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Posts Tagged ‘Maggie Gyllenhaal’

A little-known revelation from the annals of archaeology is the fact that an American tobacco beetle has been discovered buried in volcanic ash on a Bronze Age site in Crete. The implications of this are startling, and for a long time I could only begin to imagine the impact this must have had on professionals and historians – everything they understood about how early civilisation functioned must have been shaken to the core. It must have been shocking and unsettling, almost impossible to believe. Now, though, I can empathise with them much more easily, for I had a similar reaction to the news that they were making a movie about Frank Sidebottom.

Frank Sidebottom? A movie about Frank Sidebottom? Even now I can barely assimilate the words, and this is after having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, the film in question. For anyone not familiar with Frank Sidebottom – which I suspect is a sizable majority in any sane gathering – he was a cult figure on the music and comedy scenes, primarily in the Greater Manchester area, and mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. He was instantly identifiable, due to making all his public appearances wearing an oversized fibreglass head: one of those people you instantly recognise as either a one-off comedic genius, or as a slightly creepy and annoying pest.

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Given this, you could have probably have cast virtually anyone as Frank in this movie: but they have managed the surprising (not to mention baffling) coup of luring Michael Fassbender into occupying the fake cranium in question. For all that, Fassbender gets the ‘and’ credit in this film; top billing goes to Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson (enjoying one last flush of indie credibility now he’s been cast in Star Wars: Episode JJ).

Gleeson plays Jon, an earnest young English singer-songwriter who does not let a little thing like lack of talent impede his pursuit of his dreams. Then, a chance encounter with a touring American band gives him a remarkable opportunity: when their keyboard player is sectioned, he is invited, first to fill in on a gig, and then to assist them in recording their first album. On the team are manager Don (McNairy), psychotically aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and, at the heart of it all, the charismatic, enigmatic, inspirational figure of Frank himself…

Well, as you can perhaps see, this is not really a biography of Frank Sidebottom (nor indeed the man behind the head, Chris Sievey): all the characters are fictional, there’s no mention of Timperley, the name ‘Sidebottom’ is never used, and Fassbender opts to play Frank with a midwestern drawl rather than a nasal Mancunian whine (on reflection we should perhaps be grateful for this last). So in a sense this is not the movie it first appears to be, for all that Sievey gave his blessing to the project prior to his death in 2010.

This is perhaps a little surprising, as the script has been co-written by Jon Ronson, best known as a journalist and screenwriter these days, but a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band. On the other hand, as I believe I have intimated, the potential audience for an actual Sidebottom movie would be very limited. This is something more accessible and thematic, about wanting to unlock your creativity and really communicate with other people: it just happens to use the idea of a man in a Frank Sidebottom head as its central image.

And for the most part it is very successful. In some ways this slightly resembles This Must Be The Place, being an off-beat globetrotting comedy-drama with a vague musical theme, but the comedy here is broader and the tone less consistent. The story is, let’s be honest, not remotely plausible, but the deadpan absurdity of the whole enterprise is actually rather winning. Gleeson is convincing and likeable as a character who could easily have been slightly annoying, while Fassbender reveals an unexpected talent for physical comedy (as well as for acting inside a big fake head). For the first two acts this is a funny, if somewhat ridiculous deadpan black comedy.

Not sure about the third act, however, in which the band head to the SXSW festival in Texas, only to be confronted by their own frailties and personal problems. The tone here abruptly turns much darker and more serious, and I’m not sure it’s a switch the film successfully achieves. The conclusion is also not entirely satisfying.

But, on the whole, this is not enough to spoil the movie, which is well-made and engaging throughout. It has useful things to say, weirdly enough, about the nature of the creative process and the various coping mechanisms people use to deal with life. It also reminds us that, for some people, madness can be the thing that keeps them sane. In the end it abstracts the idea of Frank Sidebottom and uses him as a metaphor for the figurative masks many people wear when facing the world – also, perhaps, that it is sometimes easier to be an icon than a human being. I’m not sure what dedicated Sidebottom fans will make of Frank – no doubt cries of ‘Heresy!’ will be echoing around Altrincham – but for everyone else this is a likeable and entertaining, if somewhat flawed movie.

