Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Director: Sean Durkin

****

At one point in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a cult member tells Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) that “there’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film alive with creepy potency, reminding us of just how fragile and shifting our trusts and allegiances can be.

Sean Durkin’s feature debut is a scary and scarily good portrait of a mind damaged by misplaced trust. Cults prey upon those who are confused about themselves or their lives, and the fact that Martha has become someone else, this Marcy May persona, shows the corruptive and hypnotic powers a charismatic cult leader can have. The group in MMMM isn’t necessarily a religious group, but it is a dippy hippy commune centered around a charismatic leader (Patrick, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes). Martha is pretty and blossoming, a perfect piece of prey for this happy camp. However, sexual freedoms and idealistic portrayals of nature morph into something else, and it’s not long before the newly-christened Marcy May is running home. This is the point where MMMM actually begins, and the film jumps back and forth (sometimes confusingly) between Martha’s time in the commune and her struggle to readjust to life with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Her awkward and erratic behaviour can all be traced back to her time in the catskills commune; bizarre attitudes to sex, outside contact and family leave Martha disoriented once taken out of the commune context. Olsen steps out of the shadow of her famous family with a mesmerizing performance. It’s not just her beauty that keeps you watching; it’s her gutsiness masking an identifiable frailty. The same confused waif who was seduced by Patrick(‘s cult) is the same girl who found the courage to run away. Meanwhile, Hawkes seduces and disquiets simultaneously (and sings too!) and the unease builds as Martha begins to fear the cult are looking for her once more…

The greatest horrors build suspense from the everyday; MMMM slowly builds up the suspense to emerge as something genuinely creepy. One can sense writer-director Durkin’s confidence in the story he wants to tell, and the confidence is justified. It’s a cautionary tale, a mystery and piece of art rolled into one, like Michael Haneke by way of Terrence Malick. The beginning sees Martha seeking liberation, but by the end you will be held hostage to MMMM’s intensity. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow-build experience that chills the spine and engages the imagination.

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Review: Haywire (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

***

Movies can originate from very simple ideas. For example, Steven Soderbergh saw MMA star Gina Carano fighting whilst flicking through the channels on the TV in a hotel he was staying in. He thought she’d make a great lead in an action move, and that movie is Haywire. Despite the erratic nature of the quality of his output of late, Soderbergh’s instincts seem right on the money.

Haywire is another action movie that does everything but take itself seriously. Thank goodness it doesn’t take itself seriously, because that would just suck all the fun out of it. Contagion offered no levity of any kind, just a boring and bored Matt Damon shifting units of Purell. Haywire opens with Mallory (Carano) and fellow agent Aaron (Channing Tatum) beating the almighty crap out of each other in a café. Had Matt Damon been in this, it would’ve been po-faced. However, the very pretty Carano kicking seven shades of proverbial out of the almost-equally pretty Tatum (Even he must know he’s a model posing as an actor.) is hilarious. They’re not physically matched, he comes in all preening and tough, and he starts the fight, but she just lays him out flat. She then takes a hostage (Michael Angarano), commandeers his car and tells him us how she came to be on the run. The story’s sub-Bourne hokum; after a job in Barcelona, which is exciting and full of running and punches, Mallory gets sent on a job to Dublin by her boss/ex Kenneth (Ewan McGregor, sporting a combover despite not being bald). The Dublin job’s a setup, and Mallory proceeds to run, punch and then run some more. In the process, she beats the hell out of Michael “where’s my goddamn Oscar?” Fassbender and takes us on a tour of the rooftops of Dublin’s fair city. Despite the excellent supporting cast, which includes Michael Douglas’ CIA man and Antonio Banderas’ Spanish agent, Carano is the deserving focus of Haywire. With looks reminiscent of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction and reflexes that threaten whiplash just by watching her, Carano has the potential to be a movie star, and evidence of sufficient acting chops to back her up.

Lem Dobbs‘ script makes sure Mallory has enough international locales to provide interesting backdrops for the fight scenes. Let’s face it; Haywire exists so audiences can watch Carano do what she does best. The talk is perfunctory; action is the goal. Soderbergh may be an auteur at heart, but Haywire is a barebones action flick: Bourne without the brains or Bond without the suits. What it does have, however, is its fair share of exciting punch-’em-ups and a leading lady who demands (not requests, demands) your attention. Haywire may be forgettable; Carano is not.

