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.

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January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

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


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


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

September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It! has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

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