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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Williams’

You could probably argue that the world, or at least that part of it concerned with cultural matters, tottered off some kind of precipice a couple of years ago with the release of Suicide Squad, a film largely concerned with Batman and Flash villains, sent out into a world which had yet to receive a proper Batman or Flash film from the same producers. We seem to be skipping straight to the spin-off, which probably says something about the pace of life in the modern world – or maybe it’s just that people are more interested in bad guys nowadays, which says something else rather different and somewhat more worrying.

Are we dealing with the same sort of thing when it comes to Ruben Fleischer’s Venom? Part of me wants to say yes, for I am of that generation for whom Venom (the character) is essentially a bad guy from the Spider-Man comics. Doing a whole movie about a character who is basically a demented pool of alien slime who spends most of his time lurking down dark alleys planning how to eat people also strikes me as… well, I can’t deny it has a certain originality, but I would argue that we’re losing our grip on the essential moral core of the superhero story in this case. But, on the other hand, this character has a seriously dedicated fan-base. ‘This is the first really popular movie in a while,’ said the person on duty at the cinema (their job was to hand out not very good free comic books based on the film). I had to admit to a certain degree of anticipatory curiosity myself: which voice was Tom Hardy going to use in the role? Bane? Ronnie Kray? The Welsh accent? Patrick Stewart?

Venom

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a loose-cannon investigative reporter living in San Francisco, who at the start of the film manages to torch his own career while investigating Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a tech magnate with a surprisingly diverse portfolio. Brock’s use of sensitive material pinched from his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams) to make some unsubstantiated allegations results in him losing his job, his apartment and his relationship, which is all rather unfair as the film makes it clear that Drake really is up to some dodgy stuff, specifically bringing back samples of alien life for use in biological testing.

Well, I say ‘samples of alien life’, they look more like ‘splashes of multicoloured CGI vomit’. It turns out the aliens are symbiotes which have to bond with a local organism in order to really survive on Earth, and Drake has terrible trouble trying to find compatible hosts from amongst the local population, winding up luring in homeless people under false pretences.

As chance would have it, the now washed-up Brock hears about this and decides to investigate once more, sneaking into Drake’s facility and – wouldn’t you just know it – coming into contact with one of the symbiotes, which immediately takes up residence in his system. Drake wants the alien back. The alien doesn’t want to go back. Brock isn’t quite sure what he wants, but the ability to shoot tentacles out of his armpits probably isn’t it. But there are bigger issues afoot, as another symbiote is on the scene with a diabolical plan of its own – could it be up to the Brock-alien fusion, calling itself Venom, to save the day?

I still can’t quite get my head around the idea of doing a Venom movie in which Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned, any more than I could doing a movie about Bizarro without mentioning Superman. Venom is basically a kind of Bizarro-Spider-Man, with extra late-80s dark kewlness: the whole point of the comics version of the character is that he was, not to put too fine a point on it, Spider-Man’s costume for a number of years, losing the gig when it was discovered he was actually a living organism (a kind of idiot’s version of this story formed part of the plot of 2007’s Spider-Man 3). Still, if you’re going to give Venom his own independent origin story, this one’s about as good as any, and the whole issue of ‘how come he can stick to walls and do whatever a spider can?’ is somewhat obfuscated by the fact that this version of the character seems to have a usefully vague set of powers.

Actually, there are lots of things about which the movie is usefully vague, although perhaps I am being just a bit too generous here (yes, it’s not like me, is it?). Perhaps ‘vague’ is not the word so much as ‘conveniently inconsistent’. There’s a big plot point early on about the symbiotes only being able to fully bond with certain individuals, which is later completely forgotten as Venom and the antagonist, Riot, hop between hosts as the whim takes them. At one point we are told that the Venom symbiote is devouring Brock’s internal organs to sustain itself. Until it’s not, suddenly. Character motivations are likewise subject to unexpected and somewhat arbitrary change. Things that the film really should mention early on – like the fact that Drake has his own rocket-launching facility tucked round the back of his biology lab – never get told to the audience. In lots of ways, this film is a confusing mess.

