Talking Movies

June 12, 2015

Let Us Prey

Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham is a mysterious figure causing chaos at the police station of a small Scottish town in this gory Scottish-Irish co-production.

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PC Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh) has transferred to a small Scottish town, where her tightly-wound reputation precedes her. She instantly arrests local hooligan Caesar Sargison (Brian Vernel), and is surprised by the casual brutality of her supposedly religious superior Sgt Macready (Douglas Russell) and his unashamed leering at the teenage Caesar changing into prison garb. Her crude fellow constables Mundie (Hanna Stanbridge) and Warnock (Bryan Larkin) seem little better, ignorant of the police’s own call-signs when she reports a hit-and-run. When the apparent victim is brought in things get truly peculiar. He knows the darkest secrets of wife-beating prisoner Beswick (Jonathan Watson) and respected doctor Hume (Niall Greig Fulton), has a notebook full of names crossed out, and speaks of the reckoning to come at midnight. He has no name, only his suggestive cell number identifies him – Six (Liam Cunningham)…

The script by Fiona Watson and David Cairns plays this set-up quite straight. There are shades of Supernatural at play. Let Us Prey recalls the demonic Rio Bravo episode where the Winchesters were assailed by hordes of Lilith’s minions in an isolated police station, but it comes closest to Supernatural’s orbit in Six’s motivation. Six approaches Eric Kripke’s rendering of Lucifer as someone who lost an argument and is still determined to prove he was right, when he insists that forgiveness is an act of condoning and that the guilty must be punished for their sins. In fact Watson and Cairns at times seem almost to be riffing on JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, but that the dark secrets are being ferreted out by an equally dark angel. Everybody has a secret. They have been gathered together, for a purpose.

Commercials director Brian O’Malley makes his feature debut and his directorial control is admirable, and evident from the startling first appearance of Six landing on the Scottish coast in the midst of a crashing wave. His cinematographer Piers McGrail (Kelly + Victor, Glassland, The Canal) helps achieve a very precisely measured horror film that largely teases its gore rather than splash it about the screen, until the finale. Production designer James Lapsley renders the police station’s subterranean holding cells repulsively grotty, but there too many establishing shots of the most deserted town in Scotland. Arguably the power of Six has emptied the streets and filled them with crows, but it’s almost impossible not to think about budget constraints; and it distracts from the duels for power between Rachel, Macready, Mundie, Warnock, and Six as midnight approaches and the body-count rises.

Let Us Prey becomes increasingly outré, but the masochistic imagery of the fiery witching hour finale is certainly very memorable, and the gore and character arcs amp up pleasingly.

3/5

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February 25, 2015

JDIFF 2015: 15 Films

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 10:53 pm
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Booking opened for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival at 7.30pm tonight, so here are 15 films to keep an eye on at the festival.

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THE PRICE OF DESIRE (8.15pm Thu 19th Mar, Savoy)

Writer/director Mary McGuckian’s first film since The Man on the Train in 2011 opens the festival. Orla Brady stars as Irish modernist designer Eileen Gray, with Vincent Perez as legendary architect Le Corbussier. The film examines how Le Corbussier arrogantly attempted to minimise the contribution of Gray to a landmark piece of modernist architecture, the E-1027 house. Co-stars include Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe and Alanis Morrisette (!).

THE WATER DIVINER (7.30pm Fri 20th Mar, Savoy)

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a WWI tale about the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. Crowe’s farmer Joshua Connor travels to Gallipoli in 1919 in search of his three sons, missing in action since 1915. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and heroic Turkish major Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia).

99 HOMES (8.30pm Fri 20th, Cineworld)

Writer/director Ramin Bahrani tackles the collapse of the sub-prime bubble in this tale of Florida real estate. Michael Shannon is a heartless real estate agent who is the Mephistopholes to the Faust of Andrew Garfield’s unemployed contractor. First he evicts Garfield, then he offers him a job, and Garfield, though conflicted accepts… Yes, Shannon gets to let rip; according to him Bahrani kept polishing his set-piece rant throughout shooting.

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BARRY LYNDON (1.30pm Sat 21st Mar, Savoy)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s picaresque romp Barry Lyndon is now 40 years old. Kubrick’s obsession with using only natural light was enabled by John Alcott, Ken Adam’s production design recreated the splendour of the 18th century, and a mischievous sense of humour belied the 3 hour running time and symmetrical compositions. Star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan will be interviewed afterwards by Frank director Lenny Abrahamson.

LISTEN UP PHILIP (6.30pm Sun 22nd Mar, Cineworld)

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry breaks through with his third film. Jason Schwartzman is an obnoxious writer splitting up with Elisabeth Moss as he simmers over the reception of his second novel. His retreat in his mentor’s country home is interrupted by the arrival of Krysten Ritter. But can he get past his ego to notice her? Bret Easton Ellis vouches for this, but remember Greenberg, exercise caution.

THE CROWD (8.15pm Sun 22nd Mar, Lighthouse)

King Vidor’s 1928 silent movie The Crowd might be one of the earliest examples of a studio deliberately losing money in order to gain prestige. A portrait of urban alienation and ennui, whose influence can be seen in Orson Welles’ disorienting presentation of a vast office space in his 1963 film The Trial, this will have live accompaniment from Stephen Horne. A rare screening not to be missed.

