Talking Movies

March 3, 2019

Notes on The Aftermath

Keira Knightley’s new post-war romance was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

The Aftermath seems to be attempting to surf on the eddies left by Atonement, but this is a far more muted drama, and its startlingly more explicit affair comes out of nowhere. Indeed one imagines that pages 55 and 75 has been stapled in reverse order in the shooting script. Knightley’s character lost her son in the Blitz, Alexander Skarsgaard lost his wife in the firebombing of Hamburg. Yet there is no reason for her jumping from ‘I hate the Germans, they killed my son’ to jumping Skarsgaard. But if only it had come after the film’s best scene, where Knightley plays the piano. The first time she has properly played since her son died, using the copy of Debussy’s Claire de Lune inscribed by Skarsgaard’s dead wife. As Skarsgaard’s daughter joins in, and all are then reduced to tears by Knightley’s broken monologue about her dead son Skarsgaard sits down to comfort her. That scene should precede their affair…

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August 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Duchess

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up an English period drama with many wonderful moments that never cohered into a wonderful whole.

Photo by Peter Mountain

Keira Knightley tramples all over memories of her turn in Pride & Prejudice by showing us the dark side preceding Jane Austen’s Regency era. Indeed The Duchess begins at the point where an Austen novel would end, as Georgina (Knightley) is married to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in the film’s pre-title opening sequence. Any romantic notions the teenage bride has are instantly dispatched after the wedding ceremony as the Duke dismisses Georgina’s servants and uses a scissors to quickly strip her naked and get on with the business of producing an heir for the Devonshire estate.

The publicity for this film has made painfully obvious the parallels between Georgina Spencer’s marriage and that of her great great great great niece Princess Diana as the Duke soon introduces Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as the third person in their marriage. The Duke even echoes Prince Charles late in the film when, protesting his love to a stunned Georgina, he quickly clarifies “I love you in my understanding of love”, just as Charles infamously told the media shortly before his marriage that he loved Diana, “whatever love is”. That is one of the few explicit references in the film though which instead deserves much praise for recreating the mores of the period and keeping characters spouting anachronistic modern values to a minimum. It is a particular joy to see the Whig leader Fox and the Irish politician, playwright and gambler Richard Brinsley Sheridan appear in support as Georgina’s friends. She brings an air of glamour to their electioneering while they value her in a way the Duke does not.

Atwell is magnificent in being both hero and villain of the story as she plays the game of Regency society while Charlotte Rampling is utterly chilling as Lady Spencer, sacrificing her daughter’s happiness on the altar of duty. The Duke is as cold a figure as we’ve seen in quite some time but Ralph Fiennes excellently hints at a humanity that is only occasionally glimpsed beneath the cold aristocratic exterior. And he does get to deliver the immortal line “Please put out her Grace’s hair”. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can get a confident performance from Knightley and her performance here suffers from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as her tendency to be a bit brittle in her acting surfaces from time to time.

Though replete with splendid individual scenes there are times when The Duchess drags badly as they don’t quite cohere into a driving narrative. However when Georgina’s ménage a trois comes to a crisis the film shifts up a gear with a heartbreaking scene that owes a lot to Brief Encounter and Brokeback Mountain. While not equalling their impact this is still worth seeing for a more brutal take on Georgian love.

3/5

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: The Edge of Love

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals an inert biopic of Dylan Thomas that presumably sent Matthew Rhys scurrying back into the comforting arms of well-written television roles.

Keira Knightley stars in a film written by her mother Sharman Macdonald. One hates to toss around words like nepotism but I would be very surprised if another actress would have been so eager to get this project green-lit. Macdonald is an established playwright, The Winter Guest being her most famous work, and director John Maybury previously directed Love is the Devil, another art-house biopic about a self-destructive artist. Sadly this film about poet Dylan Thomas falls far short of his take on painter Francis Bacon. Brothers & Sisters star Matthew Rhys is magnificent casting as the saturnine poet but the film seems to shy away from Thomas’ mile-wide self-destructive streak until near the end when it belatedly remembers that the man could be a total bastard and that he dedicatedly drank himself to death before he turned 40.

