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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Langella’

My parents have enjoyed a long and mostly very happy marriage, but one of the few faint moments of tension came in the early 2000s, when my mother discovered the Lord of the Rings movies, and (more specifically) the actor Viggo Mortensen. Posters of Mortensen started to appear around the house and the VHS of The Two Towers was seldom very far from our video recorder. My father took all of this with commendable restraint, on the whole, but I think it is fair to say he was somewhat relieved when the series came to an end and appearances by the great man became both rarer and rather lower-profile.

However, perhaps the relationship counselling services of south-east Leicestershire should go to a state of high alert, for Viggo Mortensen has made another of his occasional returns to the big screen in Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, one of those hard-to-categorise movies which struggles to get a wide release but are so often well worth hunting down. There is no Orc-battling or horse-licking on display here, but this is still a significant piece of film-making.

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Mortensen plays Ben Cash, the devoted father of six children of various ages, all of whom he is raising and educating himself, deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. As Ben is a defiantly individualistic man (or, if you prefer, a raging loon), his curriculum includes not just languages and history, but also knife-fighting, rock-climbing, and a back-to-basics form of hunting (the opening sequence of the film depicts Ben’s eldest son stalking and killing a deer using just a knife). The family celebrates the birthday of Noam Chomsky rather than Christmas.

Ben’s wife has been away for some time seeking treatment for psychological problems, and then news reaches him that she has died and is soon to be buried. Her father (Frank Langella) is insistent that Ben and the children stay away from the funeral, which is being carried out in accordance with their desires rather than the terms of her will, but this is not the sort of thing which Ben pays much attention to. Loading the whole tribe into an old bus, he sets off across country to do right by the woman he loves…

There seems to be something about the road movie format which really lends itself to this kind of indie-ish comedy drama – I’m thinking of films like About Schmidt and Nebraska – but Captain Fantastic is a superior example of the form. Parts of it are very funny, parts are extremely moving, and above all it does raise some serious questions about the values our society has and what it means to be a good parent.
There is never any doubt that Ben is utterly devoted to his children and a deeply loving father, but his love can be quite tough sometimes and many people would doubtless find some of his parenting choices highly irresponsible (handing out lethal weapons as presents). The children are intelligent, literate, thoughtful, compassionate, and extremely healthy. But is he really preparing them to lead lives in the real world?

It’s a question of what you consider to be the real world, a point which Ben himself makes in the course of the film. Much of the comedy arises from the clash of values between Ben and his children and the rest of the world – ‘Is everyone sick? Why are they so fat?’ asks one of the younger ones as they travel deeper into society – but there’s a deeper issue here, of course: what kind of society is it that considers young people like these to be ridiculous misfits, and poorly educated, soon-to-be-obese X-Box addicts as paragons of normality? Is it just a case of a warped society producing warped citizens to populate itself?

The film is, naturally, broadly sympathetic to Ben and the children, and you’re never quite laughing directly at them no matter how inappropriate or naive their behaviour becomes. Much of this, I suspect, is simply due to the casting of Mortensen in the role. One sometimes gets the impression that a lot of screen actors are relatively ordinary people, apart from being celebrities: they are possibly less interesting than the characters they play. I doubt this is the case with the poet, photographer, and painter Viggo Mortensen, who seems to have a rather more substantial hinterland than most, and the film seems to be tapping into his presence as a significant figure, in addition to this being the kind of otherworldly, shamanic role he always plays so well. This is the most impressive performance I’ve seen from Mortensen, the kind that makes you wish he did more films, although no doubt a significant portion of his fanbase will also be curious to get a glimpse of (ahem) the full Viggo, which goes on display for a little while here.

He is well supported by a brief but effective appearance from Langella, and the acting from the children is consistently rather good too. This is a consistently impressive movie, for the most part: the shifts in tone are well-handled, the questions that it raises are not over-laboured, and it genuinely manages to feel properly life-affirming at more than one point. Perhaps you have to cut the film some slack in the manner of its conclusion, but that’s equally true of many other modern movies of considerably less substance than this one.

