Talking Movies

February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

January 17, 2014

Top Performances of 2013

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2013. 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 Actress

Ellen Page (The East) Page is extremely menacing as the forceful Izzy, so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but almost mythological in her convictions and actions as lieutenant of eco-terrorists The East.

Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) Acting plaudits mysteriously went to Jessica Chastain’s petulant heroine, but it was Ehle’s humane turn as the wiser, more plausible agent that gave the film its emotional grounding.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (White House Down) Giving it EVERYTHING, she’s so ferociously committed, especially in scenes of betrayal and redemption, that her dignity makes all the nonsense around her plausible.

Runners Up:

Melanie Laurent (Now You See Me) To an extent Laurent is playing French Agent Mulder. She wants the criminals she’s hunting to employ real magicks – and her willingness stands in for the audience perfectly.

Elizabeth Debicki (Gatsby) Short-shrifted by Baz ,who deleted her final scene, the Aussie newcomer stood out as Jordan Baker, her drawling accent, flapper look, and careless air redeeming part of the film’s mess.

Lola Creton (Something in the Air) As the most sensible of all the young socialist revolutionaries we meet in early 1970s France she’s later sadly abandoned by the script, but has impressed enough to be missed…

Also Placed:

Rila Fukushima (Wolverine) As the petite samurai who teams up with Logan she’s instantly adorable as a warrior with a softer side.

Gal Gadot (Fast 6) Gadot is there for her looks, but she manages to inject an unexpected undercurrent of sadness to her part.

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Best Supporting Actor

James Franco (Spring Breakers) Franco’s turn as bling-adorned terrible rapper Alien, constantly muttering “for real” and “spring break forever”, was a terrific use of charisma to glamorise a seedy criminal.

Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) A Fassbendering Kingsley showed great range as he found very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tested the President live on TV.

Sam Shepard (Mud) His mysterious neighbour was a tour de force as he brought to life a character who keeps to himself yet has acquired over his life insight, wisdom, and ruthlessness he employs to guard a select few.

Jacob Lofland (Mud) Neckbone rode a motorbike and pilot a motorboat but he was a contemporary Tom Sawyer and newcomer Lofland was wonderfully naturalistic as the more cautious of the two teenagers.

Runners Up:

Keith Carradine (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Carradine puts his now considerable gravitas into his toughened by life mentor who has been hurt by his charges but is still deeply invested in assuring their happiness.

Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra) He was hysterically funny as a plastic surgeon whose eyes never seemed to quite fully open after a facelift and who seemed barely conscious at times as he pushed pills.

Samuel L Jackson (Django) An almost unrecognisable Jackson was sensational as the house slave Stephen, in the best acting performance he’s given in years he was racist beyond belief because it secured his status.

William H Macy (The Sessions) His priest was vital to the success of the film, as he counselled its crippled hero he mixed sincere but inept attempts at being matey with a forgiving theological approach.

Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Foster gave an unshowy performance as the taciturn face of the law, but it was a performance that didn’t seek to conceal a far sweeter note than his usual hard man.

Also Placed:

Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) Clarke was on fine form as the torturer par excellence who burns out from the job.

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) His radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was a very funny slice of TLJ with extra intelligence.

David Schwimmer (The Iceman) He was unrecognisable as the inept Jewish mobster trying to pass himself off as being Italian.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan) Arnie freaked out – in German! I want to see newly cuddly Arnie speak German more often.

Jim Carrey (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) Carrey is wonderfully callous and rude as an obnoxious David Blaine type.

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Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) Essaying a comic Blanche DuBois  she was able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. More extraordinarily she was also able to retain audience sympathy despite being vicious.

Brie Larson (Short Term 12) Larson is terrific as chief counsellor Grace, enigmatic even to her live-in boyfriend, she’s an unknowable figure who reveals little of herself for most of the film, and can switch from companionable and warm to commanding and cold in a second when needed.

Jennifer Lawrence (Catching Fire) Lawrence nuanced her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of her surrogate little sister, slain District 11 tribute Rue, was devastating and her final gesture in the Quarter Quell iconic.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed) Sullenness has never been so loveable. A sub-plot that’s dispensable puts a lot of pressure on a slight plot, and it’s hard to think anyone else could’ve pulled off this role. Plaza makes her intern both understandably saddened by her life and internally driven.

Runners Up:

Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) Gerwig was wonderfully convincing as the immature but winning graduate who hasn’t been as successful as her peers and desperately bluffs while she flails about trying to be an adult.

Rooney Mara (Side Effects, Aint Them Bodies Saints) Mara’s patient was compelling thru all her medicated character changes, while her domesticated outlaw gave nuanced glimpses of savagery behind the facade.

