Talking Movies

September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

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January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

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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.

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

December 1, 2013

Subtitle European Film Festival Awards

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The Subtitle European Film Festival drew to a close tonight in Kilkenny with the second Angela Awards, celebrating excellence in European film-making.

Actors honoured at the awards included Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie (known for his role in the crossover hit Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters), Finnish actor Peter Franzén (who will shortly be seen on screens starring alongside Sean Penn in The Gunman), Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky (star of the forthcoming Vampire Academy alongside Gabriel Byrne) and Danish actor Pilou Asbaek (star of TV hit Borgen). The Awards were hosted by actress and author Pauline McLynn in The Set Theatre, Kilkenny, with a host of luminaries including director Jim Sheridan, writer David Caffrey, Harry Potter producer Tanya Seghatchian, and actors Robert Sheehan, Amy Huberman, Laurence Kinlan, Sean McGinley, Tom Hickey, Peter O’Meara, Aisling Franciosi, Morten Suurballe (The Killing), and Allan Hyde (True Blood) all in attendance.

At the awards Jim Sheridan also presented Emmy Award-winning casting director Avy Kaufman with a Lifetime Achievement Angela. Kaufman was the casting diector for films as diverse as The Sixth SenseThe Life of PiLincoln and Shame. She has also worked with Jim Sheridan, casting many of his films. Subtitle presents popular films from European countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bosnia. With 70 screenings of 36 popular films from over 13 countries across Europe over 7 days in Kilkenny, Subtitle makes you see cinema in a different way.

Full List of Angela Winners:

 

Pilou Asbaek, Denmark, Actor

For his role in: A Hijacking

 

Agnieszka Grochowska, Poland, Actor

For her role in: Walesa

 

Aksel Hennie, Norway, Actor

For his role in: Ninety Minutes

 

Peter Franzén, Finland, Actor

For his role in: Heart Of A Lion

 

Danila Kozlovsky, Russia, Actor

For his role in: Soulless

 

Antonio De La Torre, Spain, Actor

For his role in: Grupo 7

 

Marija Pikic, Serbia, Actor

For her role in: Children Of Sarajevo

 

Jakub Gierszał, Poland, Actor

For his role in: Suicide Room

 

Laura Birn, Finland, Actor

For her role in: Purge

 

Hannah Hoekstra, Netherlands, Actor

For her role in: Hemel

 

Jessica Grobowsky, Finland, Actor

For her role in: 8-Ball

 

Marwan Kanzari, Netherlands, Actor

Breakthrough: Wolf

 

Per-Erik Eriksen, Norway, Editor

Editing: Kon-Tiki

 

Avy Kaufman, US, Casting Director  

Lifetime Achievement: Casting

October 4, 2013

Thanks for Sharing

Thanks For Sharing (2013) Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow

The Ruffalo stars as a sex addict attempting to end 5 years of celibacy by romancing Gwyneth Paltrow– but can he stay ‘sober’? And will she want such damaged goods?

Adam (Ruffalo) works on corporate greening projects, but his main project is keeping himself celibate. No TV, no internet, no subways: avoiding occasions of sin as the Church would put it, but this is the world of the vaguely defined Higher Power. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the high priest, handing out sobriety badges and brutally taunting lascivious ER doctor Neil (Josh Gad) to take the programme seriously. Adam decides to try and maintain a committed relationship with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), but, just when he needs his sponsor most, Mike’s drug-addict son Danny (Patrick Fugit) is welcomed home by Mike’s long-suffering wife Katie (Joely Richardson) – and his independently achieved sobriety challenges Mike’s AA self-righteousness. Mike’s inability to mentor also comes at a bad time for new programme member Dede (Pink), who bizarrely picks the recently fired Neil to be her sponsor…

Did you watch Shame and think that this subject matter would work better as a rom-com? Apparently writer/director Stuart Blumberg did… Edward Norton’s presence as executive producer reminds us that Blumberg also wrote the unloved ‘a priest and a rabbi walk into Jenna Elfman’ joke that was Keeping the Faith, and this is equally uncomfortable viewing. The abiding rom-com cliché occurs, Phoebe tells Adam she would never date another addict, and he assures that he is not an … alcoholic, will she forgive him when she discovers this lie? This film is rather like Love Happens, a deeply irreconcilable split between inane rom-com and deeply serious drama in which many actors are doing only one or other side of that equation. It’s tempting to suggest that character actor and co-writer Matt Winston is thus responsible for the compelling drama scenes.

