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Posts Tagged ‘John Lithgow’

Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.¬† It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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‘It’s pronounced Pet Seh-MET-a-ree,’ I said.

Olinka tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘No it’s not. It’s Pet Seh-met-AH-ree,’ she said.

I thought about this for a moment. ‘Are you sure it’s not Pet Seh-met-AIR-ee?’

‘Whatever. I think we should just get on and buy the tickets,’ she said.

We both turned and looked at the Odeon staff member responsible for seeing to our requirements. Her eyes seemed to have widened appreciably while we were having our discussion and there appeared to be signs of alarm in them. ‘I think you just pronounce it the usual way,’ she said, in a slightly quavery voice. Oh well: you live and learn, I suppose.

Stephen King has been a famous and successful writer for about forty-five years now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some of his books are coming to the screen for the second time. The original movie of Pet Sematary came out in 1989, and all I remember about it is one UK reviewer complaining he couldn’t take it seriously because the spooky old man character was played by Fred Gwynne from The Munsters. It’s actually something of a rare pleasure for me to turn up to a movie never having seen the trailer and not knowing much about the plot, so from that point of view I was looking forward to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s take on the novel (I do like King, but this is one book I’ve never read). Of course, there is also the fabled Curse of King to consider – the fact that no matter how good his books are, they don’t have the greatest track record on the big screen.

Kolsch and Widmeyer’s movie gets underway in time-honoured fashion, with a wholesome young family moving from the ugly stresses of big-city life to an idyllic new home deep in the countryside. Of course, it is an iron law of cinema that whenever anyone does this, it proves to be an extraordinarily bad idea and they are shortly afterwards besieged by killer spiders, misogynistic android replicas, pagan cultists, or what-have-you. Naturally, neither husband and father Louis (Jason Clarke) nor wife and mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) appears to have ever seen a horror movie, and are just looking forward to de-stressing a bit. Their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) isn’t stressed at all, to begin with, and is looking forward to playing with her beloved cat in the great outdoors.

Well, everyone settles in and Louis starts his job as a local doctor. Back at home, however, Rachel is a little put out to discover that their new property incorporates the town’s traditional resting place for deceased domestic animals, which is apparently run by members of the remedial spelling class. Ellie bumps into their neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), who is the area’s Creepy Exposition Yokel, although this early in the story he is only permitted to make vague general statements about not going too deeply into the forest. Well, anyway, the discovery of the animal graveyard occasions an opportunity for Louis and Rachel to have serious conversation with Ellie about life and death and what happens to people (or indeed animals) after they die; on the surface it is all innocuous enough, but your ears don’t have to be that keen in order to detect the sounds of heavy-duty foreshadowing equipment hard at work.

And so it proves; following a tragic accident, Louis is assailed by visions of a reasonably benign spectre who warns him that the boundary between the living and the dead must be respected, which seems quite sensible until Ellie’s cat is run over. It is at this point that Jud reveals that on the other side of the forest is a site of ancient supernatural power (suffice to say that Louis and Rachel have unwittingly entered into a time-share with Ithaqua) with the ability to resurrect the dead bodies of anyone interred there. They don’t come back quite the same as they left, of course, but that’s what you get for mucking about with fundamental cosmic principles. Louis resolves to make use of this unexpected amenity, but only this once, to restore the cat. Yes, definitely just the one time, there’s absolutely nothing that could ever impel him to go there again… is there?

Well, I may not have been familiar with either the book or the 1989 film version of this particular story, but the way this film turned out was in no way a surprise to me: one of the things I quite enjoyed about Pet Sematary was that once the story had properly got going, I was never in any doubt as to how it was going to turn out – in a way, the film is the best kind of predictable, because the characters are introduced, their flaws established, and then they move towards their inevitable dooms, as circumstances compel them into making very bad choices. It also helps that the story itself is also rather familiar – it now seems to me that the Nu-Hammer movie Wake Wood is very substantially derived from Pet Sematary, which itself owes a large debt to W.W. Jacobs’ much-adapted tale The Monkey’s Paw.