 

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Slim pickings down the cinema at the mo’, if you ask me – so this week I was planning to go and see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the local Picturehouse. However, I had reckoned without the cinema’s surprising entry policy for some of its daytime screenings, namely that you need not only a ticket but also an infant child in order to get in. Being unable to lay my hands on a toddler in time, I was faced with a bit of a quandary: go and see something I really didn’t have any particular interest in, or not see a film at all this week? Well, obviously I decided to go after all, and  after surveying the film times the best fit for my schedule proved to be White House Down (beating out Diana and R.I.P.D., in case you were wondering).

In the past I’ve gone on about how day-and-date releasing is now standard industry practice. When a major movie doesn’t get a simultaneous global release, and especially when a summer movie gets pushed back into the autumn, one is inclined to start smelling something a little funky. White House Down came out in the States nearly three months ago but is only now troubling British cinemas.

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Roland Emmerich’s film is – well, look, here’s the plot, see what you think. Reliable beefy lunkhead Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a vaguely-blue-collary cop with family issues – nothing at all like John McClane, vaguely blue-collary cop with family issues, right? – working in Washington DC. He wants to join the Secret Service and to that end toddles along to the White House with his young daughter, who is a monumental civics nerd and expert on the place, not to mention the American constitution.

However, the President (Jamie Foxx) has just unveiled his secret plan to bring about world peace, much to the dismay of various vested interests, and as a result a plan has been put in motion to… well, revealing the ultimate goal probably counts as a plot spoiler. Suffice to say I’ll be interested to see if this film gets an Iranian release. What really counts is that a traitor in the White House has organised a takeover of the place by a gang of mercenary nutters led by Jason Clarke, and Cale finds himself caught up in the middle of it all…

So it is, basically, Die Hard in the White House, which is fundamentally a silly idea for a film. This is not White House Down‘s biggest problem. You may recall that earlier this very year we were treated to GERARD BUTLER!!! (imagine me shouting that in a Scottish accent) in Olympus Has Fallen, a thriller which was basically Die Hard in the White House. So White House Down isn’t just silly, it’s silly in a way which doesn’t even seem very original.

I get the impression that James Vanderbilt, author of the script, has watched Die Hard itself many, many times, as pretty much every beat and reversal of that film gets painstakingly revisited here. Okay, I exaggerate, but you’re never in any doubt about how the story is going to unfold. The identity of the White House traitor is blazingly telegraphed from his first appearance (it’s James Woods, in case you were wondering), Cale is initially given a frosty relationship with his daughter so the moment when she starts hugging him and calling him Daddy has some impact, the white-collar Secret Service types are all snotty about him to begin with so he can be especially smug when he starts saving the day, and so on.

The thriller aspect, though polished, is terribly mechanical and familiar. The political aspect of this film, inasmuch as it has one, is very much in line with the way that the US President has been depicted on screen for the last two decades. If you look at Hollywood movies and TV from the mid to late 90s, it’s striking how they come across as thinly-disguised love letters to Bill Clinton: we get the Prez impressing everyone with his wit and humanity (The West Wing), wowing the ladies as romantic lead (The American President), personally punching out terrorists (Air Force One), and even jumping into a fighter jet to lead the resistance to an alien invasion (Emmerich’s own Independence Day). Hollywood loved Clinton. The Bush years, on the other hand, transformed the President into a nonentity who died off-screen (Emmerich again, in The Day After Tomorrow) or was cuckolded by the hero (The Sentinel): generally a rather less heroic figure. Now we find ourselves in the Obama era, obviously Hollywood likes the President again, although not as much as they did Clinton: Foxx here is obviously a good guy, but he still has to be looked after by Tatum’s character.

One does get a sense of a bit of a tension at the heart of this movie between its desire to be a credible political thriller and its need to tick the popcorn blockbuster boxes. There’s some interesting stuff about the constitutional chaos that ensues when the President himself is MIA, and various FBI, army, and Secret Service types squabble about who’s actually in charge – but the film can’t afford to spend too much time on this sort of thing and soon enough we’re back to the galloping, uproarious absurdity of a car chase round the White House garden with the President shooting a rocket launcher out of the window of his own limousine.

