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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Dinklage’

Let us go down the rabbit hole and consider the fact that there really was a poet and swordsman known as Cyrano de Bergerac: yes, I sort of had a vague idea he was fictitious too, but apparently not. It seems that not much is known about the historical Cyrano, best known as he is for inspiring Edmond Rostand’s play about him. It even seems to be the case that no-one is entirely sure whether or not Cyrano actually had the gigantic conk which his fictional counterpart is most noted for, although it does seem to have been the case that he was ‘not conventionally handsome’, as the euphemism has it.

This puts a new perspective on Joe Wright’s new film based on Rostand’s work, which I would imagine may have caused some purists to instinctively clench up for the liberties it takes with the classically accepted version of the tale (although perhaps not as much as the version set in America with the firemen). The new Cyrano had its origins as a stage show mounted as, essentially, a star vehicle for Peter Dinklage to demonstrate his undoubted talents.

Given that Dinklage is undeniably famous and celebrated, appeared in one of the most successful films of all time (admittedly in what was essentially a cameo), and also starred in possibly the most talked-about TV show of the last ten years, you would expect his hallway to be blocked with scripts every day. But, and I mention this because I feel I have to, the fact that Peter Dinklage has a form of dwarfism probably impacts on the kinds of roles he gets offered – basically, if he wants to play the romantic lead or the action hero, he has to organise that for himself. And so he has.

The film is strong on period atmosphere but a bit vague when it comes to historical detail. The setting to begin with is distinctly Mediterranean, as a small seaside town basks in the sun. Here we meet Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a slightly impecunious young woman from a good family – she is all ringlets, rosy cheeks and exuberant embonpoint. Roxanne is off to the theatre, but decides she doesn’t have to put on that red dress she’s just been sent by her slightly unwelcome suitor the Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact she risks offending this powerful man.

Well, what should happen but that she falls head over heels in love at first sight just before the play gets underway – with a young soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). It proves to be an eventful evening in all sorts of ways, as the performance has to be abandoned when a famous actor is driven from the stage by the cutting words of famed local poet and swordsman Cyrano (Dinklage). For an encore Cyrano wins a duel against one of de Guiche’s followers, definitely putting himself on the wrong side of the Duke.

But behind the fierce façade he presents to the world, Cyrano has a secret of his own – he has long been in love with Roxanne himself, and her request that he takes Christian under his wing – they serve in the same regiment – causes him some angst. But she also wants Christian to write passionate love letters to her, something he proves very ill-suited for. Cyrano takes up this task on Christian’s behalf, and finds he is finally able to express his feelings, although the object of his affections naturally remains oblivious…

I feel I should stress that I did have a good time watching Cyrano; there is much to enjoy about this film. The costuming, sets, and cinematography are all excellent, creating a memorable and very attractive world full of life and movement. It’s also a notably well-acted film, by the principals at least. I was rather cruel about Haley Bennett in a review a few years ago, but she is quite winning here; Kelvin Harrison has perhaps the least showy part but finds a way to make an impression. Ben Mendelsohn isn’t immediately very recognisable, but eventually that vocal delivery gives him away and he turns in what’s basically another live-action Disney villain performance (which is to some extent his stock-in-trade).

Nevertheless, the film exists as a venue for Peter Dinklage to do his stuff, and he meets the challenge superbly. One of the many sources of my habitual air of smugness is the fact that I was on the Dinklage train well before Game of Thrones ever got started; I saw him in The Station Agent nearly twenty years ago and was hugely impressed by his talent and presence. Those get free rein here – no-one does brooding, wounded nobility quite like Dinklage does, but also gets to show his vulnerability, and his facility for underplayed comedy, along with much else – including sword-fighting and singing.

Yes, Cyrano is a musical, which – regular visitors will recall – is always a genre I’m willing to give a fair hearing to. However, the thing about musicals is that they have songs in them; this is really a defining feature of the form (I hope I’m not being too provocative when I say this). It’s a general rule that, the better the songs, the better the musical. The songs in Cyrano are not bad songs. They are very pleasant to listen to. They slide very agreeably into your ear. And then they slide equally easily out of the other one. Which is to say, they are not memorable or catchy at all. We were walking home after seeing the film, agreeing we had enjoyed it, when I asked my co-spousal unit if she could hum or sing any of the tunes from it. Less than ten minutes after the film finished, they had completely faded from her memory. Whatever the opposite of an earworm is, the songs in Cyrano are that.

