Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

December 22, 2019

From the Archives: Youth without Youth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

One of the worst films of the year, this should be held as proof that Francis Ford Coppola may know how to make wine but he long since forgot how to make films. After a decade away it would appear that Coppola saw Donnie Darko and decided that what he really needed to do to add to the legendary reputation of his last two films, Jack and The Rainmaker, was to make his own version of Donnie Darko. His wine business has after all left him in the happy position of being able to entirely self-finance his films and he has droned on about his insane desire at the age of 68 to be a young independent film-maker tackling unusual subjects. It is hilariously appropriate to title the film Youth without Youth, as this is Donnie Darko without its wunderkind writer/director Richard Kelly’s youthful sensibility.

Imagine Donnie Darko with an older hero, no jokes, no dramatic tension, no interesting scenes, no characterisation and enough pretension to out-do a Parisian coffee shop full of philosophy students. Coppola’s ‘script’ is a boring trawl through endless unexplained ideas which even lead actor Tim Roth has admitted not understanding in the slightest. Roth stars as 70-year-old linguist Dominic Matei whose life’s search for the original source of human language is rejuvenated by a lightning strike that restores him to his 35-year-old self, with two co-existing personalities, which makes him a coveted specimen for evil Nazi scientists….Don’t ask, this film hops genres every time you yawn. In the hands of Tom Stoppard this could have been made interesting. But then in the hands of Tom Stoppard anything can be made interesting as his approach combines fearsome intelligence with a love of comedy. Coppola though seems to be getting ever more pompous as he gets older. Witness the ‘written and directed by’ credit he insists upon claiming even though he then has to admit that this film is based on the supposedly amazing writings of Romanian philosopher/historian Mircea Eliade.

There is no trace here of the man who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. There is though, God help us, a trace of the man who made Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Alexandra Maria Lara, so good in Control, has the thankless task of playing both Tim Roth’s dead love from the 1890s and a lookalike Belgian schoolteacher in the 1950s who falls in love with Roth’s Matei who is only using her for her ability to channel the spirit of a 1200s Indian princess-philosopher. This will allegedly help him to finish his life’s work although that seems logically impossible if you’re still conscious enough to think about it at that point. The final image of the film is so obviously meant to be a shockingly intelligent twist that the only correct response is derisive laughter….

1/5

July 13, 2018

At least we still have… : Part III

The third entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’ is a marvel. I saw this sketch roughly a decade ago and rediscovered it recently, and couldn’t credit it how I could ever have forgotten it in the intervening years. Its 60 seconds are relentless in upping the ante with the constant repetition of ever more ludicrous alterations to the deal. The background shudders of laughter from Bobba Fett and the Stormtroopers are a joy, as are the particulars of Darth Vader’s humiliating alterations, and the icing on the cake is the voice of Lando himself, Billy Dee Williams, enabling all this nonsense.

‘Wrong Place Wrong Time’ reminds me of the sequence in Angel season 2 where an episode followed a villain who’d been disarmed by Angel in the season 1 finale and we saw the mundanity of pulling on shirts with one hand, looping pre-knotted ties over his neck, and looking in depression at his gathering dust guitar. But that this is not a Whedonesque fleshing out of a villain, but rather a Stoppardian absurdist tangent following the minor players in someone else’s story, with even more absurdity in its conception than that which Stoppard deployed when fleshing out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What can one say about ‘Dr Ball MD’? Beyond that it is screamingly funny, and typical of the Robot Chicken approach to Star Wars. Take a ‘character’ onscreen for a few seconds in one Star Wars movie, give it a life of its own by granting it a personality combining Bones from Star Trek and Quincy ME, run up some idiotic 1970s TV show title credits, and then use this to mock the prequels and poke fun at moments in the original trilogy. And, once again, just like ‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’, all done within 60 seconds.

November 29, 2017

The Effect

Lucy Prebble’s acclaimed 2012 play finally receives its Irish premiere, in the surprisingly small setting of the Project’s Cube space.

 

Connie (Siobhan Cullen) and Tristan (Donal Gallery) have volunteered for a drugs trial. They are just two of many subjects, some of who will be given the drug, others the placebo. In charge of deciding who gets what is doctor Lorna (Ali White). At least she thinks she’s in charge of that, but when manipulative doctor Toby (Ronan Leahy), who she knows of old, enters the picture their complicated past opens up all new ethical challenges. And that’s before Connie and Tristan develop feelings for each other and will not listen to reason that they have no real feelings, it is literally a chemical romance. What is real? How do you define real? Isn’t all love an irrational manipulated flood of endorphins and hormones?