So there’s two films going on here, one rather more developed than the other. I would happily have watched either the serious, crisis-of-command one, or the preposterous crowd-pleasing President-with-a-bazooka one (although I suspect I’d have preferred the former). The thing is that putting them together, even as competently as Emmerich does, is a bit problematic. This is a film which is about terrorism and touches on genuine issues in world affairs. To do so and then include dumb visual jokes and moments of utter, unbelieveable cheesiness just seems incredibly facile and in very dubious taste. There’s a scene where a gun is put to the head of a crying child, which isn’t really something I’d expect to see in a proper, inoffensive popcorn blockbuster.

So this is a film which is not without moments of interest and entertainment: Jamie Foxx gets some funny lines as the Commander in Chief, Maggie Gyllenhaal is reliably good as someone stuck on the outside trying to take charge of the situation, and James Woods and Richard Jenkins give the sort of reliable support you would expect from them. But the basic set-up remains very, very familiar, and the film is so all over the place in terms of its tone that’s almost impossible just to detach your higher functions and enjoy it as a piece of cheesy fun. Emmerich marshals the proceedings with his usual aplomb, but White House Down is by no means one of his best films.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

And finally, just when you thought you could get through an entire column without one of those movies showing up… yes, it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which has finally rumbled into public view trailing the kind of rapturous notices most producers would happily cut off a limb to receive – and I’m not inclined to disagree with the consensus on this occasion.

For those of you recently returned from a holiday on Neptune, this is another tale of goings-on in Gotham City. The crusade against crime launched by the Batman (an apparently laryngitic Christian Bale) and Lt Gordon (Gary Oldman) seems to be bearing fruit, in the form of the city’s new fiercely idealistic and dedicated District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – even if he is dating Batman’s old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the city is about to be plunged into a nightmare as Batman’s continuing harassment of the mob forces them to accept the assistance of a demented psychopathic genius calling himself the Joker…

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has, for obvious reasons, attracted a lot of attention – but one would hope that this would have been the case anyway, as he is utterly mesmerising. The Joker is hilarious and terrifying at the same time: he does a piece of business with a pencil that left the audience I saw this movie with trying to gasp, groan, and laugh at the same time, while later on there’s a scene where he wanders out of an exploding building in (comically unconvincing) drag that’s simply jawdropping in its audacity and confidence. This is the first screen version of the character who can credibly take on Batman in a physical confrontation, something Nolan fully exploits. Even more impressively, Ledger manages all this without seeming obviously hammy or over-the-top like some Nicholsons – sorry, I meant to say actors – who have played the part in the past. He’s aided by a script which allows the character a chance to actually develop in the course of the movie, progressing from a (relatively) simple insane killer to the more complex Joker of recent comics.

But, surprisingly, he isn’t allowed to dominate the film – although he does rather eclipse the movie’s other classic villains, who either make cameos (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) or show up rather near the end. Eckhart gives an intelligent and plausible performance as Dent, and it’s a bit of a shame he doesn’t get more room to display all the facets of the character. The biggest miracle of all is that Christian Bale, who as Batman doesn’t get to properly use his voice or most of his face, isn’t reduced to an onlooking cipher as happened in the 90s Bat-movies, although his performance is necessarily understated. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman show up from the last movie as well, and give neat demonstrations of how to steal scenes from the younger actors.

The technical virtuosity of Christopher Nolan’s direction shouldn’t really have surprised me as much as it did, but this is probably simply because he gets Batman right in a way other directors have never managed. For example, rather than being merely a menacing icon waddling around in inch-thick rubber, here Batman is a convincingly agile and skilled martial artist. Nolan also opens the movie out to a global scale, giving his hero a brief but typically energetic encounter with the Hong Kong Triads on their home turf. There seemed to me to be a bit less reliance on Bat-gadgets than usual, too, with the obvious exception of the new Batpod – which looks undeniably cool but struck me as rather silly in both name and concept. Such is Nolan’s command of the medium that, for a few shocking minutes, he even had me believing that he’d been allowed to permanently and properly kill off one of the central Batman characters. The only real weakness in Nolan’s direction, in fact, is his slight awkwardness when it comes to comic relief: Caine and Freeman have no problems delivering their one-liners but elsewhere his editing is a bit too staccato.

