Talking Movies

April 20, 2018

From the Archives: Juno

In the first in a series delving into the days before Talking Movies proper, here’s the first review I sent to Dublinks.com 10 years ago.

Juno, despite the plethora of Oscar nominations, is a good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film. First-timer writer Diablo Cody’s script is full of sharp one-liners, most of which are delivered by Ellen Page, the eponymous heroine who becomes “a cautionary whale” at her high school after accidentally getting pregnant. Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The unlikely father is Superbad’s Michael Cera, a diffident member of the school athletics team. (As Juno’s father quips “I didn’t think he had it in him!”) The problem with Juno is that much like director Jason Reitman’s previous film Thank You for Smoking it’s highly enjoyable but quickly fades in the memory as you forget all the barbed lines of dialogue.

20 year old Ellen Page deserves the enormous praise she’s receiving as she mordantly carries the entire film as the prematurely jaded, wisecracking Juno McGuff. This role is a worthy follow up to her incendiary turn in 2006’s Hard Candy. Someone really should remake The Big Sleep with Page as Phillipa Marlowe because on the evidence of this she could Bogart her way through anything… Reitman assembles a great cast around Page but Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner stand out as the highly strung yuppie couple that Juno picks to be the adoptive parents of her child. They might be a bit too desperate for children to actually be good parents while Bateman’s Mark might get on just a bit too well with Juno. ‘Might’ is the operative word though, because it’s refreshingly impossible to tell where everything is going.

The script constantly subverts expectations. Even Spider-Man star JK Simmons is required to actually act for the first time in ages rather than bark insults and chew scenery, his Mr McGuff is quietly depressed by his daughter’s predicament. Juno is not as funny as Superbad but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in charm, from the indie soundtrack to the quirky animations that indicate the progression of the pregnancy and Reitman’s audacious decision to end the movie with a DIY musical number. This is an indie delight.

4/5

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February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

September 20, 2013

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Dario Fo’s most celebrated play receives an exceedingly energetic but ultimately misjudged production at the New Theatre in Temple Bar.

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A madman, who likes to torment blustering local Garda (Paul Kealyn), worms his way into the corridors of power and, passing himself off as a judge conducting an inquiry, grills all the police officers present when an anarchist ‘accidentally’ fell off the 4th floor of police headquarters. Distractingly the characters retain names like Bertosi despite wearing Garda uniforms. The panicked Inspector (Neil Fleming) tries to maintain his alibi in the face of increasingly damning questions, dragooning the obviously guilty Superintendent (Rory Mullen) into buttressing the madman’s increasingly elaborate and supposedly helpful alibi for the alibi, as it were. They’re aided in their attempts to fabricate a narrative by the idiotic Constable (Paul Elliot, giving the most understated and effective performance), and hindered by the late-arriving crusading journalist (Dagmar Doring). But this is Hard Candy without any attempt at ambiguity; the dramatic dice are fatally loaded.

The play is dominated by a certified madman, but that doesn’t mean he has to be played as a madman. However, Patrick O’Donnell plays him from the get-go as Graham Norton meets Jim Carrey, with some grace notes from John Cleese as Basil Fawlty increasingly evident after the interval. This is not without merit by any means. There are many scenes which are screamingly funny because of this approach, but there are many more scenes which would work if played subtly that fail miserably because of this OTT tack. Cleese didn’t play Basil as screaming and prancing from start to finish, there were escalating levels of madness thru which Basil would reach his peak of manic exasperation. This production asks its cast en masse to start at full volume, which, toning it down being verboten, leaves them nowhere to go…

Director Peter Reid’s gloss on Simon Nye’s translation is a greater worry. An anti-austerity song is amusing, but seems pandering; but then it’s followed by an abortion zinger so pointed it’s not part of the play, but a statement of political credo – so much so that someone in the audience cheered loudly when it was delivered. This pulls you out of the theatre, and the madman’s subsequent lengthy speech on how religion reinforces capitalist hegemony annoys because Shaw would instantly produce an opposing argument; but here you’re expected to nod your head approvingly. Euripides with the Trojan Women challenged his fellow Athenian Imperialists to reflect on their conduct, Shakespeare with his history plays challenged his fellow countrymen to dream the England he was imagining for them, but this production merely asks Irish socialists to slap themselves heartily on the back.

If you believe theatre is an arena where you bask in the glory of your own beliefs then this will satisfy – but surely theatre aims for more than that?

2/5

May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

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Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

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