Review: War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

**

Ooh arr, ooh arr! Certain accents lend themselves to exploitation and/or mockery in film and TV. The Devon accent that features in War Horse cannot but bring to mind simpler places and simple tastes (Combine Harvesters, anyone?). This is quite apropos since, in its emotions and themes, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is as simple and unchallenging as films come.

This review could have been written with the kind of affectation like the ones sported by the likes of Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, but that’s a little too much to ask of a reader. Any’oo, there’s a poooor ‘orse, and ‘e gets taken awaigh from (alright, THAT’s enough!) his  young owner Albert (Irvine, surprisingly devoid of blemish for a farmhand). The horse, named Joey, was purchased at great cost by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan at his most restrained) much to mother’s (Watson) vexation. Throughout the film, Joey becomes an instrument of defiance and an object of affection for whoever possesses him. Joey is bought as a foal, and Albert raises him to be a fine young stallion. As usually happens in these things, the pair are separated at their finest moment by the outbreak of World War One, and Joey is taken by the army for the war effort. Irvine is a fairly bland lead, but Joey proves quite an engaging character. One could hope they dispense with the human characters as the film goes on. Alas, that would be just too daring.

What begins as a painfully unchallenging depiction of friendship between man and beast becomes a morally simplistic journey across Europe, as Joey goes from French battlefields to German battalion to Belgian farmhouse. Along the way, Joey encounters people who aren’t so much characters as moral standpoints and/or plot devices. There’s the dashing British army captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to get Joey back to Albert in one piece (The army is no place for idealists!). There are the brothers in the German infantry (Leonard Carow and David Kross) who take a shine to the horse; and then there is the Belgian man and his granddaughter who fall in love with the horse and try to hide him from the approaching German army. This hideously cutesy portion of War Horse sees the wasting of the mighty Niels Arestrup as the grandfather; he was in A Prophet, for chrissakes! Give him some grit to work with! Then again, this is a Spielberg film that was co-written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually); simplistic sentimental gushing is the order of the day. The moralizing reaches a low point when a Geordie soldier and a German soldier emerge from the trenches and unite to free the horse trapped in wire in No Man’s Land. ‘ear that? An ‘orse ended the war! Ooh aarrrrr! In the meantime, why not play a kind of bingo game with the vast number of brilliant actors wasted in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances. Liam Cunningham, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch are worthy of a lot more than they are given in War Horse.

For all the condescension in the tone and plot of the film, War Horse looks and sounds great. The recreations of the battlefields are grim and dark, and provide some of the grit sadly lacking in the characterizations. A scene in which Joey runs through the trenches is breathtaking. John Williams’ score is expectedly-but-brilliantly rousing, and DP Janusz Kaminski makes the verdant hills of southern England look green and lush. However, when we glimpse Joey stare off into a none-more-perfect sunset towards the end of the film (It’s a Spielberg film; don’t take this as a spoiler!), you’ll need to check your blood sugar levels to make sure the overt sweetness of War Horse hasn’t induced diabetes. Ooh, and indeed, arr.

Cynical Corner: Academy Award Nominations 2012

Oh, dear. Déjà-vu.

The Academy Awards seem to take place in an unfortunate two-year cycle. One year, they make a mistake (or several mistakes) which they spend the next year trying to clear up and make everyone forget about. How to placate the pissed-off hordes who wanted a Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight? Double the number of Best Picture nominees next year! After giving Colin Firth’s Oscar to Jeff Bridges by mistake, the Academy gave Jeff’s Oscar to Colin the following year. Yes, the Academy are continually having to come back to us with its tail between its legs, but no amount of begging could make up for the disgustingly safe list of nominees this year.

In a year when audiences flocked to angry and risky films, the Academy turned a blind eye and decided to reward the bland, the commercial and the twee. It has always been this critic’s contention that film festivals are the best measure of a film’s greatness. There, a set list of films have to compete with one another, and the decisions of the jury are often right in context. Critics’ Circle awards are almost as worthy as film festivals, since they are awarded by people who, nominally at least, have an appreciation for all facets of filmmaking. The Academy, however, have a whole year’s output to decide on, ranging across a plethora of categories, which often means their decisions are populist in nature and flawed by default.