This is a piddling little criticism considering the colossal level of crash-bang-wallop the movie delivers, especially when coupled to its interest in the deeper morality of the issues involved. This finds its most obvious articulation when the film repeatedly asks how a principled man can hope to counter one wholly without moral compass, and intersects rather neatly with a meditation on how one can repeatedly confront evil without becoming contaminated by it (one would have expected this Nietzschean line of thought to turn up in a Superman movie, but never mind). Implicit in the film is the notion that it’s the mere existence of Batman himself that has conjured all the maniacs he must battle into existence, and that all the death and destruction which occurs is ultimately his fault. On this level, The Dark Knight isn’t an especially cheerful movie: its view of human nature for most of its running time is so relentlessly bleak that when it does attempt to offer a ray of hope it almost doesn’t ring true.

So, yes: we have a new and very strong candidate for the title of best superhero movie ever (not that this isn’t much more than just a superhero movie). One is obliged to wonder just how on Earth Nolan and company can possibly top this one (not least because most of the classic Batman villains aren’t really usable for various reasons – my money’s on the Riddler showing up next time, though), but they’ve already repeatedly demonstrated that no-one else is better qualified to try. Highly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 23rd 2003:

[Continuing a lengthy and somewhat dubious account-stroke-metaphor from a previous review…]

I did my best to atone for the sticky toffee pudding by going for a long walk round the local marina where the family yacht, the Rampant Laddie, is currently having fresh barnacles applied. But how to do penance for The Transporter? Well, there was only one thing for it, make the trip out to the local (in the broadest possible sense of the word) art-house cinema and spend some time absorbing serious culture.

As luck would have it, this week’s film turned out to be Donnie Darko, which attentive masochists will recall was on last year’s list of films I was annoyed at having missed. (This week’s Senior Citizens pic, I noticed with interest, was the axe-murderer horror movie Frailty. Hmmm.) The debut picture from writer-director Richard Kelly, this really is one for the ‘how in hell did this ever get made?!?’ file as it’s certainly the most comprehensively weird movie to get a major release since Being John Malkovich.

It’s the tale of the eponymous teenager, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Donnie is a brilliant but disturbed young man living in the quiet suburban community of Middlesex with his parents and sisters. Already seeing medicated and seeing a psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) following an undetailed incidence of arson, Donnie’s life gets even more peculiar when he receives a visitation from the mysterious Frank, a seemingly-demonic presence in the shape of a man in a bunny-rabbit suit. Frank saves Donnie’s life when a jet engine falls out of an empty sky through his bedroom ceiling, and slowly begins to exert a strange influence over Donnie’s actions…

A simple synopsis can’t do justice to the sheer scope and range of Kelly’s incredibly eclectic script, which slides easily from John Hughes-style high school comedy-drama, to bizarre, unsettling fantasy. There are also echoes of Heathers in the film’s black humour and dark tone. Kelly runs the pop-culture gamut from the Smurfs to The Evil Dead to the work of Graham Greene, and quite happily shifts from a hilarious scenes such as Donnie’s haranguing a worthless motivational speaker (a surprisingly good Patrick Swayze) to mind bending discussions of destiny and the nature of the universe, and strange dream-like fantasy sequences.

This is a massively, deceptively complex story, and probably a film you need to see twice to even begin to fully understand. Is it about time travel, parallel universes, the nature of fate, or something else entirely? Personally I found the conclusion – where all is not quite made clear – to be bleakly romantic, but I think everyone seeing the film will come away from it with their own idea of what it actually means (and there are some very detailed explanations of some of the theories out there in cyberspace).