Robbins’ self-righteous alcoholic who can mentor everyone but his own son is matched by Fugit’s rage and Richardson’s despair. Neil’s deeply inappropriate relationship with his mother (Carol Kane) seems to suggest, like Shame, that sexual addiction comes from sexual abuse in childhood. But then you have to contrast alcoholic Charles (Isiah Whitlock Jr) traumatically falling off the wagon with Adam relapsing with a prostitute in exactly the explicit joyous manner that Shame chose to make elliptic. The scene in which Adam and Becky (Emily Meade) then enact the creepiest role-play imaginable alienates us, because she’s so young she must have been a teenager when they were previously together, and it’s not clear that Blumberg meant for us to be disgusted rather than empathic. Neil and Dede’s story is endemic of this movie’s flaws: it’s structurally a romance, but it’s played as a friendship – form and content conflict.

There’s too many capable actors doing their best to dismiss this as rubbish, but it’s wildly misjudged.

2/5

February 1, 2013

Top Performances of 2012

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2012. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actor (Drama)

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) His cult leader is as scary and charismatic as his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, you believe this man could hold Martha in his thrall even as initial love-bombing degenerates into sexual abuse and criminal adventures.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method, On the Road) His droll Freud is charismatic and delivers great put-downs but is deeply ambiguous; did he deliberately corrupt Jung? As genteel junky William Burroughs he was unexpectedly warm and sane.

Runners Up:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe, Magic Mike) Wonderfully sleazy as Cabaret’s MC (sic), he erased his rom-coms with a revelatory Joe; icily calm, thawed by love, and psychotic.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire) His very precise turn as the dishonest android enlivened Prometheus, while his Haywire killer was very dashing.

Also Placed:

Sam Neill (The Hunter) Neill’s gravitas and underplayed emotional torment gave a weight to his dialogue scenes with Dafoe that underpinned Dafoe in the wilderness.

Trystan Gravelle (Stella Days) His teacher inspired Martin Sheen’s priest to defiance, but he also played the attraction to his landlady with great subtlety.

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Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)

Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Miller, as flamboyant senior Patrick, displays startling range in portraying charismatic rebel after his troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin. His turn is an exuberant joy that tramples clichés of gay characters in high-school movies.

Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) Whitford as a military-industrial office drone organised absurd office gambling pools, snarled obscenities at video monitors, indulged in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank, and rampaged hilariously thru great dialogue.

Runners Up:

Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) His musings on decadence’s decline would get this nod, but Brody also makes his character a good soul given to self-aggrandising deception.

Liev Schreiber (Goon) He makes us care for his lousy hockey player who dutifully serves his team, and establishes a convincing bond with his challenger Scott.

James Ransone (Sinister) His Deputy, embarrassingly eager to assist the hero’s research and so get a book acknowledgment, single-handedly lightens a tense film.

Richard Ayoade (The Watch) His deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic is hysterical, as he synchs with the filthy absurdity purveyed by Hill and Rogen.

Also Placed:

Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) Baldwin’s reality-bending interfering commentary on Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page’s burgeoning romance is Annie Hall-esque.

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) The Greatest Actor of His Generation (TM) is actually wonderful here as the kindly earnest scoutmaster unable to control his troops.

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Best Supporting Actress

Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) She excellently layered Lucy’s relief at getting her missing sister Martha back, with guilt at perhaps having driven her away originally, and a mingled desperation and despair over the prospects of healing her psychic scars.

Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar) As Alice, the traumatised but kind girl who most appreciates what M. Lazhar is trying to do for the class, this Quebecois Dakota Fanning gives a stunningly mature performance based on unspoken grief.

Shaleine Woodley (The Descendants) She displayed considerable spark as the troubled 17 year old banished to boarding school, who’s surprisingly effective at buttressing her father’s parenting of her younger sister even as she tells him home truths.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) Hathaway essayed a great languorous voice, a wonderful slinky physicality, and a good chemistry with Batman, as well equal viciousness with quips and kicks, but her delightful presence was sorely underused.