Given the character-based nature of this story, the film does well in casting Jason Clarke, a very able and versatile actor, in the lead role. This is a character who goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the story, to put it mildly, and Clarke is never less than totally convincing as he moves from mild-mannered rationalism to unhinged mania. It feels like the script favours Clarke and John Lithgow (also very good in what could have been a deeply hammy part) over Amy Seimetz, but she also gives a fine performance – as, come to that, does Jete Laurence, although given there have been a number of memorable child performances in horror films recently, I’m not sure she does quite enough to stand out.

One of those other recent horror films was Hereditary, which many people still rate quite highly (my opinion hasn’t changed, although Olinka now believes it is less rubbish than she initially did), which also strikes some similar notes to Pet Sematary – both are on some level films about the effect that grief can have on people (and perhaps also the corrosive effects of guilt). Pet Sematary doesn’t have the freakily unsettling atmosphere of the first half of Hereditary, but then it doesn’t turn into absurd cobblers in the second, either, and on the whole I found it a more satisfying and entertaining movie. I should say, though, that while I thought this movie was borderline-nasty good fun, Olinka found parts of it genuinely upsetting to watch, simply because of the subject matter. I expect this is a personal thing, though, and it is interesting that while the film contains both distressing ideas and genuine grisliness, they seldom appear at the same time.

Apparently this adaptation has come in for some stick for being less than entirely faithful to King’s novel (the 1989 version was written by King himself). I have to say the film in its existing form is entirely satisfactory – although, having since checked out the synopsis of the novel, there is at least one moment where the film appears to be playing games with anyone familiar with previous versions of the story, suggesting it’s going to stay faithful to the novel before heading off on a new course. I’m not normally a fan of films getting all meta in this way, but on this occasion it works, feeling justified in terms of the story beats that it allows rather than simply being done as a cheap trick. One thing I would say, though, is that the film very properly takes its time establishing characters and atmosphere, but then seems to feel compelled to rush things to their conclusion within 105 minutes – it’s a very busy, slightly frantic home stretch. Nevertheless, the ending does work, with some very memorable closing images.

This is a mid-budget mainstream horror movie, so it was never going to contain anything too extreme or innovative, but it has style and polish and is very respectful towards Stephen King’s style, if not every detail of his story. I didn’t find it particularly scary or unsettling, but I still enjoyed the ride the film gave me, mainly due to the craft of the script and the performances. Ultimately, this is schlock, but quality schlock.

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‘Looking forward to Fantastic Beasts?’ asked the minion at the sweetshop: clearly, the personality-nullification programme which all Odeon employees are required to undergo had not been fully effective in this case. I was taken by surprise, anyway: there was nothing to suggest I might be of that persuasion in my appearance, demeanour, or choice of ticket on this particular occasion (well, I mean, I’ve recently grown a beard, but it’s hardly the badger-swallowing, Dumbledore¬†kind). It may well have been the case that the minion was just being friendly, in which case I suppose I should go back and apologise for giving him a detailed critique of my expectations of the movie, focusing on the fact that a) I could barely understand a word in the trailer I saw (and it’s not just my old ears, I wasn’t the only one) and b) the whole enterprise appears to have been forthrightly Americanised now it exists in a film-only form (patience, readers, I shall give you the full details when the movie actually emerges and I’ve seen it). I expect he was only expecting a ‘You bet!’ or ‘Not really’ rather than three minutes of closely argued whining and bibble-bobble, but I was taken by surprise and this is just how my brain seems wired to operate in its default mode.

I wouldn’t usually trouble you with this sort of thing, but it does seem at least tangentially relevant to Gavin O’Connor’s new movie The Accountant. We’re at that time of year when the films are neither tentpole blockbusters nor gong-bait, they’re just reasonably sized films gunning for people who fancy going out to see a film but aren’t especially troubled by what it is. There’s a sense in which The Accountant looks like the kind of thriller you usually see at this time of year, but it’s really something slightly more quirky and unusual.

the-accountant

Let me just explain the premise of the movie to you: Ben Affleck plays a nameless individual who has Movie Autism, which is responsible for him having incredible accountancy skills. Not immediately promising stuff for a thriller, you might think, but on top of this, Ben’s tough-lovin’ father has also had him trained to be an extremely highly skilled martial artist and sharpshooter. As the movie opens, Ben is spending his time practicing shooting things from a very long way away, auditing the books for incredibly dangerous gangsters and terrorists, and helping his neighbours with their tax returns. (Hey, don’t laugh: being totally ruthless, having no idea about how to function in civilised society, and being highly expert at fiddling the US tax system appears to qualify you for at least one very prominent job in America today, at least according to the news broadcasts I’ve caught this last week.)