This becomes a particular problem at the end of the film, which honestly has a slightly odd structure to it – it almost feels like it skips the third act entirely and goes straight from the middle section to the epilogue. You can tell all involved are going for a heart-rending tragedy of profound emotions, but it all falls a bit flat – possibly because the audience hasn’t had a chance to get used to the characters being in a changed situation, but also, I suspect, because the songs aren’t quite up to plucking at the heartstrings to the required extent.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy here in every other department, although to me the ending still feels a little bit mishandled. This is an odd example of a musical which might well have worked better without the songs – but it’s still a very easy film to like.

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Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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Seven films in fourteen years is a pretty impressive workrate, and one thing you can’t accuse the makers of the X-Men movies of is laziness. There has been an X-Men film out more often than not in recent summers, which suggests that this is a franchise with a solid audience. Not bad given the original X-Men was, by blockbuster standards, a cautiously low-budget offering (largely because the studio had taken a massive bath on Fight Club the previous year).

The director of the first two X-movies, Bryan Singer, returns for the latest instalment, the evocatively-titled X-Men: Days of Future Past (well, evocatively-titled if you’re familiar with the classic storylines from the comic series). If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed an X-Men film in the past, then there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this one – not least because it’s bound to have your favourite character in it somewhere.

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Days of Future Past opens in a nightmarish near-future – two parts Terminator to one part Matrix – with the remnants of humanity and mutantkind oppressed by robotic enforcers called Sentinels. The last few outposts of resistance are gradually being crushed, despite the best efforts of the defenders. The war has been lost, and all hope with it.

Well, perhaps not quite. A faint glimmer remains, as Professor X (Patrick Stewart) has a cunning plan to prevent the whole crisis from happening in the first place. He intends to project the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time to the early 70s. The Sentinels began as a US government mutant control project, and if the project can be shut down at an early enough stage the future can be saved.

Key to this is averting the assassination of military boffin Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), but to do so Wolverine is going to need the help of the 70s versions of both Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), each of whom has troubles of their own – Xavier having lost his self-belief following the events of X-Men: First Class, and Magneto being in a maximum security cell under the Pentagon following his arrest for a slightly surprising crime. Still, when you’ve got to get the band back together, you’ve got to get the band back together…

First things first. Post-credit scene? Yes. (It seems to gradually be becoming the norm for all the Marvel comics movies, not just the Marvel Studios ones.) This one sets up X-Men: Apocalypse, due in 2016, but how much you are stirred by it will depend on your familiarity with the comics in the late 80s and after.

The first purpose of any X-Men film is, obviously, to make truckfuls of money for 20th Century Fox, and I suspect this one will do so. Beyond this, one of the main things Singer seems to be looking to do is stitch together the disparate elements of the X-Men franchise – hence, actors from what I suppose we can call the original trilogy (Stewart, Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore) appear alongside the ones who appeared – sometimes in the same roles – in First Class (McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult). If you’re really obsessive about the detail, the film doesn’t quite manage to square this particular circle: the major beats of continuity are okay, but there are just too many little details that don’t match up, too many inexplicable resurrections and duplications of characters. Nevertheless, the time-travel storyline is very engaging (one shouldn’t criticise it for ripping off The Terminator too much, given the original comic came out in 1981) and allows the movie to include the best elements from all the previous films.

The results are supremely entertaining. I’ve always been ever-so-slightly lukewarm about most of the X-Men films in past, particularly the two Singer directed, not liking them as much as I wanted to and always feeling that Singer was actively shying away from the more colourful comic book elements of the stories. But this time he really gets it right, drawing on specific comic-book plotlines to conjure up a story that’s about as comic-booky as you can get (superheroes, time-travel, giant robots) with seemingly no reservations at all.

This is one of those rare blockbusters which seems to get virtually everything right – the action is spectacular and superbly staged, but the plot (on its own terms) hangs together almost seamlessly, and the script finds appropriately dramatic material for the many fine actors appearing in those increasingly outlandish (and in Lawrence’s case, unforgiving) costumes and prosthetics. There are a lot of familiar faces and big names in Days of Future Past, and – a few people who just turn up to cameo excepted – all of them get their moment to shine. (That said, it’s somewhat confounding that Anna Paquin, who’s on-screen for literally about two seconds, is sixth-billed in the credits.)