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THE TRIBE (6.00pm Tues 24th, Lighthouse)

Festival director Grainne Humphreys noted that Ukranian film-maker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is being screened because it reinvents the way you think about cinema. There are no subtitles, just sign language, as a young boy is initiated into the brutal gang culture of a boarding school for the deaf thru intense, complex long takes. Grigoriy Fesenko is the innocent who falls for Yana Novikova and upsets the vicious hierarchy.

FORCE MAJEURE (8.15pm Thu 26th Mar, Cineworld)

Force Majeure is a pitch-black Swedish comedy-drama from writer/director Ruben Ostlund (Play) that has been hailed by Bret Easton Ellis as one of 2014’s finest films. If you want to see a man, specifically Johannes Kuhnke, running away from a threatened avalanche when he should be saving the day (so  his wife Lisa Loven Kongsli expects), then check out this droll study of total cowardice and family bickering.

GLASSLAND (6.30pm Fri 27th Mar, Lighthouse)

Director Gerard Barrett and star Jack Reynor, fresh from Sundance plaudits, will present Glassland. Barrett was the writer/director of Pilgrim Hill and he stays firmly within his comfort zone for another dark drama. Toni Collette’s alcoholism pushes her towards death, and her taxi-driver son Reynor into a dangerous clash with the Dublin criminal underworld of human trafficking. Barrett’s film-making has broadened in scope, but his vision remains grindingly bleak.

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PRESSURE (9.00pm Fri 27th Mar, Cineworld)

Cineworld plays host to director Ron Scalpello, writers James Warren and Alan McKenna, and, most importantly, Talking Movies favourite Danny Huston, for a screening of their suspense thriller Pressure. Huston and Matthew Goode lead a small cast in a claustrophobic thriller as oil-rig repair workers trapped in a deep-sea pod after an accident who turn on each other. Huston is always effortlessly charismatic, and this is an acting showcase.

LET US PREY (10.40pm Fri 27th Mar, Lighthouse)

Liam Cunningham gets to be even more unhinged than his drug dealer in The Guard in Brian O’Malley’s tense horror. He lets rip with gusto as a mysterious stranger known only as Six, pitted against the forces of law and order in an isolated rural police station, led by rookie cop Pollyanna McIntosh. This has been described as a supernatural Assault on Precinct 13. Bring it on!

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (1.00pm Sat 28th Mar, Cineworld)

Olivier Assayas’ autobiographical Apres Mai also screened at JDIFF, and his follow-up psychodrama Clouds of Sils Maria was recently in the news for Kristen Stewart’s supporting actress Cesar win. Juliette Binoche’s famous actress is locked in conflict with Chloe Grace Moretz. Binoche is returning to the play that made her name, but her part is now taken by Moretz. Did you say Gallic All About Eve?

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A LITTLE CHAOS (6.15pm Sat 28th Mar, Cineworld)

Alan Rickman unexpectedly returns to directing after a 17 year absence for his second feature. His sumptuously appointed period drama sees Kate Winslet’s landscape designer employed by Matthias Schoenaerts to work on the gardens of Versailles for Rickman’s exacting Louis XIV. But jealousies, both sexual and professional, dog her steps as she attempts to introduce a little anarchy into this ordered world revolving around the Sun King.

FAR FROM MEN (11.00am Sun 29th Mar, Savoy)

The difference between what Viggo Mortensen and Peter Jackson did after LOTR is enough to make you weep. Here the polyglot Viggo speaks French as a schoolteacher in colonial Algeria who develops an unusual bond with a dissident he must transport. Writer/director David Oelhoffen brilliantly transplants many Western tropes to Algeria’s war with France, but surely there are also echoes of Albert Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom?

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON (2.00pm Sun 29th Mar, Savoy)

The Last Man On The Moon is the story of Eugene Cernan, an actual cowboy who became not just any old astronaut, but the only man to walk on the moon twice, and also the last moonwalker. Its spectacular footage, which regrettably includes CGI recreations of his spacewalks, will be on the Savoy’s biggest screen, with directors Gareth Dodds and Mark Craig interviewed afterwards.

JDIFF 2015: A Chair with Wings

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The programme for the 2015 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival promises a number of international guests, including Julie Andrews, Kenneth Branagh, Russell Crowe, Kim Cattrall, Alan Rickman, Ryan O’Neal and Danny Huston, and intriguing films from diverse countries and eras.

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The JDIFF 2015 programme was officially launched this morning by Festival Director Grainne Humphreys, who invoked The Accidental Tourist’s image of travel writing as giving the reader a chair with wings. The ‘Around the World’ programme features nearly 140 films from nearly 40 different countries across 11 days. Humphreys invoked the Festival’s mission to amplify and complement the world cinema which is available to Irish audiences, noting that 70 to 75% of the films screened at the Festival will never be screened again in Ireland. And when such one-off screening opportunities have in the past few years included such titles as the riveting Russian WWII movie White Tiger and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust it only underscores the importance of the Festival.