The thing that makes Venom more watchable than most of the bad late-90s comic book movies it often resembles is Tom Hardy. I have to confess, I do like Tom Hardy (not as much as many young women of my acquaintance, but I digress), and he is very good in this part, both in terms of the physical portrayal of the conflicted Brock, and of course his two vocal performances. Considering this is a movie about a cannibalistic alien monster, Hardy finds an impressive amount of comedy in the role and he certainly earns his star billing (and fee).

Despite that, the weak script and uninspired visuals of the movie really mean that Venom is not up to the standard of the average Marvel Studios film. The question, of course, is one of how closely the makers of Venom are looking to align themselves with that particular project – there has been a lot of enthusiastic chatter about a potential Spider-Man/Venom team-up movie in future, even though this film has been made by Sony as a completely separate undertaking from the recent Spider-Man films (which are now made by Marvel Studios).  The exact relationship, in terms of who shares a universe, remains unclear. Once again, I think this is probably useful vagueness as far as the film-makers are concerned, for they seem intent on exploiting their connection to Marvel as much as possible without necessarily giving anything back. In that sense, while Venom the character may make a big deal about being a symbiote, not a parasite, Venom the movie is on much shakier ground.

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A couple of months ago I was out and about squiring a beautiful young lady around town (stand down, it’s not what you think) when we found ourselves in the balcony of the cinema about to watch Murder on the Orient Express. After I had issued the usual instruction for her to behave herself in the dark, we found ourselves watching the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, prominently featuring Kevin Spacey in a key role. ‘That,’ I predicted, ‘is going to have problems,’ for the initial allegations of misconduct against Spacey were already in general circulation.

The very next day I switched on my laptop to discover that reshoots were already in progress, and that Spacey’s performance was being excised from the film and replaced by one from Christopher Plummer – just one more element in a career which is enjoying a virtually Christopher Lee-esque Indian Summer. I suppose that in the end this is a very shrewd decision on the part of Scott and the other producers – they get to look like they’re taking a stand against abusive behaviour, there’s no risk of the film being boycotted by outraged activists, and it is another source of publicity for the film, which is always welcome, after all. (Yes, I know, I’m a cynical old beast.)

Having said that, I wonder if Plummer is also under retainer to film new versions of Spacey’s scenes  from American Beauty? Or is that more in Ben Affleck’s line nowadays? It’s the logical next step, surely, and the technology is very nearly there. Who’s going to replace Spacey in The Usual Suspects? Or Seven? Or Superman Returns? I must confess that this updated version of damnatio memoriae (for this is surely really what we’re on the verge of) leaves me a little uneasy. I can’t help thinking that in the end this is all still really just about the bottom line.

On the other hand, this is a very appropriate sentiment for a film like All the Money in the World, a retelling of the true story of the Getty kidnapping case of 1973, something so jam packed with grotesque and garish twists that I’m rather surprised it’s never been the subject of a high-profile movie before.

The movie doesn’t hang about and opens with the kidnapping in Rome of Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation), sixteen year old grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty (Plummer, currently at least). At this point in history, Getty Senior was not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man in the history of the world, famously single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and quite staggeringly tight-fisted – the movie suggests he washed his own socks in hotels to avoid paying the laundry, and installed a payphone in his home so his guests could make personal calls while visiting him. (He also appears to have believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian.)  Paul Jr’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams, who’s having a busy time of it currently) goes to her father-in-law for the ransom money the kidnappers are demanding, expecting him – as you would – to be sympathetic to the plight of his favourite grandchild, especially given he has – wait for it – all the money in the world.

But no. Getty refuses to pay – it’s not quite a case of it being not the money but the principle, as the principle involved is his never giving any money away if he can help it. Paying Paul Jr’s ransom will just encourage people to go about kidnapping his other thirteen grandchildren and making inroads into his personal fortune. No cash. All he can offer are the services of his security operative Fletcher Chase (Marky Mark Wahlberg), whom he instructs to investigate the case and retrieve Paul Jr intact, if possible, with the minimum possible outlay of funds…

As I say, what follows is a fascinating and at times barely credible tale, which initially seems like a race to the bottom between the kidnappers and the Italian police as they compete to be the most inept and cack-handed. That said, I found a rather queasy sense of tension persisted, because there was one thing I did know about the Getty kidnapping – the criminals’ threat to return the boy to his family in installments, via the postal service. What I suppose we must call the film’s Reservoir Dogs moment duly arrives, and is possibly not quite as grisly as it feels, but it’s still certainly not one for the squeamish.