Captain Fantastic really defies conventional genre classification, but it’s a smart and actually rather beautiful film which genuinely doesn’t have an obvious weak link in it. Naturally this means you will probably struggle to find it in a mainstream multiplex near you. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, wheel on another sequel or remake…

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2014 has, so far, proved to be a pretty good year cinematically, with genuinely great films of all kinds never seeming that far away: the first few months alone have seen the release of Under the Skin, The Raid 2, The Winter Soldier, and 12 Years A Slave (hey, I didn’t like it much, but as usual I’m in the minority). So it is only right and proper that the balance be somewhat restored by the unleashing upon the world of a complete dog.

So, then, to Olivier Dahan and his Grace of Monaco, another stab at the ever-popular celebrity biography movie. Or possibly the recent-history true-life drama genre. The family of some of those depicted in this film have kicked up a bit of a fuss about it, however, which is presumably why it opens with a caption carefully making it clear that this film, though based on historical events, is a work of fiction. A statement of artistic intent, or just an attempt to avez le cake et mangez it aussi? You decide, mon braves.

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Anyhoo, things get underway with the retirement of Oscar-winning actress Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and her marriage to Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), ruler of the principality of Monaco. Five years on, Grace receives a visitation from Alfred Hitchcock, who wants her to come out of retirement and appear in Marnie opposite Sean Connery. Grace has been finding palace life a bit oppressive and is tempted, but there are wider concerns: Monaco’s status as a tax haven is rubbing their French neighbours up the wrong way and an international incident looms, with a blockade and potential invasion on the cards…

What follows is a multi-stranded narrative, with all the stories focussing on the Princess to some extent: there’s the wider, political crisis, with the attempt to persuade de Gaulle to back down and allow Monaco its independence, and then there’s some stuff about court intrigue in the House of Grimaldi and a possible traitor amongst Grace’s staff. Finally, there is the most personal story, about Grace struggling to reconcile her celebrity past and natural free spiritedness with the demands of her royal role. There’s a lot going on here, and Dahan does an impressive job of keeping it all balanced: all the elements are equally banal and exasperating.

It’s not just that this is a film which basically requires you to care about the fate of an ancient Mediterranean tax haven. Nor is it the not terribly subtle way in which the film is coded: it’s about a young blonde woman from a relatively humble background who marries into a royal family and finds it an oppressive experience – it may be Princess Grace’s name on the script, but we know whose story they’re really interested in. The real problems with Grace of Monaco arise from its clumping, banal script, peculiar casting and performances, and bizarre directorial choices.

There’s no life or sense of surprise to any of it, really: the dialogue is stilted and obvious. This film features a large number of very fine actors, everyone from Frank Langella to Derek Jacobi, and none of them makes very much impression. They are either stereotypes or completely inert. Tim Roth plays Rainier rather like a harassed bank manager – his Latin nature indicated primarily by the fact that he possesses a very thin moustache and always has a tab on the go.

And as for the direction… well, Dahan’s most obvious little trick at moments of key emotional importance is to park his camera about three inches away from Nicole Kidman’s face, so close that you can’t actually see it all at once. From here it wanders around as the situation demands – is she expressing emotion through her eye? Up goes the camera to take a look. Is she about to deliver some dialogue? The camera jerks down to cover her mouth, just in case. This gets very wearisome very quickly. Thankfully, he restrains himself during the climax of the film, which is essentially a speech from Kidman which goes on for what feels like ages, delivered practically straight down the camera lens. Even so, this just leaves us with a string of platitudes containing no real force or insight.

At least the cinematography is quite nice. I might even venture to say that Grace of Monaco is pretty and looks quite expensive, but is really much smaller and less interesting than it first appears – and that as such it really has quite a lot in common with Monaco itself. Whatever. Grace of Monaco is a movie which takes a relatively obscure period of recent history, uses it as the basis of a story, and in the process makes you realise how dry and tedious these events actually were.

