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Posts Tagged ‘Willem Dafoe’

As they say in Rome, ‘After a fat Pope, a thin Pope’ – another of those weeks where everyone in the film releasing business seems to be keeping their powder dry. Still, some intriguing prospects on the horizon, amongst them Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which gets a surprisingly wide UK release this weekend (we shall return to this topic). This is one of those movies I’ve heard various positive things about, not least from Ex-Next Desk Colleague (all things must pass). ‘You’ll love it,’ was his confident assertion. Well, that’s possibly putting it a bit too strong, but I am certainly very impressed.

The film takes place almost entirely on a remote and barren island, somewhere off the New England coast, many years ago. Posted here to maintain and operate the lighthouse are two men: one of them (Robert Pattinson) is on his first tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper – he is intense, quiet, eager to prove himself. The other man (Willem Dafoe) is much older and more experienced; he is also garrulous, demanding, and often crude. There is friction between the duo almost at once, not least because the old man will not allow his younger colleague into the lamp room, although he refuses to reveal why.

The time passes slowly. The younger man finds a carving of a mermaid left by one of the previous keepers. He also begins to have odd visions, amongst them ones of the older man getting up to very strange things in the lamp room after dark. As the days add up and the weather gets worse and worse, isolation takes its toll. But is it all in his head or is there some grotesque inhuman force really at work on the island?

It’s honestly very difficult to give a proper impression of what The Lighthouse is really like to watch. The glib thing to say, which I’m not sure I didn’t read somewhere else, is that it is rather like how Steptoe and Son might have turned out, had the series been written by H. P. Lovecraft: it has two men of different generations trapped together in a toxic, co-dependent relationship, but also an insidiously creepy atmosphere and the suggestion of something fishy going on between people and, well, fish (or other forms of marine life). I mean this as a compliment, by the way, but when you take two such distinctive flavours and blend them together, you’re inevitably going to end up with something, um, distinctively distinctive.

Eggers, who wrote and directed the piece, doesn’t seem at all cowed by this, and doing something a bit different seems to have been part of his intention. The movie is as stark and austere as only black-and-white can be – on top of this, the director has opted to use a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, giving it even more the look of a film from the earliest years of cinema. All of this would normally scream art-house darling, and I am honestly surprised it has managed to land a significant release in mainstream cinemas – but then again, I am probably underestimating the box-office clout of Robert Pattinson.

As with Kristen Stewart, I would suggest that the statute of limitations has expired and we should accept that Pattinson is actually a very able actor and an impressive screen presence, regardless of how he started his career. Certainly he also seems happy to take on challenging projects – whatever else you think about it, the ickily pretentious sci-fi movie High Life from last year was hardly a commercial choice, and you could say the same about this one, too. Every genre movie that Pattinson signs on for seems to mutate into something unexpected and disturbing. Which inevitably leads one to wonder, now that Pattinson (or at least his chin) has signed up to play Batman: how on Earth is that going to work out?

This, of course, is a question for another day. Underneath the period trappings and strange stylistic quirks, The Lighthouse is at heart a horror movie, although saying much more about it is a little tricky. Certainly the most striking moments in it come from the suggestion that something genuinely unnatural and perhaps even mythic is going on: this is one of those movies where not a great deal is explained, but it does seem to be loaded with moments alluding to Greek myth and classic literature. Pattinson has visions of a mermaid, for one thing, while those looking to make the Lovecraft connection will find the appearance of tentacles in unlikely places to be of great significance.

On the other hand, it could just all be a symptom of creeping madness brought on by a combination of factors: isolation, stress, perhaps also guilt. I have to reiterate just how atmospheric The Lighthouse is: a foghorn bleats repetitively on the soundtrack, adding to the sounds of the elements, while you are left with no doubts as to just how bleak and unpleasant the island the keepers are on is. Apparently the cast and crew had a fairly wretched time just making the movie there – I suspect there was not a lot of acting required for many of the scenes.

When the acting is required, however, both Pattinson and Defoe certainly do the business. I suppose we can say that both of them deliver bold, vanity-free performances. Pattinson is playing the point-of-identification character, to begin with at least, but as the film goes on introduces elements of mania into his character quite cleverly and subtly: he goes from being sympathetic to rather alarming almost seamlessly. It initially looks like Defoe has been given quite a ripe old character part, complete with beard and thick accent, but the actor manages to find depth and reality as well, while retaining the edge of ambiguity that the film really requires in order to work. And work it does.

Of course, the thing about The Lighthouse, being a film about madness (and often violent madness at that) is that it does end up being an unreliable narrative. The story comes unglued just as the characters do, and in the end it’s left up to the viewer to work out just what has really been going on in front of them. But the film is impressive and memorable enough for this to be a welcome challenge rather than a chore. This is a movie with some extreme moments, and it certainly won’t be to all tastes, but I found its ambition and focus to be highly laudable. A good omen for the year’s horror movies.