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The Festival, in response to audience feedback, is expanding into new venues Movies at Dundrum, The Pavilion, and Riverbank Arts Centre, and introducing some double screenings. It is also ramping up its Picture House outreach project in hospitals and care homes, a project whose patron is Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker. A final new venue will be the Bord Gais Energy Theatre which will host the finale interview with Julie Andrews. That closing gala screening of The Sound of Music with Andrews, and Kenneth Branagh’s unveiling of his latest blockbuster directorial outing Cinderella, is indicative of a desire to make the Festival accessible to the most casual of cinemagoers rather than the intimidating preserve of cinephiles.

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Julie Andrews and Kenneth Branagh will both receive Voltas, and there are many other guests in attendance between the 19th and 29th of March. As previously mentioned hereabouts Russell Crowe will be presenting his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, in which his character travels to Gallipoli in 1919 to search for his soldier sons, missing since 1915’s bloody landing on the Turkish peninsula. Another actor-director, Alan Rickman, will present his new movie A Little Chaos, in which Kate Winslet attempts to introduce a little anarchy to the gardens of Versailles under the watchful eye of Rickman’s King Louis XIV. Actor-producer Kim Cattrall meanwhile will give an acting masterclass to the students of the Lir Academy, and introduce episodes of her new satirical Canadian TV series Sensitive Skin co-starring Don McKellar.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

The 40th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon is marked by a screening in the Savoy with both star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan, with Lenny Abrahamson leading a public interview afterwards, while O’Neal will also be on hand for a screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 neo-screwball comedy What’s, Up, Doc? And if all that weren’t enough to get you excited a Talking Movies favourite, the effortlessly charismatic Danny Huston, will do a Q&A after his new suspense thriller Pressure, in which he and Matthew Goode are trapped in a deep-sea station where mind-games soon jeopardise survival.

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A strong line-up of Irish features encompasses genres from horror to rom-com, biopic to gangster. The Festival will be opened by Mary McGuckian’s The Price of Desire, a beatiful and compelling depiction of Irish modernist designer Eileen Gray’s collaboration with Le Corbussier on an iconic piece of archiecture, with stars Orla Brady and Vincent Perez in attendence. Love/Hate actor Robert Sheehan will be attending a screening of his new film The Road Within, and will participate in the Actors in Conversation event, part of this year’s Screen Test programme. Gerard Barret and Jack Reynor, fresh from Sundance glory, will present Glassland, in which Toni Collette’s alcoholism pushes her son Jack Reynor into a clash with the Dublin underworld. Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham lets rip against the Gardai in Brian O’Malley’s tense Let Us Prey, a homage to John Carpenter’s ouevre, while Conor McMahon dispenses with the comedy of Stitches for straight horror in From the Dark in which a couple in a farmhouse are terrorised. Also featured in the programme are Pat Murphy’s Tana Bana, Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal, and Vivienne De Courcy’s colourful Dare to be Wild.

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The Out of the Past season is always a Festival highlight and this year showcases Richard Brooks’ 1967 version of In Cold Blood starring Scott Wilson and Robert Blake as the killers immortalised by Truman Capote’s investigation of their brutal crime, PJ Hogan’s 1994 Abba-loving Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding which made a star of Toni Collette, Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Hiller’s The Americanisation of Emily starring Julie Andres and James Garner in a tale written by Paddy Chayefsky, and King Vidor’s silent classic of urban alienation The Crowd with live accompaniment from pianist Stephen Horne.

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The Reel To Reel documentary strand features a trio of intriguing titles. The Last Man On The Moon will see directors Mark Craig and Gareth Doods in attendence for a Savoy presentation of their account of the Eugene Cirnan, the only man to travel to the moon twice. Fellow NHL fans will be as excited as Talking Movies to see the engaging and moving Russian documentary Red Army, about the greatest ice hockey team ever assembled in the 1980s Winter Olympics and their playing careers in North America. From Germany meanwhile The Decent One unveils the private documents, journals and photographs of the SS comander Heinrich Himmler to present an intimate portrait of a family man quietly engaged in genocide.

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The bread and butter of the Festival is its eclectic selection of features. The prolific and inimitable François Ozon’s latest film is The New Girlfriend, Olivier Assayas follows up autobiographical Apres Mai with the Cesar-winning psychodrama Cloud of Sils Maria, and Wim Wenders returns with The Salt of The Earth. Actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the Old West with some Refn-like brutality in The Salvation, director Liv Ullman takes on August Strindberg’s iconic play Miss Julie, Noah Baumbach addresses the effects of technology on individual lives more successfully than Jason Reitman with While We’re Young, Jason Schwartzman antagonises everyone as an obnoxious writer in Listen Up Philip, and another Bret Easton Ellis 2014 favourite Force Majeure makes its debut here.

The full programme will be available on the festival website jdiff.com at 7pm tonight with online booking opening at 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked at the Festival Box Ofiice on 13 Lower Ormond Quay from 26th February, or at Ticket Offices in Cineworld or the Light House from 14th March.

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

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Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

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.

January 9, 2012

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…

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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