Then again, there’s a sense in which the film is all about a certain kind of brutality, that of people who believe that every single thing has a price tag on it (the insights into the deeply dysfunctional Getty coterie suggest it’s also saying something about how having too much money really screws you up). Principally these are Getty himself and the kidnappers, both of whom have very strong ideas about what Paul Jr’s freedom is worth. Caught in the middle is Abigail Getty, whose problems mainly arise from the fact that nobody believes that a member of the world’s richest family doesn’t have access to any funds. Williams is very good in the role, which still feels a little bit underwritten – the same could really be said of Wahlberg, who gets a nice moment of moral outrage near the end but mostly just stands around looking stern. Also caught in the middle and making a rather good impression is Romain Duris as a kidnapper with a conscience, who almost becomes Paul Jr’s protector against the more brutal parties who become involved.

All this said, however, the person most likely to come away from All the Money in the World with a gong is Christopher Plummer. It is, I suspect, a source of considerable relief to Ridley Scott that most of the scenes featuring Getty take place indoors with a handful of other characters, thus keeping the cost of replacing them down (in the film’s only big location sequence featuring the character, Spacey apparently still appears in the wide shot) – the fact that Getty plays a relatively minor role in the story has also helped them out. I have seen reports that Plummer really contributes not much more than an extended cameo, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way: he dominates the movie, even though he is absent from the screen for quite long stretches as the story unfolds.

The kidnappers remain a fairly anonymous bunch, Duris’ character excepted, and the movie definitely reserves its most severe approbation for Getty himself, for the tycoon is depicted as nothing less than an icy, ruthless monster – ‘evil’ is not an overstatement. Some of his manoeuvres towards the end of the story are quite breathtaking in their calculating selfishness. Of course, what we’re seeing here is a bunch of very rich Hollywood producers asserting how awful rich people can be, but the script and Plummer’s performance are both good enough to make you forget about this while you’re watching it.

Long-term visitors may recall that I’m not an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s work, and while I have generally warmed up to his more recent films, he’s still very capable of underwhelming me. All the Money in the World, however, is as effective and slick as the best of his films. It’s very much the Hollywood version of history – the chronology of events is outrageously tweaked to serve the story – and, I suspect, the depiction of Italy is not the sort to fill the Italian Tourist Board with delight, but this is a very engaging and well-made film. I’m not sure it says anything profound about wealth or values, but it’s still a classy piece of entertainment.

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‘Why are you going to see The Greatest Showman? You’re going to hate it,’ said Next Desk Colleague, looking genuinely baffled. Well, a number of reasons, to be perfectly honest – things are quiet at work at the moment, giving me plenty of afternoons to spend catching up on the current crop of movies, and there’s also the fact that a friend whose judgement I respect had already informed me that it was (not to put too fine a point on it) ‘atrocious’, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the promise of a genuinely duff film. And, as frequent visitors will recall, lurking at the back of my mind was the spectral figure of the mysterious individual who went to see The Greatest Showman eight times at the same local cinema in the first few days of its release. I’ve only ever seen The Empire Strikes Back four times at the cinema, for heaven’s sake, and if memory serves the all-time record is held by The Two Towers, on six – and that was over the course of twelve months. So I couldn’t help but be a bit curious about Michael Gracey’s movie.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a feel-good family-friendly musical extravaganza, a carefully-positioned tilt at the awards season from 20th Century Fox, or the first step in Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine movie career. Or it might just be a biopic of the famous American entrepreneur and impressario Phineas T Barnum, albeit one with an especially shaky grip on historicity.

Well, anyway: Phineas Barnum (Jackman, mostly) grows up in abject poverty as a pauper on the streets of New York, but makes enough of a fortune (the film is vague about exactly how) to be able to marry his much-better-off childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), even though they and their inevitable children end up living in fairly limited circumstances. Barnum eventually cons a bank into lending him the money to buy a museum, which is far from a runaway success (the film is characteristically cheery about the fact its protagonist is what is technically known as a massive fraudster).

