Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Julianne Moore’

Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

Read Full Post »

I’m the last person to say that dollar value should be the sole measure of something’s worth, but at the same time it is always interesting to learn something new about this sort of thing. I’ve been knocking out this sort of cobblers on the internet for over fifteen years now, on and off, and yet it had never really occurred to me to find out if my opinion is really of any significance. Then along came along news of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, from a couple of years ago. Now, after the first one, I would probably have said, if asked, ‘That was okay, but no more, please.’ The hefty box office return of the movie clearly said something different. And so they made the sequel. So there you go: my considered opinion about a movie’s quality is obviously worth less than $414 million. Hey, you know, chin up; life goes on.

And so, clearly, does the Kingsman franchise, based on a comic book by Mark Millar (who once read my palm in a London nightclub and got it spectacularly wrong in every detail), directed by Vaughn, and co-written by the director and Jane Goldman. This time there is added swagger, a rather bigger budget, and a longer running time – two hours twenty minutes?! Well, you do kind of feel every minute while you’re watching it, to be perfectly honest.

The representatives of the actors involved have clearly had some fun with this one, for supposed leading man and protagonist Taron Egerton is actually third billed. Nevertheless, it’s all about his character Eggsy (I think I heard other characters calling him ‘Eggy’ in a couple of places), and as the film gets underway he is balancing the thrilling life of an agent of Kingsman (an ‘independent intelligence agency’, whatever one of those is), with hanging out with his mates from the housing estate and his girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom, two dots over the O), who is the daughter of the King of Sweden. As you do.

All this changes when the Kingsman organisation comes under attack from forces in the employ of deranged international criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, second-billed), and Eggsy and his tech-support chap Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to go on the run as the rest of the organisation is destroyed. Emergency procedures lead them to Kentucky in the USA, where they join forces with (sigh) another ‘independent intelligence agency’, Statesman, who seem to be a bunch of slightly boozed-up cowboys.

It is all to do with Poppy’s plan to get some serious respect for her international criminal activities, the details of which would probably constitute a spoiler. The safety of millions hangs in the balance, so it’s just as well that the Statesman people have got Eggsy’s old mentor Harry (Colin Firth, still top-billed) in their cellar, despite the fact he was shot through the face in the last film. As a result he has an eye-patch, Movie Amnesia, and a slight tendency to hallucinate, but is otherwise okay. Can Kingsman and Statesman come together to save the day?

I know a lot of people who really, really liked the first Kingsman film; liked it considerably more than me. I suspect the same will probably be true when it comes to Golden Circle. Maybe it’s just an age or an outlook thing. It’s not that I think these films are actively bad – Vaughn is an inventive and capable director, and the new one is stuffed with cameos from very capable and charismatic actors – Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Keith Allen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and many others. And the frequent action sequences are imaginative and lavish – the film plays the Bond-pastiche card extremely well. It’s almost a bit unfair to call it a Bond pastiche, to be honest, as – at its best – Golden Circle has a scale and a sense of light-hearted fun that the actual Bond films have been missing for many years now.

The thing is that the Bond-pastiche element is only a small part of the Kingsman concoction. What this film is really about is a combination of absurdly OTT spy-fi action with equally absurdly knowing comedy. No-one could take this film seriously as a thriller, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – you could say the same about, yes, any James Bond film. It’s okay to make a movie which is just a slightly cheesy bit of fluff.

Yet there’s more than this going on – a weird tonal inconsistency, coupled to a fixation with appearing to be cool and transgressive. Near the start, there is a comedic sequence in which Eggsy is taken for dinner with the King of Sweden, but also a scene in which Polly serves up a burger made from human flesh. Elton John (pretty much playing himself), wearing a costume seemingly entirely made of ostrich feathers, drop-kicks a goon in the head with his platform shoes while grinning at the camera, while a few minutes later there’s a moment where Eggsy makes a mawkish speech about honour and justice before cold-bloodedly executing a defenceless enemy. Egerton has said that some elements of the film are mainly intended to shock – he was specifically referring to a sex scene in which he plants a tracker on a woman in a manner surely unprecedented in the annals of cinema, but there are many others conceived with the same purpose, I’m sure. The whole thing just doesn’t gel.

For me, one of the most telling things about the film is its energetic amorality – all the speeches about ‘justice’ and so on strike a rather sentimental note, rather than having any force to them. The implication of the film is not just that millions of people are using illegal recreational drugs, but that this is no big deal and nothing to get particularly exercised about. The only character who takes any kind of explicit moral position about this is the US President (played by Bruce Greenwood), and he is depicted as a self-serving, callous hypocrite.