Writing this review months after the fact means that in the intervening time I have finally read Tom Stoppard’s 2013 play The Hard Problem, and, struck by superficial similarities in these works commissioned for the NT, admired anew the cleverness with which Prebble constructs her piece, and also consider that she might actually have bested the titan of theatre in the successful execution of an interrogation of scientific ethics and the big questions of life.

5/5

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

April 8, 2017

Private Lives

The Gate celebrates its regime change by producing a Noel Coward play. Plus ca change, and all that drivel, darling.

Our man Elyot (Shane O’Reilly) arrives at a spiffy hotel in old Deauville for a second honeymoon, as it were, this being his second marriage. His present wife Sibyl (Lorna Quinn) tediously cannot stop talking about his previous wife Amanda (Rebecca O’Mara) and do you know the damndest thing happens; doesn’t she turn out to be staying in the very next room with her present husband, dear old Victor (Peter Gaynor). Whole thing is most extraordinary… Would you credit that their balconies even adjoin?! Sibyl and Victor make themselves so beastly when Elyot and Amanda both independently try to escape this positively sick-making set-up that it really serves them right when El and Am decide to simply decamp together to their old flat in Paris to avoid all the unpleasantness. But the course of true love never did run smooth…

Coward’s ‘intimate comedy’ is a sight too intimate for its own good here. One misses the variety afforded by recent hilarious outings by waspish ensembles for Hay Fever and The Vortex at the Gate. Instead we have a four-hander, and for the whole second act largely a two-hander, where you keep wondering if director Patrick Mason was foiled in casting his regular foil Marty Rea by the latter’s touring commitments. Mason and Rea have triumphed with Sheridan, Stoppard, Coward, Wilde, and you feel Rea urgently needs to play Elyot before he ages out. O’Mara and Quinn are patently too old for their parts, and it makes great bosh of Coward’s script if the naive 23 year old that Elyot flees to here is obviously thirtysomething, while instead of seeking the stolidity of an older man Amanda has married a contemporary.

O’Reilly is nicely abrupt as Elyot, but he and O’Mara never quite reach the heights for which these parts are constructed. But they deliver a wonderfully choreographed fight, chaos so exploding you feel it must topple offstage.  Tellingly the audience reacted with shock when he pushed her, but laughed when she broke an LP over his head… Francis O’Connor’s set design reuses familiar elements (The Father, Waiting for Godot) but its transformation from art deco hotel to primitive chic flat is a marvel and delight. There are also divine musical jokes as Coward’s ‘20th Century Blues’ plays between acts, and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (the soul of Coward’s Brief Encounter) mixes with Hitler on the wireless. And did anyone from the Gate see Gaynor in Hedda Gabler? He can do bombast well, but subtle even better; give him a chance!

This, then, is how the Gate Theatre as it was during the Age of Colgan ends, not with a bang but a whimper, and what rough beast slouches towards the Rotunda to be born?

3/5

Private Lives continues its run at the Gate for ever so long.

August 13, 2016

The Constant Wife

Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.

4_The_Constant_Wife

Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.

Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to.  Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.

O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?

The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.

3/5

The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.

May 3, 2016

Northern Star

Director Lynne Parker revisits her late uncle Stewart Parker’s 1984 script again, with a Brechtian touch, and the result is a theatrical tour de force.

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Henry Joy McCracken (Paul Mallon) is on the run. The 1798 Rebellion has failed miserably in Antrim as he has found himself leading literally dozens of men, to exaggerate slightly. And exaggerating slightly is something McCracken does a lot during a purgatorial night in a ruined house with his Catholic lover Mary (Charlotte McCurry). As he attempts to construct some sort of decent speech from the gallows for the citizens of Belfast he trawls through his memories of the 1790s, remembered in flashbacks that approximate to Shakespeare’s 7 Ages of Man and to the style of 7 different Irish playwrights. There is the ribald shenanigans of Sheridan in rooting out informers, the melodramatic balderdash of Boucicault in uniting Defenders and Orangemen, and the witty quips of Wilde in McCracken’s dealing with Wolfe Tone and Edward Bunting. But there’s also darkness…