Barnum refuses to let this get him down, and – acting on advice from his daughters – decides to convert the museum into first a freak show and then a circus, personally headhunting his troupe of midgets, bearded ladies, conjoined twins, morbidly obese gentlemen, and giants. Naturally, this turns Barnum into a roaring success, and allows him to take on a junior partner (Zac Efron). Soon he is rubbing shoulders with the well-off and well-bred, and taking the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, not doing her own singing) on a tour of the States. But is Barnum’s desire to better himself socially in danger of making him forget the really important things in his life?

Counterpointing this, in the sense that it basically hits pretty much an identical set of notes but with different actors, is a subplot about Efron’s character having a bit of a romance with the circus’ trapeze artist (Zendaya Coleman, in a Mollie Sugden wig). He comes from wealth and privilege, and she is African American, which is obviously a problematic combination given the period in which the film is set. Can true love win through?

Well, it may be that some people will be surprised by the manner in which the story of The Greatest Showman eventually resolves itself, but I cannot imagine who they are: members of remote tribes of Papua New Guinea on their first visit to civilisation, perhaps. Then again, it’s not actually a crime for a film to be a touch predictable, and it’s not as if this is the film’s biggest problem.

It may be that you don’t live near a cinema or are otherwise unable to sample what The Greatest Showman has on offer. In this case I offer the following guide to having a broadly similar experience: carve yourself a heroic chunk of the ripest cheese you can lay your hands on, sprinkle it more than liberally with sugar, and then feast away to your heart’s content. The Greatest Showman has no truck with things like subtlety or nuance, it just ploughs through the story with a big happy grin on its face. Barnum’s early life is dealt with so summarily that he starts singing the first big number of the film as a pre-adolescent boy and finishes it as Hugh Jackman, who is rather older (sadly, the song is not a rewrite of one from The Sound of Music entitled ‘I Am Thirteen Going On Fifty’).

The film clearly wants to give the audience a joyous, life-affirming experience so much it hurts, but it makes the fairly elementary mistake of assuming that in order to do so the mood has to be relentlessly up all the time. If you look at the truly great musicals, they all contain a strong element of real pain and darkness, and some quite heavy subject matter. The Greatest Showman makes a vague gesture in this direction but it never really feels as though its heart is in it, to be perfectly honest.

The film’s big theme, to the extent that it actually has one, is the currently-ubiquitous one of inclusion and diversity. Fair enough: it is, as I say, inescapable at the moment. It is, however, surely a slightly odd choice to try and couple this to a story about a man running a freak show, even leaving aside the fact that this diversity-friendly, inclusive movie is one where the two lead characters are a couple of heterosexual white dudes. The mauling that historical fact takes in the process of being adjusted to suit the film’s agenda might be sufficiently brutal to make some viewers call the emergency services.

But now we come to the volta, because I haven’t really touched on The Greatest Showman‘s songs and other musical routines yet. The songs are courtesy of Pasek and Paul, who also did the ones in La La Land, and on paper they seem like a fairly anodyne collection, all with messages about being yourself, following your dreams, choosing your own destiny, and so on. Some of the choreography is a long way sub-Bob Fosse, too. However, I’m beginning to suspect that Hugh Jackman’s own mutant superpower is the ability to sell musical theatre to an audience, because the very least you can say about the songs is that they are pleasant to actually listen to. It’s not quite Hamilton, but this is still contemporary stuff: this only occasionally becomes intrusive and silly, as in the moment when renowned opera singer Jenny Lind commences a concert with a 21st century power ballad.

However, many of the musical numbers are good enough to lift the spirit in the same way as the best moments of classic musicals of the past. I was humming the first big number, ‘A Million Dreams’, all the way home on the bus, for instance. The staging also helps – Jackman and Efron swagger through a duet entitled ‘The Other Side’, and a very decent song is lifted by some brilliant choreography. The songs are really the main reason to even consider watching this movie.

Whether or not the songs are enough to lift The Greatest Showman from the realm of well-meaning cheesiness and give it some credibility is, I suspect, a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I don’t think this comes anywhere close to the great musicals of the past, but for me the musical numbers were good enough to make the weakness and cheesiness of the rest of the movie excusable. Your mileage may differ, of course, and even I would say that The Greatest Showman is probably more enjoyable as a soundtrack album than an actual movie.