The Film Cynic has been silent throughout awards season thus far; it is the belief of yours truly that the fickle nature of awards is pitiable, and undermined further by tactical and political voting and nominations. The Academy boasts a reputation as the premier awards ceremony in the film calendar, but it is this reputation that the Academy voters continually threaten with a sickly blend of populist nominations and pandering to studios for whom the lowest common denominator is never low enough.

The following is the beginning of what will probably become a new annual feature, detailing the worst exclusions and inclusions on the Oscar nominations list. There were simply too many mistakes for this critic to tolerate the Academy’s failings any longer.

10. Tinker’s Tailor

How good did Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy look, eh? The palpable paranoia of Tomas Alfredson’s film was due in no small part to excellent production design, costumes and cinematography. Despite nods for Oldman, the score and the script, TTSS deserved recognition for its efforts in many other ways.

9. Hugo

The Cynic is unrepentant in his stance on Hugo. Its good intentions can’t detract from the fact that it is an overly-mannered, over-extended and over-produced exercise in navel-gazing. Despite this, it’s the most-nominated film at this year’s Oscars. Scorsese has now won over the Academy, and in the process seems to have lost his inability to take risks and explore darker territory. The sooner he makes The Irishman, the better for all of us.

8. Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon, one of America’s best-known and admired character actors, gave one of the year’s best performances in Take Shelter. It’s an excellent nerve-shredder on its own terms, and another couple of noms for it wouldn’t have gone amiss, but Shannon’s omission alone is a major disappointment.

7. Bridesmaids

Undeniably, Melissa McCarthy’s Megan was one of the high points of Bridesmaids, but her nomination and the screenplay nod are a clear example of Academy pandering to the masses. Despite being dreadfully funny, Bridesmaids may as well be retitled Hangover With A Vagina, such is the lack of original plot. Meanwhile, McCarthy has essentially been nominated for passing gas and saying ‘fuck’. Bravo, Academy, bravo. Maybe if Carey Mulligan had vomited all over Fassy in Shame, this nomination could have been hers.

6. Drive

The lack of nominations for Drive is simply shocking. It stars the coolest man on the planet (no, not Jeff Bridges, the other one), and boasts immensely slick and confident direction from Nicolas Winding Refn, but the Academy decided to stay in neutral and give Drive precisely zero nominations. The enthusiasm behind the likes of Gosling and Albert Brooks seems to have petered out. Apparently, stomping a man’s head in does not scream ‘prestige’.

5. The Help

Like Bridesmaids, The Help is in on the back of great public admiration. For proof, at the time of the nominations, The Help was the only one of the nine Best Picture nominees to gross over $100 million domestically. This success was achieved despite uninteresting direction and a confused message that can basically be summed up as “Whitey ain’t all that bad, y’know?” This was a safe picture for the Academy to choose and, despite some good performances, is decidedly forgettable.

4. Tilda Swinton

The White Witch will have her day. For now, however, Tilda Swinton will have to cope with the fact that her nuanced and pained performance at the mother of a teenage murderer  in We Need To Talk About Kevin was sidelined for a couple of skilled impersonations and a couple of “reward-me-for-getting-ugly” jobs. Despite being one of the most talented actresses working today, Swinton (and Kevin in general) was mercilessly shunned

3. Jonah Hill

Five years ago, he was the guy who got period-ed on in Superbad, the kind of film the Academy would shovel into a ditch. Now, he gives a good-but-unremarkable performance in the overrated likes of Moneyball, and he’s an awards contender. Funny old world, innit?

2. Sentimental Best Pictures

Despite some intense battle scenes and a great look, War Horse is typical Spielbergian sentimentality, with slushy scenes and overwrought emotion. Then again, it was co-written by Richard Curtis, so that was to be expected. Though War Horse remains watchable at best, it’s up for Best Picture.

Worse still is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Oscar’s golden boy Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) delivers a sometimes morose, sometimes cutesy tale of a boy going on a treasure hunt organised by his dead father. Despite critical indifference, ELAIC wants to prove the ultimate awards equation: Cute kid + Tom Hanks + 9/11 + Sandra Bullock + cheesy sentiment = awards glory. Heaven help us.

