Talking Movies

November 7, 2019

From the Archives: The Brothers Solomon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

When their beloved father goes into a coma socially inept brothers John (Will Arnett) and Dean Solomon (Will Forte) try to give him something to live for by providing a grandchild. However when their dating skills prove non-existent they turn to a surrogate mother Janine (Kristen Wiig) with a jealous ex (Chi McBride)

Will Forte is not Will Ferrell, but he probably thinks he is, they both worked on Saturday Night Live after all. Like the painfully unfunny film appearances of SNL star Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog anyone?) Will Forte proves that not everyone on SNL should be encouraged to traipse over to Hollywood. He wrote this film as well as co-starring in it so the blame for the deplorable lack of comedy can be placed firmly on his shoulders. The idea that being able to make sketch comedy, which relies on beating a joke around for 3 minutes till you’ve exhausted it, qualifies you to make films where you have to construct a 90 minute story with organically occurring jokes is a puzzling one. If you can hop up the stairs a couple of steps at a time it doesn’t mean you should suddenly run out and take up pole-vaulting.

The idea of making fun of two social misfits instantly recalls Dumb and Dumber but this is even more suspect and mean-spirited and at least that had some hilarious gags, before the Farrelly Brothers lost their funny bones. There are some funny moments. Chi McBride’s first appearance is comic and menacing at the same time as he takes umbrage wherever he can find it, accusing the whole world of being racist when it’s not. Could this have gone somewhere? Yeah, but a sketch show writer…oh forget it. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable sequence which features the brothers trying to prepare for parenthood by observing children at the playground and offering them ice-cream. Hmmm. There’s also an outrageous gag at an adoption agency involving a misunderstanding about a photo which provides Will Arnett with the best line of the whole movie.

Will Arnett (beloved as Gob on Arrested Development) can work wonders with weak material, as Blades of Glory showed, but this script defeats even him. Things get so tedious after a while that you start playing spot the TV actor. Oh look, there’s Jenna Fischer from the American Office in a cameo, hey, that’s depressed old Ted from Scrubs, and who’s the surrogate mother, why it’s a look-alike of Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The face that should occasion panic is Heartbreak Kid and The Invasion star Malin Akerman, a cinematic hoodoo this year. The sky banner that goes on forever and has the entire cast of supporting characters reading it is the highlight of the whole film. It is actually hilarious and worth seeing but as Dr Johnson once said: worth seeing, yes, but it’s not worth going to see.

1/5

January 20, 2019

Notes on Glass

M Night Shyamalan’s unorthodox sequel Glass was the film of the week early this morning on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

And an unorthodox but pithy and accurate review would be that Glass is never boring but is utterly pointless. Shyamalan has, after patient coaching by producer of our times Jason Blum, clearly got his confidence back. But that might not necessarily be a good thing. Lady in the Water after all was clearly the the work of a supremely confident auteur, a man in any way insecure would never stretch 30 minutes of material into a feature movie. The Happening, when the wheels really fell off the wagon, was when Shyamalan was clearly unsure of his material and this infected his actors; as I noted at the time, the difference between the strained marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening is what happens when the actors no longer believe what they’re saying because they sense the director no longer believes. That is not a problem here. The always wonderful Sarah Paulson commits with every ounce of her being to a very silly role in much the same manner that Maggie Gyllenhaal did in White House Down.

Listen here:

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2014. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as top of the class, the runners up being right behind them, with also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) Arquette’s character grows older but not wiser, instead we see her becomingly increasingly brittle as even she realises that she’s sensible about everything except her romantic choices.

Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) Forming a great double act with Ben Affleck, Coon broke out from theatre with a glorious turn as his twin sister– the foulmouthed and spiky voice of reason.

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) Lawrence was perhaps too young for the part, but she played it with such comic panache that her sporadic appearances energised an overlong film.

Runners Up:

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank) Gyllenhaal was pitch-perfect as scary obscurantist Clara, with wonderful nuance in the slow reveal of how such off-kilter music bonds her and Frank’s damaged and isolated psyches.

Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) Foy was bright, furious, and resentful, and blew Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of their character, the indomitable Murph.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) Paulson’s casual brutality towards slaves was deeply shocking, but her horror at being replaced sexually by a slave subtly underscored her menace.

Also Placed:

Amber Heard (3 Days to Kill) Parodying her hyper-sexualised persona (The Informers) Heard, in leathers and wigs, flirted with burlesque girls and sexualised both driving fast and injecting medicine.

Joey King (Wish I Was Here) Pitted against Zach Braff’s glibly sarcastic agnosticism the sincerity of King’s adherence to Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity blew him off the screen.

