Talking Movies

June 27, 2013

The East

Fight Club meets Point Break by way of Revenge as Brit Marling’s undercover corporate security operative infiltrates eco-terrorists led by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.Brit-Marling-Pamela-Roylance-Ellen-Page-and-Alexander-Skarsgrd-in-The-East

Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI counter-terrorist agent now working for Hiller-Brood, a corporate security firm led by the formidable Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Audacious and well-resourced eco-terrorist collective The East have uploaded the first of four promised ‘jams’ punishing corporate boards for the sins of their companies. Sarah is tasked with infiltrating them, and drops out of suburban DC life to drift thru national parks and hop train carriages like a 1930s hobo looking for East fellow-travellers. Just as she’s despairing she is introduced to the group by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and welcomed by leader Benji (Skarsgard) but disdained by his lieutenant Izzy (Page). Sarah manages to maintain her cover long enough to be implicated in a vicious jam of Big Pharma, but falling for the charismatic Benji, and his principled ecological ideals, sees her devotion to her mission wane…

Marling co-wrote the script as a starring vehicle but the film is all about Ellen Page. From the arresting opening in which Page threatens a Big Oil CEO, over horror imagery of oil seeping out of his mansion’s air-vents and sinks, she is extremely menacing. And this despite one shot where director Zal Batmanglij hilariously forgets to hide the massive height difference between the tiny Canadian (5’1”) and the mighty Scandinavian (6’6”). Marling is a better writer than actress and she and co-writer Batmanglij skilfully portray the group as dangerous lunatics akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s cult before deepening the portrayal. This is exemplified by the devastating drip-feed of information about Doc (Tony Kebbell), but Page benefits greatly as the forceful Izzy is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but is actually almost mythological in her convictions.

There is an awful lot of Tyler Durden in Skarsgard’s Benji, who proves his devotion to the maxim “the things you own end up owning you” by squatting in a decayed mansion. Batmanglij eschews the visual bravura Fincher brought to Fight Club because despite initial similarities to the work of its Mischief Committee the jams here lack that joyousness. Durden was unburdened by self-doubt, but these characters, despite the Big Pharma jam having the elegance of an Emily gambit in Revenge, do not take her joy in retribution but are troubled by their actions against Paige Williams (Julia Ormond) and the other directors. This doesn’t convince and never feels like anything but a sop to PG-13 morality. It weighs down a third act being almost fatally dragged under by a flight of characters, infuriating politico-economic naivety, and an unnecessary twist.

The East’s third act doesn’t do the rest of the film justice, but this is an absorbing thriller whose slow-burning character studies are a welcome relief in blockbuster season.

3.5/5

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.

January 17, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

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(10) Sinister

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays great flair with this tense horror in which Ethan Hawke’s true crime writer moves into a crime scene and stumbles over old home movies of a serial killer. Derrickson builds dread with a number of wonderful scares as evidence of a serial killer who’s been slaughtering families and abducting one child since the late 1960s unravels Hawke’s sanity. But then ghoulishness inexorably leads to a suspenseful, traumatic finale…

(9) 21 Jump Street

I hate ironic remakes of good television, and crude Apatow-riffing R comedies, so this hysterically funny combination of both surprised me. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum hated each other at high school, bonded at police academy, but then go back to daggers drawn as they’re sent undercover to a high school. Tatum becomes a science nerd, Hill pursues Brie Larson, and their narcotics investigation goes nowhere as Hill’s eye for the absurd inserts nonsense aplenty.

(8) Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor’s warm and very funny comedy sees his disappointed thirtysomething rejuvenated by effervescent correspondence with the witty 19 year old Elizabeth Olsen, a student at his alma mater. But this version of Manhattan boasts a wiser Mariel Hemingway and an ethical Woody Allen, and, amidst hilarious sequences of fighting over trashy vampire novels and the effects of listening to opera, a fantastically cold turn by Allison Janney; teaching Jesse some hard lessons.