1. Fassbender

Go watch Shame. Whatever you think of it, there is no denying that Michael Fassbender is less a man and more a force of nature as sex addict Brandon. If he can’t get a nomination for this, then he’ll have to start losing limbs for his art before the Academy see fit to recognize him. It is his intensity, his fierce emotionality and his dedication to Shame that make his omission the most grievous omission from the Academy Award Nominations 2012.

Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Director: Ralph Fiennes

***

There is a violence and primeval surge in the works of William Shakespeare that seems to influence those who choose to direct him. Would Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, for all its blockbuster trappings, have seemed so muscular and robust had Branagh not commanded the Bard so many times beforehand? Ralph Fiennes is no stranger to Shakespeare on stage, and for his directorial debut has chosen to bring one of ol’ Shakey’s most underrated and angry plays to the big screen. Featuring political intrigue, backstabbing and plenty of scope for action, Coriolanus is the perfect vehicle for a debut director seeking to prove himself. See Ralph go!

There are two ways to do Shakespeare on film: either keep it Shakespearian or shoehorn the text into a modern, or at least a more relevant, context. Coriolanus takes place in a Balkans-like country facing a similar insurrection to those experienced in the region throughout the 1990s. Caius Martius (Fiennes) has led the armies of ‘a city known as Rome’ (as the cue card tells us) to victory against the Volscian army (led by Gerard Butler’s Tullus Aufidius). In the city, Martius is loathed by the people, and he loathes them in return. Such a lovely chap; it’s actually one of the key problems with Coriolanus. There are very few characters with whom we can completely empathize. Both Rome and the Volscians are populated by infuriated masses and power-hungry leaders. Only Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) feels in any way likeable, as he tries to defend his friend Martius based on his military prowess. After the victory against the Volscians, Martius returns to Rome, is given the name Coriolanus and is proposed as the new Consul of the Senate. It seems to be set in stone when the people, led by Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), oppose this move and banish Coriolanus from Rome. The relocation of the action to present day does present an opportunity for commentary on all kinds of political themes, from the nature of democracy to the corruptive nature of power. John Logan’s (Gladiator, Hugo) adapted script makes a decent fist of translating the action to a Balkan context, but the sad fact is that Shakespearian language outside of the time it came from can’t help but sound anachronistic. Someone like Fiennes or Vanessa Redgrave (as Martius’ militaristic mother) could be in the middle of a fine monologue, and then it ends with tanks rolling in or shots being fired. The bard’s words are deserving of a little more contextual finesse, and when you’re expecting more battles and gunfire, it just make the dialogue drag.

Even if Coriolanus doesn’t do justice to Shakespeare, Fiennes should be proud of his own accomplishments here. His performance is fiery (put him in military garb and he’s immediately frightening), and his direction is just as energetic. Gunfire echoes in the battle scenes and intense stares and delivery of dialogue mark Coriolanus as a necessarily brash piece of work, as well as marking Fiennes out as a capable and confident director. His next work behind the camera will be awaited. A strong cast (Butler, Cox, Jessica Chastian) flesh out their roles, but Redgrave steals the show with a trademark blend of conviction and dignified anger. Like the anger in the director, Shakespeare brings out the best in actors. His text may be straining for cinematic relevance, but his influence on filmmaking craft is still very much in evidence.

Review: J. Edgar (2011)

Director: Clint Eastwood

***

J. Edgar Hoover: lawman, paranoid, cross-dresser, legend. Despite being dead for 40 years, there is an enigma about the man that many still find irresistible. He was no recluse, but so many details about his life were (and still are) shrouded in mystery. Hoover knew the secrets of the most powerful people in the United States, but the ones he kept most guarded were his own. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a noble attempt to separate some of the facts from the fiction; it succeeds in some areas and fails in others, but then shedding light on the mysterious has never been the easiest of tasks.

To suggest that J. Edgar is not an altogether successful venture should not be a surprise to anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Hoover. His was a long and complex life, and one that was inescapably intertwined with the formation and consolidation of the organization that gave him so much purpose and pride: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As a guide to the foundation and early days of the FBI, J. Edgar excels. The young Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches as Chicago is firebombed by Communist subversives in 1919, and is determined from that point to dedicate himself to the protection of the USA and her citizens. His boy scout-like demeanour is steadfast in the extreme, and his determination for prosecution and protection sees the FBI grow from strength to strength, culminating in its success in catching Bruno Hauptmann (Damon Herriman), the man who kidnapped and killed Charles Lindbergh’s (Josh Lucas) infant son, through the use of the latest scientific techniques. With the help of his loyal assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and foregoing expense, Hoover nurtures the fledgling bureau in a fascinating opening half. However, is it more fascinating than the man who led it? Hoover influenced every aspect of the FBI’s development, but who or what influenced him?