Of the returning stars, it’s again Michael Fassbender who really dominates the film as the younger Magneto – he manages to put Ian McKellen in the shade, which is no mean feat – and there’s something very exciting about seeing him square off against Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, as happens at a couple of points. The film’s big innovation, character-wise, is Quicksilver, played here by Evan Peters. The level of wit and invention in his sequences raises the bar for how this kind of character should be presented, and with another version of Quicksilver due to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron (basically, for obscure reasons he is covered by both the X-Men and Avengers rights licences), it will be interesting to see how Marvel Studios respond.

Days of Future Past may not succeed in unifying the X-Men continuity, but that’s a moot point, not least because said continuity is substantially rewritten in the course of the film anyway (the joys of time travel plotting). In every other respect, though, this is a film which succeeds magnificently – it’s thrilling, funny, witty, and occasionally moving, with great performances and visuals. Not only is this the best blockbuster of the year so far, but – and I should probably stop saying this – it’s the best X-Men film yet, as well.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 16th September 2004:

And so to another long-overdue visit to the House known as Art. I tell you, folks, when you watch as many films as I do you’re sometimes in danger of forgetting just why you go in the first place – in other words, of forgetting just how magical an experience seeing a well-made film on the big screen can be. I received the best reminder possibly recently when I caught an art-house showing of Tom McCarthy’s wonderful The Station Agent.

This movie is built around a magnificent performance by Peter Dinklage as Fin, a man with a single abiding obsession: he loves trains and railways. He works in a model train store, watches the local line from the roof of his apartment building and, in the evening, goes to meetings where he and kindred spirits watch films of trains. He is basically what we here in the UK would call a trainspotter. Fin wouldn’t mind if he was only labelled that way, because the bane of his life is that he is only four-foot-six tall. A lifetime of being stared at in the supermarket and shouted at in the streets by children has made him rather cool towards other people and when his best friend and employer dies, leaving him a disused railway station in the wilds of New Jersey in his will, Fin is only too happy to decamp to the countryside and – he hopes – peace and quiet.

But things don’t work out quite like that as a series of random events lead to Fin getting to know Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a local artist. Their relationship is misinterpreted by boisterous local ice cream man Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who instantly concludes that Fin is some sort of playboy superstud and sets out to make friends with him. Rather unexpectedly, Fin finds himself putting aside his studied reserve and starting to enjoy the company of other people…

Well, The Station Agent isn’t exactly overflowing with plot, the closest thing it has to a big name is Patricia Clarkson, and the biggest action sequence in the movie depicts a low-speed chase where Joe’s ice cream van pursues a train so Fin can rather inexpertly film it with a camcorder. But it’s a movie that absolutely oozes charm and warmth. Most of the movie is just about these three very different people hanging out together and getting to know each other, and it’s just beautifully written and performed, and utterly believeable.

Dinklage is brilliant: Fin could have been too cold and aloof to hold the audience’s sympathy, or too cutesy to retain any integrity, but Dinklage’s restrained, deadpan performance is both dignified, funny, and – as the film goes on – deeply moving. If the film has anything to say, it’s that dwarfs are people too, and this is a lesson that both Fin and the people he meets have to learn. Too often little people in the cinema get stuck playing comic relief, or aliens, or both, but Peter Dinklage is a genuinely great actor and hopefully he’ll be able to get some decent roles off the back of this (although as his next couple of movies are apparently entitled The Dwarf and Little Fugitive, this may be a vain hope). His brooding good looks and gravelly voice may also make him the first bona fide dwarf sex-symbol.

But all the performances are good, the writing is amusing without seeming forcedly so, and the gradual shifts in the tone of the film are virtually seamless. As I say, not a huge amount happens and the end of the film seems a bit abrupt. Towards the end McCarthy clearly feels the need to add a little plot and conflict, which isn’t as successful as the more atmospheric earlier sections, and there’s a very slight lack of subtlety and coherence in these closing stages. Apart from, this, though, The Station Agent is a gem, the best film I’ve seen in a very long time. Seek it out; you won’t be disappointed.

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