Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Ben Mendelsohn”

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Mindful of the less-than-enamoured reviews doing the rounds, here’s one that sings the praises of Ridley Scott’s bash at a Biblical effort.

Exodus: Gods and Kings brings an age-old story of brotherly conflict to the silver screen – one man a humble leader of the oppressed, the other spoilt son of the oppressor. When a soothsayer predicts a battle in which “a leader will be saved and their saviour will go on to lead”, tension arises between Pharaoh’s born son, Ramses (an excellent Joel Edgerton, whose rise from indie darling of gritty Australian films to fully-fledged Hollywood leading man has been well-earned) and Pharaoh’s adopted favourite, Moses (the Batman of our age, Christian Bale).

So far, so Sunday School. But Sir Ridley, master of epic cinema (let’s finally forgive that he crushed the hopes and dreams of many an Alien fan with his limp Prometheus), is generally adept at combining widescreen evocations of exotic bygone worlds (from Ancient Rome in Gladiator to the age of the Pharaohs here) with intimate human drama.

Both leads are terrific, thanks to the actors’ tendency to perform their iconic roles like ordinary blokes facing big problems. Bale in particular delivers his lines without the theatrical British posturing symptomatic of traditional Biblical interpretations (like Charlton Heston’s seminal rendition of Moses and Russell Crowe’s melodrama in my worst film of the year, Noah).

Eschewing at least some of the nonsense inevitable in the rendering of such a grandiose story, both Bale and Edgerton imbue their brotherly connection with the conflict that arises when suddenly one’s status is upturned. The resulting depth of character, which sees them as individuals rather than stereotypes, saves Exodus from being yet another “battle in the desert” blockbuster.

The film is ridden with big-timers in wastefully small roles (notably Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul) although pleasingly Scott continues his fondness for Australian actors with Animal Kingdom’s sinister Ben Mendelsohn as the pouty viceroy whose complete lack of understanding of the loathed Israelites serves as a useful foil for Moses’ evident leadership potential.

Exteriors are shot in a strangely muted desert palate but inside the palaces, oh! The furnishings! The costumes! And when the trouble starts, any spoiler caused by prior knowledge of the plot merely adds to the anticipation of watching the various plagues and curses rain down. If you can handle the length of the journey, Exodus is a ripping good yarn.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 7th July 2013

Two years ago we raved about director Derek Cianfrance’s labour of love, the devastatingly exquisite Blue Valentine which he’d taken ten years to make, culminating in one of the best performances you’ll ever see from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Happily, Cianfrance took a fraction of that time to bring us his second feature film and, re-teaming with Gosling and lavishing us with an incredible supporting cast and music by Arvo Pärt and Faith No More’s Mike Patton, his latest output is almost as brilliant.

Gosling plays an imperfectly tattooed, motorcycle stunt rider, still handsome as his knuckles purport, but a drifter whose life lacks purpose until he discovers he fathered a child with ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s real-life belle). Determined to stick around and prevent his newfound son growing into the fatherless delinquent he became, Luke takes to bank robbery as a way to support his family. However, his choices bring him into tragic contact with Bradley Cooper’s ambitious young cop, and as the story progresses we see how family lines are influenced and fractured by the sins of our fathers.

The principal storyline is as beautifully photographed and told as Blue Valentine, moving apace through an exciting plot as each new character takes centre stage. Cooper is terrific, his moral compass needle swinging wildly as he comes into contact with a stomach-turning Ray Liotta. Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Greenwood and Dane DeHaan provide excellent support, glueing together what almost feels like three stories into one long thread.

Despite a few plot contrivances and the long running time, Cianfrance’s latest is luscious, affecting and utterly engrossing.

Killing Them Softly

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 14th October 2012

First thing to note: there’s a killer line-up.

Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini are comfortably cast as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations. Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of the brilliant Animal Kingdom) gets to keep his antipodean accent as a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; little-known Scoot McNairy is the kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who has more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.

And of course, there’s Brad. But while some may be tempted to brand this “the new Brad Pitt movie”, on those grounds I caution: Viewer Beware. As in his previous collaboration with director Andrew Dominik, here Pitt is understated and captivating. When he explains how he doesn’t like all the emotion wrapped up in killing someone at close range, you know he’s still ready to put a bullet wherever he’s paid to. The film’s R16 certificate is well earned for its visceral, blood-drenched violence, the brutal language and its bleak view of the criminal underworld.