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(7) The Hunter

This immensely assured Australian art-house thriller follows Willem Dafoe’s loner as he silently stalks the breathtakingly photographed Tasmanian wilds in search of the possibly not extinct native tiger with orders to kill it after capturing its unique DNA for a sinister corporation. But at his lodgings, as he starts to stand in for Frances O’Connor’s missing husband, he slowly begins to doubt his mission and to suspect Sam Neill’s family ‘friend’, leading to a very moving ending.

(6) Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Said Fellag’s Algerian immigrant offers his services to a well-to-do and very PC Montreal school when a teacher commits suicide in the classroom. This strict but loving teacher instinctively knows how to help, and, driven by his own loss, he does so despite orders not to encroach on the ineffectual female counsellor’s turf. This film achieves two minor miracles: it avoids crassness and sentimentality, and its child actors are superb, especially Sophie Nelisse.

(5) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998 was a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college-skewering nonsense where ingénue Analeigh Tipton is adopted by Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke. Gerwig’s desire to improve the global psyche with her international dance craze the Sambola seems slightly less daft after Gangam Style. But this is a ramshackle film of impeccably urbane daftness, from illiterate Zorros to a frat boy trying to learn the primary colours. No one talks like Stillman characters, but you feel F Scott’s old sports would like them.

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(4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director Stephen Chbosky invites comparisons with Adventureland as socially isolated Logan Lerman starts high school and is adopted by flamboyant seniors Ezra Miller (an exuberant joy) and Emma Watson (luminous). Lerman blooms under their tutelage in scenes of great wit and charm, but “We accept the love we think we deserve” is a piercing insight into the damaged relationships pursued by the central trio, and it’s the emotional depth with which Lerman’s trauma is revealed that allows this film to stand comparison with Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh novels.

(3) The Woman in Black

A classical 1920s haunted house story sees Daniel Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer sent to the incredibly eerie Eel Marsh House to sort out its paperwork. Ciaran Hinds’ local toff is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but they’re right to fear the Woman being sighted… Classy horror concentrates on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror; this is a dazzling technical achievement because a maestro is conducting. When Radcliffe informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night to finish his work the terror becomes nigh unbearable…

(2) Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance in this intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult. She is both naive victim and malicious rebel as she spars with her guilt-ridden older sister Sarah Paulson; who tries to deal with Olsen’s sexually aberrant behaviour without knowing what happened in the Catskills with charismatic cult leader John Hawkes. This shares Take Shelter’s measured pacing, intensity, and even a tautly ambiguous ending leaving the viewer sick with dread – unsure if we’re sharing Olsen’s paranoia.

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(1) Shame

Imagine Bret Easton Ellis and Pinter co-wrote a movie about a businessman in NYC who’s constructed his entire life around his secret addiction. This would be it. Director Steve McQueen avoids salaciousness in tackling sex addiction by making the sex scenes as wincing to observe as an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. This is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering, derailing compulsion – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy; exemplified by a vicious argument between siblings Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan being shot in one fixed-position long take, and Fassbender’s frustrated midnight jog becoming a transcendent sequence as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks. McQueen never explains but he forces us into serious empathy with a condition usually mocked.

June 14, 2012

Red Lights

Buried director Rodrigo Cortes is in more expansive form with this supernatural thriller in which a quest to debunk a fake psychic leads to unnerving discoveries.

Cillian Murphy stars as Tom Buckley, a physicist working as an assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s medium-busting professor Margaret Matheson in Columbus, Ohio. Armed with an array of scientific measuring equipment and a healthy scepticism about the supernatural they expose fake haunting and teach a college course on parapsychology. The loving bond between Buckley and Matheson, which sees him almost standing in for her comatose son, is the best thing about this film and once the film focuses on Buckley ignoring her advice and going out on his own it loses a good deal of its humanity. The object of Buckley’s solo run is the world’s most famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returning to the fray after 30 years in retirement following the death of his greatest doubter at a performance. Buckley becomes consumed with refuting Silver’s apparently real powers.