But, hey, maybe total amorality, bad-taste humour and F-bombs by the dozen are where the kids are at these days. I enjoyed the action sequences in Golden Circle a lot, and there are some admittedly very funny moments (many of them courtesy of a game, vanity-free turn from Elton John). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a film that wasn’t just aimed at teenagers with questionable judgement, but made by them too. Then again, I’m just an old git whose opinion doesn’t count for much anyway. No doubt this will be a big hit and another one will be along in a couple of years to discomfit me all over again.

Read Full Post »

It’s the height of summer, with remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations pretty much as far as the eye can see, which means it must be time for some counter-programming (which is the ever-so-slightly-sniffy term used in some quarters to describe films actually made for intelligent adults). In the mix currently is Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, which does a pretty good job of looking like a low-budget indie comedy-drama, but…

maggies-plan-poster

Well, this is not the kind of film which flaunts the size of its budget as part of its marketing (which really does seem to be a genuine occurrence), but the presence in the cast of quite a few well-known faces suggests that this is not the teeny-tiny project you might think from the tone and subject matter (the fact that Miller is the partner of one of the world’s most celebrated actors could lead you to suspect she might have more pull than the average indie comedy-drama director, should she choose to exert it). Not that any of this really makes a difference, of course, except that right now there might be a virtue in appearing smaller and more independent than you actually are.

If nothing else, Maggie’s Plan marks another step in the ascendancy of the bodacious Greta Gerwig, and surely no-one can take exception to that? On this occasion, Gerwig plays Maggie, a young and single academic who has decided to take the plunge and have a baby, mainly because, as she says, she doesn’t want to leave her destiny in the hands of destiny. To this end she has made an arrangement with an up-and-coming pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmell) whereby she will make use of his reproductive material to conceive a child.

However, just as all of this is coming to a boil (as it were), her scheme is somewhat disrupted when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant and talented writer who is stuck in a chaotic marriage with the very demanding Georgette (Julianne Moore). Possibly to both their surprise, John and Maggie fall in love, get married, and have a child together.

And is this the happy ending everyone is surely rooting for? Um, well, no, for things get a bit complicated between Maggie, John, Georgette, and their various progeny. Maggie comes up with another plan to resolve everything (not including the pickle entrepreneur, sadly), but is she being a kind and helpful person or just a control freak?

Well, one thing you can certainly say about Maggie’s Plan is that it is really a very generous-spirited film: the characters may occasionally act in foolish or naive ways, but none of them are actually genuinely unpleasant. How much of a big deal this is will probably depend on the kind of film you usually go and see, but in this case I think it is important as it does give the film a certain kind of distinctiveness in the milieu in which it operates.

Or, to put it another way: this is a film where the main characters are usually preoccupied with all sorts of fairly rarefied social, ethical, cultural, and personal issues, never seem to have to worry about their means of support, and are generally a cerebral bunch. I mean, Maggie herself works at an university and decides to become a single mother without worrying at all about the financial and personal strain placed on her as a result. Not many real-world people think and behave this way. In short, in some ways the film is sometimes very reminiscent of Woody Allen when he’s in default mode.

Given this is the case, the fact that the film does have a current of warmth running through it – mostly down to Gerwig’s performance, for I’ve yet to see a film where she hasn’t radiated a sort of sincere decency – does set it apart from most of the Allen canon. It’s a little more willing to engage with matters on a more human level, too: I can’t imagine the notoriously fastidious Allen even considering a DIY impregnation scene, let alone putting one on-screen as happens here.

Of course, the jokes and script aren’t perhaps quite as sharp as they would be in an on-form Allen movie, but the performances are strong and the writing is intelligent and satisfying. Fimmel in particular is unrecognisable as the guy currently spending two hours covered in CGI in the Warcraft movie, though I suspect he has the same beard.

Maggie’s Plan probably won’t rock your world, but it tells its story well and engagingly, even if things do seem to get a little bit unravelled in the third act (at this point the plot becomes much less focused on Gerwig’s character, which may be the reason why). It is amusing and smart and engagingly good-natured, even if, if we’re totally honest, it isn’t that much closer to reality in some ways than the fantasies and action movies it’s presenting itself as an alternative to.

Read Full Post »

Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

HGmj2

I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

Read Full Post »

It’s common for me to become aware of an actor’s name and talent, only for it to turn out that I’ve actually been watching them for years in films but they never quite registered with me. Not so in the case of Liam Neeson: I distinctly remember the first time I watched the 1984 movie The Bounty, which would have been in the late summer of 1985, and came out of it saying ‘that big Irish guy has really got charisma’ (or words to that effect). This wasn’t his first film, of course – since then I’ve caught up with his earlier performances in Excalibur and Krull from earlier in the 80s.