DiCaprio is near-perfect as Hoover, capturing the soul of a truly tortured man. His excellent performance is all the more remarkable when you consider all the elements working against him. For starters, the script (by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black) jumps back and forth between Hoover in 1972 as he dictates his memoirs and points in his past in no discernible order. Though not entirely confusing, the choppy chronology can’t help but feel a little unnecessary. What’s more problematic is the depiction of Hoover’s personal life. His alleged homosexuality and closeness to his deputy Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) is treated with such reserve as to be practically chaste. No-one expected Eastwood to deal with it in an explicit way, but his direction and Black’s toothless dialogue reduce it to a soap storyline. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hoover and his mother (the ever-wonderful Judi Dench) is all dominance and no subtlety. Basically, Hoover liked men and had Mommy issues. If that reduction sounds trite, it’s about as much detail as we get here. We learn little about Tolson or Gandy, and both Hammer and Watts have to work behind some horrific old-age make-up in the 1970s-set scenes (DiCaprio’s is passable). Eastwood’s direction is epic in scope but is technically grating; his lighting scheme is too dark and his piano-tinkling scores all sound the same at this point. Between all this and some poor CGI, J. Edgar threatens to come apart at the home stretch. Thank goodness DiCaprio is there to give the film a grounding.

J. Edgar does try to do something different with the idea of the reverent biopic, but the gamble is barely worth the risk. Still, DiCaprio is worth the price of your ticket and, unlike The Iron Lady, the script does have enough meat on its bones to bring you through the flaws. If nothing else, J. Edgar is a vast improvement on Eastwood’s previous effort Hereafter. While J. Edgar is an interesting history lesson, it’s not much more than that.

Review: Margin Call (2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor

****

The greatest and most catastrophic of events can start from the smallest and slightest of errors and miscalculations. When trying to get a grasp on the current economic crisis, a little perspective is required. Blowing up a balloon of debt and overpriced product is going to result in a horrific kaboom. In Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) realizes it, but gets fired from MBS Investments before getting a chance to reveal it. Passing on his incomplete data to his junior Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before leaving, Dale warns, “Be careful”. By the time Margin Call is over, it’s clear that it’s far too late to start being careful.

J.C. Chandor’s feature debut as both director and writer is a startlingly intelligent, complex and confident calling card. Most of its audience may have next to no knowledge about how investment or risk management works (this critic included), but Margin Call refuses to tone down the jargon, and is all the better for it. As Sullivan calls in his colleagues Bregman (Penn Badgely), Emerson (Paul Bettany, accent indeterminate) and his boss Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to analyze the data, one can cut through the jargon to the panic and exasperation on their faces. Quinto’s eyebrows arch, Spacey’s jowls drop and it’s not long before the bigwigs are coming in. Senior executives Cohen (Simon Baker) and Robertson (Demi Moore) begin a bitchfight to the bottom, whilst MBS head Tuld (Jeremy Irons) looks on in bafflement at the hell that is about to befall them all. Despite the fact that all these characters earn millions and enjoy the trappings of their gains, their sudden loss of employment and reputation reduces them to an identifiable human level. By reducing the start of the crisis to a 24-hour one-company microcosm, it make the recession more understandable and more unbelievable simultaneously. These multi-millionaires were supposed to be in charge! Who fell asleep at the wheel?! All take some blame, but the game ultimately becomes about who takes more than their share of it. The dialogue is replete with soliloquies and monologues, which gives the actors room to show off and flourish, and they seize it with both hands. Tucci, Quinto and Irons particularly impress amongst a generally engaging ensemble.

Given the grounded nature of the material, it’s not surprising to find that Margin Call is not a particularly cinematic experience. The cinematography and score are fine (though the sound mix sometimes overwhelms dialogue with music), but lack a Fincher-esque punch. Margin Call lives or dies on its cast, and may feel more at home on the small screen, but its message and clarity of thought deserve to be seen with a crowd, and its intricacies should be dissected over wine and good company afterwards. Margin Call offers much to chew on in a modest but distinct way.