Runners Up:

Helene Florent (Cafe de Flore) Her abandoned wife sinking into depression at the loss of her life-long partner gives the film its emotional weight.

Ellen Page (To Rome with Love) Page’s madly attractive actress gets a huge build-up from Greta Gerwig and lives up to it with gloriously shallow sophistication.

Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress) Echikunwoke madly milks her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’ and has an amazing character moment.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) Banks is very funny delivering callous lines as talent scout Effie.

Also Placed:

Roisin Barron (Stitches) Barron’s verbally abrasive and physically abusive mean girl reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early swagger.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) Her terrifying Press Secretary; reshuffling the P.M.’s Cabinet for him, verbally abusing her own children; stole the film.

Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Whitman is hilariously narcissistic and garrulous as she dominates her unfortunate boyfriend.

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) A 75 year old assaults Jimmy Nesbitt and you feel concerned for him – Redgrave oft conjures up that ferocity as Fiennes’ mother.

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Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) Olsen’s debut as cult member Martha was startlingly assured – naive victim and spiteful malefactor – and her thoughtful and witty Zibby was a comedic turn of great charm and depth.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) Imperious as Katniss: a great action heroine who combined a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Her depressed Tiffany was quicksilver magic, flirty to angry in mere seconds.

Runners Up:

Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina) Knightley excelled at Anna’s early empathy, but she was startlingly alien as the hysteric Sabina who recovers to a nuanced fragility.

Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Watson is luminous as the sardonic senior who makes it her project to transform an isolated freshman into a fellow Rocky Horror  performer.

Also Placed:

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) Stone’s witty and very determined Gwen Stacy makes you realise how poorly used Dallas Bryce Howard was and how flat out poor Kirsten Dunst was.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) Gail, the sister with an inflated opinion of herself and a sharp mouth, is a meaty part with a lot of zinging put-downs.

Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love) Creton’s arc from teenage suicidal despair to apparent and actual contentment was utterly convincing, especially in her unease around her lost love.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Shame) His remarkably raw performance made us sympathise with a sex-addict scared of being rumbled at work, but that panicked despair on his face had a flipside, the predatory smile when picking up women. Balancing both was sublime.

Runners Up:

Woody Harrelson (Rampart) This tour-de-force made us care for a repellent character. Yes, he was a jerk and a dirty cop, but desired to do the right thing as he saw it.

Willem Dafoe (The Hunter) Dafoe’s physical presence as he stalked the Tasmanian bush was equalled by his emotional integration into the family he lodged with.

Mohamed Said Fellag (Monsiuer Lazhar) Fellag’s strict but loving teacher knows how to help the class recover from trauma and, driven by his loss, defies orders not to.

Also Placed:

Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) His drunken Irish soul man lifts the movie to comic heights it wouldn’t have hit, especially in his fractious relationship with Gail.

Muhammet Uzuner (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Dr Cemal was a creation of immense humanity, his Stoic voiceover while the camera observed waving grass at night mesmerising.

Taner Birsel (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Prosecutor Nusret was splendidly subtle, a man of equal empathy and diplomacy who slowly crumbles when deconstructed by Dr Cemal.

Honourable Mention:

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) Fiennes was fierce as a man of exceptional courage and nobility who will not humble himself for ‘appearances’.

Christoph Waltz (Carnage) His compulsive starting of fires, followed by excusing himself to shout “Hello, Walter!” into his phone, was joyous.

January 17, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

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(10) Sinister

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

(9) 21 Jump Street

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

(8) Liberal Arts

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

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(7) The Hunter

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

(6) Monsieur Lazhar

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

(5) Damsels in Distress

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

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(4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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

(3) The Woman in Black

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

(2) Martha Marcy May Marlene

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

Shame-Fassbender-scarf-pea-coat

(1) Shame

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

February 15, 2012

Fassbendering Bravely Onwards

Take a good look at the above picture.

This is Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender laughing at the HBO party after the Golden Globes. There is an even better picture, which I aggravatingly can’t track down as a jpg, in which Fassbender and Gleeson are cracking up so badly that you can barely see Fassbender’s eyes.