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Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) His character’s drugs spiral, even as his friendship with Ron becomes beautiful, was extremely moving, with his fierce commitment extending to deliberately ravaging his appearance.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) His vicious bible-thumping alcoholic was terrifying, but also complex; slaves are either sub-human or masters are guilty, and Epps is self-destructing from mercilessly exploiting his slaves.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) Hawke physically filled out in a career-best performance of serious comedy as deadbeat dad whose rebelliousness was an affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the world.

Runners Up:

Andrew Scott (The Stag, Locke) Scott was their sole highlight: his Locke vocal performance exuded excitability and exasperation, while Davin was a man fatally wounded by romantic rejection being tortured some more by his ex-girlfriend.

Killian Scott (Calvary, ’71) His Calvary misfit Milo was dementedly funny in rambling frustration, and he so transformed into ruthless IRA leader Quinn that he seemed not only older and tougher, but almost taller.

Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours) Efron’s previous subversions of his image were nothing next to this jackpot: his squeaky clean looks have never been put to such diabolical and hilarious use.

James Corden (Begin Again) Corden not only frequently gave the impression that he was ad-libbing great comedy moments, but also that he was improvising Knightley into unscripted corpsing bonhomie.

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) Bautista took what could have been a tiresome running gag and instead by dedicated deadpan made utter literalness to the point of insanity infinitely unexpected and hysterical.

Also Placed:

Adam Driver (What If, Tracks) Sparring against Mackenzie Davis and Daniel Radcliffe in What If he was highly amusing and occasionally sagacious, and was both funny and adorably awkward in Tracks.

Gene Jones (The Sacrament) He was patently playing Jim Jones, and turned the charisma up to 11 for a TV interview that was so mesmerising it explained Father’s cult of personality.

Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here) Patinkin brought deep humanity and biting humour to his wise, religious father disappointed by his glib, agnostic son but delighted by his bright, devout granddaughter.

Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) The man can actually act! And as celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt he transformed the oily character from the novel by bringing palpable warmth to the part.

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Best Actress

Keira Knightley (Begin Again) Knightley sang rather well, but not only did she carry a tune she also carried the movie with a return of her old confidence. Maybe all that’s needed to restore the old swagger is James Corden ad-libbing her into improvising so she forgets her stage-fright.

Mackenzie Davis (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, What If) Her What If wild child was oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, albeit interpolated with Daisy Buchanan, and was strikingly different from her reserved bookworm subtly using her wits to escape a noir nightmare in We Gotta.

Runners Up:

Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbours) It’s always a joy when Byrne gets to use her native Australian accent, and she swaggered with such foul-mouthed comedic assurance that at times Seth Rogen became her foil as the sensible one in their marriage.

Agyness Deyn (Electricity) Deyn was a commanding presence. She grabbed with both hands this defiant character, who wears short dresses and fluorescent jacket; drawing the eye to a body covered in cuts; and had no vanity in showing these effects of seizures.

Also Placed:

Juno Temple (Magic Magic) Temple reprised some elements of her naïf in Killer Joe, though thankfully she was less over-exposed here, and made her character’s steady descent into insomniac madness chillingly plausible.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey’s physical commitment to the role was jaw-dropping, initially rake-thin before then wasting away before your eyes to harrowing effect. Initially unsympathetic, he patiently revealed the hidden softer side which engaged Dr Eve, and beautifully developed an unlikely and most affecting friendship with Rayon.

Runners Up:

Daniel Radcliffe (What If) Radcliffe is sensational as the hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness this was a comic role of unexpected substance.

Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) It’s hard to imagine anyone else, save 1973 Elliot Gould, pulling off this role quite as well. The Ruffalo exudes immense shambolic charm, shuffling about in scruffy clothes, doing permit-free guerrilla location live music recording that would make Werner Herzog proud.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for all concerned Stevens burns a hole in the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance – playing scenes tongue-in-cheek serious as the charismatic helpful stranger.

Also Placed:

Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) Affleck as an actor too often contentedly coasts, and (even when gifted zingers as in Argo) acts as a still centre. But, with Fincher pushing him with endless takes, he was fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws.

Pal Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, In Order of Disappearance) The imposing Norwegian perfectly captured old-fashioned grit, naive enthusiasm, and quiet heroism as Thor Heyerdahl, and then played crime-lord The Count as an epically self-pitying vegan equally stressed by divorced parenting with his ex-wife, and a nasty turf war with Serbian mobsters.