Lynne Parker has spoken of adopting a Brechtian approach by having McCracken identified by his jacket, so Mallon can hand it over to other actors and sit back and observe himself in his own flashbacks; played by Ali White with gusto in the Boucicault flashback and with comic disbelief in the O’Casey flashback. This combined with Zia Holly’s design, confronting the audience with the wings of a theatre as the playing space, amps up the theatricality of Stewart Parker’s script, which was already reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties in its dialogue with and pitch-perfect parodies of older works. Rory Nolan is hilarious as a dodgy Defender played in the style of O’Casey’s Paycock, and as harp enthusiast Edward Bunting played as Algernon Moncrieff’s ancestor, in Stewart Parker’s two most acute ventriloquisms. But all these capers occur underneath an ever-present literal noose.

Mallon and McCurry scenes in McCracken’s long night of the soul are the emotional glue that binds together the fantastical flashbacks, and they are affecting as she tries to convince him that his sister’s plan to escape to America under false papers is a reprieve not banishment. The flashbacks become more contemplative after the interval with Darragh Kelly’s loyalist labourer challenging McCracken over his failure to rally Protestants to the United Irishmen’s standard, and a prison flashback revealing the desperation of McCracken’s situation. Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, and Robbie O’Connor complete the ensemble, deftly portraying a dizzying array of characters in McCracken’s remembrances. Mallon is wonderfully melancholic during Parker’s most overtly state of the nation moments, and remarkably, even with the Troubles’ paramilitary iconography at work, a 1984 play about 1798 sounds like it’s addressing 1916 at a theatrical remove.

Rough Magic’s 2012 Travesties occasionally lost the audience with its intellectual bravura, but Lynne Parker through theatrical panache has indeed ‘liberated’ this equally clever meditation on history and culture.

4/5

Northern Star continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 7th of May.

April 15, 2015

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman makes an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation.

a-little-chaos

In Versailles did King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) a stately pleasure-dome decree. And while the extravagant gardens he demands in 1682 are not quite measureless to man they are certainly too much for Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to construct single-handedly, so he takes on other landscape gardeners; the most unlikely of which is Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widower who insults Le Notre’s preference for ordered landscapes in her job interview. With the practical help of blunt rival Duras (Steven Waddington), and the political support of the King’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Stanley Tucci), and Phillipe’s wife Palatine (Paula Paul), Sabine sets to work. But navigating court politics is complicated by her growing attraction to the doleful Le Notre, and the spiteful reaction to her presence by the manipulative and petty Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory).

Praise first. A Little Chaos looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shoots to advantage the rococo production design of James Merifield, and art direction of Kat Law and Sarah Stuart. Joan Bergin’s costumes are sumptuous, Peter Gregson’s score has a memorable and rousing final cue, and supporting turns, from Tucci’s fabulous acerbity, to the impetuosity of Louis XIV’s mistress Madame De Montespan (Jennifer Ehle) and her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), are delightful. It’s also nice to see Irish theatre star Cathy Belton appear as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. But my God is it dull… Rickman co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock so he must take the blame for this. There’s a plodding well-made-screenplay feel to far too many scenes; with obnoxious flashbacks to a coach crash, and hallucinations by Sabine of her dead daughter, recalling another BBC film, Creation.

Nobody expects a discourse on the movement from classical garden design to the contrived pastoral of Capability Brown in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s intellectual investigations in Arcadia. But by the end of the film it remains utterly unclear exactly what is so radical about Sabine’s small garden with water feature in the grand scheme of Versailles. And that’s to say nothing of the script’s remarkable failure to establish that Louis XIV is the Sun King. The closing image gestures to it with some elegance, but unless you know your French history well the sharp point to Sabine’s truth-telling speech about needing a little warmth from the sun is completely lost. Schoenaerts and Winslet’s romance lacks spark, and Peaky Blinders’ McCrory is atrocious. McCrory hams like a panto villain as the script lazily instructs her to sneer from first appearance.

A Little Chaos is so perfectly respectable it’s hard to hate. Cute scenes and funny performances jostle with unmotivated villainy and terrible hamming, but who will remember either afterwards?

2/5

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Francis-Lawrence-Camera

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense in Constantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

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