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The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

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The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

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Most people, if you gave them ten or fifteen million dollars for a one-off job, might very well give serious thought to never working again. Movie stars, as a general rule, are a breed apart, and this seems to apply in this area as well – having been given a truck full of cash for a job, they generally go straight on to get another truck full of cash for another high-profile job. It must just be because they love their work so much.

There are always a few exceptions, of course, people who are massively prominent for a bit and then apparently stop working, at least at the top end of the industry. Generally these are people who become so closely associated with a particular character that it may just be they can’t get interesting parts in other films. I’m thinking of the likes of Elijah Wood, and, yes, Mark Hamill, who have both opted for lower-profile roles and TV work as the basis of their post-trilogy careers. And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who’s likewise seemed like only an occasional screen presence since the end of the Matrix project, and then in some slightly questionable films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin).

Still, in front of the other day’s Vin Diesel crapfest, there were a bunch of trailers for other impending action movies, and one of them was headlined by Keanu, which was a pleasant surprise. The film in question is John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick didn’t get much of a release in the respectable cinemas of Oxford, which I suspect is the main reason I didn’t go and see it, but my landlady turned out to have the DVD on her bookcase (rather to both our surprise). The ‘decent action movie’ itch I’d been feeling had obviously not been scratched by the xXx sequel, so I thought I’d check it out.

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The film is directed by Chad Stahelski (and, secretly, David Leitch). Keanu plays the eponymous John Wick (seems to me like he should be Jon Wick, given his intimates call him Jonathan, but whatever), a New Jersey dude struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his wife from an unspecified medical condition. This seems to have been a bit of a shock, but also not entirely unexpected, as Mrs Wick has arranged for her husband to be delivered a cute little puppy as a sort of bereavement counselling aid.

Wick is out with the puppy one day when his beautiful muscle car attracts the attention of some Russian Mafia low-lives led by Iosef (Alfie Allen, whom I can’t look at without remembering the song his sister wrote about him). He refuses to sell it to them, so – being Russian Mafia low-lives – they break into his house, beat him up, steal his car keys, and – cover granny’s eyes – kill the puppy.

Naturally, they have made an extremely serious mistake: the chop shop boss they take the car to refuses to touch it, knowing the baleful reputation of its owner. Iosef’s crime boss dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) explains it very carefully, once informed of what’s gone down: five years previously, John Wick was the baddest-assed hitman in New York City, before retiring to live a less blood-splattered life with his lovely bride. With Mrs Wick off the scene, stealing his car and killing his pet dog is probably going to provoke a response…

And so it proves, with Wick leaving a trail of slaughter and property damage in his wake as he attempts to run Iosef to ground. More for the look of the thing than out of any real paternal affection, one suspects, Viggo puts a huge bounty on Wick’s head in an attempt to save his son’s life, and soon a number of other assassins (most prominently Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki) are taking an interest in proceedings…

You know, on one level you have to hand it to the writers of John Wick: amongst the unwritten rules of mainstream cinema, perhaps even part of the unspoken contract between film-makers and audience, is the understanding that small children are not going to be gratuitously tortured even by implication, that old people are not going to have graphic nude scenes, and that small cute animals are effectively immortal. The whole dead dog bit seems intended to provoke a ‘they didn’t just…?’ response from the casual viewer as much as provide motivation for Keanu’s protagonist.

It’s an interesting approach but one which inevitably tips the film slightly towards bathos, as Reeves embarks on a killing spree with a body-count heading towards three figures, all in memory of his puppy. On the other hand, it does make the storyline somewhat distinctive, because apart from the ex-canine this is an extremely back-to-basics action thriller, dealing primarily in types rather than actual characters. You could swap Reeves out and replace him with Jason Statham or even Arnie or Stallone and it would not materially change the story at all.

Stylistically, however – well, Keanu Reeves does bring something all his own to this kind of role, namely that unique, rather odd presence of his. He does have charisma, and there is a definite intensity to his performance, but at the same time he’s… absent. Not quite a cipher, but curiously inert, cryptic, most of the time. (Am I just trying to find a pretentious way to excuse someone regularly accused of being one of the worst actors in cinema history? Hmmm.)

This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the performances do the job required of them, and the numerous action sequences are neatly choreographed and shot. The look of the thing is distinctively stylish too. We are very much in the realm of the action movie as Theatre of the Absurd here, of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The film has some wit and invention, too, positing the existence of a secret hotel just for assassins in the middle of New York, with all necessary services available. (One exchange has a blood-drenched Wick returning to the hotel – ‘How good is your laundry?’ he enquires. ‘I’m sorry to say that nobody’s that good, sir,’ comes the reply.)