Amy Adams (Man of Steel) Adams was a fantastic Lois, abrasive, charming, romantic, and finally cinematically we got a reporter who discovered Superman’s true identity by dogged investigating!

Also Placed:

Mary-Louise Parker (RED 2) Parker had a tricky role as the overtly unnecessary element in a spy caper but she managed to pull it off with some remarkable absurdist comic timing in many of her scenes.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) McConaughey confirmed his renaissance by deploying all his charm and naivety to dramatic import as the superstitious fugitive hiding out from the law and Texans, and bonding with Ellis, as, with irrepressible romanticism, he waited for his true love Juniper.

Michael Shannon (The Iceman) Shannon was chilling as the cold-blooded contract killer, not least as he displayed little conflict; a stunning scene in which he gave James Franco time to pray to God confirmed this; yet his love for his family kept you rooting for his Atlantic City property scheme to pay off.

Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) Douglas gave his best sustained performance since Traffic in an uninhibited performance, unafraid to show the ‘vanity gone mad’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice, that created a character of insatiable appetites, misused talent, and confused religiosity.

Runners Up:

Casey Affleck (Aint Them Bodies Saints) Affleck was on fine form as an outlaw possessed of such romantic passion that his violent outbursts seemed less criminal than regrettably necessary to find true love.

Tye Sheridan (Mud) Sheridan gave a subtle turn as the teenager enduring the disintegrating marriage of his parents who reacted to the loss of his riverside life by appropriating Mud’s belief in everlasting love.

John Hawkes (The Sessions) Hawkes’ performance was showy in the sense that he physically discomforted himself to play the real-life polio victim and poet, but it only worked because he was so very funny.

Also Placed:

Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 3) Sure he complicated Stark with some panic attacks but the real triumph was the envelope-pushing abrasiveness to a helpful kid that only Downey Jr could get away with.

Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) Goyer’s script too often merely sketched personalities but luckily once Cavill donned the suit he transformed vocally and grew into the role as a rather good Superman.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby) DiCaprio did his damndest to just ignore Baz’s shtick and play F Scott’s Gatsby, and if you’ve seen Revolutionary Road, you’ll know he can perform the novels, not bad scripts.

June 27, 2013

The East

Fight Club meets Point Break by way of Revenge as Brit Marling’s undercover corporate security operative infiltrates eco-terrorists led by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.Brit-Marling-Pamela-Roylance-Ellen-Page-and-Alexander-Skarsgrd-in-The-East

Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI counter-terrorist agent now working for Hiller-Brood, a corporate security firm led by the formidable Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Audacious and well-resourced eco-terrorist collective The East have uploaded the first of four promised ‘jams’ punishing corporate boards for the sins of their companies. Sarah is tasked with infiltrating them, and drops out of suburban DC life to drift thru national parks and hop train carriages like a 1930s hobo looking for East fellow-travellers. Just as she’s despairing she is introduced to the group by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and welcomed by leader Benji (Skarsgard) but disdained by his lieutenant Izzy (Page). Sarah manages to maintain her cover long enough to be implicated in a vicious jam of Big Pharma, but falling for the charismatic Benji, and his principled ecological ideals, sees her devotion to her mission wane…

Marling co-wrote the script as a starring vehicle but the film is all about Ellen Page. From the arresting opening in which Page threatens a Big Oil CEO, over horror imagery of oil seeping out of his mansion’s air-vents and sinks, she is extremely menacing. And this despite one shot where director Zal Batmanglij hilariously forgets to hide the massive height difference between the tiny Canadian (5’1”) and the mighty Scandinavian (6’6”). Marling is a better writer than actress and she and co-writer Batmanglij skilfully portray the group as dangerous lunatics akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s cult before deepening the portrayal. This is exemplified by the devastating drip-feed of information about Doc (Tony Kebbell), but Page benefits greatly as the forceful Izzy is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but is actually almost mythological in her convictions.

There is an awful lot of Tyler Durden in Skarsgard’s Benji, who proves his devotion to the maxim “the things you own end up owning you” by squatting in a decayed mansion. Batmanglij eschews the visual bravura Fincher brought to Fight Club because despite initial similarities to the work of its Mischief Committee the jams here lack that joyousness. Durden was unburdened by self-doubt, but these characters, despite the Big Pharma jam having the elegance of an Emily gambit in Revenge, do not take her joy in retribution but are troubled by their actions against Paige Williams (Julia Ormond) and the other directors. This doesn’t convince and never feels like anything but a sop to PG-13 morality. It weighs down a third act being almost fatally dragged under by a flight of characters, infuriating politico-economic naivety, and an unnecessary twist.

The East’s third act doesn’t do the rest of the film justice, but this is an absorbing thriller whose slow-burning character studies are a welcome relief in blockbuster season.

3.5/5

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