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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Foy’

A new terror has been brought to going to the multiplex. I turned up to watch a movie the other day, thinking I was in comfortably good time, only to find that the trailers were already in progress. Still, it wasn’t that big a deal, and so I and the other folk in attendance dutifully absorbed the publicity material for How to Train Your Dragon 3 (no thanks), Bumblebee (maybe, and I never thought I’d say that about a Transformers film), and Mary Poppins 2 (only if you put guns to the heads of my family). It should have occurred to me that something was amiss, but this only became apparent when the BBFC card came up, making it clear that we were all about to be exposed to Nativity Rocks!.

If you had released anthrax in the auditorium I doubt you would have seen so many people bolting for the door so rapidly. A somewhat panicked mob assembled at the concessions desk, as everyone explained (in voices perhaps an octave or so higher than normal) that they had paid to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, not some gruellingly schmaltzy family-friendly Christmas film. Fortunately, the cinema manager only had to reboot the projector and hand out some free ticket vouchers and peace was restored: the spectre of cute singing children and a seasonal message of goodwill was banished, and we could settle down to enjoy a feast of torture, bloodletting, misogynistic violence and general Scandinavian misery.

Stieg Larssen’s Millennium books made pots of money about ten years ago, and that’s the sort of thing that Hollywood studios notice. They do seem to have formed the notion that there is an audience for films based on these books and their central characters: Sony did, after all, spend $90 million on an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in 2011, with A-list talent on both sides of the camera. Despite raking in two-and-a-half-times its budget, the arcane mysteries of Hollywood accounting mean that this film officially lost money, hence the rather lengthy delay before this follow-up (directed by Fede Alvarez).

Some thought seems to have gone into how to make this new film more financially viable than the previous one. The first one drew many unfavourable comparisons with the Swedish-language version with Noomi Rapace, and so the rest of the original Larssen trilogy has been skipped over in favour of the first adaptation of an authorised continuation to the series by someone else. David Fincher is still involved, but only as a producer, and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (with their expensive A-list salaries) have also had to look for work elsewhere. The more extreme elements of the first film have been toned down and massaged away to guarantee a more box-office-friendly 15 certificate.

As the film opens, Lisbeth Salander (she who is possessed of near-mystical computer hacking skills and a mythical piece of skin art) has become a legendary figure in Swedish society, occasionally surfacing to exact brutal vengeance on men who mistreat women. This is all basically backstory, however, for the plot proper sees Salander (now played by Claire Foy, who seems to be specialising in roles as iconic Betties) hired by a conscience-stricken atomic computer boffin (Stephen Merchant, playing it wholly straight) who has written a doomsday McGuffin for the American government and now wishes he hasn’t. The boffin wants Salander to steal the McGuffin back, which she promptly does, but before she can hand it over armed bad guys bust into her hideout, try to kill her, and steal the one and only copy of the apocalyptic app in question.

Well, this is bad news for our girl (one wonders at what point she will start to be called the woman with the Dragon Tattoo, but I digress), as the police are after her for the initial theft, and the American NSA have sent an operative (LaKeith Stanfield) to get it back too. Luckily her old associate Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is able to help out and puts her on the trail of a secret organisation of very nasty pieces of work known as the Spiders. In charge of this mob, and currently in possession of the doomsday McGuffin, is a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) with issues of her own where Salander is concerned…

‘I quite enjoyed it, but I could have done without all the anal rape,’ was the considered opinion of one of the support team after we went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in early 2012. I suspect he spoke for a significant chunk of audience, for the sheer unflinchingly bleak grimness of the movie may be one of the reasons that it under-performed at the box office. I was kind of braced for more of the same this time around, especially after the film opened with some implied child abuse and continued with the aftermath of some brutal domestic violence. Was Spider’s Web to be wall-to-wall misogynistic real-world horror?

It was not. I think the film is pulling a bit of a trick by establishing a tone not dissimilar to that of the Larssen books, and then going on to tell a story of a very different kind. The producers also appear to be playing a long game by attempting to establish Lisbeth Salander as the kind of genre character who a (potentially very long) series of films can be made about, the most obvious parallels being James Bond or perhaps Jason Bourne. Certainly the character as depicted in this film seems to be losing some of her depth and becoming slightly more cartoony, in addition to being almost absurdly omni-competent (She can hack anything! She can drive anything! It takes three burly men to subdue her in a fight!).

The Bourne franchise is probably the best parallel to what The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like to watch: you have the taciturn, quietly vulnerable protagonist, who’s at much at odds with the authorities as the bad guys, you have well-staged action sequences that still manage to keep one foot in reality, and you’ve got lots of stuff with things being urgently downloaded in a crisis. And as such the film is actually pretty entertaining to watch, even if you don’t have to dig too deeply into the premise of the story to find something absurd going on.

Foy, I suppose, is okay as Salander, which is really the star part in this film (Gudnason as Blomkvist is in a very subordinate role) – it’s mostly just looking stern or stoical, depending on the requirements of the scene, but Foy is up to that. I’m not sure about the ‘Allo Sven, I got a Volvo’ accent she employs to signify she is supposedly speaking Swedish, but the film kind of obfuscates what’s going on in this area. Stanfield is reasonably good in the admittedly limited role of the token American character, but I have to say that this is not really a performance-driven film: people I’ve seen give very good turns elsewhere recently don’t make much of an impression here.

In the end, this is at its heart a very competent and polished genre movie, with a few unusually nasty moments and perhaps pretensions to be more of a character-driven drama. I have to say my expectations were not especially high, but as a thriller it is quite effective – whether or not you’re familiar with the other books or films, I would guess. Whether this will guarantee further adventures building on Larssen I’m not sure, but this one at least is entertaining enough.