John Wick is never less than competent in any department, and does have many fun moments in it, but it doesn’t really excel or innovate enough to really qualify as a great movie. It’s entertaining but in the end a little disposable – still, it’s Keanu’s best vehicle for a while, and perhaps we can hope that the sequel will have the confidence to dream a little bigger and bolder.

 

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As I may have commented, summer is turning into Autumn, and as it does so the pure blockbusters are being replaced by more measured, serious films: perhaps not quite awards-bait of the first order, but certainly beginning to tend in that direction. Which leads us to Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man: a classy and thoughtful drama, but also a genre movie of sorts – an espionage thriller, to be precise.

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Events unfold in Hamburg, which may perhaps tell you that this is not the most glamorous spy movie ever made. Central to proceedings is the ursine, world-weary figure of Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a somewhat-disgraced spymaster now responsible for monitoring possible Jihadi activity in the city following the September 11th attacks (which were apparently planned in Hamburg). Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, he has to contend with his opposite numbers in the German police, who have a rather different perspective, and the American intelligence establishment, who naturally take an interest in his activities.

The film opens with the unorthodox arrival in Hamburg of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechnyan Muslim and terrorist suspect, who – it would seem – has arrived in the city intent on making contact with a somewhat shady banker (Willem Dafoe). But why? The police want Karpov taken into custody straight away, but Bachmann insists on maintaining surveillance. Through the agency of an idealistic young lawyer (Rachel McAdams), Karpov succeeds in making his supposed intentions clear – his father deposited a vast sum of money in a German bank, and now Issa wants to withdraw it and use it to make a new life for himself outside of Russia. Bachmann is forced to conclude that Karpov presents no immediate threat to European or American society – but that doesn’t mean he can’t be useful in his own way…

There is, of course, a bigger picture going on here, and that picture would most likely be of wheels within wheels (with possibly a few more wheels inside them, for good measure). The plot of A Most Wanted Man is complex and really does demand your attention, but it is very much to the credit of Corbijn’s direction and Andrew Bovell’s script that the story remains clear throughout, without being overly simplistic.

As espionage thrillers go, this one is heavily pitched towards the dramatic end of the spectrum: the setting and general tone of the thing somewhat recall Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but the action sequences which punctuated those films are almost entirely absent here. Instead, there is a much stronger emphasis on character and performance, as you might expect given the quality of the cast. Many glowing tributes were paid to the talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman following his death, but seeing him in a film like this one really brings home what a remarkable actor he was, as this is one of his most striking feats of chameleonism – you’re never in any doubt as to who you’re looking at, but his voice, mannerisms and body language are all utterly unrecognisable. He dominates every scene he’s in – the whole film, really.

Bachmann is not a conventional hero – he is cynical, abrasive, and quite prepared to manipulate and bully those around him to achieve his goals. I suppose you could argue this is another story about the brutality of antiheroes, but Hoffman manages to humanise him to the point where he is sympathetic. A moment of treachery to which Bachmann is subjected near the end of the film is shocking, until you realise he has employed very similar tactics himself throughout the story.

These kinds of shades of grey persist throughout. It seems like every major character is in thrall to the vicissitudes of their past, still brooding over some kind of personal wound or regret. Even McAdams, who initially seems like the film’s only idealist, is implied to have only taken up her calling out of a desire to rebel against her traditional upbringing.

This initially looks like it’s going to be a film about Islamophobia, with the agencies’ undefined fear of who Karpov may prove to be set to force them into actions as extreme as any as those they are trying to prevent – the Nietzschean theme of how you battle monsters without becoming one yourself. There is, I suppose, an element of that in the film, but I think in the end it is much more about the inevitability of history repeating, and the fact that everyone is caught in its coils. It is an impeccably-made and thoroughly engrossing drama, and if it lacks that mysterious X factor which might have made it a serious contender for Oscars and more, it is still a powerful and thoughtful film.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 13th 2002:

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me:Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?’

My Father:Why, what’s on?

Me:The new Spider-Man film!

[This was actually Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, a Spidey-versus-evil-kung fu American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got itself a theatrical release in the UK.]

My Father:What does Spider-Man do in it?

Me:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!

My Father:Oh, I suppose so…

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father:Hey, hey! Let’s go to the pictures!

Me:Why, what’s on?

My Father:The new Spider-Man film!

Me:What does Spider-Man do in it?

My Father:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people –

Me:Does he slide down a lift-shaft?

My Father:Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) ‘Oh, I suppose so…

Well, there’s the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we’ve had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we’ll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi’s film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter’s new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson…

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man’s signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don’t mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn’t your standard blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon’s Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter’s best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey’s Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed – go see! Go see!

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