Red Lights regrettably takes its place alongside Prometheus in what appears to be a regular parade of films all taking a bite at the poisoned apple of the relationship between faith and science. A poisoned apple because these films bring clichés and handwringing to the party and dump them there undeveloped and then expect a round of applause for tackling the topic. Buckley and Matheson represent empirical logic and cold disbelief, Silver and Matheson’s department rival Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) represent the uncanny and the will to believe, while Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) is the student who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe but falls in love with Buckley and so becomes his apprentice in the dark arts of detecting the hocus pocus of charlatan psychics. Olsen, so magnificent in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is tragically underused in this cipher role.

Cortes, shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, creates an impressively subdued winter atmosphere. The first confrontation between Buckley and Silver in which Buckley is scared out of his mind by Silver’s apparent telekinesis is very impressively staged, as are a number of very tense sequences of apparent menacing by Silver, while Murphy delivers the line “Ignore that, it’s just a dead bird” with wonderful aplomb as his character acclimatises to the uncanny hindering his debunking of Silver’s acing of Shackleton’s scientific tests of ESP abilities. Red Lights is a film with two intercut endings, one of which is delightful and clever, and one of which is truly terrible and inane. Cortes is a consummate actor’s director, and, unlike the immensely frustrating Buried, he also wrote this script but it fails when it prioritises paranormal pyrotechnics over compelling character development.

Red Lights is engaging for most of its running time, but it disintegrates utterly when it starts teeing up a revelatory conclusion even M Night Shyamalan would disavow.

2/5

February 2, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha, Marcy May, Marlene; the various names and personae of star Elizabeth Olsen in an intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult.

Marcy May is a young woman who in the arresting opening sequence flees a ramshackle farm at dawn and, evading the pursuit of two women and a man, makes it to the diner of a nearby town where she rebuffs the tender/menacing entreaties of that man before choosing not to return to the farm but instead calling her startled sister Lucy, who comes and picks her up. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is startled because Marcy May is a new name taken by her sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who she hasn’t heard from in two years – time during which Lucy got married to Hugh Dancy’s architect. Lucy takes the traumatised Martha to her summer place in Connecticut, but beside the paradisiacal lapping waters Martha drowns in flashbacks to her time with the cult in the Catskills ruled over by Patrick (John Hawkes).

Writer/director Sean Durkin adopts James Mangold’s trademark use of disruptive flashbacks as dialogue from the past is answered in the present and vice versa as Martha slips between her personae. You wonder what caused her to leave Patrick’s ‘family’ as you follow her growing investment in the solidarity of the cult, and Durkin lets you ask questions rather than pushing answers in your face. The answers when they come are all the more shocking for it, with one showy slow pan around Marcy May as bales of hay are gathered ending with an absolutely chilling detail as its pay-off. Lucy’s concern at Martha’s obvious mental fragility is increased by her bizarre behaviour. “Interesting choice of swimwear” is the droll comment from Dancy’s Ted when Martha skinny-dips in broad daylight in a communal lake, but her sexually aberrant behaviour escalates disturbingly.

Studio 60’s Paulson excellently layers Lucy’s relief at getting her sister back, with her guilt at having perhaps driven her away originally, and her mingled desperation and despair over curing her. Olsen makes her film debut, in a role you feel sure Maggie Gyllenhaal would have secured a decade ago, and is startlingly assured – making her character by turns naive victim and spiteful malefactor. Dancy’s compassion fatigue is well played, especially his snapping at Olsen’s jejune anti-capitalism. John Hawkes is as scary and charismatic as his memorable Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, with his performance of ‘Martha’s Song’ accompanying himself on guitar guaranteed to chill your blood. This recalls Take Shelter in its measured pacing and intensity, and even shares a tautly ambiguous ending which leaves the viewer sick with dread, but unsure whether you’re just sharing Martha’s paranoia…

Martha Marcy May Marlene may be a cumbersome title, but once you’ve seen the movie you’ll have no trouble remembering its name for your Top Films of 2012 list.

5/5

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