Talking Movies

March 16, 2016

Sing Street

Writer/director John Carney builds on his American debut Begin Again’s success with another funny can-do tale of musical swashbuckling, this time set in 1980s Dublin.

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Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a rich kid whose cosy private school adolescence comes to a crashing halt when parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) announce an austerity drive. A fish hopelessly out of water at Synge Street CBS he is viciously bullied, but after being befriended by entrepreneurial fixer Darren (Ben Carolan) he meets aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and ascends the pecking order at school after forming a band to impress her. Older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) provides sardonic mentoring while multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) provides the musical foundations over which Conor, soon renamed Cosmo, lays lyrics about Raphina. Cosmo increasingly clashes with school Principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) as the band ‘Sing Street’ become increasingly disruptive in their appearance and attitude. But will Conor’s increasingly ambitious efforts be enough to stop Raphina emigrating to London?

“But is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?” – Brideshead Revisited

Bridey’s question is extremely pertinent for Carney’s movie. The original music is great, especially the band’s first song ‘The Riddle of the Model’. Carney’s script is very funny, and Reynor is on terrific form as the stoner older brother. But this feels like a backward step from Begin Again on a number of fronts. Reynor’s character is almost a mash-up of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Zooey Deschanel’s roles in Almost Famous, and, though Sing Street captures elements of the period perfectly; school exercise books, constant smoking; there is also an air of total fantasy (doubly odd in a film which so obviously wants praise for its grittiness) which has Brendan as its focal point. He’s almost a time-traveller from 2015 landed in 1985 in the social critique he lays on his parents’ marriage and the Christian Brothers’ ethos. His dismissal of Genesis makes a nonsense of his affection for Duran Duran, and then you realise his taste is temporally inconsistent. Brendan ought to be agonising over whether Bowie, Springsteen and The Clash have sold out on their latest albums, and avidly listening to The Smiths and REM, not watching Top of the Pops. And then there’s U2… Never mentioned, never listened to, in 1985 Dublin.

Raphina never convinces as a real person, she is merely an object of desire, and the film has so little interest in Conor and Brendan’s sister; especially her reaction to their parents’ separation; that you wonder why she’s there at all. But while the female characters fare poorly, compared to Conor and Brendan, they’re not alone. Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) is also sidelined, and Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) are interchangeable comic relief. Sing Street’s set-up recalls The Inbetweeners but pretty boy Cosmo, living in a three storey house, is not likeable. He humiliates the school bully; fully aware said bully is a victim of abuse; and aggravatingly ‘rebels’ against Brother Baxter; who has to contend with regular students’ violent behaviour without Cosmo’s New Romantics nonsense; with Carney stacking the deck by creating an uncomfortable unfounded expectation of molestation.

Sing Street is an entertaining film made with much confidence, but that doesn’t excuse its many puzzling artistic choices and the most ridiculous ‘upbeat’ ending since The Way Back.

3.5/5

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November 18, 2015

Mockingjay: Part 2

The Hunger Games saga comes to a conclusion with a hugely enjoyable film that unleashes some surprises before it succumbs to Peterjacksonitis in actually ending.

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Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from a brutal attack by her brainwashed beau Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As the medics of District 13 try to deprogramme him from the sadistic conditioning inflicted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss is frustrated in her quest for vengeance by rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore); who insists on keeping her off the front lines. But when Katniss goes AWOL it’s not very AWOL as Coin and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) form a propaganda core around her including Peeta, childhood friend Gayle (Liam Hemsworth), film-maker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), and fellow Victor Finnick (Sam Claflin). But their mission to make propaganda just behind the frontlines and Katniss’ wish to assassinate Snow personally soon lead to chaos and tragedy.

Mockingjay: Part 2 is tonally quite different to last year’s Mockingjay. Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems shoot it with huge assurance, but it never really establishes what kind of new iteration of Hunger Games movie it wants to be. Instead it feels like the propaganda war of the last one, mashed together with a ‘guys on a mission’ movie to give more action beats to the story. And that’s before we get to how it really falls prey to the Lord of the Rings curse of not knowing how to get off the stage. But that’s not to say there is not much to love here. The location shooting in Paris and Berlin is terrific, rendering the deserted Capitol a fitting venue for the ’76th annual Hunger Games’ as Finnick dryly dubs Snow’s desperate gambit to booby-trap his own city.

Ocean’s 11 production design Philip Messina has worked on all the Hunger Games movies, and his work here completes the fleshing out of the Panem universe that began with the bigger budget of Catching Fire. Francis Lawrence showcases some agonisingly suspenseful directing in a sequence where the suicide squad (sic) are attacked by Capitol mutts in the sewers. It is a marvel from start to finish, with the claustrophobic tunnels lit minimally while the tension builds reminiscent of Alien, while the action makes you think this was what Alien Resurrection might have been aiming for in its trademark episode. Lawrence’s love of complicated villains also continues with Donald Sutherland working wonders with his six scenes as he sows doubts in Katniss’ mind, and the film embraces a deeply cynical view of messianic leadership.