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As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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It would appear that the Steven Soderbergh collective, having resumed their film-making activities, are back to their usual remarkable level of productivity: it’s not much more than six months since the last Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky, and yet here comes their new one, Unsane.

The thing that distinguishes Soderbergh, other than a certain breezy stylishness, is his sheer versatility as a film-maker: all-star disaster movie, revenge thriller, martial-arts action film, caper comedy, Soderbergh has had a crack at them all and for the most part been highly successful. The thing about Unsane is that it seems to be playing off this difficulty in pinning Soderbergh down, for at first it’s not at all clear exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Claire Foy, probably best known for her role in The Crown (and the size of the pay packet involved), plays Sawyer Valentini, an ambitious young financial analyst with a slightly traumatic personal history. (The film does address the fact that she has a fairly unlikely name.) She has issues, to put it mildly, and they are impacting on her life – so, in an attempt to sort herself out a bit, she visits a private psychiatric facility in an attempt to get herself some counselling.

Although the facility is in Pennsylvania, it might as well be called the Hotel California, for while checking out of the place is (on paper at least) quite straightforward, actually leaving it is another matter entirely. To her understandable astonishment, Sawyer finds herself incarcerated in a rubber hospital, her sanity questioned, and declared to be a risk to herself and others. Naturally, this is not what you need when your mental state is already somewhat fragile, and Sawyer finds herself having hallucinations of a man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard, still probably best known for The Blair Witch Project). But are they really hallucinations…?

The opening section of Unsane is diligently ambiguous about exactly what is going on, and just what kind of film this is going to be. It could be that it’s going to be a fairly serious and thoughtful drama about what it means to be mentally well, or mentally ill – ‘I get a bit blue sometimes! Who doesn’t?’ cries Sawyer, as the orderlies are bundling her down a corridor. How do you make that call? Who sets the standard?

Or, it could be a fairly bleak comedy-drama about the state of the American mental health system, with the startling and plausibly-presented revelation that some private mental facilities are basically insurance scams, actively seeking a pretext to lock up essentially healthy people so they can claim the cost of their care from their medical insurance providers. It is suggested that this is what may have happened to Sawyer.

Or, it could be that Sawyer’s unfolding nightmare is essentially the stuff of a psychological horror movie. Has her stalker really managed to track her down and infiltrate the hospital? Who can she trust? Can she possibly get anyone to believe her story?

Well, as regular readers (dearie me!) will be aware, we have usually had the film’s poster by this point, but in the case of Unsane it will be appearing shortly. This is because I am going to break with standard blog procedure and talk about the movie in a way which may give away important facts about it. In short, after the poster image I am going to Spoil This Movie. Caveat lector.

(For anyone wanting the Not-Spoiled verdict on Unsane: usual skilful work by Soderbergh, great performance by Foy, but this is one of those movies which gets steadily less impressive as it goes on.)

All right. Last chance to leave… There are many good things about Unsane, chief amongst them Foy’s performance: she’s not afraid to appear damaged or somewhat unsympathetic, and there are moments where you wonder if the shrinks might actually have a point and she does deserve special treatment. There is also Soderbergh’s casual mastery of storytelling. This wasn’t at all apparent while we were watching it, but apparently Unsane was entirely filmed on Soderbergh’s smartphone (needless to say he did all the cinematography and editing himself, too), which if you ask me is just showing off. Minor pleasures include an all-killer no-filler cameo from Matt Damon and some good supporting performances from the likes of Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mum and Juno Temple as another inmate.

But, and oh dear, this is a film which starts off looking like a smart and thoughtful drama-maybe-thriller, and concludes with some proper old fashioned fem-jeop, as the leading lady flees through a darkened forest chased by a psychopath with a hammer (in true slasher movie style, she is running, he is walking, and yet she never seems to get any further away from him). In short, we end up in gonzo B-movie territory with a swiftly unravelling plot and a succession of improbable developments.

As the credits rolled, my companion and I were sitting there actually trying to figure out what had actually happened. ‘So… if the dead body in the trunk of the car was actually Character X,’ I said, feeling like a dullard, ‘then who was that in the shallow grave in the park?’ (I am always careful to avoid using actual character names when out and about.) A passing total stranger paused to explain the plot to us. ‘That was Character Q,’ he said kindly (clearly a man after my own heart). Well, I suppose the film may have made this clear, but I suspect you would have to be really on the ball to have picked it up.

In any case, this general sense of narrative confusion isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. This is as follows: we are required to accept, as the premise of the film, that a young woman will accidentally have herself committed to the very same mental institution which her insane stalker has already infiltrated as an orderly under a false identity. There is, so far as I could tell, no attempt to justify this monumentally improbable turn of events. My companion suggested how this could have happened, but to say I am not convinced is a massive understatement.

Still, you really do have to accept this, as it is the premise for the whole second half of the movie: it’s a bit like Jaws: The Revenge in that respect. Provided you go with it, the concluding parts of the film have a certain manic energy to them, and the performances remain impressive, but I was constantly aware of how much slack I was having to cut the film just to take it seriously.

Seriously, you either go with the premise, in which case this is a reasonably fun piece of high-class psycho-horror, or you don’t, whereupon it simply becomes an absurdly implausible piece of tosh unworthy of the talent involved. I suppose in the end I kind of enjoyed Unsane, because it is well-acted and the ambiguity of the opening section at least is impressively achieved. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is really a wildly silly film which, to my mind at least, makes hugely unreasonable demands on the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

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