Talking Movies

May 7, 2013

Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returns with a Southern tale that owes much to Mark Twain as two teenage boys help Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive.

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The inseparable Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) are our modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They ride motorbikes, pilot motorboats, and enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the Mississippi river. Orphaned Neck lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a womaniser, oyster fisher, and collector of riverbed trash. Ellis endures the disintegrating marriage of his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and MaryLee (Sarah Paulson). Then, boating out to an island in the river to see a boat stranded in a tree by a flood, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a superstitious fugitive waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to rendezvous with him, and hiding out from the law and Texan cowboys the while. Neck is wary of Mud but Ellis is drawn to his irrepressible romanticism and soon the boys find themselves conspiring with Mud, and inviting danger…

If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn you’ll grin at Mud’s entrance being announced by distinctive footprints because of nails forming a cross in his boot just like Pa Finn. You’ll also enjoy an absurd moment worthy of Twain’s warring clans the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons bringing their guns to church. That blood feud is echoed in the vendetta against Mud by implacable Texans led by the smooth Carver (Paul Sparks) and his gruff father King (Joe Don Baker). Nichols manages to make such touches not seem anachronistic by giving a timeless quality to proceedings. People ring landlines and ask for the person they want to talk to, Galen uses a 19th century diving helmet with a 21st century skin-suit, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ gets its most prominent use since 1980s show ALF. Nichols pulls this off largely by his insistence on shooting on remote, strikingly beautiful locations in Arkansas, which his regular cinematographer Adam Stone imbues with heavenly sheen.

Nichols’ Take Shelter was one of the finest films of 2011, and Mud shows startling range in being expansive and optimistic where that was intense and foreboding. Tree of Life star Sheridan gives a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacts to his parents’ separation and the loss of his riverside life by bonding with Mud because of his unquenchable belief in everlasting love. Ellis projects Mud’s love for Juniper onto his own putative girlfriend MayPearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) despite the warnings by his mysterious neighbour Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) that Mud is a fool for love, and that Ellis and Neck are making themselves as great fools by running messages for Mud and scrounging materials for his tree-stranded boat. Nichols draws uniformly flawless performances from his perfectly judged ensemble to make this a deeply felt tale of love and wisdom, played against the rolling Mississippi and endless local charms against bad luck, which builds to a climax suitable for a director whose debut was called Shotgun Stories. The ending makes you think of Huck’s closing peroration, but the final image then makes you think Frederick Jackson Turner got it wrong – the frontier spirit is well-nigh indestructible.

Nichols’ third film is his most ambitious and warmest. Rich and absorbing, it is lit by a deep affection for his characters. The best film I’ve seen this year.

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.

July 11, 2012

Magic Mike

Steven Sodebergh surely claims the crown of hardest working man in Hollywood by directing an odd and moody movie about male strippers, his third film in 10 months…

Channing Tatum’s Mike styles himself an entrepreneur because of his auto detailing and custom furniture businesses. He encounters Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at yet another job, construction, where he has to teach the young slacker how to tile rooves, before running into him again at a nightclub. He uses Adam as a wingman as he entices girls back to Xquisite where, as ‘Magic Mike’, he actually makes his living as lead stripper. When one of the strippers passes out, from taking too much of the refined GHB they use to maintain their energy, Adam is quickly pressed into action and impresses both Mike and his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is less than impressed that her younger brother, who blew a football scholarship, is now stripping as ‘The Kid’ and Mike starts a charm campaign to win her over even as he mentors Adam in the business.

Tatum is a fine actor when called on, witness Stop Loss, and indeed one of his Stop Loss producers Reid Carolin scripted this version of Tatum’s own chequered past for Nicolas Winding Refn to direct. Tatum’s charismatic as Mike and delivers a tremendous put-down to a banker who refuses him a loan despite all the cash he earns from ‘event management’: “I read the papers. The only ones who are in distress are y’all.” McConaughey is wonderfully sleazy as a riff on Cabaret’s MC, and at one point puts Mike in his place under some harsh lighting which makes you think – as he gets older the menace of that Texan drawl will surely see him create an iconic villain this decade. Sadly Pettfyer fails to make you remotely care about Adam’s fate, suggesting that loathsome villains like his In Time turn are a far better use of his talents than flawed heroes. Cody Horn is far more engaging, her unimpressed visage continually and wordlessly disapproving of Adam and Mike’s antics.

There are odd moments when actors stumble over lines and performances start to fray at the edges towards the end of long takes, which might be attributable to Soderbergh’s new ‘3 takes’ rule, but this film is undone by the writing not the directing. There are some nicely choreographed sequences like the first “It’s Raining Men” dance, but this is an oddly coy film about male stripping, indeed there’s arguably more female nudity, so is this about the degradation of stripping? Brooke hates Adam stripping, but understands the adulation Mike receives is a powerful drug, while still disapproving of his job. Mike is involved with a psychologist (a typically abrasive Olivia Munn) studying the strippers who, especially Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Adam Rodriguez (CSI: Miami), are terrifyingly uncharacterised – a gesture to implicate the cinema audience as only interested in their physique, like the Xquisite audience? At times this feels like a male version of Showgirls or All About Eve. Mostly Showgirls. But mostly this feels like a blank record of excess. Its drug-addled decadence in yellow-filter Tampa rehashes scenes and arcs seen far too often before and is ultimately pointless.