Mockingjay: Part 2 could have been leaner, but it could scarcely have been meaner, and it comes out fighting for most of its running time.

3.5/5

February 4, 2015

2015: Hopes

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Chappie

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe travels to Gallipoli in search of his three missing sons in 1919. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko and official Yilmaz Erdogan, while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman, Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney round out the cast.

 

Chappie

Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are career criminals who kidnap the titular character and raise him as their own adopted son – but he’s a robot! Yeah… This peculiar feature is definitely a change of pace for writer/director Neill Blomkamp but it’s not clear from his first two features District 9 and Elysium whether he has the chops for a smart sci-fi crime comedy mash-up. District 9 was a gore-fest with a hysterically muddled message about apartheid, while Elysium was an embarrassing, illogical call to arms for Obamacare. Jackman’s been on a bit of a roll though so fingers crossed.

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The Gunman

March 20th sees Sean Penn attempts a Liam Neeson do-over by teaming up with Taken director Pierre Morel for a tale of a former special forces operative who wants to retire with his lover, only for his military contractor bosses to stomp on his plan; forcing him to go on the run. The lover in question is Italian actress Jasmin Trinca, while the organisation and its enemies have an unusually classy cast: Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. Morel will undoubtedly joyously orchestrate mayhem in London and Barcelona, but can he make Penn lighten up?

 

Furious 7

The death of Paul Walker delayed his final film. Following the death of Han, Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Dwayne Johnson) seek revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham as the brother of Fast 6’s villain). Chris Morgan pens his third successive Furious screenplay but, apart from dubious additions like Ronda Rousey and Iggy Azalea to the cast, the main concern is how director James Wan (The Conjuring) will rise to the challenge of replacing Justin Lin. Wan can direct horror but how will he handle Tony Jaa’s chaos?

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John Wick

April 10th sees the belated release of Keanu Reeves’ acclaimed low-fi action movie in which his sweater-loving retired hit-man wreaks havoc after his dog is killed; it being his last link to his dead wife for whom he’d quit the underworld. M:I-4 villain Michael Nyqvist is the head of the Russian mob who soon discovers his son Alfie Allen has accidentally unleashed a rampage and a half. Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix, directs with a welcome emphasis on fight choreography and takes long enough to make the action between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki’s assassin comprehensible.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well here’s an odd one and no mistake. Original director George Miller returns to the franchise after thirty years, co-writing with comics artist Brendan McCarthy and Mad Max actor Nick Lathouris. Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy channelling his inner Mel Gibson, roaring around the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback with Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. This does look like Mad Max 2, but it’s not a remake; merely an excuse to do Mad Max 2 like sequences of vehicular mayhem but with a huge budget for the mostly practical effects, and some CGI sandstorm silliness.

Jurassic World

Jurassic World

Jurassic World opens its gates in June, boasting an all-new attraction: super-dinosaur Indominus Rex, designed to revive flagging interest in the franchise park. From the trailer it appears that in reviving this franchise new hero Chris Pratt has combined the personae of past stars Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Bryce Dallas Howard meanwhile takes over Richard Attenborough’s presiding over disaster with the best of intentions gig. Apparently there will be some animatronic dinosaurs, but the swooping CGI shots of the functioning park emphasise how far blockbuster visuals have come since Spielberg grounded his digital VFX with full-scale models.

 

Mission: Impossible 5

July sees Tom Cruise return as Ethan Hunt for more quality popcorn as Christopher McQuarrie makes a quantum directorial leap from Jack Reacher. Paula Patton is replaced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all return, as do Robert Elswit as cinematographer and JJ Abrams as producer. The trademark stunt this time appears to be Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a flying cargo plane, the villain is possibly Alec Baldwin’s character, and the screenplay is by a curious combo of Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and video game writer Will Staples.

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St James Place

October 9th sees the release of something of an unusual dream team: Steven Spielberg directs a Coen Brother script with Tom Hanks in the lead. Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer recruited by the CIA to work with the Russian and American embassies in London in 1961 after Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is shot down. The Company hope to secretly negotiate a release for the pilot, and keep all operations at arms’ length from DC to maintain plausible deniability. Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, and Eve Hewson round out the impressive cast of this drama.

 

Crimson Peak

October 16th sees Guillermo del Toro reunite with Mimic scribe Matthew Robbins. Their screenplay with Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) sees young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) travel to the titular mansion of a mysterious man, who lives in seclusion in the mountains. Apparently del Toro has outdone himself with the production design of the mansion’s interior. The cast includes Supernatural’s Jim Beaver as Wasikowska’s father (!!!), Tom Hiddleston, Doug Jones, Charlie Hunnam, and the inevitable Jessica Chastain. But can del Toro, who’s not had it easy lately (The Strain), deliver a romantic ghost story mixed with Gothic horror?