The Edge of Love begins promisingly with a vividly impressionistic take on the horrors of the Blitz, all soft-focus reds and blacks. There are some visual echoes of Atonement though which really hurt this film which lacks the emotional power and crisp scripting of that masterpiece. Keira Knightley (with a passable Welsh accent) is Vera Phillips, an ex-girlfriend of Dylan from Wales, who randomly meets him in war-torn London. A messy love quadrangle quickly forms with Dylan, his wife Caitlin, (Sienna Miller acquitting herself well once she dispenses with a half-attempted Irish accent) and Matthew Killick, a standout performance by Cillian Murphy as a stolid English soldier who is the voice of reason amidst all these selfish Celtic lunatics.

Sadly once Killick leaves to serve in Greece the film’s momentum goes with him. The script becomes so dramatically inert that you recoil in horror on hitting the hour mark as you realise there’s still another 50 minutes to go, which alternate between the incredibly boring and the absolutely infuriating. How you can possibly take the life of Dylan Thomas, add abortion, attempted murder and infidelity and induce yawns is beyond me. The best you can say about The Edge of Love is that it is ‘interesting’, by which of course one means that it assembles a number of good ideas and then leaves them lying around waiting for a coherent script. Killick’s shell-shock for instance is ‘explored’ through ridiculous scenes like him slapping a preposterously irritating woman from the BBC who sneers at his war service.

This film fails miserably at getting inside Dylan Thomas’ head no matter how many lines of poetry it has Rhys sonorously mumble in voiceover. It never really gets to grips with the tormented marriage of Dylan and Caitlin and in fact it really only succeeds, intermittently, in portraying female friendship forged by a connection to a charismatic but repellent man. And that really isn’t enough to sustain nearly 2 hours of cinema.

2/5

January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

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

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Best Supporting Actress

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

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

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

Runners Up:

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

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

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

Also Placed:

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

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

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Best Supporting Actor

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

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

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

Runners Up:

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

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

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

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

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

Also Placed:

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

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

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

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

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Best Actress

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

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

Runners Up:

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

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

Also Placed:

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

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Best Actor

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

Runners Up:

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

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

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

Also Placed:

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

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

January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

February 1, 2013

Top Performances of 2012

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2012. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actor (Drama)

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) His cult leader is as scary and charismatic as his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, you believe this man could hold Martha in his thrall even as initial love-bombing degenerates into sexual abuse and criminal adventures.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method, On the Road) His droll Freud is charismatic and delivers great put-downs but is deeply ambiguous; did he deliberately corrupt Jung? As genteel junky William Burroughs he was unexpectedly warm and sane.

Runners Up:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe, Magic Mike) Wonderfully sleazy as Cabaret’s MC (sic), he erased his rom-coms with a revelatory Joe; icily calm, thawed by love, and psychotic.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire) His very precise turn as the dishonest android enlivened Prometheus, while his Haywire killer was very dashing.

Also Placed:

Sam Neill (The Hunter) Neill’s gravitas and underplayed emotional torment gave a weight to his dialogue scenes with Dafoe that underpinned Dafoe in the wilderness.

Trystan Gravelle (Stella Days) His teacher inspired Martin Sheen’s priest to defiance, but he also played the attraction to his landlady with great subtlety.

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Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)

Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Miller, as flamboyant senior Patrick, displays startling range in portraying charismatic rebel after his troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin. His turn is an exuberant joy that tramples clichés of gay characters in high-school movies.

Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) Whitford as a military-industrial office drone organised absurd office gambling pools, snarled obscenities at video monitors, indulged in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank, and rampaged hilariously thru great dialogue.

Runners Up:

Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) His musings on decadence’s decline would get this nod, but Brody also makes his character a good soul given to self-aggrandising deception.

Liev Schreiber (Goon) He makes us care for his lousy hockey player who dutifully serves his team, and establishes a convincing bond with his challenger Scott.