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In the great firmament of Hollywood stars, Casey Affleck has always been the equivalent of Sirius B: which is not to say that he is actually a dwarf, just that it has been very easy to overlook him given that his big brother is an acclaimed actor, screenwriter, director, and Batman. This may be about to change, for Affleck Minor is attracting a lot of attention for his formidably accomplished performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea.

manchester

What’s that you cry? Manchester isn’t by the sea. Manchester is only really noted for its ship canal (and its cotton industry and football teams and history as both a musical powerhouse and a trainer of first-rate EFL teachers). Well, thing is, it ain’t that Manchester; the film is concerned with Manchester-by-the-Sea, which apparently really is the name of a small town in Massachusetts.

Or perhaps I should say it’s concerned with a small group of former and current inhabitants of the town, primarily Lee (Affleck Minor), who as the story starts is working as a janitor in the greater Boston area. We are shown some of the day-to-day of Lee’s routine, and it gradually becomes apparent that while he appears quiet and unremarkable, Lee is actually a fairly heavy-duty piece of work, responding quickly and with violence (verbal and physical) to anyone who pushes him.

Not the most sympathetic of characters, then, even when he is summoned home to Manchester after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffers a heart attack and passes away. This does not come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows the family, but what is a little startling – to Lee, anyway – is that Joe’s will makes him the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Quite apart from everything else, taking on this role will either mean moving Patrick to Boston, an idea he fiercely resists, or Lee’s moving back to Manchester – something he is equally against. He has history and a rather black reputation in this town, and there is also the presence of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a strained relationship, to say the least…

I’m curious to see how well Manchester by the Sea does when the awards season really gets going in earnest, for while it certainly deserves to be in contention for major prizes, I suspect many people will be in the mood for a slightly more hopeful narrative, and perhaps one less ballasted with reality, than we get here. Make no mistake, this is a very fine film, but it’s a pint of bitter rather than a cocktail. It fits seamlessly into a tradition of gritty narratives about life in small-town, blue-collar America, and much about the structure and subject matter of the piece is rather theatrical – I can imagine a lengthy process of everyone developing their characters together, improvising, working out the story, even though for all I know every single word was scripted by Lonergan well in advance of production.

As a result this is a film driven by character and atmosphere rather than incident, and there are the kind of discursive scenes you don’t tend to find in much genre cinema: a group of teenagers argue about whether Star Trek is any good or not, people go fishing together, and there’s quite a long scene where two characters forget where they parked and wander about trying to find their car. It’s all quite naturalistic – a distinct lack of non-diegetic music, except at key moments in the story – but the characters are vividly drawn and very engaging. I baulked a bit at seeing the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time for this film, but while I was watching found that it didn’t drag at all, despite the illusion of not very much seeming to happen.

As you might expect, this is really an actor’s movie, and primarily Affleck Minor’s. This is not to say that Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and particularly Lucas Hedges are not very good indeed, it’s just that they have limited screen time in secondary roles (also turning up for an unexpected but well-executed cameo is Matthew Broderick, who I didn’t think I’d seen on the big screen – or indeed any other kind of screen – since Godzilla – clearly I’ve bleached the remake of The Stepford Wives from my memory core. Consider your penance served, Matt, it’s nice to see you again away). The film is Affleck’s, for it essentially concerns a particular kind of inarticulate masculinity of which his character is the chief exponent. Many of the scenes just concern men failing to quite connect with each other, with the story developing in the interstices between their personalities, and Affleck does an exemplary job of suggesting character without once being caught acting.

Much of the film’s drama and emotion comes from Lee’s past and his inability to process it, while much of its warmth and humour arise out of his attempts to take on an avuncular role for which he is really very ill-equipped. It says something for Affleck Minor’s achievement that he takes a character who initially comes across as an alarming loner with a hair-trigger temper and makes you care for him as a sympathetic, almost heroic figure, and does this without recourse to histrionics or cheap sentiment. If in the end he remains all too human, well, that’s part of what the film is about, which is the realities of life and emotion.

But, as I say, do audiences and awards juries really want reality right at this moment in time? I doubt it, somehow. (And exactly do you compare, for instance, Affleck Minor’s superbly actorly performance here with Goosey-Goosey Gosling’s brilliant song-and-dance turn in La La Land?) Nevertheless, this is a superbly well-made film and a very rewarding one to watch.

 

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