The cast do it full justice – as well as the previously mentioned performers, there are great turns from Jena Malone as Donnie’s girlfriend, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his sister, Drew Barrymore (who exec-produced and whom we therefore should probably thank for the film being made at all), Mary McDonnell, and Beth Grant, to name but a few. There’s a terrific 80s soundtrack, too.

Apart from the fact that it’s one of many current movies and TV shows that mention child abuse in such a way as to simply devalue the seriousness of the crime, there’s not much I can find wrong with Donnie Darko. It’s a film that entertains and amuses at the same time that it’s prying your subconscious open and inserting a lot of very strange material indeed. I saw the lunchtime showing and for the rest of the day images and concepts from the film kept erupting, seemingly at random, into my mind’s eye, a rather peculiar and distracting experience. Donnie Darko probably shouldn’t work at all, let alone as well as it does. But Kelly pulls it off, and has made one of the most distinctive and absorbing films of recent years. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 4th 2003:

‘Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum – what might be right for you, might not be right for some.’ So wrote Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and Alan Thicke in the lyrics of the theme tune to the TV show Diff’rent Strokes, and the same sentiment gets heartfelt expression in Steven Shainberg’s slightly unorthodox new romantic comedy-drama Secretary.

With a cast list that screams ‘high quality indie flick’, this stars Maggie Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko as Lee, an awkward young woman living in her sister’s shadow. Partly, one suspects, to escape from her overbearing parents (Leslie Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie), she learns to type and gets a job with eccentric lawyer Edward Grey (the ever-reliable James Spader). Gradually, the relationship between Lee and her boss deepens and intensifies until she has choose between him and her nice but geeky fiancé Peter (Jeremy Davies)…

It sounds a bit run-of-the-mill, doesn’t it? Yes, but this is Two Weeks Notice as directed by either David Cronenberg or the Marquis de Sade. The rather offbeat nature of this film is signposted from the first scene, where a cheerful Lee goes about her office duties, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is manacled to a yoke. As the story unfolds, we learn of her pathological self-harm problems – cutting and burning her arms and legs. Her involvement with Grey only really begins when he ‘liberates’ her from her need to do this to herself by putting her on a strict regimen of spanking, submissiveness, and, er, lots of other things I can’t go into much detail about in a family newspaper.

The subject matter is quite intense and this is an occasionally explicit film, but the script and direction have a wit and lightness of touch that keep it from being sleazy or pornographic. And a lot of credit must also go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who gives a subtle and quite brave performance which makes it quite clear that Lee is far from an oppressed victim or sex object – she’s a woman slowly coming to terms with an understanding of what she really wants out of life, and an equal participant in her relationship with Grey. James Spader, a very fine actor who seems happy to work outside mainstream cinema, is equally good in what’s if anything an even trickier role. He takes a character whose mood seems to alternate between reptilian obsessiveness and libidinous distraction, and makes him weirdly vulnerable and endearing.

There is a sense, though, in which the film compensates for its more extreme elements. Rather than the spartan flat-packed limbo that so many offices these days consist of, Grey and Lee work in a warm and vibrant set of rooms complete with art deco stylings and wood panelling – then again this may be making a virtue of the necessity of Grey’s unusual working practices (this is the only lawyer in modern America who doesn’t use a word processor – a crucial plot point). The film’s structure, while a bit twisted and slow to get going, is fundamentally that of many female-led romances – girl starts job, falls for boss, finally he notices her, etc. I’m not sure whether such conventionality is entirely compatible with the film’s subversive message, and the clash between them may be the cause of a brief wobble near the end where the story threatens to unravel entirely. But the movie redeems itself almost straight away, by exploding into a lush and erotic romanticism of remarkable power: more so than any more conventionally-styled movie I can remember.

For, at its heart, this is quite a warm and sensitive film, but one that’s not afraid to make its’ point. Freedom of choice is a fundamental right and one to be valued, but some people are at their happiest when freely surrendering it. The film anticipates objections to this by including a scene where Lee encounters a far-from-impressed feminist, but on the whole it argues its case wittily and persuasively. Secretary is a funny and perceptive adult fairytale, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

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