James Ransone (Sinister) His Deputy, embarrassingly eager to assist the hero’s research and so get a book acknowledgment, single-handedly lightens a tense film.

Richard Ayoade (The Watch) His deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic is hysterical, as he synchs with the filthy absurdity purveyed by Hill and Rogen.

Also Placed:

Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) Baldwin’s reality-bending interfering commentary on Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page’s burgeoning romance is Annie Hall-esque.

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) The Greatest Actor of His Generation (TM) is actually wonderful here as the kindly earnest scoutmaster unable to control his troops.

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Best Supporting Actress

Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) She excellently layered Lucy’s relief at getting her missing sister Martha back, with guilt at perhaps having driven her away originally, and a mingled desperation and despair over the prospects of healing her psychic scars.

Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar) As Alice, the traumatised but kind girl who most appreciates what M. Lazhar is trying to do for the class, this Quebecois Dakota Fanning gives a stunningly mature performance based on unspoken grief.

Shaleine Woodley (The Descendants) She displayed considerable spark as the troubled 17 year old banished to boarding school, who’s surprisingly effective at buttressing her father’s parenting of her younger sister even as she tells him home truths.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) Hathaway essayed a great languorous voice, a wonderful slinky physicality, and a good chemistry with Batman, as well equal viciousness with quips and kicks, but her delightful presence was sorely underused.

Runners Up:

Helene Florent (Cafe de Flore) Her abandoned wife sinking into depression at the loss of her life-long partner gives the film its emotional weight.

Ellen Page (To Rome with Love) Page’s madly attractive actress gets a huge build-up from Greta Gerwig and lives up to it with gloriously shallow sophistication.

Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress) Echikunwoke madly milks her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’ and has an amazing character moment.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) Banks is very funny delivering callous lines as talent scout Effie.

Also Placed:

Roisin Barron (Stitches) Barron’s verbally abrasive and physically abusive mean girl reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early swagger.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) Her terrifying Press Secretary; reshuffling the P.M.’s Cabinet for him, verbally abusing her own children; stole the film.

Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Whitman is hilariously narcissistic and garrulous as she dominates her unfortunate boyfriend.

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) A 75 year old assaults Jimmy Nesbitt and you feel concerned for him – Redgrave oft conjures up that ferocity as Fiennes’ mother.

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Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) Olsen’s debut as cult member Martha was startlingly assured – naive victim and spiteful malefactor – and her thoughtful and witty Zibby was a comedic turn of great charm and depth.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) Imperious as Katniss: a great action heroine who combined a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Her depressed Tiffany was quicksilver magic, flirty to angry in mere seconds.

Runners Up:

Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina) Knightley excelled at Anna’s early empathy, but she was startlingly alien as the hysteric Sabina who recovers to a nuanced fragility.

Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Watson is luminous as the sardonic senior who makes it her project to transform an isolated freshman into a fellow Rocky Horror  performer.

Also Placed:

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) Stone’s witty and very determined Gwen Stacy makes you realise how poorly used Dallas Bryce Howard was and how flat out poor Kirsten Dunst was.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) Gail, the sister with an inflated opinion of herself and a sharp mouth, is a meaty part with a lot of zinging put-downs.

Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love) Creton’s arc from teenage suicidal despair to apparent and actual contentment was utterly convincing, especially in her unease around her lost love.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Shame) His remarkably raw performance made us sympathise with a sex-addict scared of being rumbled at work, but that panicked despair on his face had a flipside, the predatory smile when picking up women. Balancing both was sublime.

Runners Up:

Woody Harrelson (Rampart) This tour-de-force made us care for a repellent character. Yes, he was a jerk and a dirty cop, but desired to do the right thing as he saw it.

Willem Dafoe (The Hunter) Dafoe’s physical presence as he stalked the Tasmanian bush was equalled by his emotional integration into the family he lodged with.