I repeat: this is just the premise of the movie. If you think that sounds a bit weird, the plot itself is utterly gonzo (not to mention somewhat complicated), incorporating a senior treasury official (J.K. Simmons) and an agent he’s blackmailing into finding Ben (the agent is played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a troubled robotics tycoon (John Lithgow) and one of his employees (Anna Kendrick), and a rather more extrovert assassin on a collision course with Ben (Jon Bernthal, who seems to be experiencing something of a career sweet spot at present).

In a way it kind of reminds me of the Thai movie Chocolate (directed by Prachya Pinkaew), in which another character with Movie Autism – in this case a teenage girl – becomes an ace martial artist and batters the living daylights out of half the gangsters in Bangkok, although The Accountant works much harder to seem to be a sober and serious drama for grown-ups: its success in delaying the moment when you actually shout out loud ‘Oh come on, this is all utterly absurd!’ may be the film’s single greatest achievement.

The film initially does a little dance when it comes to specifying just what’s going on with the title character, the physician involved saying he’s not really into categorising people, but eventually Ben owns up to having a form of high-functioning autism. Hmmm. It’s still basically Movie Autism, which means that all the impairing stuff is offset by effectively having cool special faculties. It seems to me we’re currently stuck with only two approaches when it comes to dealing with autistic-spectrum-related disorders in films – this one, where being on the spectrum is presented as being almost like a superpower, or the more subdued gong-bait one, which tends to be terribly po-faced and worthy. I don’t think either is particularly useful, to be honest, but then I suppose it’s difficult to communicate the reality of being on the spectrum, which can have some benefits (being spectacularly good at Pointless) but also fairly significant lifestyle issues (inability to sustain close or long-term relationships, tendency to play 2048 for sixteen hours at a stretch, general social awkwardness, and so on). At least The Accountant has a stab at addressing some of these issues, at least in passing, and it is genuinely quite a fun film.

Long-term readers may recall that in the past I have devoted many, many, many words to making jokes about Ben Affleck’s supposedly robotic style of acting, but there’s nothing on display here to derail his career renaissance (although – well, is it totally beyond the realms of good taste to suggest that when playing someone with Movie Autism, acting slightly robotic may actually be the way to go?). The strength of The Accountant isn’t really in the plot, anyway, but in the way it presents a group of really interesting characters and lets some talented actors really do their stuff with them: Affleck is engaging, Simmons is good too, so is Bernthal, so is Lithgow… So is Anna Kendrick, too, even though this is not the kind of film you would normally expect to find her in. (However… the thing about cinema is that it usually makes everyone look tall. Even Tom Cruise looks like a strapping athlete on the big screen. So I don’t really know what to make of the fact that Anna Kendrick still looks incredibly tiny next to Ben Affleck in this film. In real life she must only be about three feet tall.)

That said, the action is well-mounted and the story stays coherent, pretty much, at least up to the beginning of the third act, at which point there’s a bizarre expo-dump and any semblence of reality is cheerily bade a fond adieu. The film becomes much less about Ben’s mad accountancy skills and much more about him repeatedly shooting people in the head with high-powered firearms. Characters and subplots basically get switched off in favour of a climax which… well, let’s just say the film’s absurdity quotient does not noticeably reduce.

Well, anyway. The Accountant may be a very odd and possibly slightly suspect film, but it’s a fun and engaging one throughout. It’s honestly not that great a thriller, but all the tangential weirdness makes it very distinctive and it is driven along by some strong performances and a smart script. Worth a look.

 

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