January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen directs his first feature without Michael Fassbender in the lead, and the result is a more straightforward but very powerful film depicting slavery.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in upstate New York, much in demand at local dances for his skills as a violinist. He is also a free black man in the politically divided America of 1841, but after a trip to Washington DC providing music for a circus-owner (Scoot McNairy) he wakes up to find himself in chains about to be transported to New Orleans to be sold to whatever Louisiana plantation owner buys him. Viciously whipped for protesting his free status he is further brutalised by slave-trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) for not adopting his slave name of Platt, but he is bought by humane plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognises his intelligence. However, conflict with vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) leads to Solomon being handed over to drunken and maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where Solomon finds himself embroiled in the struggle between Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)…

12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film in which McQueen brings his distinctive visual aesthetic to bear on Three Kings scribe John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s shocking memoirs. The casual brutality of the slavers towards their victims is shocking, and McQueen’s camera is as unflinching as always in observing it, from the fixed-position long-take that observes Solomon’s first beating, to the already infamous and almost unbearable climactic long-take with a camera roving around Epps, Solomon and Patsey during a prolonged vindictive whipping. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay, andShame about bodies in motion, this is about bodies in torment. A decanter of whiskey is casually thrown into a slave’s face, a wound is ripped open with a scratch of nails, runaways are lynched besides Solomon, and Solomon himself is left hanging from a tight noose for hours while most of his fellow slaves strategically ignore his plight. This lacks a sequence where the mundane becomes transcendent, probably because of the subject; the closest we get is fire dying away at night with Solomon’s hopes.

The way McQueen’s camera silently observes the slaves being treated like livestock is more condemnatory than any polemical dialogue. Ridley’s script inserts a subtext into certain scenes about the insecurities and fears of the slave-owners, hidden behind their racist bluster, which makes even Fassbender’s vicious bible-thumping alcoholic more complicated than he first appears. Teabits sings about killing runaways to the new slaves, but is terrified of being shown up as an engineer by a slave. Epps’ wife is horrified at being replaced sexually by a slave, while Freeman breaks up a family because the daughter’s father was a master and this white blood increases her sexual desirability and price. Garret Dillahunt’s fallen overseer notes that masters must convince themselves the slaves are not human or repress their guilt. Ford tries to be good in this system, while Epps exploits it mercilessly and perhaps self-destructively. Regrettably amidst this intellectual subtlety Hans Zimmer’s key motif is instantly recognisable from his Inception score…

Steve McQueen is due a disaster, but so far he is proving to be something very rare –a film director who only makes masterpieces.

5/5

October 30, 2013

Suggesting Several Screen Siblings

I’ve noticed a few actors who I think would make damn good pairings as siblings, so here’re some suggestions for their team-ups and the movies.

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Tom Hiddleston & Rooney Mara

Who can stand against the combined powers of Loki and Lisbeth Salander? Not many… The Avengers star Tom Hiddleston and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney Mara are con artist siblings specialising in long-cons. They’re within months of pulling off the single greatest job of their career, shaking down a despotic Arabic dictator for a massive investment in a ‘revolutionary fuel research firm’, when Hiddleston falls head over heels in love with the despot’s new American liaison. Mara, however, truly despises Hiddleston’s charming new girlfriend and sets out to sabotage the romance in any way she can. Can Mara succeed in dynamiting her brother’s happiness while keeping him in the dark that she’s doing it? Can Hiddleston keep his focus long enough for the completion of the con? And is the liaison’s arrival as a massive distraction just a bit too perfectly timed to be coincidental? All will be revealed in this sophisticated Hitchcockian comedy-thriller.

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Kristen Wiig & Sarah Paulson

Studio 60 and American Horror Story star Sarah Paulson is a successful but cold marketing executive. Her fabulously wealthy grand-aunt always liked Paulson’s warm-hearted slacker sister better. The slacker sister is, of course, Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig. The great-aunt dies, leaving behind a video message for the reading of her bizarre will. Paulson and Wiig will both inherit 700 million dollars in twenty-four months, but … Paulson will only receive her share of the inheritance if she can successfully launch her sister into an independently sustainable career of Wiig’s choice (i.e. not marketing with Paulson’s firm) within twelve months. If Paulson can’t pull it off, her share goes to Wiig; making a whopping 1.4 billion dollars for Wiig and a round 0 for Paulson. Paulson can’t tell Wiig why she’s helping her, and will be trailed by a hunky male P.I. to ensure she doesn’t. It’s an all-female Brewster’s Millions meets My Fair Lady, hilarity ensues.

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Werner Herzog & Pete Townshend

Jack Reacher villain Werner Herzog buried his brother in East Germany in 1964. So it’s a shock when his daughter, trawling thru declassified archives, discovers that an empty coffin was buried. Herzog’s brother, Tommy performer Pete Townshend, was actually recruited by the Stasi, who faked his death, and, after extensive training, sent him to England as a sleeper agent. He’s been there ever since, stranded by the fall of the wall… The recently widowed Herzog travels to London with his daughter to meet Townshend’s retired but still consulting Foreign Office official. Townshend is afraid of being rumbled at the very end of his career; even as a spy without a spymaster. Gradually, however, the ice thaws as the widowed Townshend unlearns the English accented German he had perfected and prepares to tell his daughter his true identity. But has she already guessed the truth from witnessing the strange transference of identity between Townshend and Herzog?

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.

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

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

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