 

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Two separate trends on which I have previously commented come together in the form of Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, currently enjoying a generous UK cinema release. This is not the biggest movie in the world, and in both scale and tone it is unmistakeably very indie-ish – but at the same time it makes deft and convincing use both of modern cinema technology and narrative tropes from traditionally mainstream genres. It is also a film deeply concerned with the lot in life and place in society of older citizens, and thus arguably making a pitch for the grey market in the same way as other recent movies like Song for Marion and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While the aging nature of western society should probably be more of a concern for everyone living in it, I am personally more immediately interested in the former.

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The distinguished character actor Frank Langella, who’s previously given us his interpretations of such great roles as Sherlock Holmes, Perry White, and Skeletor, not to mention appearing as the most bouffant Dracula in cinema history, plays Frank, an elderly man living alone in upstate New York. Relations with his children are not good – his son (James Marsden) lives five hours away and is often too busy to visit, while his daughter (Liv Tyler) is off travelling the world and can’t do more than videophone him (we are a teeny way into the future in this movie). Physically Frank seems okay, but he is becoming increasingly mentally fragile – spells of confusion and memory loss are growing more frequent and disturbing.

But Frank’s son has hit upon what he believes to be an ideal solution: he has purchased a domestic robot to live with Frank and look after him. Frank is initially less than delighted to have this cybernetic nursemaid attempting to run his life for him, but changes his opinion in a hurry when he realises that the robot, though an excellent carer, has no real moral compass nor cognisance of the laws of the land. This inspires Frank to return to one of the passions he had earlier in life – namely, being a high-end cat burglar. Previously only ever working alone, Frank finds that teaching the robot his skills at breaking and entering gives his life a direction it was previously lacking. As their criminal partnership goes from strength to strength, though, it seems that the robot is becoming more than just a guardian and an accomplice for the old man: it is the closest thing he has to a real friend…

Well, you may be thinking you’ve got a pretty good handle of the kind of film this is – a sentimental caper about a loveable old curmudgeon rediscovering his joie de vivre thanks to a cute droid, with some hilarious comedy lawbreaking along the way. That’s probably how it looks on paper, but this movie is a lot less broad and simplistic than it could have been – it actually takes itself pretty seriously, with considerable success. The robots in this movie look and behave credibly – they don’t crack jokes or suddenly manifest real emotions, they are recognisably and plausibly machines. To begin with I thought the design of Frank’s robot – it sort of resembles a giant Lego version of the Stig – was a bit of a misstep, as it’s not the most immediately endearing of objects, but the film consistently avoids this kind of easy get-out, working much harder to earn its pay-offs, which are all the more effective because of this.

It is, anyway, a very convincing robot: initially I found myself wondering exactly how it was operated, but very soon I had accepted it as part of the film and was following the story instead (a sign the film was really working). It’s really just a device to facilitate the rest of the plot, anyway, which is all about the characters of the various humans and how they respond to the world in which they live. Langella gives a brilliant performance, capturing the old man’s brittle defiance perfectly, and completely selling you on the kind of person he used to be and his delight at reliving former glories. I’m not sure I’m completely sold on Liv Tyler’s appearance as the daughter, but everyone else in the movie is also very good. The movie isn’t afraid to tackle fairly uncomfortable topics, like the issue of how we should treat our elderly parents, the price of progress, and the effects of senile dementia, and does so seriously and effectively, for the most part. Well – there’s a third-act plot twist courtesy of Frank’s memory loss that seemed to me to make a fairly big ask of the audience, and a possibly unnecessary one at that, but the film made up for this by making an issue of the difference between Frank’s all-too-fragile memory and the robot’s indestructible one.

It’s always quite clear that Robot & Frank is an indie movie, in both style and concerns, but it’s a very accomplished and accessible one with a superb cast. It treats the audience as intelligent adults and has interesting and significant things to say about the world in which we live. It works admirably as a character study, a piece of SF, and a comedy drama. It may not be the most momentous film of the year, but I can’t honestly think of a way in which it could easily be substantially improved. I liked it very much.

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