It’s a story we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, getting the job done and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing.

Dominik has adapted the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and transposed it several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as president.

The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis in America with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay cut in these difficult fiscal times.

To prove his point that the economy parallels the mercenary approach of criminal organisations, Dominik underscores several scenes with TVs and radios blaring footage from the presidential debates of the period. It’s not subtle, but the argument is valid.

The film is beautifully framed and shot, consistent with Dominik’s second film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in which Pitt played the legendary outlaw). The complex characters are well portrayed by their weighty actors – Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get touchy-feely about the operation of his job – and there are delightful moments in the albeit longwinded script in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of usual bad-ass concerns.

This said, it’s easy to beat up on Dominik’s crime drama, packed as it is with criminal stereotypes. It’s more derivative than it is original, evoking Scorsese and Tarantino, using slo-mo photography of bullets shattering a man’s body and the drug-addled haze of a hapless wannabe.

Yet, purely because it acquits itself so well, this one deserves to be untied from the chair and let free.

Mr Dominik, You’re Killing Me

So the day finally arrived, and I was up early to see Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.  First impression: it has a killer cast.  Literally and figuratively.  Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini appear as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations.  Brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of my Best Film of 2010, Animal Kingdom) plays a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; Scoot McNairy (hero of the low-budget indie hit Monsters, and here making his I’ve-hit-the-big-time feature film debut and doing a bloody good job of looking confident among the coolios) takes on the Casey Affleck role of a kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who proves he has plenty more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.

And of course, there’s Brad. And say what you like about his celebrity and his many children and his equally famous fiancee and his parties with George and his dashing goatee – Brad is a terrific actor who takes on terrific roles and delivers every time. And he is terrific here, as Jackie Cogan.

The story is basically a slightly-tweaked rendition of one we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, doing what Needs To Be Done, and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing. Director and “writer for the screen” Dominik (I’ve previously made bones about his being born in NZ, but the press conference proved not only that he sounds like an Aussie and self-identifies as an Aussie, but I wouldn’t want to claim his arrogant ass as a Kiwi any more) has adapted the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” and moved it forward several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as President.  The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis (with understandable focus on America) with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay-cut in these difficult fiscal times.  Parts of it are beautifully framed and shot (consistent with Dominik’s second, gorgeous film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he cast Pitt as the legendary outlaw); there are interesting characters, all of whom are well portrayed by their weighty actors (Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get emotional about the operation of his job); and there are some fantastic moments in the script, reminiscent of early Tarantino in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of bad-ass concerns.

The script, ironically, is also one of the film’s potential problems.  Like Tarantino, Dominik obviously loves the sound of his own dialogue, and clearly failed to take a scalpel into the editing room.  While what they’re saying is amusing, diverting, and (even if not always plot-advancing), certainly insightful, the long talky scenes mess with the pacing of a film that really needs to stop talking about people, and just get on with disposing of their problems.  There is some shameless short-cutting of key narrative moments (people dealt with off camera, including one key character who never materialises for the whole film).  And, glaringly, not a single female character of any note.  Indeed, for most of the film there isn’t a single female character, period, but rest assured – later on there is a hooker.  All the other imagined women are discussed in purely misogynistic terms, so perhaps we have been done a service by there not being a thankless love-interest to be bashed around or to provide the redemptive moments.

So all in all, it was disappointing – my “film du Cannes!” was not all that. It’s a good film, enjoyable, excessively violent (again, think Ryan Gosling in a lift and play that over and over for sense…) and there are some great performances. But it’s also totally derivative, unevenly paced and a bit long-winded. I will be very interested to see how it is received globally, by film festival audiences and Joe Public, but I don’t believe it justifies an “In Competition” moment, and there’s no way it will win.  Sadly, I don’t even think Ben’s crazed druggie will take a Best Supporting Actor gong.