Mohamed Said Fellag (Monsiuer Lazhar) Fellag’s strict but loving teacher knows how to help the class recover from trauma and, driven by his loss, defies orders not to.

Also Placed:

Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) His drunken Irish soul man lifts the movie to comic heights it wouldn’t have hit, especially in his fractious relationship with Gail.

Muhammet Uzuner (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Dr Cemal was a creation of immense humanity, his Stoic voiceover while the camera observed waving grass at night mesmerising.

Taner Birsel (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Prosecutor Nusret was splendidly subtle, a man of equal empathy and diplomacy who slowly crumbles when deconstructed by Dr Cemal.

Honourable Mention:

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) Fiennes was fierce as a man of exceptional courage and nobility who will not humble himself for ‘appearances’.

Christoph Waltz (Carnage) His compulsive starting of fires, followed by excusing himself to shout “Hello, Walter!” into his phone, was joyous.

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.

I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.

I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ 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) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.

Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

February 8, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg and a stellar cast tackle a clash between two heavyweights of 20th Century intellectual history, but this film punches just below its fighting weight.

Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their shared patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the disagreement between the two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. Atonement scriptwriter Christopher Hampton adapts his own play which begins with Sabina’s arrival at the Swiss clinic where Jung works. This allows him put Freud’s untested theory of the ‘talking cure’ into practice, leading to a meeting with Freud that sees the two men become friends and colleagues. Freud, however, sends a deranged colleague Otto Gross (played by an unruly Vincent Cassell) to Jung for treatment, and after their bruising debating sessions Jung succumbs to his darkest desires with Sabina, who is on her way to becoming an analyst herself; and a disciple of Freud…

Knightley, sporting an impressive Russian accent, gives a startlingly alien performance as the hysterical girl who slowly transforms herself into Jung’s intellectual equal. Her attacks of hysteria include a disturbing jutting of her jaw that conveys a body almost breaking in trying not to scream. Sabina’s recovery allows Knightley to play a nuanced fragility. Fassbender (looking oddly like James Joyce) is assured as a clever, kindly man corrupted by his own darkest desires. Viggo has a determinedly supporting role as Freud, but is droll in delivering put-downs, and wordlessly noting the class and religious divide between himself and Jung; which are slightly overplayed. He also excels at making Freud charismatic but ambiguous; did he send Gross to corrupt Jung because Jung threatened to undermine Freud’s sexualised theorising?

There is minor body horror in Sabina’s account of a waking hallucination of a mollusc attaching itself to her spine, but the real Cronenberg touch is the S&M between her and Jung. Cronenberg’s triumph is using deep focus in the therapy sessions so that we can observe the faces of both Jung and Sabina, and in foregrounding consistently compelling verbal fencing between characters who professionally dissect language for its nuances. Emotions trump ideas though… Freud’s insistence on total obedience or excommunication, his dogmatic atheism, his refusal to abrogate sexual interpretations to anything, and Jung’s counterpointing of a spiritual instinct and metaphoric rather than literal readings of Oedipus complexes are never adequately explored. Jung’s empirical discovery of the complexes is glancingly depicted, but his theory of synchronicity (a psychic echo of physical events) is rendered as stark gibberish, while Freud’s concept of the death drive and Jung’s anima/animus theory become Sabina’s ideas…

This is an excellently played drama that is always absorbing, but more detail about the ideas of the characters rather than just their emotions would have made it truly great.

4/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:03 pm
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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

Top 10 Films of 2011

(10) The Adjustment Bureau
George Nolfi’s Philip K Dick adaptation had a too neat resolution, but against that one flaw must be set a brace of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting villains, a truly dazzling romance that craftily worked on two different levels, superb comedy from Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and a delightful temporally skipping structure that organically built to an unexpected and thrilling action chase finale. Nolfi took an idea from Dick and built something warm and great around it.
 
(9) Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s direction was ridiculously self-effacing, but he coaxed the performances to match Alex Garland’s subtle screen imagining of Kazuo Ishiguro’s offbeat sci-fi novel, while the casting of child actors to match their adult equivalents was very impressive. Keira Knightley as the villainous Ruth outshone Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as she invested the smallest role of the trio with great cruelty and then complexity. This was a heartbreaking slow-burner.