This is what losing looks like…

God only knows what they would have done had they both won their Best Actor categories at the Golden Globes. I suspect something like this.

I’d been wondering, indeed worrying, if Fassbender’s increasingly serious roles (in Shame and A Dangerous Method) since I last wrote about the concept would mean an end to Fassbendering, but an interview with David Cronenberg has given me renewed hope that the nonsense will remain no matter how many nominations accumulate.

Interviewed by Maclean’s Cronenberg said, “I felt that Michael’s innate sexiness would work with Keira, and his sense of humour and playfulness would work with Viggo on the set. Even with an intellectual character, his approach is visceral. He jokingly likes to say the only research he did was read ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Carl Jung.’ He reminds me of Errol Flynn. He has that same gently swashbuckling, charming tone.” Laughing, Cronenberg, adds: “He’s just so perky, it drives you crazy. One day I found him standing out in the sun in his costume and makeup, with this big smile. I said, ‘Michael, why are you smiling like that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know . . . life.’ I said, ‘It’s so irritating that you’re happy all the time.’ ”

Fassbendering it seems may disappear from the movies, although hopefully not all of them, but we can be reassured that it will never disappear from movie sets!

January 9, 2012

Shame

If Bret Easton Ellis and Harold Pinter had ever co-written a movie it would feel like director Steve McQueen’s second feature film Shame.

McQueen reunites with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender for another stunning drama that thrillingly re-imagines cinema’s possibilities. Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful Irish-American businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his entire life around his secret sex addiction. The crippling nature of this addiction is hammered home in the opening sequence. This intercuts Brandon’s daily routine of sex with multiple anonymous partners (and ignoring phone calls from his sister) with him ogling a woman on the subway who initially flirts back but then gets increasingly uncomfortable even as David Escott’s unsettling strings surge in tandem with Brandon’s compulsion. When Brandon loses her in the crowd, the panicked despair on his face speaks volumes. Our sympathy is with Brandon when he’s scared of being rumbled at work for the hard-core pornography on his hard-drive, but Fassbender’s smile has never been so predatory. James Badge Dale as his boss is the socially acceptable clumsy pick-up artist but Brandon, sardonically watching him flail about, is a shark slyly circling too easy prey.

Brandon’s life starts to disintegrate when his wayward sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay with him. Mulligan and Fassbender aid each other in achieving remarkably raw performances. Cissy’s eccentric rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in unflinching close-up is incredibly brittle and leads to a devastating reaction shot of Brandon tearing up. Cissy and Brandon’s lack of inhibition around each other recalls the siblings in The War Zone, implying they were sexually abused as children; a reading reinforced by Brandon being so tortured by her having sex that he embarks on a midnight jog. McQueen though, like Pinter, is uninterested in explaining. The enigmatic line “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” may refer to a traumatic childhood, or it may not, and it’s delivered while Brandon and Cissy verbally flay each other in an argument that achieves a stunningly theatrical intensity by being a fixed-position long-take. McQueen similarly transforms Brandon’s frustrated jog into an unexpectedly transcendent sequence by shooting it as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks.

Brandon tries to cold-turkey away his addiction after Cissy confronts him, and even goes on a proper date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). McQueen’s middle distance long-take staging emphasises the comedy of their inept waiter but also introduces undertones of great unease. Brandon has no ability to commit to a normal loving relationship and his later (unflinchingly observed) failure to seduce her, and his subsequent exhibitionist recourse to a prostitute, emphasises that he has been empathetically corrupted by pornography. This is a film about sex addiction that avoids salaciousness as the sex scenes are made every bit as wincing to observe as watching an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay this is bodies in motion – as Brandon’s spectacular succumbing to his addiction in the finale is rendered semi-abstractly. Shame is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering compulsion derailing your whole life – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy.

Shame lacks the narrative momentum of Hunger, and Brandon’s emotional epiphany feels slightly contrived, but it leads to a devastating circular conclusion emphasising that temptation is ever present for any addict. McQueen and Fassbender are proving themselves to be as seminal a pairing as Herzog and Kinski…

5/5

2012: Hopes

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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part III

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

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