To add insult to injury, the press conference was terribly disappointing.  I had to watch on a TV outside the room (blue badges don’t often make it into the hallowed halls of the PC) and could be seen shaking my head in disgust as question after question was directed at “Mr Pitt”, about the violence in the film (“You have children; is it hard for you to kill people in a film?”), his character’s deeper motivation (It’s there on the page! and on the screen! it isn’t more complicated than what we see!) and whether he and Angelina have set a date for their wedding (No, but they definitely plan to marry, as soon as America makes it legal for everyone to marry).  Dominik stepped in to help answer most of the questions, particularly the ones requiring a justification for the violence (citing Grimms Fairytales while scarcely managing to contain his hair-flicking disdain for the journalists).  Had I been inside the actual press conference, I would have congratulated Scoot and Ben on their previous excellent films and their great work in this one, then spoken up about the lack-of-women thing and asked whether the Writer for the Screen couldn’t have transposed one of the male characters into a Felicia Pearson-type scary broad?  But I wasn’t, so there were instead more questions about Brad-this and Brad-that.  Actually, I have enormous respect for the man – he was endlessly patient and gracious, and I saw a similar grace and energy from him outside on the red carpet at last night’s premiere, where he made time to sign autographs and work the crowd, no doubt making a lot of days. But I honestly wanted to run up and apologise for the journalists’ dumb questions in the conference.

So that was Killing Them Softly.  Ironically, the picture I saw later in the day dealt with killing in a whole other fashion, and provided a much more heartfelt and devastating experience. I’ll look out for Dominik’s next film, of course, and if he casts it as excitingly as this one, it will be one to anticipate (I give people endless chances). But this one didn’t kill me, just left me a bit cold.

The Criminal Family – an enthralling species

Animal Kingdom

This debut feature film by Australian filmmaker David Michôd is pure, unadulterated, exhilarating brilliance. With hints of Scorsese (to my mind Goodfellas and Casino) and Michael Mann (evoking Heat and The Insider), he had me at Hello.  Well, in this instance, the understated opening scene of a suburban heroin overdose in front of “Deal or No Deal”.

A crime drama which centres around a dysfunctionally engaging (or should that be engagingly dysfunctional?) family, we are swiftly brought into the cocoon of a matriarch and her three sons (to different, absent fathers) and orphaned grandson, Josh (J).  As he moves in with his doting grandmother, he is instantly sucked into the vortex of a family constantly on the run from the Armed Robbery Division of Melbourne’s police force.  As the police draw in, tensions are heightened and loyalties are tested.  (Gosh, with those clichés I could have written the press notes.)

Except that the film is anything but clichéd, and the rewards are manifold.  Every character is well-rounded (if a little, ahem,  morally stunted) and there is great pleasure to be had from watching the four brothers’ very different personalities.  The acting is universally superb, nuanced and naturalistic – from timid, silent Darren, to warm charismatic family-man Barry, to agitated tattooed Craig who cries in his mother’s arms when one of his brothers is shot.  However, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the multi-layered Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, who is introduced as a furtive, somewhat weasly character, and whose slight speech impediment and nerdy checked shirts belie a sociopath who will do anything it takes to stay out of jail.  Similarly, newcomer James Frecheville deserves special praise for his incredibly subtle performance, managing to convey the teenager’s conflicting feelings with scarcely the raise of an eyebrow.  Add to this Jacki Weaver as “Mama Smurf” and a gaunt Guy Pearce as the gentle but determined cop, and you have everything you need for a superb gangster flick.

As director and writer,  Michôd has tackled a major genre, the complexities of representing true crime stories as drama, and handled the realism of a contemporary setting with aplomb.  But it’s the style of his film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat – fantastic photography, a perfectly pitched soundtrack (echoing Lisa Gerrard’s work on The Insider, herself Michôd’s original choice for composer), and extraordinarily gripping dramatic tension marks every single scene, right from the opening titles.  I was particularly thrilled with a Goodfellas-esque sequence blasting Air Supply’s ’80s hit “I’m All Out of Love” while the camera circles to finally focus on Pope, setting up perfectly the sense of just what this man is capable of.  I could watch this scene again and again, but nothing will be like the first time.

The phrase “white-knuckle ride” comes to mind, and in fact few films actually manage to keep the tension going for two hours.  But Animal Kingdom leads us like the best of dance partners, not allowing us to tire but keeping us riveted and on our toes the whole time, before ending with the ultimate lift.  I won’t fall out of love with this film for a long time.

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