’ll be fine, we just have to break the bosses”. Finally the demand comes thru and Clooney does a quick mental calculation: 36,000 dollars, by 220 workers, equals 7 million. No, he’s told, 36,000 dollars in total, not per worker… “We’ll send them a cheque” he replies. “He had them out for 3.50 dollars more a week?” another con-man asks indignantly. “Hey, that’s a 5% pay-rise for them” says Bernie Mac. Cue Affleck and Caan leading the charge of triumphant workers back to the factory, and then they drive off in the truck with their loaded die, to rejoin the main plot by harassing an unfortunate hotel inspector and causing earthquakes.

And so Ocean’s Thirteen may be the closest that mainstream Hollywood will ever get to satirically critiquing the progress of globalisation thru zero-sum game outsourcing aka the race to the bottom. Who’d a thunk it?

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.

3/5

October 22, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson deploys all his cinematic trademarks to bring Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story to stop-motion animated life and the results are, well, yes, rather fantastic actually…

The film opens with Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) breaking into a farm to steal chickens in a sequence devised as one long tracking shot, scored by the Beach Boys’ Heroes and Villains, and filled with ridiculous acrobatics by the foxes to avoid detection before they fall for the oldest trick in the book. When we fast-forward two human years/twelve fox years Mr Fox is raising a moody cub and is a social columnist for the local newspaper having promised his wife that he is retired from poaching. Yeah, that’ll last. Sure enough Mr Fox has a mid-life crisis and bullies his grouchy attorney Badger (Bill Murray) into securing him a new tree-home with a view – a view of three farms run by the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

Clooney’s Fox, not unlike his Danny Ocean, plots an audacious poaching strike on all three farms. Clooney’s always distinctive voice is perfect casting as its mixture of charm and unctuousness captures the arrogance that gets Fox into trouble and the quick-wittedness that gets him out of scrapes. This scrape is though is very tricky as he incurs the wrath of the smartest of the farmers Bean, richly played by Michael Gambon in a vocal performance that occasionally recalls Ben Kingsley’s villain in Sexy Beast, who makes it his mission to kill Fox even if he has to dynamite half the countryside to do so. Indeed requests for dynamite are just one of many requests issued to Bean’s chief henchman Petey, (voiced by Jarvis Cocker who performs a campfire song which is then hilariously critiqued by Bean) the funniest of which involves a plaintive request to fetch a ladder.

Anderson has injected so much of himself into this story that Dahl would probably raise an eyebrow. Some of the greatest comedy moments come from the indie director filming scenes with his too hip whip-pans and artful long takes of deadpan dialogue, then having the be-suited animals suddenly behave like animals, or from adding lines only adults will appreciate like the besieged Fox sighing “Well this is just going to turn out a complete cluster-cuss for all concerned” and filming confrontations in the style of spaghetti westerns. Mostly this Anderson-isation of Dahl works but the lack of explanation of why animals living in 1950s England sound American occasionally grates when we’re given nonsensical moments like Owen Wilson’s cameo as a high-school sports-coach, while Jason Schwartzman’s neurotic shtick as Fox’s moody cub, intensely jealous of the attention his athletic cousin Kristofferson is given by Fox, wears thin very quickly.

Seeing Anderson’s unmistakeable style in stop-motion is endearing but it is the mixing of his studied sensibility with Dahl’s anarchy which raises this far above the rival auto-pilot ‘the moral is always be yourself’ animations of Dreamworks. Recommended viewing.

4/5

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