Talking Movies

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

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

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

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


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

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

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March 22, 2012

Act of Valour

Weapons technology and American patriotism fetishist Tom Clancy presents a movie from Kurt Johnstad (co-writer of the bombastic 300) starring active duty Navy Seals. Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty damn good.

If you watched David Mamet’s The Unit you’ll recognise this world of American Special Forces popping up all over the world to orchestrate mayhem. The film opens with a truly horrific car-bombing in the Philippines, before trotting through retaliatory operations by our heroes in Costa Rica, the Horn of Africa, and Mexico, with a detour for the audience to meet the villains in Ukraine. Directors Scott Waugh (a former stuntman) & Mouse McCoy (a former motorcycle champion) developed the movie from talking to Navy Seals, and then decided to just cast them. So Lieutenant Commander Rorke and his best friend (and deputy) Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave lead Seals Ajay, Ray, Mikey, and Weimy into action. Actual actors opposite them include Roselyn Sanchez (Without a Trace), Nestor Serrano (90210), and intense Broadway star Jason Cottle as Jihadist villain Abul Shabal.

If Sam Worthington is the baseline of competency in film acting Rorke and Dave are discernibly just beneath his level, not least because of incredibly thick accents unpolished by acting school. However, bar a couple of awkward emotional scenes, it actually doesn’t matter as they really do bring it as soon as they’re required to banter and blitz. The best actor among the Seals is unsurprisingly Senior Chief Van O (a dead ringer for Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou), the eternally calm centre of this storm. Van O improvised from notes an entire interrogation scene with Alex Veadov’s opportunistic drug-smuggler Christo, thereby adlibbing the movie’s funniest line, “You’ve never seen Star Trek?! Oh, that’s just insane”, as he alternates charm and cruelty. The movie’s impressive action scenes were similarly actually choreographed by the Seals themselves from scripted notes by the directors.

The stealth attack on a Mexican village, frontal assault on a Mexican drug cartel stronghold, and a bloody subterranean battle are all incredibly authentic as a result. Canon’s ultra-light 5D digital camera is frequently mounted on helmets to provide a Doom-style immersion, with a Bourne-style fist-fight featuring a disturbing first-person POV as a heroine is thrown through a glass table and kicked in the head. A frenetic car-chase that culminates in a ‘hot extraction’ is this year’s best action sequence to date; the live fire (!) employed making it jaw-dropping. Presumably DP Shane Hurlbut wasn’t freaked because having been the victim of the Bale-out on Terminator: Salvation nothing scares him anymore. Importantly Act of Valour isn’t propaganda. It showcases a stunning act of self-sacrifice, and the presence of a wheelchair, eye-patch and coffin in the closing scenes attest to these missions’ cost.

What could have been a mere curiosity is elevated beyond its basic scripting by tactically canny action to become a good movie.

3/5

February 1, 2012

Man on a Ledge

Asger Leth makes the jump from directing documentaries to directing features with a caper movie, which sees a potential jumper provide distraction for an audacious heist.

Sam Worthington is the mysterious suited man who checks into the Hotel Roosevelt as the splendidly implausibly named Jay Walker, and promptly steps onto a 21st floor ledge bringing traffic to a standstill in Midtown. Cops surround 45th and Madison predicting that if he jumps he’s going to make quite a mess, as well as ruin the reception honouring Dave Englander, Ed Harris’ reptilian corporate monster. Leth neatly flashbacks to Worthington in prison as we discover he’s actually Nick Cassidy, a disgraced ex-cop who stole a fabled diamond from Englander. Nick then delightfully explodes a cinematic cliché while staging a jailbreak at his father’s funeral. Leth quickly reveals that Nick’s ledge stunt is cover for his brother (Jamie Bell) to steal the diamond again to prove Englander’s fraud, and playfully teases us with the possibility that Nick’s ex-partner Mike (Anthony Mackie) is aiding him too.

The situation escalates as Nick’s specially requested NYPD negotiator Lydia (Elizabeth Banks) arrives even as Kyra Sedgewick’s TV news reporter stirs up the crowd; who are equal parts clumsy Dog Day Afternoon homage and Occupy Wall Street reference. The execution of the heist is good fun, but not as slick as the Soderbergh Ocean’s gold standard, and the final act is pure implausible Violence as Function with characters shooting everything in sight in the hope a resolution might emerge from the gunsmoke. Oddly enough the performances are what remain in the memory afterwards. Banks is part of an unusual cabal (Emily Blunt, Judy Greer, Sarah Paulson) of wonderful comedic actresses who are equally effective in dramatic parts. Her introduction as the burnt-out Lydia is pure low-comedy but she thereafter powers the drama.

Worthington continues to be an adequate leading man, but not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Jamie Bell displayed signs of impressive acting maturity in last year’s Jane Eyre but he fares less well here, shackled as he is to a comedy double act with the deeply unimpressive soap star Genesis Rodriguez. It’s hard to know if Rodriguez was cast purely for her physique, showcased in one sequence, or whether she’s being let down terribly by the scripting of her part. Her character feels as tonally wrong as Ugly Betty’s Hilda Suarez being dropped into the screenplay for Inside Man. Mackie and Harris are sadly underused, but Harris Fassbenders immensely because Englander is the sins of the 1% made flesh. Titus Welliver is equally joyful as Nathan Marcus, head negotiator who’s overly deferential to Englander’s power.

Man on a Ledge isn’t a dazzling film by any means, but it is solidly entertaining for its 102 minute running time and ends pleasantly with one last feel-good twist.

3/5

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…

Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.

The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.

As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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