(8) Submarine
Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut from his own adaptation of the Welsh novel and impressed mightily. The comedy was superb, as you’d expect, whether it was the offbeat character moments, deflating jump cuts and preposterous slow-mos, or priceless cinematic in-jokes. What surprised was his assurance in handling drama, from depression to mortal illness and infidelity to suicide, with growing overtones of menace and a refreshing lack of predictability.

(7) Little White Lies
An incredibly Americanised French film, whether it was fun on a yacht being sound-tracked by Creedence or grand romantic gestures being accompanied by Antony and the Johnsons. Marion Cotillard & Co leave a comatose friend’s bedside for their annual holiday and comic madness involving weasels and crushes and endless dramas over love ensue. It’s over-long but mostly the Flaubertian lack of plot made time cease to matter for both the characters and the audience.

(5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s version surpassed the Swedish original by reinstating more of the texture of Stieg Larsson’s book, creating a mystery rather than a thriller, in which the characters dominate the plot and are allowed to have complex emotional lives outside of cracking the cold case. The villain is marvellously drawn, and Fincher not only draws out maximum suspense from the story, but betters the Swedish version by both keeping the nastiest sequences and then also refusing to soften Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are both pitch-perfect in the lead roles.

(5) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen amazed by somehow delivering a fantastical romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Allen granted Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams’ bickering engaged couple numerous hysterical scenes of utterly failing to connect, not least with her hilariously snooty parents. The recreation of the roaring Twenties Paris of America’s Lost Generation writers was positively inspired, most notably in its Hemingway who monologues in an abrupt monotone, and the film itself equally warm and wise.

(4) Take Shelter
This stunning film is both a Donnie Darko inflected tale of approaching apocalypse that only our hero has foreknowledge of but which sets his sanity on edge, and a terrifyingly realistic story of a man’s descent into a mental illness so subtle yet devastating that he can bankrupt his family by being plausible enough at the bank to secure loans to carry out construction to safeguard against an imaginary threat. Taut, terrifically ambiguous, and nightmarishly scary on several levels, this achieves such intensity that at its climax the simple act of Michael Shannon opening a storm shelter door becomes a moment of unbearable suspense and incredible emotional consequence.

(3) The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut was an impressively inventive profane farce which could be best described as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – Connemara. Brendan Gleeson seized with both Fassbendering hands the chance to play the world’s most demented Guard while Don Cheadle was an effective foil as the exasperated FBI Agent teaming up with him to bring down the preposterously philosophical drug-smugglers Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong. Endlessly quotable and showcasing wonderful running gags, an unlikely action finale, and an ambiguous ending that poked fun at Hollywood resolutions this was the comedy of 2011.

(2) X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn finally got to direct an X-Men movie and, with his co-writers, at last gave some substance to the friendship and enmity of Magneto and Professor X. Michael Fassbender’s rightly vengeful Nazi-hunter Erik complicated comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass and added real weight to the tragedy of Mystique turning to his philosophy over the compassion personified by her mentor Xavier. Vaughn balanced this trauma with very funny montages of Erik and Xavier recruiting and training mutants for the CIA, but it was the casual tossing in of an enormous shock in the finale which exemplifed the supreme assuredness of this fine blockbuster.

(1) Incendies
This French-Canadian film unnerves from its opening shot, is always enthralling, and by the end has become quite simply devastating. A couple of Montreal siblings discover that their mother had unbeknownst to them lived a life of startling savagery in Lebanon’s 1980s civil war before emigrating. This is a merciless depiction of a vicious war where each side torches the other’s orphanages, burns women and children alive in buses, and recruits the other’s young boys as soldiers when not just shooting them in the head. The siblings uncover and come to terms with an extraordinary journey in search of vengeance, leading to the ultimate crime, and forgiveness…

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