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Spectre

The latest Bond film will be released on November 6th. In a hilarious reversal of prestige John Logan’s screenplay was overhauled by perennial rewrite victims and action purveyors Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sam Mendes returns to direct as Daniel Craig’s 007 investigates the titular shadowy organisation, which makes a most welcome return after decades of lawsuits. Christoph Waltz may be Blofeld, Daniel Bautista is definitely his henchmen, Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are Bond girls, and charmingly Jesper Christensen’s Mr White links Paul Haggis’ Solace and Spectre. And Andrew Scott joins the cast! Perhaps Moriarty’s a Spectre operative.

 

Mr Holmes

Writer/director Bill Condon has been on quite a losing streak (Breaking Dawn: I & II, The Fifth Estate). So he’s reteamed with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen for another period piece. Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) from Tideland novelist Mitch Cullin’s work, this finds a 93 year old Holmes living in retirement in Sussex in the 1940s troubled by a failing memory and an unsolved case. Condon reunites with Kinsey’s Laura Linney, and intriguingly has cast Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada, but this will be closer to ‘His Last Bow’ or Michael Chabon’s retired Holmes pastiche?

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Mockingjay: Part II

All good things come to an end, and Jennifer Lawrence’s duel with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow reaches its climax in November with what director Francis Lawrence considers the most violent movie of the quadrilogy. Familiar TV faces join the cast, with Game of Thrones’ Gwendolen Christie as Commander Lyme and Prison Break’s Robert Knepper as Antonius, and Philip Seymour Hoffman takes his posthumous bow as Plutarch Heavensbee. The last movie shook up the dynamic of these movies with a propaganda war, so it will be interesting to see how Lawrence stages an all-out rebellion against the Capitol.

 

Macbeth

Arriving sometime towards the end of year is Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. That pairing enough is reason to be excited, but we’ll also get Paddy Considine as Banquo, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, and Jack Reynor as Malcolm. Not to mention that Kurzel directed The Snowtown Murders and his DP Adam Arkapaw shot True Detective. Hopes must be high therefore that this will be both visually striking and emotionally chilling in its depiction of Macbeth’s descent into bloody madness.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie event of 2015 arrives on December 18th. The original heroes (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) and their sidekicks (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels) will all be making a welcome return after the passionless prequel protagonists. Director JJ Abrams has also cast a number of rising stars (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Gwendolen Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac) and a total unknown (Daisy Ridley – allegedly the protagonist!) The trailer seemed to indicate that this trilogy might actually be some fun, but Super 8 showed that fan-boys sometimes forget to bring originality.

November 25, 2014

Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence assumes her role as symbol of the revolution in the third instalment of The Hunger Games; which might be the best one yet.

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Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is suffering from the experience of the Quarter Quell even more than the trauma of the original Hunger Games; hiding in tunnels, having panic attacks, and in total denial that her home, District 12, has been destroyed. Her rescuer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken her to the underground bunker that houses the survivors of District 13’s destruction by the forces of the Capitol. He introduces her to President Coin (Julianne Moore), and, after, Katniss is allowed to see District 12 for herself, takes charge of turning Katniss into the Mockingjay – symbol of the Revolution. But it’s only after shooting a hysterically inept propaganda video that Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) makes a ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ speech, and Katniss is allowed into combat; trailed by Plutarch’s recruit, film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Katniss’ raw reactions make her a weapon in a propaganda war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) taunting her with his own weapon – Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

“Moves and countermoves,” as Donald Sutherland whispers, are the substance of this film; and it makes for an unusual and shadowy blockbuster. The characters in the Capitol are distanced from us: President Snow only appears 5 times, Peeta and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) are merely faces on giant television screens, other kidnapped victors are mentioned but not seen. The relationship of the air war of propaganda videos to the ground war of rebel action is shown by director Francis Lawrence utilising the ever-increasing budget to flesh out more and more of the geographical variety of the world of Panem. Loggers in District 7 rebelling against Snow’s increased quotas take up Katniss’ spontaneous rallying cry “If we burn, you burn with us” after her traumatic baptism of fire into the war in District 8. Rebels in District 5 turn Katniss’ folk-song, creatively edited by Plutarch, into a revolutionary marching song; like ‘John Brown’s Body’ morphing into the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A long-take where Katniss walks down the ramp of a hovercraft which takes off to reveal the ruins behind her before we follow her as she walks into rubble exemplifies both Francis Lawrence’s masterful use of CGI and the exceptional sets. District 12 resembles Terminator 2’s skull-strewn future, a wave of humanity descending a spiral staircase in District 13 is rendered hypnotic, and Coin’s addresses to the populace in that bunker make you appreciate how poorly realised Zion was in the Matrix sequels. The decision to split Suzanne Collins’ novel in two is fully justified as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, and also Jonathan from Buffy!) provide a screenplay that makes us fear anyone; including the ever stoic Gale (Liam Hemsworth); could die, ratchets up tensions for its suspenseful finale, and drops a truly creepy character detail during it to boot. Francis Lawrence rises to the challenge of creating a different type of Hunger Games movie, while Jennifer Lawrence retains Katniss’ fire while layering her with uncertainty.

Interstellar is the most intelligent blockbuster of 2014, but Mockingjay’s tactical battle might be the most interesting popcorn movie.

4/5

September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

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Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

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God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

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