Tatum is very likeable, and the relationship between Mike and Brooke convinces, but once the sense of drift sets in after the entertaining opening it becomes a riptide that strands Magic Mike drowning in inconsequence.

2.5/5

June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

1970s legend William Friedkin teams up with controversial Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts for a disturbing slice of what might be usefully dubbed Kentucky Fried Noir.

Small-time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after his estranged mother plunders his cocaine stash. He suggests to his father Anselm (Thomas Haden Church) that they murder her for the insurance money which will be paid to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a plan supported by his father’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). Bent Dallas cop Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) doubles as a hit-man, but with no money for a deposit he agrees to an unusual retainer – Dottie. But as Joe and Dottie grow close the murderous insurance scam unravels nastily and unpredictably…

It’s no exaggeration to dub this McConaughey’s Drive. From the exaggerated sound of his clicking lighter (not unlike Ryan Goslin’s creaking driving gloves), to his toothpick, to his insistence on rules and calm demeanour while making and executing threats of extreme violence, to his growing attachment to a girl softening his cold exterior, to the superhero outfit (here a fetishised hat, gun and badge), Joe has eerie similarities to Driver and McConaughey gives a revelatory performance. Friedkin may borrow from Refn’s bag of tricks but this is not equally virtuoso film-making. If you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you won’t lament Friedkin’s precipitous decline after The French Connection and The Exorcist. His episodes of CSI: LV have probably been viewed by more people than most of his movies since 1973, with the possible exception of the tedious Rules of Engagement.

Killer Joe is all over the shop tonally. There is a piece of visual comedy involving a suit which is hilarious, which, like Joe replying “I like Digger” to the question why he doesn’t arrest the gangster Digger, and Chris being beaten up by Digger’s goons who then inform him “He really likes you”, belongs in another film. You don’t care for a second what happens to Hirsch which makes you realise how Joe’s query of Anselm; “Were you aware of this?” “I’m never aware”; exemplifies the unnerving stupidity of the characters. Friedkin also does for unnecessary female nudity here what he did for unnecessary male nudity in To Live and Die in LA. Temple bares all several times for no very clear reason, and Gershon flashes repeatedly, but the fact that Dottie is clearly not the full shilling makes a scene where Joe makes her strip naked incredibly disturbing. And that’s before we get to the unbelievable use of a “K fry C” chicken wing as part of the intensely theatrical climax in which persistent interrogation cuts thru lies – a bravura sequence that almost redeems previous queasy scenes.

This is a tough watch, and it’s debatable whether it’s really worth the struggle, but McConaughey’s performance erases all his disastrous rom-coms. He’s that good.

2/5

September 8, 2010

Salvage Operation: Reign of Fire

2002’s failed blockbuster Reign of Fire is not a good film by any means, but it does contain at least one genuinely great idea which should be salvaged for posterity.

In a post-apocalyptic world caused by the accidental unleashing of dragons from underneath London Underground the world as we know it has ceased to exist. Christian Bale and some other survivors live in small pockets of human resistance to the fiery reign of the dragons. In one early scene we see Bale and another adult entertaining the surviving children of their group by re-enacting Star Wars. Bounding about a make-shift stage like giddy children themselves they make light-saber noises as they swing wooden swords, a wheezing sound between lines when playing Darth Vader, and the old hand up the sleeve trick for Luke losing his hand, before the children en masse gasp in shock and disbelief at the line “No Luke, am your father”.

It is a hilarious and great scene in an uninspired film, not least because its idea is so telling. In the event of an apocalypse with only youngish men being left as the elders of a community it’s highly unlikely anyone would be able to remember all of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Hamlet or Great Expectations but it is entirely (and disturbingly) plausible that a bunch of twentysomethings would between them remember most, if not all, of the dialogue and scenes of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Hurley writing the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back in LOST when he’s stuck on the island in the 1970s. It’s also entirely likely that the children they entertained with their physical theatre re-enactment would indeed lap it up. And furthermore while the notion that, in the event of an apocalypse, all of Western civilization and culture would be erased save for George Lucas is on the surface deeply troubling, on second thought it’s not so bad. Lucas after all was so heavily indebted to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in his initial drafts of his saga that saving Star Wars would in fact mean saving classic story-structures and archetypal characters with mythical resonance beyond the surface nonsensicality. And with resonant stories the past wouldn’t be lost…

And so Reign of Fire may in fact have contained one truly great idea amidst a sea of CGI dragon-fire and shirtless Matthew McConaughey. Who’d a thunk it?

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