Neeson’s career, at first glance, looks not-atypical as that of a certain kind of actor – a few minor parts in high-profile genre movies, then a shift into more mainstream, quality fare, and finally some big lead roles. Let us not forget the critical acclaim and recognition Neeson received for Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Kinsey. Of course, the fact that I think it necessary to mention this is of course because there has been a bit of a shadow over the big man’s career of late. I’m not even referring to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I usually steer clear of commenting in too much detail on the personal lives of… well, anyone, but in Liam Neeson’s case I think it is pertinent to his career. Neeson suffered a family bereavement a few years ago and has said in interviews that, since then, working constantly has been a coping mechanism. I am not unsympathetic to Neeson’s situation, but I can’t help thinking that this may have had a bit of a negative impact when it comes to quality control. Never mind his turn as Hannibal in the A Team movie, in 2012 Neeson got two Golden Raspberry nominations in the same year (for Wrath of the Titans and Battleship).

And yet he has had an odd sort of rebirth as an action hero, mainly because of the influence of Luc Besson and the Taken movies. He’s in this mode in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, which is a film unlikely to do much to revive his reputation – but neither will it do it much damage, I suspect.

Non-Stop-2014-Movie-Poster-650x1029

Neeson plays Bill Marks, who basically seems rather like all the other action heroes he has given us in recent years. Perhaps on this occasion Neeson is giving us rather more baleful old sod than usual, and it’s difficult not to read too much into Neeson’s portrayal of the character: Marks is a man clearly going through trying personal times, and almost seems to be in the throes of some kind of breakdown. We first meet him in an overcast airport car park, where he is idly stirring whiskey into his coffee, but soon enough he is getting onto his plane.

For, yes, this is another of those airliner-in-peril action thrillers, and the film gets on with introducing the various passengers and flight crew with an admirable lack of messing about. Neeson shows us that beneath the baleful old sod exterior there beats the heart of a softy, by helping a nervous little girl who loses her cuddly toy, while also on board are various ethnically diverse yuppies, blue-collar guys, potential love interests, and so on. With the plane in flight (the airline in question is the rather implausible-sounding British Aqualantica, which tells us that none of the real companies wanted to get involved), things get going properly as Neeson (a cop turned federal air marshal) receives a text from a mysterious source informing him that until $150 million is transferred to a particular bank account, one person on the plane will be murdered every twenty minutes. Looks like Neeson picked the wrong week to stop being a paranoid gun-toting alcoholic!

Without giving too much away, Non-Stop does end up being a little bit bonkers, and I’m not sure the plot is entirely hole-free, but the echoes of Airplane! are not too intrusive. The script does a good job of keeping everything trotting along for most of the film’s duration, and is actually quite inventive – Neeson finds himself implicated in the various crimes occurring on the plane, and thus has to resolve the situation without the assistance of his colleagues on the ground.

One interesting possibility that the film dangles briefly in front of us is that Neeson’s colleagues may actually be in the right, and that everything we’re seeing is just some sort of paranoid delusion being experienced by someone having a booze-fuelled breakdown. For a while it does look like the only person actually causing chaos on the flight is Neeson himself, and the various shots from his point-of-view have a slightly disjointed, queasy quality that definitely implies all is not well.

In the end, though – and I suppose this may constitute a spoiler – everything is pretty much what it seems to be. There really is a terrorist, and of course he isn’t after the money as such, he just wants to make a slightly contrived socio-political point about modern American society. We’re quite a long way post-9/11 for people to still be making as explicitly post-9/11 movies as this one, if you ask me, but this is just a fig-leaf for the action thriller stuff so it didn’t really grate with me too much. It’s also quite liable to date, I suspect, simply because of the plot’s reliance on smartphones and suchlike: Neeson spends a lot of his time barking at the flight crew to switch the plane’s wi fi on and off, for various reasons.

Hey ho. Neeson isn’t quite phoning it in, that famous charisma of his remains undiminished, and it’s perhaps his presence that has led to the appearance in the film of Julianne Moore, a rather classier actress than this sort of script honestly deserves. Also present and doing decent work are people like Scoot McNairy and Michelle Dockery (who I understand is a soap opera actress doing her best to break into films).

Non-Stop is a film which you’ve probably seen before under a different title – the ingredients and serving have all been jiggled around a bit to make them look new, but the actual recipe is one which has been doing the rounds for many years now. It’s still quite a good recipe and Neeson carries the movie reasonably well – this isn’t going to win any awards, and I hope Liam Neeson can find himself a quality project to appear in soon, but as implausible action movies go I’ve seen much worse.

Read Full Post »